COVID-19 has accelerated the digital agenda for organizations across almost every industry, and in the process brought significant change to the way businesses operate. People Matters asked the leadership team at Prudential Assurance Malaysia Berhad about how they have been aligning their business model to this "next normal" and what's worked well so far. Here's what Teh Kim Leng, the Chief Transformation & Operations Officer, and Zameen Zahari, the Chief Risk Officer, shared.
The insurance industry has been shifting gradually towards digitization with insurtech highlighted as a major upcoming disruptor. How has COVID-19 tipped the balance?
Zameen: The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic presented the insurance industry with several challenges, from transitioning nearly overnight to an agile workforce needing to work remotely, to reassessing financial goals and market strategies in a contracting and challenging economy.
From the onset of this unprecedented situation, the insurance industry was deemed an “essential service”. Hence, we continued to remain fully operational to support important services such as claims processing, renewal of policies, and 24/7 Hospital Alliance Services (issuance of guarantee letters for medical treatment or hospital admissions) for customers. To do this, we leveraged various digital technologies to ensure we continued to serve the needs of our customers, employees, and agents. The shift was almost seamless for us as we had the foresight of implementing an agile work environment for some time prior to the pandemic.
Kim Leng: Even before the pandemic, the emergence of insurtech was starting to cause ripples in the industry, driving insurance companies in Malaysia towards digital transformation. Recognizing that times were changing, and the drive to better serve our customers’ needs, our digital transformation journey started back in 2014.
Our objective was to build a solid and scalable IT foundation to address and support our business needs through simplification and enhancement of IT system capabilities.
We are proud to say that starting our digital transformation journey and adopting an innovative culture and mindset earlier enabled us to swiftly manage the implications of COVID-19 and the proceeding lockdown.
Your CEO mentioned some weeks ago that COVID-19 has accelerated Prudential's digital agenda. Could you share more about the changes that were brought forward because of the pandemic?
Zameen: COVID-19 has emphasized the imperative need for organizations to transform digitally. Malaysians underwent daily lifestyle changes as social restrictions shifted the way things were being carried out. To help our customers, agents and employees get through this, we leveraged digital technologies to introduce several initiatives which we believe will be part of the new normal.
The foremost of these is Pulse by Prudential, a free-to-download health app. It uses AI-powered self-help tools and real-time information to provide holistic health management for users and keep them updated with the latest health tips and developments on COVID-19. This crucial period has heightened the relevance of these services and accelerated the adoption of health apps among Malaysians, and our app has seen a considerable growth in downloads and usage in the past few months.
Kim Leng: Recognizing that this was a difficult time for our agents and customers to reach each other, we introduced the Remote Selling Option and Remote Servicing Option to support our agents to continue selling and servicing virtually, e.g. e-claims and e-endorsements. This platform allowed our agents to continue their relationship with customers while practicing social distancing, whether it’s a review of policy or general inquiry consultation. Our agents are also guided by a toolkit to help them start conversations online with customers or prospects. We complemented these initiatives with the introduction of new services such as tele-underwriting to simplify our underwriting process, and PRUChat, a self-service channel.
Prior to COVID-19, what was the greatest digitization challenge you faced? Has this challenge remained the same since the pandemic began?
Zameen: Being in a highly competitive industry that is not traditionally known for innovation, changes in consumer behavior, technology advancement, and business models are forming opportunities to strengthen and enhance market share and customer engagement.
Despite COVID-19, the biggest challenge in transformation is no longer the technology; rather, it is the shaping of the mindset and behavior of people, both internal and external to the organization, whose ways of working would be changed along the journey.
Kim Leng: To manage this, we constantly engage with our stakeholders (customers, agents, and employees) by firstly raising awareness about our technological step change, then encouraging them to accept and adopt the next technological shift that we are promoting. In today’s world, it is important to note that change is required to keep up with the times and not adapting poses its own set of challenges to the business.
As mentioned earlier, due to our culture of agility and innovation, our employees were able to adapt and thrive in the new norm, working from home with little to minimal disruption.
On the other hand, to first adapt to these technological advancements, we had to prepare ourselves to migrate our legacy system to a more updated, efficient, and modern one as without it, it would prove to be difficult for our employees to work and progress in the future.
For this purpose, we joined hands with our sister company Prudential BSN Takaful Berhad to launch Project OptimAL, a revamp of our operational systems that will improve speed to market, flexibility and agility, and business efficiency as well as lower costs. Through this, our operations are now able to be built with future scalability in mind as we can facilitate and handle growing business demands, and even speed up the turnaround time for documentation and processes such as claims and reimbursement.
Could you share how your investments in technology have changed as a result of the pandemic?
Kim Leng: We have spent RM250 million over the last three or four years on digital transformation initiatives including increasing automation and improving digital capabilities to drive our speed and agility. This has allowed us to provide our customers with better experiences which has had a positive impact on our business.
With our Pulse by Prudential app, we are expanding beyond our traditional role of protection and are leveraging innovative technologies to help Malaysians prevent and postpone chronic diseases. This in turn helps us to manage our medical business by keeping people healthy and increases our brand affinity by giving them the positive health experience they are looking for, especially in the recovery stages of COVID-19.
As we want to encourage more seamless payments, we have enhanced our customer experience by providing our growing digital-savvy customers with efficient, convenient, and secure digital payment solutions such as e-wallets and e-payments for our premiums. These options will see an increase in usage, especially over this uncertain period where physical and face-to-face contact are reduced.
Going forward, what new technologies do you think will make the greatest difference to the insurance business?
Kim Leng: In light of the new normal, technologies that allow the insurance business to maintain its operations without disruption would be a key factor in future-proofing an organization. We believe that the option of working from home will be here to stay. Hence, we embrace wireless connectivity and employees are all equipped digitally with personal laptops while allowing them to stay connected with VPN connections, centralizing our documentation and processes virtually. An agile working force will be crucial as the world becomes more modern and digitized.
As the pace of digital transformation accelerates, we do see a shift in investment focus from systems-centric initiatives towards platform-centric ecosystems.
The digital world consists of interconnected partners and services providing a holistic and seamless experience to the consumers. We have seen many such ecosystems disrupting various industries outside the insurance industry. Our investment in Pulse by Prudential is a step towards that direction. Powering the ecosystem will be the extensive use of artificial intelligence and data analytics.
The issue of financial services having a generally conservative outlook tends to come up frequently in discussions of digitizing insurance, alongside regulatory constraints and client preference for face-to-face interactions. What are your thoughts on these?
Although COVID-19 has certainly brought interruptions everywhere, it is up to organizations to make use of the available resources to create new opportunities simultaneously. For us, we are taking this opportunity to shape the future of insurance. Industry changes will eventually happen, but we can take charge and accelerate it in the right direction.
There will be some who would still prefer the traditional approach to insurance, and we will continue to cater to them. We are looking at having virtual “face-to-face” selling to complement the traditional, face-to-face model of selling, or utilizing both depending on the preference of our customers. Concurrently, we would at all times ensure that relevant regulatory requirements pertaining to due diligence of customers are strictly adhered to regardless of the sales tools or method utilized.
And of course, we will continue to proactively listen to both our new and existing customers to identify their evolving needs and provide accordingly.