While insurance has been steadily improving communications with customers through gradual adoption of chatbots, Microsoft just put another big item on the industry’s technology to-do list: speech recognition.
Microsoft’s announcement on Monday that it is buying speech-recognition firm Nuance for $16 billion means that insurers will have to confront the technology — likely sooner than they had expected. Big Tech has already been getting consumers accustomed to having their speech understood by devices, mostly via Siri and Alexa, and the Microsoft purchase of Nuance will push speech recognition into many business transactions. All industries, including insurance, will have to react as Big Tech again raises the bar for what constitutes a reasonable customer experience.
So, it’s worth spending a minute thinking about what speech recognition will — and won’t — change in insurance.
My bet, having followed the development of a host of fundamental changes in technology for decades now, is that speech recognition mostly will mean the end of the sorts of decision trees that customers now have to go through to get to the right spot in a call center or a corporation.
At the moment, such automated answering systems generally ask callers to respond to a series of options by saying a number or pressing a key. The systems may then ask callers to repeat the process, maybe even multiple times, as a decision tree gradually narrows down the options and determines where to direct the call.
With a system based on speech recognition, customers will simply begin a conversation by saying something like, “I’m calling to check on a payment,” or, “I’d like to check on the status of my claim.” The artificial intelligence may be able to respond immediately, if it can match the caller’s phone number with the appropriate records. If not, the AI can then ask a question or two and respond to simple questions on its own or transfer the call to the right human representative for a more extended conversation.
If a caller wants to speak Spanish, he’ll just start talking in Spanish rather than having to oprima numero dos.
Doing away with these automated menus won’t materially change any caller’s life, but they are enough of an annoyance that insurers and big agencies will need to get rid of them as soon as speech recognition allows. As the world continues to move toward self-service, the industry will need to keep expanding the capabilities of the speech-recognition systems to handle more complex queries and more extended conversations — along the lines of the progression occurring with chatbots.
The change to speech recognition will be a heavy lift. It not only requires mastering the speech recognition technology but tying it into back-end computer systems and integrating voice queries with customer interactions via text message and via the website or app. Training and staffing of agents will need to change, too.
The shift won’t have to happen right away. Nuance (which developed the initial speech-recognition technology for Siri) has a heavy focus on healthcare, so Microsoft won’t immediately be raising customer expectations across all industries. But the change to speech recognition will take long enough and be disruptive enough that insurance companies should develop road maps soon.
Now, I’ve seen some project even more sweeping changes because of speech recognition, but the claims are overwrought. Yes, speaking is often more convenient than typing, but speech has its limitations. If I’m traveling alone and looking for a hotel or a place to eat, I might ask Siri to give me some options, but I’m going to pull off to the side of the road to scroll through them and investigate. And if I’m going to need to read about such relatively simple options, imagine how much more important reading is for all but the simplest queries related to insurance.
Speech won’t become the primary interface for the internet any time soon, despite what some have written and despite great improvement in the technology.
But speech recognition still marks a significant change, and Big Tech is once again setting rules for customer experience that the rest of us will have to abide by.
P.S. Here are the six articles I’d like to highlight from the past week:
Organizations hoping to deploy artificial intelligence have to know what problems they’re solving — no vague questions allowed.
In soft markets, differentiation can be challenging. But hard markets present an opportunity for the best insurance professionals to stand apart.
A technology has emerged that can harness AI across all departments of a business like never before. It’s called a feature store.
The pandemic introduced several variables that question the validity of actuarial models and benchmarks.
Telematics can help solve some of the insurance industry’s oldest problems, but, first, insurers must win the client’s trust.
The current system for secondary towing is excruciating. The only reasonable solution is to start over from scratch.
An unmanned car driven by a search engine company? We’ve seen that movie. It ends with robots harvesting our bodies for energy.
That is a line from a 2011 Chrysler car commercial mocking Google’s self-driving car project.
Another Chrysler commercial was even blunter: “Robots can take our food, our clothes and our homes. But, they will never take our cars.”
Chrysler’s early mocking of Google’s efforts exemplifies the fact that few cling to the status quo tighter than the companies that best understand it and have the most stake in preserving it. It is human nature to value what one does well and look askance at innovations that challenge the assumptions underlying current success. Sprinkle in some predictably irrational wishful thinking and you have the mindset that too quickly dismisses potentially dangerous disruptions.
Ironically, seven years later, those Google “robots” are now mostly driving Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Those robots have taken Chrysler’s cars and driven more than 10 million miles. Chrysler benefits by selling cars to Waymo, the spinoff from that Google project, but not nearly as much as it might have from building the robots themselves. Waymo is valued at $175 billion, about five times Chrysler’s market value.
History brims with other examples.
When Alexander Graham Bell offered to sell his telephone patents to Western Union, the committee evaluating the deal concluded:
Messrs. Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their ‘telephone devices’ in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it… This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.
Ken Olsen, who disrupted IBM’s mainframe dominance with his DEC minicomputers, mocked the usefulness of personal computers in their early days. He declared, “The personal computer will fall flat on its face in business.” Olsen was very wrong, and DEC would eventually be sold to Compaq Computer, a personal computer maker, for a fraction of its peak value.
See also: Why AI IS All It’s Cracked Up to Be
Steve Ballmer’s initial ridicule of Apple’s iPhone is also legendary, though the words of the then-CEO of Microsoft were mild compared with the disdain on his face when asked to comment on the iPhone launch.
Years later, after he retired, Ballmer insisted that he was right about the iPhone in the context of mobile phones at the time. What he missed, he admitted, was that the strict separation of hardware, operating system and applications that drove Microsoft’s success in PCs wasn’t going to reproduce itself on mobile phones. Ballmer also didn’t recognize the power of the business model innovation that allowed the iPhone’s high cost to be built into monthly cell phone bills and to be subsidized by mobile operators. (Jump to the 4:00 mark.)
The biggest challenge for successful business executives—like Ballmer, Olsen and those at Western Union—when confronted with potentially disruptive innovations is to think deeply about potential strategic shifts, rather than simply mock innovations for violating current assumptions.
Another perhaps soon-to-be classic example is unfolding at State Farm Insurance.
State Farm released an TV ad that is a thinly veiled attack on Lemonade, a well-funded insurtech startup. Lemonade makes wide use of AI-based chatbots for customer service. State Farm, instead, prides itself on its host of human agents. In the ad, a State Farm agent says:
The budget insurance companies are building these cheap, knockoff robots to compete with us… These bots don’t have the compassion of a real State Farm agent.
As I’ve previously written, AI is one of six information technology trends that is reshaping every information-intensive industry, including insurance. In fact, as I recently told a group of insurance executives, I believe insurance will probably change more in the next 10 to 15 years than it has in the last 300.
See also: Lemonade Really Does Have a Big Heart
That doesn’t mean that Lemonade’s use of chatbots for customer service will destroy State Farm. But, as State Farm should know, customer-service chatbots are only one of numerous innovations that Lemonade is bringing to the game. As several McKinsey consultants point out, AI-related technologies are driving “seismic tech-driven shifts” in a number of different aspects of insurance. Lemonade has also adopted a mobile-first strategy and is applying behavioral economics to drive other business model innovations.
State Farm executives need to get beyond the mocking and think deeply about how emerging innovations might disrupt their strategic assumptions.
One way to do so is being offered at InsuranceThoughtLeadership.com, where ITL editor-in-chief and industry thought leader Paul Carroll has offered a “State Farm Lemonade Throw Down.” Carroll offers to host an online debate between the two firms’ CEOs about how quickly AI technology should be integrated into interactions with customers.
Better for Mr. Tipsord to face the question now, while there is ample time to still out-innovate Lemonade and other startups, than to be left to reflect on what went wrong years later, as Steve Ballmer had to do with the iPhone.
A recent week started with reading a page by Paul Carroll from his Innovator’s Edge platform. The title question was: “Will Apple enter insurance? Google? Microsoft? Amazon?” His opening statement was, “Apple’s market value crested $1 trillion last week, and its big tech brethren Google, Microsoft and Amazon aren’t far behind, all are valued north of $800 billion…”
I wasn’t shocked until he said, “All have extensive data about customers. And all have the size to tackle mind-bending problems that insurance faces – by contrast you’d have to combine AIG, Prudential and Allstate just to surpass $100 billion in market value…”
A day later, someone sent me Reagan Consulting’s “The Golden Age of Insurance Brokerage.” As I read through this short update, I could almost hear, “Happy days are here again” playing in the background for the brokers. The following captures the essence of this document: “We are living in the Golden Age of insurance brokerage. There are so many good things happening, it is hard to keep track of them all.” This was followed by six bullet points providing evidence of why the brokers are so happy. (No mention was made of insurance buyers, who may not be as HAPPY!)
A friend then sent me a link to “The Death of the Old School Agency,” by Michael Jans. This is a more in-depth view (30-plus pages) of the world as it may or will be.
From the executive summary, we learn that today’s agent faces a new world of:
- Rapid changes in consumer behavior and expectations
- Emerging, existing and well-funded competitive channels
- A rising millennial generation with different expectations, both as consumers and workers
- A pace of change unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.
Depending upon who, what and where you are, this report will bring good news or bad news, but nonetheless – it is news that (I believe) every agent needs to hear, consider, ponder and then decide on.
Agencies tomorrow are not “your daddy’s Oldsmobile.” Ask someone older than 40 to explain the phrase. This was the beginning of the end of a legendary line of General Motors automobiles and probably a foreshadowing of the collapse of General Motors.
I encourage you to study all three of these documents – they are well-written by very successful folks. Their ideas should be carefully considered, and, if properly adapted to your circumstances, all can improve your results. That is – as long as the world goes as “we the people” in this industry think it should. What follows is my contrarian view – less “raining on your parade” and more clearing the air as you look to the horizon in tomorrow’s consumer-driven economy. We are not in charge. We today are wagering on our individual and industry’s future. Place your bets. The market will pick the winners.
See also: 3 Myths That Inhibit Innovation (Part 3)
This contrarian will offer his ideas by looking “back to the future.”
There will remain great opportunities in our future, but these will require transformational change. From today’s selling in an industry that is product-defined and product-driven, to a new client-defined and client-driven marketplace where we will facilitate our client’s buying – solving their problems and meeting their needs. In the competitive nature of tomorrow’s world – we’ll have to use artificial intelligence (AI) to anticipate these needs and deliver solutions before our clients “go shopping.”
Some of the people, gifts, expertise, disciplines, skills, etc. we’ll need will be much different than the mechanical process we use today. We will need communicators (verbal and nonverbal), empathizers, artists, inventors, designers, storytellers, caregivers, consolers, big picture thinkers, storytellers, caregivers and “techies.” This is not an all-inclusive list. (Consider reading “A Whole New Mind,” by Daniel Pink.)
Warren Bennis offered the following wisdom decades ago: “The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.”
Consider the following – brief observations from one man’s experience:
- In 1978, Fireman’s Fund/Famex Agents offered a GM-endorsed insurance program for dealers. I was the SW Louisiana agent. In those days, the No. 1 concern of GM and its dealers was that GM would reach 65% market share and the federal government would break GM up into separate companies, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, etc. GM’s arrogance, the dealers’ complacency, foreign competition, a poor product and a marketplace wanting change reshaped their world. GM never made it to 65% market share. I believe the insurance industry is ripe for a similar transformational experience.
- In 1994, I was speaking to a bank in St. James Parish (Louisiana) about change. I said, “Today, GM, Sears and IBM are the kings of their respective jungles. I believe, in my lifetime, one of these companies will fail.” I was laughed off the stage. Fourteen years later, I was vindicated with the bankruptcy filing by GM. I personally believe that I’ll also prove right on Sears.
- In June 2008, I was an instructor for attendees in a risk and insurance class at the KPMG Advisory University in Chicago. This was a continuing education week for KPMG consultants. A rookie consultant asked, “How does an insurance company fail?” I explained with the Champion Insurance story.
Then he asked for an example of a “rock solid” insurance company. I said, “AIG.” The KPMG senior partners in the room nodded in agreement. Less than 100 days later, AIG was functionally bankrupt, requiring a $182 billion bailout by the government. None of us saw that coming. (I’ll bet you were surprised, as well.)
As I wrap up this article, hoping I’ve stimulated a much more important discussion about the future, consider the following:
- Companies valued at $100 billion are “big” until measured against trillion-dollar operations in a world in transformation – especially if the giants have better technology and data!
- Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon (AGMA) are kings of their respective jungles. Yet these companies are not even as old as the majority of readers of this column (with the possible exception of Microsoft and Apple, founded in the mid-1970s). Why would we think that our “old and stoic” industry is “safe” and “promising” for tomorrow? Are we celebrating our past when we should be planning our future?
- Do you think that any of your clients who have recently received a rate increase will be as enthusiastic about the profitability of our industry and the future of the world of brokers as stated in the article offered by Reagan? I’ve rarely (if ever) heard a client celebrate the profitability of our industry when it is an expense to theirs…
- Generational changes, social media and our societal rethinking of issues of race, gender, ethnicity, family, values, economic models (socialism / capitalism), etc. may result in our going in directions that we, 10 years ago, would have never considered possible.
- Has our industry let the government get its nose into our tent/economic system. NFIP has been in this industry as long as I have. The private sector didn’t want to address the flood risk. Now, these nearly 50 years later, the flood program is a government program and not sustainable. Unfortunately, the government may be ready to have the camel stand up in the tent? Medicare for everyone is no longer a crazy idea. It may not work, but….
- If the insurance industry was being designed today to do what it does, do you really believe it would be what we have? If you answered yes, please reread the question!
See also: What Is Really Disrupting Insurance?
Bookstores, travel agencies, video stores, etc. were important in our communities of yesterday – UNTIL THEY WEREN’T. Should we begin redesigning our own operations and industry and future before a competitive innovator does it for us?