You never forget your first. Be it your first love, first job, or first multimillion-dollar fire.
After 30 years in the restoration industry as both an independent vendor and a property damage consultant, I still remember my first fire. It was the infamous MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino fire in 1980, which resulted in 87 deaths, a $167 million settlement, and seven years of litigation.
I was working at BMS CAT’s Los Angeles branch when the call came from Kemper Insurance, which wanted me to assist them in test cleaning the hotel and scoping the damage. The next day, I was on a plane to Las Vegas to join other property damage consultants and claims professionals. Together, we embarked on a project that involved 60 specialists and lasted three months before it was suddenly terminated at the request of MGM’s owner Kirk Kerkorian and his executive team.
We cleared out of the hotel just as quickly as we had arrived, but less than three months after the fire at MGM began, I found myself right in the middle of another fire, this time at the Las Vegas Hilton, which itself caused eight deaths and significant damage.
I prepared myself for another three months of grueling daily meetings and table-pounding, but they never happened. In fact, every meeting went smoothly, and the hotel reopened within one month. Why the difference? What made the resolution process so different from one loss to the next?
High-end commercial risk is a very tightknit group. Everyone knows, or has heard of, everybody else. I was working with the same claims professionals from Kemper Insurance for both the MGM and Hilton fires. So the vendors and claims professionals were pretty much the same people, but the property and its owner were different. Kirk Kerkorian’s negotiation personality was just the opposite of the Hilton family.
Now, of course, the scope and nature of the damage contributes greatly to how long and how well the resolution process can run, but what I observed during my years playing both vendor and consultant is that personalities matter just as much as logistics.
Negotiation is all about communication tactics, and communication tactics vary from person to person. Knowing the personalities of those with whom you are negotiating will speed along the resolution process and minimize everyone’s costs.
In my 30 years, I also noticed that claims professionals often cite their ability to control or manage vendor relationships as the key component of a smooth and successful resolution. While I certainly understand the reasoning behind this, and gladly admit to cases in which it was correct, I must add an addendum.
The claims professional’s ability to manage his relationship with vendors is secondary to his ability to manage his relationship with the property owner or risk manager. To manage a relationship is not to control it, but to understand the personalities involved and find the best communication approach to achieve a common goal. With that in mind, here are the three most common negotiation personalities that I have encountered in property owners.
Negotiating with a dictator requires infinite patience and tact. A dictator is neither interested in seeing things from another’s perspective nor does he care about anyone else’s interests. Most dictators are brilliant, powerful business people who run their empires with iron fists. He might have a team of executives but make no mistake—he’s calling the shots. Expect swift, if not ruthless, decisions to drop on you at any given moment. (Steve Jobs’ leadership style is a good example of this type of approach.)
The best way to approach a dictator is to understand what drives his ego. Is it money? Is it pride? Is it the need for perfection? Often, it’s a combination. Kirk Kerkorian was very proud of his building; he poured a lot of money into making it one of the world’s biggest and most beautiful hotels. So when it was deemed appropriate to clean a chair instead of replacing it, it did not go over well with him because, to him, a restored chair is not the same chair. Throw in the loss of revenue incurred with every single day of clean-testing with a personality that expects instant results, and it becomes clear why things ended up the way it did.
It is not easy to predict the dictator’s thinking pattern, but it is possible to anticipate his concerns and priorities. Address those beforehand when you discuss the resolution process, and you might stand a chance. However, you always should prepare an exit strategy just in case.
I find that the “businessperson” type of personality is very common among family-owned corporations. This personality responds well to numbers and reason. If there is ever a disagreement, they always are open to seeing things from your perspective, provided that there is a pragmatic reason why they should. For example, you think a wall can be cleaned, but they think it needs to be repainted. Since it takes less time to clean a wall than it does to repaint one, a businessperson personality will be very inclined to try it out and see.
What’s the catch? You better know what you’re doing, inside and out and front to back. A businessperson personality does not take kindly to those who cannot provide an answer to his questions. He is not interested in dealing with “newbies” or weaklings. Be reasonable but firm in your communication and you’ll come out on top.
I sympathize with the coach, which is a very common personality among general managers. They are always pleasant to work with, considering how many things they have on their plate on a daily basis. The coach is the ultimate coordinator, and they thrive on keeping everything and everyone happy. Don’t think you can bulldoze them, though, because they also are cautious decision-makers who will not commit to anything until they hear and consider every party’s opinions and carefully weigh the pros and cons.
Because the coach puts a lot of time and thought into his answers, a common frustration in working with them is the lack of straight-to-the-point communication and clear deadlines. My advice is to take as much off his plate as possible and try not to appear frustrated because it will only distract him from his process (remember, coaches like to keep everyone happy). Give them one question at a time. Have all of the details ready, and maintain a clear timeline on how to execute them. Coach personalities often are taken for granted, and they appreciate it all the more when someone is trying to make their lives easier.
Finding Your Personality
At the end of the day, vendors answer to property owners. They are not the decision-makers; they are the middlemen. Instead of fixating on figuring out the middleman, I recommend claims professionals take into consideration the decision-maker’s negotiation personality and tailor their approaches accordingly.
Doing so not only will lower the loss resolution expenses, but also address the trust issues between parties of inherently different interests. As a bonus, it also reflects well on the industry as a whole. After all, a good insurance company wants to take good care of the properties and the owners it insures. Knowing their personalities will facilitate better resolution service and higher customer satisfaction.