How life insurers can make underwriting investments that pay off

There is much to automate in the new business process but where should automation dollars be spent to provide the best returns? The new Celent report, Making Life Insurance Underwriting Investments That Pay Off, provides a framework for answering this question. Celent’s analysis divides the new business and underwriting process into 22 logical components of work. Each component is subdivided into potential levels of automation ranging from minimal automation to highly automated. Through an online survey insurers graded themselves in each of the processes according to their level of automation.  The results were not surprising; however they highlighted how far behind the life insurance industry lags in this area.

Automation blog graphic

Automated new business and underwriting processes carry the promise of improved results, but can come at a significant cost, including the hard costs of purchasing technology as well as the softer costs of implementing it and changing processes.  Celent’s analysis showed that automation does indeed improve key measures related to productivity, accuracy and time which can help offset the costs.

One of the keys to reaping the rewards of the investment is to define the strategic goals prior to the automation. Some life insurers have a strategy to be a low cost provider and may achieve low cost through significant investment in rules automation. Others want to provide a high level of service and may focus on the customer experience by automating the customer-facing processes. 

Key questions to ask when deciding where to automate:

  • What is the strategic focus?
  • What tasks are being done, and by whom? Does that actor have to do them?
  • Where can automation create capacity to grow the book of business?
  • Where can automation create a better decision?
  • Where can automation create a better customer experience?
  • Which level of automation will result in the best key metric results?

Are your investments paying off? Insurers can use Celent’s latest report to compare their level of automation to the underwriting capabilities framework and their peers to ascertain if they are making the most of their underwriting automation investments.

Who has the best life insurance new business and underwriting system?

Celent has published a new report, North American LHA New Business and Underwriting Systems: 2016 ABCD Vendor View, in which Celent profiles fourteen providers of new business and underwriting systems. Each vendor responded to a request for information. Seven vendors met the criteria for inclusion as a potential Xcelent winner. The seven vendors eligible for the awards provided a demonstration and briefing of their billing solution.

Due to the ongoing economic conditions that continue to have an adverse impact on life insurance application volumes, insurers have strong interest in reducing the cost of acquisition, processing and issuing life insurance applications. Automating the new business and underwriting functions are critical components in reaching a level of straight-through processing (STP) for new business. Insurers hope that these systems will help reduce unit costs and improve margins. Celent believes that these initiatives are necessary to help the insurers address growth, service, and distribution mandates, in addition to reducing the cost per policy issued.

After years of development that started almost 30 years ago, automated underwriting systems have become highly flexible in allowing insurers to define and configure underwriting rules and workflow. Most systems include or integrate into eApplications. Data from the applications drive reflexive questioning and identify risk classes associated with application data. They offer high levels of automation when gathering third party medical requirements and flag risks when the third party data results are outside of the ranges set by the rules. They also can deliver decisions to the point of data entry or to an underwriter.

New business image

The interest in new business and underwriting systems is on the upswing. Deciding the best new business and underwriting system is unique to each insurer. The goal of the report is to provide detailed information so that an insurer will be able to make an informed decision on which systems may be the best for them.

Well sir, we’re not Amazon: online support lessons for insurers

I just got off the phone from a 40 minute phone call with an insurer that provides benefits to my family. I won’t name the company, as that is not the point of this blog post, but I thought I would share my experience. I am certainly hopeful that this could not happen at any of the companies for which our readers work. The same insurer handles my Group life and Dental coverages. It is a well-known company. I had previously registered for their website, so I logged on to print my new dental card, so I could get all seven of us to the dentist. When I logged on, it only showed my Life coverage, but not dental. Nothing on the site let me add it, so I resorted to the next best thing. I called. The wait was about what I expect – about 10 minutes – before they actually connected me to a person. After providing my entire life history (or at least it felt that way), to validate I am who I am, the customer service rep banged away at her keyboard for a solid 5 minutes before declaring that she could not send me id cards – that my account did not allow it. Getting beyond the fact that this is simply silly, she transferred me to web support. Back in the queue for another 10 minute wait, I finally spoke to a helpful gentleman who could set me up to access my dental account. Except he couldn’t. First, he explained that I had to have a second web account to view Dental. Apparently the siloed nature of their organization spilled over to their customers (Strike one). Then after being on hold for another 5 minutes, he came back to let me know that he could not set me up because my employer did not allow us to have an online account. Even when assured that my colleague DID have allow web accounts, he stuck with his guns. I tried, repeatedly, to convince him that my company would not have made that decision (Strike two). I finally gave up, ended the call and emailed our internal benefits coordinator. She responded that all I had to do was register for the site again, using a second email address. Naturally, this worked, contrary to what the insurer repeatedly told me (Strike three). Now, why did I title the blog as I did? Because my experiences with my insurer are not unique. I recently had trouble returning an online order from a major big box home improvement store. They wanted everything short of my first born to allow me to return a defective product. I had to jump through many hoops and take the product back to their local store. To make it worse, they wouldn’t be able to replace it. I’d have to order it again, and, by the way, the price went up $120. During that call, I commented that their service was complicated and poor and paled in comparison to Amazon. To which he replied: “Well sir, we’re not Amazon.” No, no you’re not. And I haven’t ordered anything else from them either, but Amazon gets my business regularly. The moral of the story? Oh there are so many:
  • Don’t show your organizational weaknesses to the customer. You may be siloed, but that shouldn’t make it difficult for the customer.
  • Make sure your support people actually know what they’re doing. The solution set should not include “making something up so the customer will go away.”
  • Customers expect your service to equal those of other providers. Admitting that you’re not Amazon just reinforces this notion.
I could go on and on, but it is a lesson the insurance industry needs to learn. We lag behind virtually every other industry in online support. Now I don’t want to leave on a negative note, because there are insurers in our industry that excel at online support. My auto insurer is wonderful. What’s a bit ironic is that once I got setup on the two almost identical websites for this insurer, the web experience is wonderful.

You’ve got email, but not from your life insurance company

When was the last time you received email communications from your life insurance company? For most of us, the answer is never. Contrast that with the last time you received email communication from your bank, your financial advisor or your favorite retailer. Life insurance is so far behind that it is not even in the e-delivery race. E-delivery allows the customer to elect to receive documents such as contracts, letters, account statements, and billing notices via email rather than paper mail. Generally, a notification is sent that a document has been posted to a secure website, or, in the case of general notifications, mailed directly to the policy owner’s email address. Areas of opportunity for e-delivery in insurance span all processes, from field administration to customer acquisition to claims. The benefits of using e-delivery are typically derived from reducing scanning, mailing, and printing, lessening process complexity, and increasing automation and systems integration. These drivers lower costs, reduce cycle times, and increase customer and agent satisfaction. I recently published a report titled, You’ve Got Mail Two Decades Later, Why Are We Still Talking About E-Delivery Rather Than Doing It, where I interviewed 17 life insurers about their current and future e-delivery plans. Although e-delivery can bring multiple benefits to life insurers, it has been poorly adopted. In fact, only 25% of the surveyed insurance companies are using e-delivery. Areas of focus within the report include: • Progress of e-delivery. • Targeted documents for e-delivery. • Benefits and challenges associated with e-delivery. There are a number of challenges life insurers face when it comes to e-delivery, including legacy systems, policy holder adoption, and agent engagement. However, other industries have found a way to overcome these challenges. It’s time for life insurers to set aside the excuses and find a solution. Life insurers have been left in the e-delivery dust and need to run with haste to catch-up.

Voice recognition access means one less password

If you are like me, you have at least 15 passwords or PINs that you must remember. Passwords are a necessary evil of the digital world. I have a user ID and password for everything from accessing my child’s homework assignment to checking my bank balance. Most annoyingly, the passwords never have the same expiry date so they are never synchronized. I, like many others, ironically keep my passwords in an app that requires a password.   One financial services company, Manulife Financial, has come to the rescue by providing the ability to access your accounts by using only your voice. I say ‘hallelujah’!   Celent is often asked by insurers about voice recognition IVR and will now be able to point to a working model. Nuance Communications is providing the voice recognition technology. The software stores the customer’s unique voice patterns and characteristics. When accessing the account through the call center, the caller repeats a passphrase and access is granted when the voice is matched to their stored ‘voiceprint.” This is an optional service, but I am sure everyone will want to take advantage of having one less password to remember.   Insurers continue to look for ways to increase customer loyalty, improve the overall customer experience and reduce call center costs. With the introduction of the voice recognition IVR, Manulife has addressed all three salient points. New uses for biometrics will continue to lead the insurance world into the future one innovation at a time.

Next step in the Internet of Things for life insurance

The last seven days have been exciting for the next wave in Life insurance (and Health). Last week we saw John Hancock introduce the Vitality program into the US. This week we have a collaboration between IBM, Apple and Medtronic, the huge maker of medical devices. Just yesterday we had an inquiry from a major Life insurance company asking about a service that consolidates data from multiple users of wearables. We were not aware of a major player offering the service, but that same afternoon, this partnership was announced. As the use of wearables increases, particularly for use beyond an individual’s fitness, it will be critical for standards and services to emerge to bring this data to multiple users. Including Life insurance companies. Of course, we still have the obvious challenge of competition in the industry. This is great for users of Apple and Medtronic’s products, but what about people wearing a Moto 360 or Fitbit? We are not quite there yet, but everything happens with a first step. I commented the other day to a colleague that this is the most excitement we have had in Life insurance since the introduction of Universal Life in the 1980s. The pace will only increase.

John Hancock introduces Vitality in the US – will it transform the industry?

Bold words, perhaps. Transform the industry? It just might. If you did not see the announcement, you can learn more about the program at the John Hancock Vitality website. If you participate in their program, you can receive rewards and premium savings. The program rewards healthy activity, regular exercise, regular checkups and even reading about topics John Hancock offers. It is a program that will feel familiar, as it works similarly to other retail rewards programs, but is focused on your life style. That’s one of the benefits – it is simple and easy to use. The rewards partners are quite extensive as well. In other words, a win-win. The insured lives a healthier lifestyle and is rewarded for it. The insurer benefits as their customers live longer, which is to their financial benefit. I love a good win-win. The program is not actually new. It’s been in existence, in earlier forms, for a number of years. It began in South Africa, with Discovery Vitality, then moved to the UK and to Asia. What makes it even more interesting now, is the intersection of an innovative program with technology. We have all seen technology in the fitness space. You cannot walk around a mall without seeing a Fitbit. For those that think this is a phenomenon only focuses on youth, look when you go shopping. Wearable tech is on the wrist of every age group. Celent certainly expects that to grow quickly, given the upcoming release date for the Apple Watch in the US. Today is even the day you can see one in your local Apple store. The Vitality program integrates this information directly into the rewards, giving you credit for the exercise, just by virtue of reporting it. There are some questions, and I was asked some of those on CNBC’s Nightly Business Review program on Wednesday night. You can view the interview here. Some are fairly obvious – such as security. We don’t see that as an issue here, as the information shared is very limited and not information of interest to a hacker. How much I walk and my heart rate is just not valuable information to anyone. Let’s also not forget that programs with similar components are in place today in the health insurance world. Many companies offer discounts to their employee’s insurance if they complete some basic steps. Our parent company does and my family saved a significant amount of money by participating. One better known program is Humana’s Vitality program – yes, there is Vitality again. Another could be concern that this would limit Life insurance, or even subject you to cancellation, if you didn’t meet your fitness goals. Again, that’s not really an issue. The contractual obligations of an insurance company are very clear and neither this program, not the contract, allows that to occur. The program is also entirely optional. In fact, what industry should we trust more than the Life insurance industry? The basic premise of life insurance is spreading risk. We pay our premiums, for years or even decades, and expect our loved ones to be taken care of in their times of greatest grief. And they are, and have been for centuries. It is one of the reasons I like being in this industry – we help those that have just been stunned by loss. Readers of earlier blog posts know that I enjoy technology and own and wear a very high-tech watch. I am all set for this program and many of you are too. One of my reports from last year explored this very topic, and referenced Vitality as an example. I’m pleased to see movement on the topic, particularly by a company as strong as John Hancock. I encourage those that are interested to follow some of these links, and check out my interview, to learn more about the program. I am sure we will have more soon.

More Q&A following our webinar on the Strategies and Options for Managing Closed Blocks: Life, Pension and Annuity Edition

Since Karen Monks and I held our webinar on the strategies and options for managing closed blocks, we have had a number of follow-up questions. We’ll aim to answer as many as possible in this blog.

If you any further questions, then please do not hesitate to contact us directly.

What regulatory /compliance problems do insurers foresee while migrating to BPOs/TPAs for closed blocks in the US?

When an insurer considers BPO / TPA as a solution, most regulators around the world express a keen desire to stay close to the decision making process. In some countries, there is also a requirement to notify the regulator as well as the policyholder. At the centre of the regulators’ concern is to ensure the fair treatment of the policyholder and, increasingly, to also ensure that their information, as well financial assets, are secure.

In the US, TPAs increasingly are required to follow many of the licensing and record keeping rules that insurers must follow, thus an insurer would do well to understand the guidelines under which TPAs must work in each state. The insurer will want to ensure that the TPA selected is compliant and protecting the security of the insurers data and information.

Another issue that insurers noted as a result of the compliance and regulatory requirements related to notifying policyholders of the use of a TPA was the potential for some sleeping policies to awaken. This may cause an uptick in claims as beneficiaries come forward.

Many insurers that we spoke with recommended engaging the regulator early in the decision process; as this was considered key to obtaining early guidance and also helping to manage their expectations throughout the process.

Do you have a sense as to the number or percentage of insurers who see their closed blocks as a ‘problem’ (i.e. that they can’t manage, are losing staff who can support the product, the costs are escalating etc)?

Not as a number or percentage. Through our interviews, it was clear that economic uncertainty, low investment returns and the availability of capital to support generous product guarantees are behind driving an increased interest in the topic. Unfortunately, only those who have gone public with a decision already or are currently in a distressed state can be identified easily as having a ‘problem’.

In our survey, it was interesting to see that many insurers see expense reduction, releasing capital and avoiding management distraction as three of the main reasons for pursuing a strategy. Additionally, nearly all insurers that we spoke to were actively investigating the issue, although some were clearly further ahead in their thinking than others. Those insurers we spoke to without a burning platform appear to be just entering their strategy definition phase.

What were the roles of the individuals interviewed for this study?

They were all senior managers within their firms (i.e. Head Of, VP, Director), with a responsibility for strategy, operations or IT.

What would an administrative reinsurance strategy be classified according to this study, Divest (sell-off)?

This proposition is a mix of liability offset (via the reinsurance arrangement) together with a BPO arrangement. Many reinsurers use existing BPO players in the market to provide the administrative service for them. Consequently, when considering options and depending upon the business drivers, it may be a good idea to evaluate how a pre-packaged proposition from a reinsurer versus a component solution compares.

Are you aware of any real success in the UK or Europe with the convert/buy-out option?

Conversions and ‘buy-out’s are tough. Ultimately, success depends on gaining agreement of every policyholder sitting in a closed block on a system to agree to the conversion / buy-out prior to being able to decommission the platform. These strategies can also attract a significant amount of regulatory oversight as they aim to ensure that policyholder interests are not being impacted unfairly.

Unfortunately, in our experience, this is not a well-documented area with many success stories that can be referenced. The largest and most notable examples tend to come from distressed insurers or funds where the policyholder is left with the choice of either accepting lower guarantees or investment performance in exchange for financial stability, or have the insurer or fund face bankruptcy.

Are companies considering BPO+ITO as an option to outsource or is it individual BPO and ITO only?

Unfortunately, there is not a ‘one size fits all’ for the market and the solution will depend to a large extent on what agreements the insurer already has in place, such as pre-existing ITO agreements, and how much outsourcing has already occurred. Consequently, insurers are still looking at both options.

From our perspective, there are a growing number of propositions being developed for BPO+ITO in the market, albeit targeted largely at satisfying a specific product type, such as Annuities, Protection, LTC or pensions. The trend is to market these propositions on an ‘as a service’ or outcome based model enabling the insurer to move onto a variable cost base quickly and achieve a degree of certainty over future costs.

Did you find any cases where a company had outsourced to a supplier and then taken it back at end of contract? Is it even feasible to take back a block if supplier and insurer decides it doesn’t work?

No. We did not research this specific issue. However, you are right to raise this as a concern. Any insurer considering a BPO option (especially where replatforming is involved) should consider carefully how they plan to exit the BPO contract should performance not meet expectations or as a result of a change in strategy. We recommend that this question be addressed early as part of an RFP and effective due diligence activity. If replatforming, it’s an essential consideration to understand the approach to migrating off the platform and, where relevant, the transfer of technical IP alongside it.

Does Celent have any example organisations in the UK and US that have successfully reduced costs of back books through technology transformation?

Yes. Please look at Celent’s report entitled ‘Seven lessons from a successful platform transformation’.

Have you seen any examples of successful technology transformations without BPO?

We are writing a Solution Spectrum report for release later this year. In preparation for this report, we have asked consultancies, BPO service providers, system integrators and software vendors to provide us with brief case studies on this topic as we recognise this is an area of interest.

Certainly, there are successful platform transformations and projects involving decommissioning or wrapping systems as we hope that these case studies will show. However, it is often difficult to look at these cases in isolation without considering the wider impact on business strategy and supporting business models.

What are the key differentiators that insurers look for in a vendor when they consider the technology transformation option?

A great question. Unfortunately, we did not ask this question in our research so cannot answer categorically.

However, the primary drivers cited for technology transformation include expense reduction and removal of the technology obsolescence risk. Consequently, based on our other research into related topics, it is reasonable to assume that insurers are likely to be focused on the ability to reduce costs quickly, the ability to reduce the risk of obsolescence, and long-term flexibility.

Is there a business case for technology vendors to invest in creating a standardized methodology for addressing closed blocks of business?

This is a ‘it depends’ answers. There is no ‘cookie cutter’ approach being marketed currently. Some vendors have acquired or are aligning their existing capabilities to address the closed block issue. The more advanced propositions have aligned common insurance frameworks and methods with their technical assets to support the process.

What platforms are you seeing being most used to host closed blocks?

From what we have seen, there is no single platform that is becoming the default for hosting closed block business. Although many BPO providers will standardise on a single platform for their operations, this platform together with all of the dependent systems differs between each competitor. However, there are a few platforms that appear to be at the heart of operations for managing closed blocks. Among others, these include: Accenture’s ALIP; CSC’s product suite of CyberLife, WMA, Integral and AIA; Infosys McCamish; TCS BaNCS; and many more home-grown or inherited solutions.

When selecting a platform for closed blocks, the reality is that BPO providers and insurers still need to take each decision about a closed block individually and evaluate the RoI for moving specific product groups versus retaining them until run-off. Until successful migrations become part of the fabric of normal IT operations, there is likely to be a number of platforms running in concert for a little longer.

You said in the webinar that this was mainly an older mature market problem today. When will we see the same issue arising in younger / emerging markets?

Our view is that it is inevitable that the same issues will be experienced elsewhere in younger and emerging markets unless those markets consider the lifespan of these products from the outset at their design stage and put in place strategies to anticipate product longevity and the run-off. The good news is that these markets have the opportunity to learn from developed markets and not to make the same mistake of focusing too heavily on new product launch without actively managing product retirement.

Also, it is important to note that software and systems integration methods have matured enormously over the last 10-20 years meaning that the technical risk of transformation and large scale data migration is much reduced, although it should be noted that the project risk around poor execution and leadership may still be present.

Successful transformations and migrations are possible and no longer a CIO’s bravest decision.

Printing Body Parts: Frankenjet??

I read with great interest the article in The Wall Street Journal today about bioprinting (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390443816804578002101200151098.html?KEYWORDS=3d+printing). This offers great hope for critically ill patients and possible future relief for those of us whose natural sinews are reminding us of the law of entropy (read aches and pains). It also should give some pause to actuaries who are forecasting mortality tables for the next fifty years.

The article explains a little about this experimental printing technology that gave me a clearer picture than I had previously had of what printing body parts is really like. The article states, “in lab tests, bioengineers printed…patches of beating cardiac muscle” and “scientists are printing small 3-D clusters of liver cells suitable for toxicity testing.”

The possibility of printing body parts will offer additional challenges too. These are more of a social kind, particularly once the production of such moves into wider use. My mind wandered back to my cubicle days in an insurance company headquarters where thirty or so people shared a network printer. I remembered the cold sweat that broke out when I printed my Final Four Men’s Basketball Tournament bracket and ran to the nearest printer to find that it was not there. “Oh no, where did I last print a document? Ooops, was that the color-coded project Gantt chart using the advanced printer next to the CIO’s office? Arrggh!”

Imagine what complications will arise as researchers begin to share these expensive printers. I can hear the complaints now: “Bob went to lunch and left a beating heart on his desk again and I can’t shut it up. It’s really getting on my nerves and I can’t concentrate on my work.”

Every network printer naturally has a graveyard of documents next to it, you know the stacks of unclaimed, abandoned printouts next to it. In the future, these will be real graveyards, piled with miscellaneous body parts looking for a home.

Then there will be the opposite problem of the body snatcher. We have all had that critical, confidential piece of printed work that was picked up by mistake (or, in more ruthless corporate cultures, on purpose) by someone else. What happens when you print a couple of arteries and go to the printer to find them gone, swept up with the stomach and intestine bits produced just prior? Do you hit print again, or begin a search of the floor to find the wayward tubes?

Finally, there is the infrequent user problem who has a private printer in their office (this is usually the boss). On the day, the personal printer is out for repair and the administrative assistant is not at their post. Boss needs just two copies of an important piece of work. Since the boss doesn’t use any kind of printer very often, confusion results and instead of printing 2 copies, he/she prints 200 (typing numbers into that little box next to “number of copies” is so hard!). These days, no problem if 198 copies of a graph are tossed into the network printer graveyard. But, what do you do with 198 fingers, legs, or knees?

I shudder when I think of the mass confusion and hysteria coming, but am sure that, somehow, Office Administration will work out an elegant solution.

Please reply with your horror stories in the land of Frankenjet. In the run up to Halloween, we’ll do a follow up post of the best ones received!

Is there any life left in those old (life) blocks?

Last week, the Hartford (USA) announced that it was refocusing its business strategy. The immediate impact of this change was to place its annuity business into runoff, and to initiate a search for a buyer (or strategic alternative if a buyer cannot be found) of its Individual Life, Woodbury Financial Services and Retirement Plans. In addition to this news from the Hartford, earlier this month we also saw the Prudential (USA) announce that it was going to discontinue the sale of individual long term care products.

In mature markets around the world, there appears to be a growing demand to either find new homes or alternative strategies for long-term business that no longer fits with the business strategy of insurers. In Europe, for example, Solvency II and local market reforms (such as the Retail Distribution Review in the UK) are acting as a catalyst for insurers to re-evaluate the economic viability of running these blocks as they reduce in size with age, and also with a view towards releasing capital.

So, if you’re an insurer with large block of non-strategic long-term business, what are your options?

The most obvious option, and preferred by many, is to find a buyer for the block. Although strategically, this can be the cleanest option for the insurer, it comes with two big risks. The first risk is brand reputation. Even though the products within the block may be viewed as non-strategic by the insurer, it is unlikely that the customers holding those products see them that way. Ultimately, these same customers may also be good prospects for other financial products and services. The second risk relates to transition. Ideally, the buyer of the closed block needs to be able to absorb the business into its existing operation without a drop in service quality or benefits to the customer. Typically, this will involve some level of convergence on processes and platforms with other similar blocks – not an easy task, and it is likely that the biggest share of the reputational risk associated with any failure still lies with the insurer who sold the block!

Other options range from financial restructuring through to outsourcing through to internal transformation. No option is straight forward, all involve some level of balancing the cost to serve with the reducing size of book, and all attract risk. Arguably, at the heart of any good strategy for closed blocks, should be an understanding of the value of the end customer holding the product, and how further value can be extracted from the relationship to the benefit of both parties (regardless of who manages / owns the block now).

At Celent, we are researching the options open to insurers for managing closed blocks and also strategies for maximising the value of the customers held within them. If you have an opinion on what the best strategy is for managing these old discontinued blocks of business, then we’d be keen to hear from you.