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Does your insurer really care about you? I asked America’s top insurance leaders

November 10, 2022, 9:41 PM UTC
Robert Reiss, CEO, The CEO Forum Group (left); Meera Krishnamurthy, global insurance Leader, Cognizant; Dan Amos, Chairman and CEO, Aflac; Caroline Feeney, CEO, U.S. insurance & retirement businesses, Prudential; Andrew McMahon, president and CEO, Guardian Life
Courtesy of The CEO Forum Group

Four visionary insurance leaders recently told me that the industry’s future is to be “as fast as Google, as far-reaching as Facebook, and [most importantly] as intimate with its customers as Amazon.”

While insurance is the financial backbone of the economy, the industry is still perceived as transactional and slow to change. However, what consumers really want is to be understood as individuals, have deeper connections, longer relationships, genuine caring, and true empathy.

Dan Amos, the chairman and CEO of Aflac, Caroline Feeney, the CEO of U.S. insurance and retirement businesses at Prudential, Meera Krishnamurthy, the global insurance leader at Cognizant, and Andrew McMahon, the president and CEO of Guardian Life envision a future where Silicon Valley-level technologies that are “behind the curtain” enable genuine human connection.

The biggest risk for the insurance business

At the heart of insurance, there is the concept of risk. Dan Amos, who is in his 33rd year as Aflac CEO, is one of the longest-serving CEOs in the Fortune 200.

He sums it up in a simple yet profound way: “The three principles I use to evaluate risk are: don’t risk a lot for a little; don’t risk more than you can afford to lose and then consider the odds. I use these principles consistently to evaluate risk.”

Insurers are rethinking risk through an emerging technology lens. Meera Krishnamurthy explained the opportunity: “A.I.-driven algorithms and machine learning are already advancing the industry’s understanding of risk, but we’ve only scratched the surface, as the industry has enormous data issues to address.”

Krishnamurthy also highlighted another type of risk that insurers need to address. Cognizant’s survey of 2,100 retail insurance consumers revealed that 69% said they are either unclear about whether their insurer cares about them, or they don’t believe that their insurer cares about them. That emotional disconnect has profound implications for customer retention and trust.

Caroline Feeney outlined a key dynamic, “I believe if you marry the high-tech and the high-touch together, you ultimately will have far better outcomes for our customers. We’ve set a number of aspirations at the company level. And one of them is to move from being customer-focused to being customer-obsessed–and that’s a completely different game.”  

“Insurance is a technology business,” Andrew McMahon agreed. He explained how the insurance industry can learn from Silicon Valley about adopting important technologies to advance all elements of the customer experience and operations.  

Andrew McMahon shared his leadership philosophy on driving a world-class customer model, “I’m an alum of two storied management academies–McKinsey and General Electric–where I learned the virtues of analysis and the need to be decisive and action-oriented. Those things continue to be important, but today’s leaders also need to influence and inspire, establish a vision of where we’re going, and create a safe environment to take calculated risks and innovate.”

Elevating customer connections

When asked about the secret to truly connecting with customers, McMahon explained that “listening is the first step to creating ‘wow moments.’” Guardian Life created a listening program for employees to hear firsthand what policyholders experience and to empower them to come up with solutions to enhance those moments.

Cognizant’s Meera Krishnamurthy noted that while certain technologies can help drive the delivery of great customer experience at scale, “having the right data is the precursor for effective service delivery.”

“Most companies can’t scale by relying on human service heroes, so you need to get really good at pulling together data from internal and external sources. Success with data will set up success in delivering the convenience, speed, and insights that modern customers expect,” she added.

Dan Amos emphasized that great customer models start with culture, “I still think we’re a people business. We don’t sell a tangible product. I think it’s always going to be a people business to some degree and you have to know it, but you also have to know technology.” And Amos reinforced what comes first, stating, “So goes the employee, so goes your company.”

For Caroline Feeney, empathy is at the heart of great leadership in today’s insurance industry. “I was once told by a well-intentioned leader to lose my empathy gene so I could make tough decisions more easily,” she said. “Fortunately, I didn’t follow that advice, and I now know that empathy actually makes me a more effective and stronger leader. If you can put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and understand how they’re feeling, you are in a better position to have those important conversations.” 

Having personally interviewed over a thousand top CEOs over the last 15 years and speaking with CEOs every day, I can confirm that empathy is quickly emerging as one of the most important leadership traits–and that it will shape the future of insurance. This customer obsession, when coupled with technology and data, has the potential to elevate the entire industry.

Robert Reiss is the founder and CEO of The CEO Forum Group.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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