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Google

What We Can Learn From Google Compare

“The Google Compare service itself hasn’t driven the success we hoped for.” Google Compare announced in an email to its partners that it would be shutting its insurance and financial products comparison service tools in the U.S. and U.K. as of March 23. The lack of traction in both usage and revenue generation were named as two key reasons. Those were the headlines across the industry this week. So Google Compare is done – for now.

This is big news for the insurance industry, which has spent the last year figuring out how to shield itself from the potential impact that the tech giant would make. It turns out Google didn’t make much of a splash after all. In addition to insurance, Google is backing out of credit cards, banking and mortgage products. Google said  it is shutting down for now and focusing on “improving the customer experience.” Maybe Google will be back in a year, maybe five years, but what can we learn from it now?

When Google Compare was launched in the U.S. last year, it took the industry by storm. The agent/broker ecosystem was skeptical of any success, but they were also fearful – given Google’s size, wealth and talent. Could Google disrupt personal auto quoting?

What the agent/broker ecosystems did was to keep their (potential) enemy close by understanding what they were doing. They watched and hoped for failure. Meanwhile, a handful of insurers signed up to be part of the California launch: those insurers who could easily connect to the Google platform and wanted to be part of a potential success. And these companies had to explain their actions to their agents – who were in the wings watching and waiting to see what would happen.

I have my own thoughts on why Google Compare failed this first go-around. First, consumers can get these quote comparisons elsewhere – insurers already do this. Next, maybe customers just aren’t quite ready for self-service compare engines – but by all accounts, they soon will be. I don’t think Google underestimated the complexity of insurance, nor do I think it underestimated the consumer. I think, probably, that the timing was off, and Google didn’t differentiate itself from existing solutions with comparative raters. Google probably lacked some of the innovation that would have been needed to differentiate itself from others in the market.

Google Compare, like many start-ups, has failed, at least for now. At SMA, we talk all the time about how there is an innovation journey and how even the best-laid plans will sometimes fail. Part of the journey is learning through failure and then coming back better than ever. This is especially true in insurance. The industry is complicated. It’s complex and heavily regulated. It experiences slow growth, a slow pace of change and relatively small profits. And it requires lots of resources, cash and expertise committed for a long time before it pays off. SMA research shows 88% of insurers understand that innovation projects may fail. Part of that acceptance indicates a growing ability to learn from failure.

So where do you place your bets moving forward? Will Google Compare opting out of insurance cause new disruption? Will new solutions move in to fill the void?

Many will place their bets on strong incumbents and today’s ecosystem. Insiders believe that, with Google Compare moving out, it will become unappealing for outsiders to move in and try to understand it, saying the barriers to success are too high. Others will say that something will come to disrupt and challenge the traditional ways of the comparative raters and that outsiders, with their naivete and innovative thinking, will find a pin hole in the ecosystems and exploit the market.

Either way, the wonderful thing about innovation is that it is the essence of change. The only constant is change. Things happen so quickly. Innovation can flip an industry on its side overnight. Google Compare isn’t going away forever; it is just shutting the blinds. While this may be a small win for the establishment insurers who viewed Google’s entry as a threat, it doesn’t mean these organizations should rest on their laurels. The time is now to innovate, fill a void and improve overall services. Finally, failures and what we learn from them serve to set the ground work for change and innovation. It is part of the innovation journey to improve and adapt. As we continue this year, I am confident there will be more changes to the industry … so stay tuned.

Captives: Congress Shoots, Misses

In late December, Congress put together a last-minute “tax extender” package that, among many other things, made some changes to section 831(b) of the Internal Revenue Code. That section allows “small” captive insurance companies to elect to exempt from income tax all of their insurance income.

These small captives have been widely used in recent years by owners of large, privately held businesses to allegedly add to their existing insurance coverages while enjoying immediate income tax reductions. Further tax benefits could include conversion of ordinary income to capital gains and a potential estate transfer benefit, depending on the ownership of the captive.

Congress has changed those benefits a bit, by eliminating any estate planning benefits, starting in 2017. But Congress failed to address the true levels of abuse that this code section has spawned and, indeed, may have made things worse.

These “enterprise risk” or “micro” captives are primarily used as a form of tax shelter, notwithstanding the pious claims of captive managers that they are meeting legitimate insurance needs. While such needs certainly may exist in some clear cases, the vast majority of entrepreneurs forming these captives care much more about the tax benefits than any increased insurance coverage.

The IRS knows this and has stepped up both audits of individual companies and larger, promoter audits of captive managers in an effort to crack down on captives that are being formed without the intent to form an insurance company. In addition, the IRS is well aware that unscrupulous captive managers create vastly inflated “premiums” payable by the operating company to the captive to maximize the tax benefits of owning such a small captive. These premiums often bear no relation to third-party market costs, nor can they be justified by a reasonable actuarial analysis of the actual risk being insured by the captive.

Another abuse is found in captive managers’ offering the new captive owner what the IRS would call a sham “pooling” arrangement, to comply with certain “risk distribution” requirements of court cases and revenue rulings.

There are many cases pending in the Tax Court that attempt to corral these abuses. Their outcome is, of course, uncertain.

So the Treasury Department went to the Senate Finance Committee in early 2015, hoping to obtain legislation that would gut section 831(b) (and put a lot of captive managers out of business).

Instead, the department got legislation that only stops these captives from being used as estate planning tools.

The legislation also increased the annual allowable premium paid to such captives, from $1.2 million to $2.2 million, indexed for inflation. The reasons for this failure have a lot to do with Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has long wanted an increase in premium to benefit certain farm bureau captives in his state. He needed some revenue offset to allow for the increase, and, by closing this “estate planning loophole,” he can claim that tax revenues will increase.

That claim may be doubtful (only about 1% of taxpayers end up being subject to the estate tax), and captive managers now have a new, higher goal of $2.2 million for the “premiums” to be paid to these small captives.

It is also clear that this new legislation will have no effect on the current robust enforcement actions underway by the IRS. The issues of inflated premiums, sham pooling arrangements and lack of substance in the alleged insurance transaction remain in force and subject to serious scrutiny.

It is unlikely that Congress will bother to look at this code section again any time in the near future.

As a result of this new legislation, section 831(b) captives can generally no longer be owned by the entrepreneur’s spouse, children, grandchildren or trusts benefiting them. (Details about how the legislation achieves this change can be found in other sources).

Perhaps as many as half of all existing micro captives were formed with estate planning in mind. These captives will have to change their ownership or dissolve before the end of 2016. Tax professionals should review all captives owned by their clients to ensure that they remain complaint with the changes in the law. Relying on the captive managers may not be sufficient.

Zenefits’ Problems Are Real but Not Fatal

Zenefits has hit a rough patch. Given the insults the company’s CEO, Parker Conrad, has heaped on brokers, the schadenfreude percolating through the broker community is understandable. Yet declarations of Zenefits’ demise are premature.

Zenefits raised $500 million in May at a valuation of $4.5 billion. At the time, Conrad claimed the company was “on track to hit annual recurring revenue of $100 million by January 2016.” That was then.

Now, the Wall Street Journal is reporting that Zenefits is falling short of its earlier revenue projection. According to the Journal and Business Insider, through August Zenefits’ revenue came in closer to $45 million, and the $100 million annual revenue figure is likely out of reach. In response, Zenefits is reportedly instituting a hiring freeze and imposing pay cuts. The latter step is cited as a reason at least eight executives left Zenefits.

In light of the news, in August or September Fidelity Investments reduced the value of its Zenefits investment by 48%, estimating the company was now worth about $2.34 billion. That’s a seismic event: In May, Fidelity thought Zenefits was worth $4.5 billion. Just five months, later Fidelity thinks this was being a tad optimistic… if by “a tad” we mean “$2.16 billion.”

In an interview with Business Insider, Conrad admits Zenefits is unlikely to keep his promise of $100 million of recurring revenue this year. However, he claims Zenefits continues to hire (although not as fast as in the past) and is happy with its revenue growth — “more than $80 million of revenue under contract” (which, it should be noted, is not the same as saying “we’ve taken in $80 million so far this year,” but maybe that’s what he meant). Conrad also asserts that Zenefits is getting “closer and closer” to being cash flow-positive, although he doesn’t expect it to get there until 2017 at the earliest.

Missing his $100 million commitment and having to address the subsequent fallout is no doubt adding to Conrad’s stress levels. Because Conrad went out of his way to insult community-based benefit brokers on Zenefits’ way up, the joy that brokers are taking in his discomfort now is to be expected — and is arguably earned.

Should brokers assume Zenefits is no longer a threat, however? No. It is still bringing in tens of millions of dollars in revenue. According to what I’ve heard, only about 60% of this revenue comes from commissions. An ever-increasing portion of Zenefits’ revenue flows from fees earned by selling third-party services or its own non-commission services. Zenefits launched its own payroll service, so its non-commission revenue will continue to climb. Zenefits may not be valued at $4.5 billion any more, but it is still valued at more than $2 billion. And while no CEO is happy when a serious investor marks down his company by nearly 50%, Conrad says Zenefits won’t be out raising money anytime soon. As a practical matter, the impact of the devaluation on Zenefits is minimal.

In short, Zenefits is sticking around.

But I predict Zenefits is in for a rough time. Direct competitors like Namely and Gusto are raising money and stepping up. Community-based brokers are increasingly leveraging technology. (Full disclosure: Im co-founder of the company launching NextAgency, software that will help brokers level the playing field against Zenefits, so I’m delighted to point out this trend.)

While new initiatives like the payroll offering will create revenue streams for Zenefits, they also carry significant risk. Current partners will view Zenefits as a potential competitor. Management will be distracted from the company’s core business. New skills and expertise need to be acquired. There’s something to be said for focus, and Zenefits may be losing its.

Schadenfreude is German for deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others. That Zenefits’ current problems generate this impulse in the brokers they’ve insulted should surprise no one. That Zenefits will face challenges, problems and setbacks moving forward is inevitable. That community-based brokers should continue to take the threat Zenefits represents seriously is wise.

The Dangers Lurking for Health Insurers

Heathcare is changing, creating opportunities but also dangers. Here is where healthcare is changing and why you should care in the insurance industry.

Providers. The physician you once saw and had a relationship with is now maybe a physician assistant or a nurse practitioner. Healthcare has turned care over to “mid-levels” and concentrated physician time on revenue-intense practice like surgeries or high relative-value-unit (RVU) patients such as elderly, as a reaction to the pressure on revenue and proliferation of data, The coding needs to be high for a patient to get physican attention, and the low coders, the healthy, are attended by mid-levels.

A mid-level is paid only a fraction of a physician. Makes sense? Expect care to reflect the nuance of matching. The result will be variation in diagnoses in health benefit insurance and workers’ compensation.

Isn’t there better data now? Yes, but who has time as a caregiver to be giving it thought? The ACA has driven more people to buy insurance, but that means less time per office interaction. Hospitals have bought physician practices, which now face new effectiveness expectations such as referral level and relative value unit per caregiver.

Caregivers are under enormous pressure to produce at your expense. Who can question “do no harm”?

Insurance industry. If you are a medical malpractice insurer, how does higher-deductible health insurance affect you? How does higher premium for health insurance mean you are at higher risk in offering medical malpractice? Can data be working against you?

The onus of care is now on the patient, and the patient is relying on engagement and education from anywhere it can be found. Google and the Mayo Clinic have teamed up to help by presenting search results verified by suitable medical communities, but the patient is on her own under the direction of a healthcare practice that is inundated with new patients and lots of data she can’t get to. And don’t forget that the attention is now being guided away from your physician. The standard of care has not changed, but the frequency of visits has lowered, and the time for every visit has decreased. Less care, too much data, too much patient expense and the same expectations of medical care. Not a picture of profit in medical malpractice. Maybe time to raise the price?

Workers’ compensation will get hit with increase in frequency and severity as care is slid to less dependable providers. You get what you pay for. One miss is worth a thousand hits in health. Providers are seeing patients too briefly to be always trusted, and the data…the providers are not even looking at the data. They are too busy plugging in data to appropriately spend effort on what it means.

General liability is a scarier risk as more patients mean more chaos and more visitors to the facilities. Who is watching security when the waiting room is packed up? Who is shoveling the lot? By the way, a patient fall is either medical malp-practice or general liability. Forget the $1,200 annual GL premium. Think $2,000.

Cyber liability is a huge concern as hackers get more sophisticated and the stakes in stolen health profile skyrocket.

Insurers can be venture capital. VC has figured out that there is a ton of money in health, but do they know much about health and what it does for insurers? Aetna’s CarePass was a great idea that needs to go on. Insurers should get on board with funding innovation. The VC money is slow. Technology is a VC specialty, yet health desperately needs people in play who know health. Physicians generally are not greatly interested in innovation. A tremendous opportunity is here for insurance companies to innovate with technology. Silicon Valley and insurance could team up and solve lots of issues. Now that it Google is out there, it is a great innovator in insurance. The opportunity is to bridge technology and insurance acumen. But VCs like to invest in people they know, like technology folks, so a gap indeed exists. Just saying.

Patients. High deductibles and high premiums for health insurance, combined with busy caregiving and new technology to grasp, mean the patient has a place at the healthcare table, finally, but no one to help much. It is up to the patient to take care of the patient. And your caregiver is very busy now that everyone has some kind of insurance. What a time to be finally given a place at the table.

How long of a visit does a patient get with his provider? Is it enough to rightly ascertain what is going on with a patient? Is surgery really the solution? Does chiropractic seem all that bad, Mr. Insurer? Does the caregiver get managed by how many referrals it proffers? Does the patient need to call the caregiver every time there is a stuffy head? Waiting rooms are filled, and time with the caregiver is down. Having a place at the table should mean more.

Innovators. Lots of techies are going after health care. Do they know healthcare? Not as much as you would hope. The right approach is to find innovators who get insurance and health and then parse technology. Not the other way around. Innovators look for faster capital and more knowledgeable partnership.

Make the data personalized and simple, as even caregivers cannot find time to analyze data. Health has a consumer face today, and lots of people looking for care guidance. The consumers want it simple and mobile. Anybody think insurance could be an available partnership candidate?

Healthcare vertical recombination is a major opportunity in insurance. Are you ready to lead?

The 3 Ways to Customer Retention

While life insurance used to be one of many Americans’ most important financial assets, a host of changes—economic, social and cultural—have caused it to become a lower priority. Customers’ top two reasons: that life insurance is too expensive, and that they have other financial priorities.

Given the difficulty of acquiring new customers, it is imperative for carriers to focus on retaining existing ones. In fact, small increases in retention can translate to large revenue growth, and the payoff can be substantial.

Reaping the benefits of a thoughtful customer retention program requires a long-term vision. Carriers should consider the potential lifetime value of a customer (and the products he is likely to buy) that will allow a carrier to increase profitability—today and in the future.

LexisNexis recommends three steps on the road to an effective customer retention program:

  • Acquire customers with retention in mind
  • Develop a customer-focused communications agenda
  • Understand the customer experience
  1. Acquire customers with retention in mind

Effective customer retention begins with targeted acquisition. Carriers must understand their own capabilities, risk appetite and services and acquire customers that they can serve well. The better a customer aligns with a carrier’s profile and preferred market spaces, the greater the likelihood she will stay.

Segmentation and predictive models are key. Solutions available in the market include:

  • Risk classification models to help carriers optimize leads and identify the most profitable prospects.
  • Lookalike models to help carriers understand the characteristics of their best customers and attract similar prospects.
  • Lifetime value models to identify the potential long-term return of a prospect—enabling a carrier to identify prospects with the greatest future potential for growth and loyalty.
  • Prospect persistency to help predict whether a prospect will lapse within a given time.

In short, successful retention efforts begin well before a customer is acquired.

  1. Develop a customer-focused communications agenda

Having done the legwork to acquire a suitable customer, carriers should ensure they have a strategy for strengthening the relationship. Each customer touch point is an opportunity to do so, and these touch points should be outlined in a customer-focused agenda and communication plan.

The customer agenda defines customer touch points, such as:

  • Onboarding process. The onboarding process can set the tone for the carrier-customer relationship. For example, customers might receive a welcome note with contact information in case of questions; where to learn more about protecting their life, health and other assets; how to set up a holistic financial protection plan; and more. Carriers can tailor these communications for individuals and reinforce the company’s brand, nurturing a conversation from the very start. These communications are usually separate from a carrier’s requirement to deliver legal policy documents, but this is not to say that the delivery of legally required documents has to be stiff or un-tailored. Every step of the process is an opportunity to nurture.
  • Annual reviews. Many customers are either unaware of or confused about coverage options, so annual reviews are an ideal opportunity for the carrier to stay in touch with each customer and offer risk management advice. Annual reviews also help position the carrier as an adviser, not just a service provider. In addition, carrier support for annual reviews can help a sales team stay on top of its customers’ life changes—while also positioning each salesperson as a reliable and trusted adviser.
  • Cross-selling opportunities. Based on their understanding of each customer, carriers can identify opportunities to cross-sell additional products, such as an annuity or supplemental health product. Carriers should also consider cross- or multi-product purchases within a household—for example, for an insured’s spouse, child or parent.
  • Payment reminders and opportunities for automatic payments. Payment and premium reminder notices can trigger customers to lapse or switch providers, so managing these communications is critical to retaining customers. In addition, automatic payments can make paying life insurance premiums effortless for customers, minimizing the chance that they will lapse.

Carriers should also ensure that they maintain continuity across all channels, synchronizing their market messages across all digital and traditional communications channels including websites, print and radio ads, social media, email and direct mail.

Traditionally, carriers have minimized communications with their customers, believing that reminders about life insurance are a reminder of that customer’s mortality as well as a budgetary expense. As such, retention strategies were more focused on conserving customers who had already decided to cancel their policies, typically by offering less coverage and lower premiums.

  1. Understand the customer experience

The customer agenda outlines when and how a carrier will communicate with its customers but does not address an individual customer’s unique needs. To better understand their customers and identify these needs, carriers should supplement their internal data with external data sources and predictive models. This is one area where the life industry has much experience and has often excelled, but carriers have not been consistent in their pursuit of data for deeper customer insights. Exacerbating the issue, new sales have been harder to win, prompting carriers to focus heavily on acquisition—to the detriment of understanding current customers’ needs.

The Internet and social media channels have changed the way that customers make purchases—and insurance is no exception. Rather than turn to a carrier or agent for advice, many customers now begin with online research. This research may include the carrier’s website, as well as comparison sites and online reviews. Increasingly, it also includes social media, which allows positive and negative experiences to be reported and shared. In general, these channels limit a carrier’s control over its brand and the customer experience.

To better understand each customer’s individual needs, and how he experiences a relationship with the carrier and agent, carriers can work with a data partner to:

  • Tap into third-party data sources to gain insight on a customer’s life changes. External data can help carriers identify customers whose insurance needs might change: For example, people often reevaluate their finances when they move or purchase a new home. Armed with up-to-date mover and homeowner information, carriers and agents can contact customers and advise them on ways to mitigate risk.
  • Verify whether an insured has appropriate coverage. Customers may experience life changes and not think to update their life insurance provider. Working with a data partner, carriers can obtain up-to-date, accurate and validated wealth and asset information—to be certain each insured has appropriate coverage and affordable premiums for their means, and to offer alternatives if otherwise.
  • Use models to determine the risk of a customer leaving. Market solutions are available that can help carriers predict the risk of a client leaving, so that carriers can take action before she leaves.

With data, analytics and predictive models, carriers can identify customers with changing insurance needs and life events and respond appropriately. An effective response will address a customer’s specific needs—and, in an ideal situation, will deliver a tailored message at the right time. In addition, market solutions can enable carriers to establish event alerts that deliver automatic messages at the right time. For example, a carrier could establish an automated event notification when customers apply for a new mortgage. An automated process could send each customer a note outlining tips for buying a home, while reinforcing the value of the life insurance the customer already holds, in helping to protect the home for the family. The communication would also remind customers to update their life insurance policy within a suggested time of a new home purchase to ensure they have adequate coverage.

Automation ensures that messages are delivered efficiently, effectively and through the appropriate channel. It can also support a more cooperative carrier-agent relationship, as carriers can direct customer retention efforts while still empowering agents to connect with customers. In addition, automation better assures carriers that they are providing a consistent experience. Following each automated message, the carrier or agent should follow up with the customer to reinforce the 1:1 messaging and strengthen the relationship.

In a continued low-interest rate environment, customer retention must be a priority for a carrier to thrive. Customer acquisition encompasses a host of carrier activities, from advertising and marketing, to on-boarding, underwriting and policy issue. In life insurance, it can take seven to eight years to recoup the acquisition costs for one customer. Bain has estimated that it is six to seven times more costly to acquire a new customer than to retain an existing one.