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The Great Eastern way to digital transformation

Regional insurance company Great Eastern has rolled out a new digital platform to better serve customers while morphing its DNA from the inside out

With consumers becoming more adept at financial planning, regional insurance company Great Eastern (GE) has had to rethink the way it grows its business and engages with its customers who increasingly look up information on the internet before deciding on an insurance policy.

For a start, that involves getting itself out of its comfort zone by empowering customers to help themselves online, as well as its agents to better serve customers, according to Ryan Cheong, managing director of GE’s digital for business unit.

In April 2019, the company unveiled its Great Digital Advantage platform to equip its agency sales force with the ability to manage their sales activities, monitor sales performance and improve the advice they provide for customers, among other capabilities.

A built-in chatbot is also on hand to answer queries from financial representatives who can then respond to customers faster than before.

Cheong said the platform, which is capable of big data analysis, is available to existing and potential partners such as banks, telcos as well as merchants that can use it to engage their joint customers, as part of GE’s efforts to expand its reach beyond its agent network.

On the self-service front, GE, which counts S$85bn (US$62.8bn) in assets and over four million policyholders, is also looking at making its patent-pending life-planning tool currently used by agents available to its customers at some point.

Powering GE’s digital initiatives are two core IT systems, one of which had to be replaced while the other has had some functions decoupled from it over the years.

Over time, Cheong expects the core systems to serve more as systems of record, with transaction processing and customer engagement taking place outside those systems.

Like most companies that have embarked on digital transformation, GE also finds it hard to recruit talent skilled in data analytics and big data platforms such as Hadoop which it is currently using.

But rather than organise hackathons which some local banks and technology companies have done, GE relies on traditional hiring processes to hire good people – even if open positions are not immediately available.

“We are starting to hire good people first and then find a role for them later,” Cheong said. “While this won’t happen across the board overnight, it marks a shift in our thinking.”

To get buy-in from employees on GE’s digital transformation, GE decided to change the company’s culture from the inside out rather than create a separate digital garage to roll out digital initiatives.

Cheong said this involves roping in employees across departments to form teams tasked to work on digital projects, which are measured on productivity gains and customer acquisition, among other yardsticks.

“We’re trying to morph our DNA within the organisation rather than create a new one outside,” he added. “It was challenging and I had to do a lot of convincing at first, but this will help to overcome the inertia to change.”

Cheong stressed that GE’s efforts to engage consumers digitally will not displace agents who continue to guide customers in decisions on high-involvement products, such as life and health insurance.

“There’s no point in cutting our noses to spite ourselves,” Cheong said. “There’s still a role for agents who can assure customers that there’s still somebody beyond the invisible face of the company. They will go beyond being sales people towards becoming risk managers.”

But are GE’s efforts enough to keep more nimble financial technology (fintech) startups at bay? Cheong said that while fintech firms provide a better customer experience, the real threat will come from traditional rivals that get digital right.

“I don’t think the fintech startups will eat our lunch overnight,” Cheong said. “Existing incumbents – with their distribution force and customer base – that deliver the same seamless experience as these start-ups much faster than we do will give us a harder kick in the back.”

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