CO-WRITTEN / PARTNER | Staff Reporter, Singapore

What does the 'new normal' look for the insurance sector?

Insurance Asia's first-ever virtual conference tries to answer the question.

The insurance industry now has to grapple with the full-year implications of the coronavirus pandemic which will definitely spill over into 2021. Digitisation and innovation have taken precedence as insurers adjust to shifting demands and widespread lockdown measures. With the chaotic and fraught 2020 coming to a close, how should the industry respond to the uncertainties in the operating environment, and what should firms do to avoid backsliding into old habits?

The recent and first-ever Insurance Asia Virtual Conference last 2 December attracted 107 attendees, with six panelists sharing their coping measures and contingency plans with regards to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has tested the agility of insurers, according to KPMG Asia Pacific head of insurance Erik Bleekrode, as they grappled with remote working conditions and the surging need for speedy claims, digital transformation, and customer interaction. The recovery in certain markets has shown that insurers with better digitised environments were able to increase their sales quickly, he noted.

Bleekrode noted five trends that emerged from insurers amidst the pandemic: acceleration of digitalisation, the importance of people, the power of innovation, climate change and purpose, and the CFO agenda. In terms of digitisation, he believes that the role of distribution in Asia is going to change with the uptick in direct to consumer sales, which will require significant and rapid upgrades especially in personal insurance. As with pricing, the pandemic has altered the perception on traditional exposures. “Commercial coverages need to be rethought,” he said.

Brokers must also realise the need to digitise and must do so in conjunction with insurers, he asserted.

The crisis has also presented the sector a chance to push for more solutions linked with healthcare and life insurance coverage. “This is an opportunity to speed up our way of serving our customers and be more efficient,” AXA Mandiri Financial Services president director & CEO Handojo G. Kusuma shared.

In a difficult time like this, going digital has evolved from being a mere option into a must, as it allows insurers to learn more about their customers and provide services catered to their lifestyle and behaviour, he argued.

And whilst a negative growth forecast is still on the horizon, Bangkok Insurance PCL CEO Apisit Anantanatarat is hopeful about the positive effect of the 12.2% growth they recorded in the first nine months of 2020. Aside from releasing more micro insurance products and retrofitting existing plans to include emerging diseases and mental health, they are also looking into fulfilling new client demands, such as value-added services and internal process enhancements.

The digitalisation of the sector has certainly raised the general awareness towards insurance, said Allianz Life Indonesia country manager & president director Joos Louwerier said. “In customer experience (CX), our customers can choose very easy ways of becoming acquainted with insurance. In the markets that we work with, awareness is still a big issue. So we can penetrate much more into other segments of the industry.”

But he argued that insurers should not neglect other “experiences”, namely those of distributors (DX) and employees (EX), using digitally-enabled sales as an example. He highlighted Allianz Life’s ability to reduce its onboarding process to five minutes and utilising tablet solutions.

“When the pandemic hit, this helped us a lot, and we worked with the regulator and with the association here in Indonesia to allow remote and virtual sales instead of face to face sales which is very hard for our agents.”

Coming from this, Manulife Philippines president & CEO Richard Bates emphasised the importance of staying in contact not just with clients, but also with agents and staff. He said that the webinars that they have been holding -- whether for financial advice, starting a business, or about health -- go beyond commercial needs.

“Staying in contact is absolutely essential in terms of making sure that customers understand and have access to information,” he said.

And now that the sector as a whole has been making enormous strides in digitisation, it is now up to insurers to make sure that they will not go back to old habits, noted Prudential BSN Takaful Berhad CEO Wan Saifulrizal.

“We need to resist the temptation of regressing and unwinding a lot of the good work that has been done. We actually see some of these elements creeping in our business again as things get a bit more relaxed.”

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