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Is ‘Direct’ a Dirty Word for Insurers?

The second-worst-kept secret of the year, after the launch of Google Compare in the U.S., is Berkshire Hathaway announcing its plans to sell insurance directly to business owners over the web. Quelle surprise.

I recently spoke with a C-suite exec who told me that “direct” is a dirty word.

Perception is reality.

In reality, though, “direct” is a lousy term that doesn’t do justice to the implementations that today’s technology has to offer that are often in direct alignment with an insurance company’s business model.

The conversation becomes uncomfortable to some once the word “middlemen” is introduced. It doesn’t have to be.

There are two primary outcomes to direct selling: (1) eliminating the middlemen or (2) empowering them. For visualization purposes, consider the following three brands:

Quotemehappy.com occupies the left extreme of selling directly to consumers. A spin-off of Aviva since 2011, the online insurer only provides phone support if a customer has a claim. For all other inquiries, there is browsing. Then there are the Geicos of the world, where insurers offer the convenience of buying on the web with the assurance of speaking to an agent, when needed. To the right extreme, Plymouth Rock provides an example of an insurer that has a patent-pending technology that matches online quotes to agents either pre- or post-purchase. There are several other players occupying the comfortable middle with direct-to-consumer models that offer varying degrees of human interaction.

Typically the outcome is determined by the company’s original distribution channel: whether offline, web or mobile. The table below further illustrates how versatile “going direct” can be:

  • Geico, Policy Genius and Cuvva are examples of insurance companies that implemented a direct-to-consumer strategy from the get-go; here, direct is a no-brainer.
  • Plymouth Rock and Quotemehappy.com via Aviva signal companies that implemented a direct-to-consumer strategy in an attempt to address a change in the market.
  • Allstate acquired Esurance to buy its way into the direct market, and so did AmFam with the acquisition of Homesite.
  • Also, AmFam invested in insurance comparison site CoverHound.

When all is said and done, direct selling is first and foremost a marketing channel that empowers the consumer. Sans proper marketing and messaging, the online insurance journey is transactional at best, and players risk commoditizing their product.

“Commodity.” Now there’s a dirty word for you.

Will Fintech Disrupt Health, Home Firms?

The integration of technology in the insurance company’s value proposition is turning out to be one of the main evolutionary trends in the sector, and digital initiatives have been for a couple of years now one of the priorities of insurance groups. Until today, though, they have brought only limited improvement when it comes to the competitive abilities of the insurer.

The best practices at the international level show that, to obtain concrete benefits, the innovation has to be directed toward clearly determined strategic objectives.

An interesting example is the American company Oscar – a start-up that in less than two years has managed to raise more than $300 million at a valuation of more than $1.5 billion. It has radically innovated the customer experience of individual health insurance policies by directing the innovation effort toward two key factors that are crucial for the profitability of the medical spending reimbursement business: deductibles and “emergency” visits.

Oscar has created an insurance value proposition based on a smartphone app that incorporates a highly advanced search engine – including a search based on symptoms – allowing the insured to identify and compare the medical structures part of the preferred network. In this way, the client receives support in optimizing direct spending before reaching the deductible; this basically postpones when the insurance company starts to pay and thus reduces the amount of spending (medical reimbursements) by the insurer for the remainder of the year.

The company addresses emergency visits by providing chat with a specialist and a call-back system that the insured can choose at will from inside the network. This represents a comfortable alternative and reduces the number of urgent visits.

Health insurance and connected health

In these last months, I have been considering how to replicate the motor telematics experience for the health insurance sector. Insurance companies see the benefits from a telematics black box and how the return on investment in this type of technology can be maximized by the insurer: This is possible by taking into consideration not only the underwriting of the car insurance policy but by also looking at the services provided to the client, at loss control and at customer loyalty. In health insurance, similar benefits are achievable by using mHealth devices and wearables.

The first element is risk selection, seen in car insurance as:

  • the capacity of auto selection and dissuasion of risky behavior,
  • the integration of static variables traditionally used for pricing with a set of “telematics data” gathered within a limited time and used exclusively for supporting the underwriting phase.

The creation of a value proposition that is focused on the use of wearables and that uses “gamification” makes the product attractive to individuals who are younger and healthier – generating a self-selection effect comparable to the motor telematics experiences. Oscar, since the beginning of January, has been offering clients a pedometer connected to a mobile app. Every day, the app shows a personalized objective that, if attained, means $1 earned by the customer. Each month, the customer can receive a maximum of $20 as cash back from the company.

The second source of value generation is services. The use of telematics data represents an incredible opportunity for offering new health services and for offering a better customer experience: for example, the geolocation of medical structures and doctors who are part of the network, linked to a medical reimbursement policy.

Medibank, of Australia, has integrated in its health policy (using a smartphone app) a series of services built on informative contents and advice. The services are medical – as done by the Italian insurance fund Fondo Assistenza Benessere, using an app called Consiglio dal Medico (an Italian start-up partnering also with Uber) – as well as related to wellness. Medibank, using this package of services, produced 10% growth in the company’s top line. This Australian player has created an app for noncustomers that gives access to wellness discounts and attracts customers who can later be offered other insurance, too.

The ability to provide health services with a high perceived value (from the client’s point of view) can also allow the company to increase the efficiency of guidance inside the preferred network – this is a crucial aspect for controlling the loss ratio of a medical reimbursement product. The loss control actually represents the third area of value creation, just as it does for the auto business.

Within the health industry, it will soon be possible to generate significant economical benefits employing telemedicine to optimize spending with medical reimbursements or to link the reimbursement to the actual observance of the client’s medical prescriptions. In the medium to long term, the objective is to have behavioral and contextual data to prevent fraud and early warning systems that can spot altered health conditions and that allow preventive and timely intervention.

South African-based Discovery has successfully tried out this second approach. It reduced the loss ratio of the cluster of insured who suffer from diabetes – mainly reimbursements linked to complications because of lack of self-control. Discovery provides an instrument for measuring the blood sugar level through a connected app and rewards the insured.

Discovery’s Vitality program represents the international best practice regarding the fourth axis of value creation: behavior guidance, by using a loyalty-based system that rewards non-risky behavior. The South African company has integrated – in its very complex reward system – devices for measuring physical activity and has incorporated their usage among the “rewarded” types of behavior. Discovery’s experience in several different countries proves the effectiveness of this approach in terms of:

  • commercial appeal
  • capacity to acquire less risky clients
  • ability to gradually reduce the risk profile of the single client.

Pricing based on individual risk is the last benefit achievable with the integration of wearables and health insurance policies. Constant monitoring of the level of exposure to risk lets the insurer create tariffs based on the health state, lifestyle and context of a person. As already done in the auto telematics business, this will be a goal to be attained after some years of data gathering and systematic analysis of the historical series together with information regarding medical reimbursements.

Home insurance and connected home

Homes are another area in which, at an international level, there has been experimentation with how to integrate an insurance policy with actual sensors. There already exists a replication of the business model used more than 10 years ago in the auto insurance sector — an up-front discount between 10% and 25% of the insurance premium based on installation of a device at the client’s house and by the payment of a fee for services or a lease for the technology. This approach, which has been adopted in the U.S. by State Farm, Liberty Mutual and USAA and in Italy by IntesaSanpaolo Assicura, BNP Paribas Cardif, Groupama e Poste, is based on two of the five levers of value creation: first, loss control – focused on flooding, fire and theft – and second, value-added services. American companies have even reached the point where they offer clients a wide range of services provided by selected partners (such as Nest) and tied to the home “ecosystem,” which can even include medical assistance services.

An interesting and innovative example of the use of such technology for the assessment and risk selection in home insurance is the one adopted by Suncorp with a retail touch to it, and by ACE Group, which focuses more on the insurance needs of high net worth individuals (HNWIs). Both companies have used a partnership with a start-up called Trōv – a smartphone app that allows registering and organizing the information referring to personal objects, including through photos and receipts – to evolve their underwriting approach when it comes to the risk connected to the contents of the house.

Domotics, or home automation, is growing at a high rate even in Italy and represents a material part of the revenues generated by the Internet of Things, according to data provided by the Osservatorio of the Politecnico di Milano. A horizontal domotics solution – with thermostats, smoke and water detectors, sensors present in appliances and other household items, sensors at the entrance and antitheft alarms, sensors spread within the building – would let an insurance company track the quantity and level of exposure to risk. This includes, for example, the periods and ways in which the home is used but also the state of the household and the external conditions to which it is exposed (humidity, mechanical vibrations, etc.).

The insurer could price based on individual risk, adopting pricing logic based on behavior, as already done in the motor sector. This could open up growth opportunities, such as for secondary houses used only for vacation and rarely insured. This scenario, which sees the growth of solutions built on connected objects within the home – if correctly approached by insurers by reviewing their processes to make the most of the potential offered by gathered data – can lead to important benefits in loss control: Some studies have estimated that there is the potential to cut in half the current expenses for claims.

To turn this opportunity into reality, it is essential that the insurer acquire the ability to connect its processes (through adequate interfaces) with the different connected objects. Insurers must create an open digital platform that uses the multiple sensors to be found in the home “ecosystem” – just like those used in the health sector.

The change of paradigm doesn’t only concern fundamental aspects of the technological architecture – like data gathering or standardization of data coming from heterogeneous sources – but affects the strategic choices of the business model. For insurers, it becomes a necessity to define their level of ambition for their role in the ecosystem and for their cooperation with other players to create solutions and services around an integrated set of client’s needs.

It is extremely interesting to see the journey made by American Family Insurance, which – in partnership with Microsoft – has launched a start-up accelerator focused on home automation.

Insurers have to start thinking strategically around how adapt insurance business to IoT, before some new Fintech comers do it.

This article originally appeared in the Insurance Daily n. 749 and n. 750 Editions.

Usage-Based Pricing: Reality or Fantasy?

In the world of usage-based insurance (UBI), Progressive is an exception: Its massive amount of driving data – 110 terabytes covering some two million vehicles, 1.5 billion separate trips and more than 10 billion miles driven – allows it to quickly test new rating factors and to do so with a great degree of accuracy.

“We continue to test new ideas all the time,” says David Pratt, Progressive’s general manager of usage-based insurance. “Our research team will come up with a theory for what would predict safe driving. With our big data set, we can test those quickly.”

Few other UBI providers are as fortunate. Octo Telematics, which launched its first UBI product in 2002, also has tons of data: 194 billion kilometers of driving performance from two million drivers globally. But most other companies are making educated guesses based on more limited data combined with more traditional ratings factors.

As Nino Tarantino, CEO of Octo Telematics North America, says, “Today, there is no data standard and no clear understanding of which data and how much is required.”

For example, Octo works with seven insurers in the U.S. and Canada, and each one asks for a different data set to be collected – everything from hard braking and acceleration to how many trips a driver takes and how long the trips are, as well as when and where they occur.

Actuarial guidelines often cite 100,000 earned car years as the threshold for credibility for a model, says Dwight Hakim, vice president of telematics, Verisk Insurance Solutions, a provider of underwriting data and tools for UBI. An earned car year is equivalent to one car insured for one year.

In traditional motor vehicle insurance, the number of earned car years is used to show state regulators that an insurer’s pricing decision is based on plenty of evidence. This helps reassure regulators, and helps agents selling the insurance.

“Credibility is particularly important when insurers are constructing a rate plan that might increase premiums,” Hakim says. “Regulators need to see a model with high credibility if that model might result in rate increases. Assuming the insurer has a good financial position overall, modest rate decreases are easier to justify.”

While using earned car years – or the equivalent in telematics driving data – may be critical when an insurer asks regulators to approve a price increase, it may not be strictly necessary to see how different UBI rating characteristics perform, Hakim says.

Trial first, price later

That is what many insurers in need of beginning to test or launch UBI programs are betting on, to avoid the need for a large data set.

For starters, insurers can assume that good drivers self-select for UBI programs. “Chances are [that] the people who try it are more likely to be safe drivers,” says Thomas Hallauer, research and marketing director for telematics consultancy Ptolemus Consulting Group. “So you know you can offer some kind of discount anyway. You also know they will probably stick longer to your contract.”

Another strategy, Hallauer says, is for UBI insurers to collect an initial data set through trials, and to then revise their ratings as more data comes in. Coming up on one full year of offering UBI in the U.S., American Family Insurance used just this approach.

“We feel like we got enough to launch, but as we see the data we know we need to refine it,” says Pete Frey, personal lines UBI program and product manager, American Family Insurance.

Combining telematics data with traditional rating factors, such as age and location of residence, is yet another strategy. The Hartford is one of many U.S. insurance companies to do just that, saying it makes for finer segmentation for its consumers.

“Almost all programs in the U.S. augment telematics data with other carrier-specific rating factors,” Hakim says. “Assessing the degree of overlap among rating factors to avoid double-counting takes a significant amount of work, but carriers are implementing telematics because they know doing so will help them stay competitive and win market share.”

But the benefit of adding more data must equal the cost, Progressive’s Pratt warns. While he agrees that UBI rating will continue to evolve and become more sophisticated, “if it costs a lot to get the information, it’s maybe not worth it,” he says.

Consumer acceptance is another sticking point. “Everything we use has to be something the customer thinks is fine,” Pratt says. “We have to be able to explain to people why it makes sense, why it’s actually fair that we do it that way.”

Pooled data

Finally, insurers can get larger data sets from third-party telematics data providers, such as Verisk Insurance Solutions, Towers Watson and Octo Telematics.

Verisk offers what it calls “Driving Behavior Database for Modelers,” which makes available to statistical modeling applications: data from telematics devices; exposure, premium and loss information on insured drivers; and third-party data, including weather conditions, road type and traffic flow.

Towers Watson has a pooled data offering that collects telematics data and claims, policy, vehicle and driver information. And it uses this pooled data to score drivers and to provide those scores to insurers. Also available from Towers Watson are models that take into consideration third-party information like maps and weather, road type, population density, weather and angle of the sun.

Octo’s Insight Centre collects global, real-time data from its installed base of Clearbox telematics devices, which customers can then interrogate to inform their UBI offerings.

However, there are caveats when it comes to using pooled data.

Hakim, for example, warns that while amassing large quantities of data is critical, not all data is equally valuable. Its utility depends on its accuracy and completeness; how frequently it’s sampled; and the source – whether OBD2 outputs, GPS or accelerometers in cell phones.

“Knowing how each device works and the manner in which the different technologies interact is key,” he says. “The complexities of reading the car’s diagnostic information, appending accelerometer data and then transmitting [it] wirelessly require a deep bench of experience.”

American Family Insurance’s Frey makes a similar point. The availability of aggregated, third-party data is not the issue, he says. While there are plenty of companies offering data to insurers, “carriers are just trying to figure out how to use it,” he says. “The data is almost overwhelming.”

The profit question

One of the big, unanswered questions about usage-based insurance is whether insurance carriers will ultimately be more profitable than – or even as profitable as – providers of traditional motor vehicle insurance.

“It’s an accepted thing that putting in a UBI program for starters is a cost,” according to Frey, of American Family Insurance. “It is about a longer-term strategy. Ideally, companies hope to achieve more growth.”

Among those costs that must be taken into account are the cost of telematics hardware – if an insurer is going the route of using its own devices – and the cost of the back-end infrastructure. Adding UBI on top of an already-existing infrastructure, as major insurers must do, is extremely costly, according to Hallauer, at Ptolemus. In this respect, UBI upstarts that rely on scalable cloud solutions have an advantage, Hallauer adds.

Still, the hope is UBI will ultimately pay off.

Enabling more sophisticated pricing is one benefit. “You want to make sure you have the right rates for the right drivers,” Frey says. “One of the biggest goals is trying to create fair rates eventually.”

And insurance discounts are only part of the equation, Hallauer adds. “The pricing decision is not a discount decision; it’s how do you change the offering to make it enticing?” he says.

According to Hallauer, discount-based UBI incentives will eventually evolve into a more service-oriented approach that may range from life-saving services, such as calling an ambulance after a crash, to more prosaic ones, such as allowing drivers to get a driving score.

Ultimately, he says, UBI can make the customer feel comfortable in having a stronger link with the insurer.

Value beyond discounts

Frey says American Family Insurance is looking in this direction. While it hasn’t pinpointed what services it might offer, it’s considering safety services, making drivers aware of their driving habits and stolen vehicle recovery.

Octo’s Nino Tarantino notes that the value-added services approach is more common in Europe, where some insurance companies offer personal safety and security services, instead of discounts.

The environment is different in North America, he says, because of Progressive. The early mover’s decision to base its UBI offering on a good-driver discount established the tone for consumer expectations and shaped the market.

According to Pratt, at Progressive, the company tries to set its prices so the profit margin is the same for people who sign up for Snapshot, its UBI product, as it is for people who opt for traditional insurance.

Progressive’s theory is that UBI customers will stay with the company longer – and so far that’s been the case. Therefore, the lifetime revenue per customer should be higher, even though the margin is the same as for traditional insurance customers.

Progressive may also save some money through helping people drive better. The company noticed that the driving of UBI customers improved when, a couple of years ago, it added the option of turning on audio feedback in the device so that, for example, it beeps when someone brakes hard.

“We see this training effect within the first few weeks people have the device plugged in,” Pratt says. “They learn to avoid hard braking, and we have evidence it helps people avoid accidents. That could be a big change in the industry, trying to actually reduce your risk.”

But the big win is likely in the life of the customer relationship. Pratt adds. “We are not trying to make ourselves more profitable with this. We are trying to attract and keep good customers for a long time.”

In fact, Tarantino thinks that most usage-based insurance programs cannot succeed if they’re based only on discounts because of all the additional costs associated with them. He says Octo’s experience with 2.4 million insured drivers in Europe shows that “when the benefits of pricing and determining risk are combined with the benefits of the understanding the moment of loss for the insurance company – when there is a crash, that is – it will be successful.”

There is never enough data

So is there any such thing as enough data?

Pratt doesn’t think so. Progressive’s Snapshot considers mileage, time of day and hard braking. The company recently began a pilot using GPS-enabled devices to examine whether highway versus city street driving can contribute to predicting future losses.

Progressive has found that the measurement of how someone drives is indeed a better predictor of risk than driving record, age, gender or any of the traditional rating factors. Still, “the models can still get a lot better,” Pratt says.

Say Progressive wants to find out if people who are low-mileage drivers are safer drivers. The company can segment out those drivers from its customer base and see which ultimately did have accidents and which didn’t. It could go further and segment the low-mileage drivers by age to determine whether low mileage is a good predictor for all age groups.

Even with 10 billion miles driven, there may not always be enough drivers in the database to provide a meaningful segment to test a theory, Pratt says.

 

This article has been produced in the lead-up to the Insurance Telematics USA conference and exhibition, which will take place in Chicago on Sept. 3-4. This conference will tackle the steps needed to take UBI programs to the mass market. Find out more here.