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3 steps insurers can take to harness digital change

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The U.S. insurance industry wrote more than $1 trillion in premiums in 2014, with life and health insurers recording 54 percent of that total. While that might sound like a strong endorsement for the current structure of the industry, the ways in which life insurers do business need dramatic change. In particular, life insurers should be taking better advantage of digital capabilities to expand their sales horizons and target new and/or underserved market segments.

Most insurers are investing in their current business model, but there is a group of insurers — “digital transformers” — that are looking beyond insurance, optimizing their current model where possible, but also innovating and diversifying their portfolio of capabilities. These carriers are keenly aware of the disruptive threats facing the industry, and are working to take the industry in new directions. 

There are a number of areas where life insurers can expand their role and seize new opportunities for growth. One is caring for an aging population. In Japan and other Asian cultures, there has been a tradition of extended, multi-generational families taking care of the elderly. In other countries, however, this is not often the case, with families widely dispersed and older people less dependent upon family care. This situation creates a need for new services focused on the quality of life of an aging population.

According to the Accenture Consumer-Driven Innovation Survey, half of all Japanese consumers would be interested in having their carrier provide not only insurance but also information and advice about how to reduce risk in their lives. We believe there are similar, if not higher, levels of interest in other developed countries. 

A second opportunity for growth is to become a trusted advisor, meeting the evolving, unique needs of customers and becoming embedded as a “life coach,” offering frequent, highly personalized advice. In effect, the insurer becomes an aggregator or concierge that brings together offerings from related providers, addressing a larger portion of the needs of individuals and corporations. This re-positioning allows insurers to extend their relationship with customers to become oriented around services and guidance rather than about policies.

Three concrete steps that insurers should be taking today to make the leap to new growth curves, even as they work to streamline and digitize their existing business model, include:

  1. Create a “red team.” Generally, insurers cannot and should not attempt to initiate a business model transformation solely within the four walls of the organization. Risk-averse cultures, large-scale governance and time-consuming processes are likely to undermine attempts to re-invent. Firms need to have the courage to launch a “red team” or a separate entity charged with identifying the latest customer needs and behaviors and creating new services that may cannibalize the existing business where necessary. Most firms need to have this function separate from the traditional business in order to truly foster a new approach to innovation.

  2. Transform to a customer-centric culture. Customer-centricity involves thinking about products and services in terms of what the customer needs now and what they will need in the future. This new approach will help insurers become an increasing part of the daily lives of their customer and a primary source of innovation for insurers. Many of the most interesting ideas about new services are more likely to come from outside the industry rather than from long-standing insurance industry veterans.

  3. Partner with innovators to create new services. In critical technology areas such as the Internet of Things, cloud computing, big data, wearables and analytics, insurers are (or are considering) partnering with technology companies to quickly bring innovation to market. For example, Northwestern Mutual purchased LearnVest, a provider of online financial planning services, to accelerate its own growth in this rapidly expanding arena.

Similarly, John Hancock recently entered into a partnership with Vitality, a company that integrates wellness programs with life and health insurance, to offer a new life insurance solution. The offering provides policyholders with financial protection as well as opportunities to save on their annual premiums and earn rewards and discounts for taking steps to improve their health.

Life insurers can place themselves at the center of innovation by proactively defining a new role that is more entwined with the lives of their customers. But this will require an unorthodox mindset. The role of the new insurer is to make technological advances a safe reality. In so doing, insurers can benefit from disruption and, as they have done in the past, contribute greatly to economic growth.