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July 2, 2018

3 Myths That Inhibit Innovation (Part 1)

Summary:

85% of corporate strategists say innovation is critical for their organizations. Yet the vast majority are focused on incremental changes.

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As the pace of change accelerates, the chances that incumbent businesses will be affected or displaced grows. According to a recent CB Insights report, insurance is one of the top five industries facing disruption risk; 85% of surveyed corporate strategists believe that innovation is critical for their organizations. Yet the vast majority are focused on incremental changes.

In other words, while the insurance industry is in the business of mitigating risk, too many insurance companies aren’t taking advantage of innovation to address disruption.

A number of innovation myths foster complacency among market leaders. While the myths aren’t unique to the insurance vertical, our industry may have embraced them more fully than others. These myths can be grouped into three main areas: strategic complacency, financial concerns and misperceptions of the innovation process.

Over the course of three articles, we will explore each of these areas in detail, starting with strategic complacency.

Strategic Complacency

Great Changes

The insurance industry is at a crossroads. A number of significant trends are converging to change our customers:

  • Their behavior,
  • The risks they experience,
  • The technologies they use,
  • And, most importantly, their expectations.

Add to those challenges the changes in underwriting, pricing and service delivery allowed by new technologies and analytic capabilities. Both the opportunities and the challenges presented by the intersection of these trends are significant for senior leadership in all segments of our industry. Yet, too often, the insurance industry hides behind our perception that “insurance is different,” or that “we’re regulated” or that “it’s complicated.”

Other industries have faced similar situations, and things haven’t always gone well for the established companies, even in a complicated industry computers and software or a heavily regulated one like automotive manufacturing.

Some market leaders such as IBM are often written off as roadkill, but they reinvent themselves time and again. Others like Blockbuster mistakenly believe that their position provides them with unassailable advantages and end up either dramatically changed or out of business. In Blockbuster’s case, the high water mark in their valuation was in 1996, the year before Netflix was launched. In 1998, their valuation was 50% of what it had been two years prior. They mistakenly believed that breadth of location and depth of inventory were walls that couldn’t be scaled by the competitive hordes.

One thing is certain:

The client views his or her needs and wants as primary. That client neither understands nor cares how difficult transformation is, what the backroom challenges are or whether we’re addressing the issues as fast as we can.

See also: Innovation Imperatives in the Digital Age   

Clients just want to solve their problems now. If the incumbent can’t or won’t provide what the client requests, then the client goes elsewhere.

In times of great change, strategic complacency kills.

Customer Intimacy

Ask any insurer about its strengths, and one knee-jerk response will be, “We take great care of our customers.” If that is the case, why does such a significant portion of our customers respond negatively to the industry and our efforts?

Explore customer experience with insurance industry leaders a bit further, and the responses will be more nuanced, perhaps to the point of admitting the poor job the industry actually does. The good news is that some of the problem isn’t our fault.

Our industry provides irreplaceable products and services of which we can be rightly proud. We regularly step into the breach in some of the most trying times our customers will ever face. But, thankfully, those events are rare or even nonexistent for the average customer, and many insureds don’t recognize that a valuable service was provided by risk transfer even during a period when they experienced no losses.

Insurers’ job is to see the big picture, and to connect disparate facts. We have increasing amounts of data about those customers, which provide insights into behaviors and opportunities.

These factors lead many organizations to profess that they deeply understand their customers, and that, when the customer is looking for additional products or services, the insurer will immediately know and develop the appropriate response. Dig a bit deeper, and another story emerges. Perhaps we don’t have the intimate relationship that would inspire those insights.

Unfortunately, in many corporate cultures, it is hard to be a dissenting voice on customer intimacy and experience when others are professing the “common wisdom,” no matter how misguided. Finally, both improved customer experience and more intimate customer relationships are difficult, multifaceted problems and easy to put off.

Carriers rightly see the relationship as one insurer to many insureds. On the other hand, customers see the relationship as one to one. While insurers think in terms of spread of risk across a pool of clients, customers are only interested in what’s in it for them.

In many instances, because of these differing perspectives, the carrier-customer bond is weak. A recent Bain & Co. report said that, worldwide, only half of insureds have been in contact with their insurer for any reason in the past 12 months.

The result is that customers don’t have any real relationship with their carrier and are likely to focus on price. Rarely will they share their needs and wants with a services provider with whom they have a tenuous relationship.

Strategic complacency can appear when shorthand expressions of customer intimacy and experience prohibit open dialogue on customer priorities, or efforts designed to address problems are short-circuited because of their complexity. Even though insurers have gigabytes of data on their insureds, the data doesn’t translate into information and insight.

Lack of Urgency

Another myth among insurers is that there is no great urgency to change. Organizations survey the competitive landscape and don’t see any discernible threats on the horizon.

There are two primary reasons. First, most innovation efforts are quiet, so insurers don’t necessarily see what potential competitors are doing until a product or service hits the market. Second, many lauded innovation efforts are taking place in lines or niches that don’t appear to be a threat to incumbents.

So what if one new insurer is writing usage-based insurance for the gig economy, or another specializes in coverage for renters? Either those aren’t lines of business that “real” insurance companies want to write, or they aren’t a key component of the carrier’s book.

See also: Digital Innovation: Down to Business  

The insurance innovation landscape is large and convoluted. Most early innovation efforts are small, and the “signal” is easily mis-categorized as noise. Because of this, potential competitors and collaborators are easy to miss. But the lack of urgency is a key factor in Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen’s seminal work on industry disruption.

His model states that innovators find a segment of unserved or underserved consumers that represent low profit potential. These startups then offer an inferior product or service to these consumers. It doesn’t have to be perfect because these consumers aren’t being appropriately served prior to the innovator’s arrival.

The crude nature of the solution is derided by incumbents, because their customers “wouldn’t want to purchase something that limited.” Because the unserved or underserved segment is low-profit, and may have other undesirable characteristics, the market leaders have no urgency to respond.

But while the existing players ignore or disparage the newcomers, the disruptors refine their offerings. Once innovators win the low-profit segment, they move upstream by repeating the process with more profitable and desirable customers.

Often, by the time established industry players figure out that they are under threat, it is too late to reverse their fortunes.

Guy Fraker, chief innovation officer at Innovator’s Edge, says, “Ignore this innovation activity, whether from incumbents or new entities, at your peril.”

This lack of urgency, and the willingness to either accept as fact, or blithely repeat, mistaken beliefs and put off difficult, needed changes to address customer problems contribute to strategic complacency. Recognizing these problems and opening dialog within your organization is a key to formulating a strategic response to the onslaught of changes affecting the insurance industry.

The next post will further explore common myths with a focus on financial concerns surrounding innovation.

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About the Author

Marty Agather is a proven thought leader and accomplished writer and speaker on insurance innovation. He blogs frequently on insurance topics. In addition, Agather speaks at insurance industry conferences and events on varied topics.

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