Tag Archives: the innovator’s dilemma

InsurTech Can Help Fix Drop in Life Insurance

No one disputes that life insurance ownership in the U.S. has been on the decline for decades.

The question up for debate is what to do about it.

The emergence of an insurtech sector is an indicator of entrepreneur and investor confidence in upside potential. The hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into technology by carriers is another.

See Also: Key to Understanding InsurTech

But before piles of capital are poured into attempts to capture the opportunity, investors and legacy insurers should reflect on the root causes of this seemingly unstoppable trend and prioritize innovations that aim at solving the biggest issues:

  • Carriers have evolved, through their own cumulative behavior over decades, away from serving the needs of the majority of Americans to meeting the needs of a shrinking, high-net-worth population
  • A declining pool of independent agents are chasing bigger policies within this segment
  • The industry has, effectively, painted itself into a corner and is trapped in a business model that, given its own complexity, is difficult to change from within

How have carriers painted themselves into a corner? 

Carriers face what Clayton Christensen termed, in his 1997 classic, “the innovator’s dilemma.” While continuing to do what they do brings carriers closer to mass-market irrelevance, today’s practices, products, processes and policies don’t change. They deliver near-term financials and maintain alignment with regulatory requirements.

It’s worth acknowledging how the carriers have ended up in this spiral, particularly the top 20, which collectively control more than 65% market share, according to A.M Best via Nerdwallet.

  • Disbanding of captive agent networks for cost reasons has also meant the loss of a (more) loyal distribution channel. The carriers that used to maintain captive agent networks enjoyed the benefits of a branded channel whose agents were motivated to promote the respective carrier’s products. They chose instead to …
  • Shift to third-party distribution, increasing dependency on a channel with less control, and where they face greater risk of commoditization. Placing life insurance products in a broad array of third-party channels, including everything from wealth management firms to brokerages and property/casualty networks, has added complexity and increased emphasis on managing mediated, non-digital channels. This focus comes at a time when other sectors are accelerating the move to direct, digital selling, aligning with changing demographics, technology trends and consumer preferences for digital-first, multi-channel relationships.
  • Product cost and complexity has raised the bar to close sales and has increased the focus on a smaller base of the wealthy and ultra-wealthy. With the exception of basic term life, life insurance products can be complex. They can be expensive. And, as a decent level of insurance at a fair premium requires a medical exam including blood and urine sampling, it takes hand holding to get potential policyholders through the purchase process. For the high and ultra-high net worth segments, the benefit of life insurance is often as a tax shelter, not simply to protect loved ones from the catastrophic consequences of unexpected earnings loss. More complexity equals more diversion from the mass market.
  • Intense focus on distribution has come at the expense of connecting with the client. Insurance company executives have long insisted – and behaved as though — the agent is the client, if not in word then effectively in deed. The model perpetuated by the industry delegates the client relationship to the agent. This has its plusses and minuses for the client, and certainly has come back to bite the carriers as they contemplate a digital approach to the marketplace where client data and a branded relationship matter. Carriers certainly do not win fans with clients – overall Net Promoter Score ratings for the insurance sector broadly are even lower than Congress’ approval ratings, and for at least one major carrier are reportedly negative.
  • The number of licensed agents is on the decline. The average age of an insurance agent or broker has increased from 37 years in 1983 and is now 59, based on McKinsey research. Agents have a poor survival rate: only 15% of agents who start on the independent agent career path are still in the game four years later. Base salary is negligible, and it’s an eat-what-you-kill business. This is a tough, impractical career path for most and has become less attractive over time.
  • The industry is legendarily slow and risk-averse. Think about actuaries – the function that anchors the business model makes a living by looking backward and surfacing what can go wrong. That is a valid role, but the antithesis of what it takes to build a culture where innovation can thrive.

What is the path to opportunity?

Here are innovation thought-starters to create value for an industry undergoing transformation:

  • Clients must be at the center of strategy. Twentieth-century carrier strategy may have been grounded in creating distribution advantage and pushing product, but 21st century success will come to those who put the client at the center of all aspects of execution. “Client centricity” is a way of operating a business, not a slogan.
  • Innovation starts with a new answer to the question, “who is the customer.” The agent is a valuable partner, but she is not the client. There is white space in the mass market – the middle class – not being served by the current system beyond a limited offering. Life insurance ownership has been linked to the stability of the middle class. We should all be concerned with the decline in life insurance ownership and lack of attention paid to this segment.
  • The orthodoxy, “insurance is sold not bought,” sets a self-inflicted set of limitations that can and should be disrupted. The existing product set may have to be pushed to clients because of its complexity, pricing, target audience, channels and near-term performance dependencies.
  • Getting the economics right and meeting the needs of today’s clients will demand a digital-first offering – from being discoverable via SEO and social on mobile screens, to supporting application processing, self-service, premium payments, document storage and downloads and connection to licensed reps whenever clients feel that is necessary. It will require full digital enablement of agents to create the right client experience, and improve revenues and expenses. Ask anyone who has purchased life insurance about his or her decision journey, and invariably you will find out that shopping for insurance is a social, multi-channel experience. People ask people whom they like and trust when it comes to making important life event-based decisions. Aligning to how people behave already is a winning approach, and is what customer-centricity is about.
  • In a world of big data, it’s ironic that the insurance sector is one of the most sophisticated in its historical use of data. Winners will realize the potential of new data sources, unstructured data, artificial intelligence and the many other manifestations of big data to personalize underwriting, anticipate client needs and create positive experiences including multi-channel distribution and servicing. Amazon, Apple and Google have set the standard on what is possible in customer experience, and no one will be exempt from that standard.
  • Life insurance products may be an infrequent purchase, but the need to protect one’s loved ones can be daily. In today’s product-push model, a continuing relationship beyond the annual policy renewal is the exception. Consider the potential of prevention services as a means of boosting lifetime value and client loyalty. In a world full of insecurity, there is a role for a continuing conversation about prevention and protection. But the conversation must be reimagined beyond pushing the next product to one that places a priority on serving the client.

Digital Disruption: Coming to P&C Soon?

My wife is a project manager who is responsible for business operations at our local high school. She hired some people this summer to process and distribute new textbooks within the school, but they hadn’t finished the job and school was about to open, so she needed someone to come in at the last minute and help get the work done. More specifically, someone who would follow her instructions and would not expect to get paid. . .  so I spent a long Saturday with her at the school, schlepping pallets and boxes of new textbooks to the classrooms, getting everything in place in time for the start of the new school year.

I wasn’t happy with the work (the school was hot, the textbooks heavy) and more than once I thought wistfully about Steve Jobs, who according to biographer Walter Isaacson had targeted the school textbook business as an “$8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction.” Targeting textbooks seemed like a good idea to me, because not only are they big and heavy and expensive — they don’t update easily, either.

Unfortunately, Jobs didn’t live long enough to disrupt the textbook industry, but others are on the same path and, selfishly, I wish them well! Check out The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook for an interesting look at how textbook publishers and software companies and educational institutions are jockeying for position as textbooks evolve into courseware. Also, As More Schools Embrace Tablets, Do Textbooks Have a Fighting Chance? takes a look at how the Los Angeles Unified School District — second largest school district in the country — is equipping students with iPads and delivering textbooks digitally in a partnership with giant book publisher Pearson.

Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, is credited with coming up with the term “disruptive innovation,” which he defined as: “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.”

These days, we tend to associate disruptive innovation with a new or improved product or service that surprises the market, especially established, industry-leading competitors and increases customer accessibility while lowering costs.The notion is appealing, and it makes for exciting business adventure tales featuring scrappy, innovative underdogs overcoming entrenched, clueless market leaders. Of course, disruptive innovation has been happening for a long time, even if it was called something else, but lately technology has made it easier and cheaper for upstart firms to take on industries they think are “ripe for digital destruction.”

There are some who think we’ve gone too far in adopting the disruption mantra. In her recent article The Disruption Machine, Harvard professor and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore squinted hard at disruption theory: “Ever since The Innovator’s Dilemma, everyone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars. This fall, the University of Southern California is opening a new program: ‘The degree is in disruption,’ the university announced.”

By the way, USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation is, in fact, opening this year and will focus on critical thinking with plans, according to the academy website, to “…empower the next generation of disruptors and professional thought leaders who will ply their skills in a global area.” And, yes, that is Dr. Dre’s name on the academy!

But there are others who believe we have now entered a decidedly more treacherous innovation environment, one that Josh Linkner in The Road to Reinvention says is forcing companies to systematically and continually challenge and reinvent themselves to survive. His fundamental question is this: “Will you disrupt, or be disrupted?” And Paul Nunes and Larry Downes, who wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review Magazine in 2013 titled Big Bang Disruption (they have a book on the same topic, summarized by Accenture here), warn of a new type of innovation that is more than disruptive — it’s devastating: “A Big Bang Disruptor is both better and cheaper from the moment of creation. Using new technologies…Big Bang Disruptors can destabilize mature industries in record time, leaving incumbents and their supply-chain partners dazed and devastated.”

Should CEOs be worried? When Mikhail Gorbachev visited Harvard in 2007 and said, “If you don’t move forward, sooner or later you begin to move backward,” he was talking about politics and multilateral nuclear treaties, not companies, but the warning certainly could have been directed at CEOs. That message, refreshed to incorporate the disruptive innovation threats that have emerged since then, seems a bit unsettling: If you run a company and you aren’t dedicating resources to continually scanning the marketplace for threats and improving and reinventing your business, if you are instead taking a “business as usual” approach, you are at risk of being marginalized or supplanted by competitors who will bring new products, services, experiences, efficiencies, cost structures and insights to your customers.

Maybe not this year, or next year, but sometime soon.  It’s not a question of whether it will happen, but when. Thus Linkner’s question, restated:  Will you disrupt yourself, or be disrupted by someone else?

Of course, some industries, like property casualty insurance, may not be high on anyone’s “ripe for digital destruction” list, so maybe there’s no need for insurance company CEOs to worry. Except perhaps about Google and Amazon. I keep thinking back to Blockbuster CEO Jim Keyes’ comments to The Motley Fool in 2008:  “Neither RedBox nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition.” You know the rest of the story, which illustrates the real-life consequences of an incumbent underestimating and then becoming “dazed and devastated” by a competitor.