Picture yourself conducting a video conference call with a client on your smart phone using a multimedia instant messaging service. Or imagine building a detailed dossier about a high net worth prospect’s interests and propensity to buy, courtesy of predictive analytics and data aggregation software.
These technology tools, among others, are increasingly being adopted by life insurance and financial sales professionals, and are transforming their practices in the process.
Executives at leading industry providers attest to as much. AXA, CPS Horizon, National Financial Partners, Pacific Life and Prudential Financial are just a few companies pouring substantial sums into IT solutions for their affiliated advisors. And the companies are reporting sizable returns on their investments.
360-degree view of the client
This is true especially of the most frequently cited tool among the companies polled: customer relationship management software. To help advisors more effectively and efficiently target client prospects, many of the providers are integrating into their enterprise systems SalesForce.com, the dominant provider of the $18 billion-plus CRM software market.
Among the developer’s customers is National Financial Partners (NFP), a producer group whose member firms specialize in three practice areas: employee benefits, insurance and wealth management. In addition to technology support, NFP avails its members of services ranging from compliance, financial and legal assistance to auditing and marketing support.
Besides offering tools for managing leads and marketing campaigns, NFP’s CRM software (SalesForce360) has been customized to interface with carriers’ advisor-oriented electronic links. The benefit: NFP firms can do all of their business through the CRM portal.
Also leveraging SalesForce.com is AXA. The French insurer is combining the cloud-based software with the carrier’s wealth management products, enabling AXA producers to graphically view a range of sales- and marketing-related data, such as calls made to prospects, sales leads to pursue, and additional activity required to meet sales targets. The software also displays detailed info gathered through client meetings: anniversary dates, significant life events, financial objectives, and the like.
"SalesForce.com gives producers the structure to manage their day and ensure they're doing what's necessary to develop and close sales," says John Rivett, an AXA senior vice president and senior information officer. “We’re rolling out the software to all 5,000 AXA advisors, an initiative we expect to complete by 2015.”
Other providers are offering their advisors video solutions when a more personal touch is desired. Michael Smith, president of CPS Horizon Financial Group, a company that offers resources to insurance professionals, says that many of the IM-affiliated brokers now embed short videos into e-mail broadcasts and their web sites. Technologies used to create the videos vary: Some advisors simply film themselves with a smart phone, then upload the video to YouTube; others produce high-end videos using professional film services.
Advisors are also increasingly using video conferencing services to facilitate client meetings remotely via a desktop PC or mobile device using Skype or similar services that offer instant text, voice and video messaging. That’s the case at the U.S. career distribution system of Prudential Financial, which is debuting this year a Skype-like service in collaboration with a third-party service provider.
“It's important that our financial professionals be able to communicate with clients in any manner they choose,” says Anthony Fontano, vice president of strategy and relationship management with Agency Distribution at Pru. “Video conferencing will be a part of their toolkit.”
Mining the data
Using cutting-edge software to more efficiently communicate with client prospects is but one component of an overall marketing strategy. A second is determining whether prospects are worth the advisor's time.
To that end, AXA employs an in-house analytics team that scores an individual's propensity to buy. After gathering additional info about the prospect, an AXA Lead Validation Team member will redirect the lead to an affiliated advisor for follow-up.
NFP boasts similar IT capabilities thanks to third-party software that scours publicly available information to help build dossiers on potential clients. The information gathered can, for example, identify prospects’ locations, the boards they sit on, the charities they contribute to and other data that might help NFP advisor create a targeted marketing campaign.
Several software developers, such as Wealth Engine and Referral Edge, among others, provide the data-gathering capabilities. The companies’ tools overlap in functionality but are targeted to the different customer segments in which NFP advisors specialize: the high net worth (under $30 million in investment assets) and ultra-high net worth (over $30 million).
Presentation Solutions, an app that lets advisors tailor a boiler-plate library concept to the needs of a client using a software wizard.
Because of economies of scale — the producer group caters to more than 700 advisors directly, plus an additional 2,000 to 3,000 insurance and financial sales professionals through brokerage-general agencies (BGAs) operating under the NFP umbrella — member firms have access to technology that would be more expensive to acquire independently.
But the company’s chief asset — size — also presents an ongoing challenge: How to convince producers of widely varying ages, background, expertise and IT savvy to buy into the full technology program.
The answer, say NFP executives, is to make technology interfaces intuitive and, therefore, more likely than not to be used. “We spent a lot of our time thinking about the software interface and how to simplify it,” says Tom Povedano, chief operating officer of NFP’s Individual Client Group. “A successful IT implementation is more about the business process than the technology.
Adds Adnan Raja, an NFP vice president of field technology solutions: “What we've observed is that many older advisors who don’t use a PC have adopted the iPad because of its simple and intuitive interface. So when looking at different technologies, we always have in mind how to make solutions easy to use and mobile-friendly.”
Ease of use also is paramount in AXA’s technology buyer’s checklist. To this must be added two others: (1) the security of client data and compliance with regulatory requirements; and (2) "customer centricity" or the ability to deliver a great experience to high-value clients and prospects.
"Technology that's superb for compliance and security purposes but is onerous to use won't get approved," says Rivett, adding that a solution facing the reverse situation will likewise be rejected. “To enable advisors to use Apple- and Android-based smart phone and tables, we first had to add a software layer that would secure client data."
The adoption of these mobile devices points to another development: IT purchases among industry players are increasingly being driven by evolving technology trends in the consumer world. The pace of change presents an ongoing hurdle for carriers and advisors, in part because the requirements established for data security and system reliability are higher in the corporate world than in the consumer space. Also important to consider is the common challenge of integrating software with aging legacy systems.
Upshot: corporate adoption of consumer-driven technologies inevitably lags.
That point is not lost on Pacific Life, which lets its producers conduct business wirelessly throughout the client engagement using its Prime Mobile Platform.
“Our [mobile] technology streamlines the underwriting process for the financial professional,” says Dawn Trautman, Pacific Life’s senior vice president of IT and Strategic Planning. “A financial professional can electronically submit a ticket during a client meeting.
“The technology assesses the underwriting requirements needed, electronically makes the order and then determines the next steps,” she adds. “Overall, it limits the touch points for an underwriter and ‘wait time’ for the financial professional.”
Pacific Life’s mobile initiative rollout was not without complications. Trautman says that the carrier needed to marry the technology implementation with changing business processes and create new tools and an IT infrastructure to support a mobile experience. The insurer also had to convey to project stakeholders the company’s “vision” for the technology and client experience and “market the experience” to the parties involved.
Are the industry’s technology efforts yielding tangible and quantifiable results? Securing a satisfactory answer to this question may depend on the technology objectives.
If the goal is reducing costs, then measuring return on investment is generally straightforward, entailing a comparison of money spent fulfilling a task before and after a technology’s implementation. If, however, the aim is to measure return on sales-generating solutions, then calculating ROI may be more problematic.
“When we roll out an e-app, we know down to the penny the savings relative to using paper,” says Rivett. “It’s much harder to make the business case for a solution on the revenue side when you don’t have a clear understanding of cause-and-effect.
“If you can’t demonstrate the ROI for certain technology initiatives, then you have to believe they are important to invest in,” he adds. “You have to be convinced that, over time, advisors who use digital tools in combination will sell more product than those who don’t embrace them.”
At NFP, the proof is evident. NFP’s Povedano pegs technology-related sales increases at greater than 10 percent. But he echoes Rivett when noting that not all gains — improved relationships, more introductions to client prospects, speedier sales closing — are so easily quantified in dollar terms.
He cites a common occurrence at the company: more referrals resulting from NFP’s analytics capabilities.
Such referrals lead to sales and, ultimately, more successful advisors. For AXA, one measure of that success is a superior agent retention rate. In an industry that has long suffered from high turnover among inexperienced producers, AXA’s four-year agent retention rate — greater than 30 percent — is above the industry average. The insurer’s technology initiatives, Rivett says, account in part for this positive record.
Peering into the crystal ball
For AXA and its competitors, a key question is what other benefits can be mined from additional IT investments, including nascent technologies that are beginning to be applied commercially or are not yet fully mature.
Among these solutions: software that allows developers to create an app once and deploy to any device (e.g., Apple iOS- and Android-based phones and tablets); “gamification” technologies employed in computer games that can make a software user’s experience more engaging (as when completing a policy form); software tools that can aggregate information from multiple client accounts and financial institutions to provide a unified view of a client’s financial situation; and e-medical technologies that promise to speed up the underwriting process.
Yet as new IT solutions come to market, life insurers and producers will inevitably confront issues. Some will be technical in nature; others will focus on how best, for example, to balance the growing power of technology against the need to protect a client’s or prospect’s privacy. In respect to analytics software, this concern is one that executives at Pacific Life are grappling with.
Devoting time to weighing the pros and cons of a particular IT solution, while prudent, also entails risks. Carried to excess, the exercise could place an insurance or financial services provider at a disadvantage as competitors jump on a technology bandwagon, and take business away.
This threat to providers will only increase as consumers’ expectations rise and as product cycles in the technology sphere grow shorter. The most important questions facing advisors, wholesalers and product manufacturers may thus be not how much they can expect to gain by adopting an solution, but how much they stand to lose by failing to do so.