How Sun Life leverages digital, collaboration and innovation to improve customer experience in Asia

Olivia Minnock
|Jul 4|magazine36 min read

While insurance giant Sun Life is headquartered in Canada – the company’s commitment to digital transformation and innovation surpasses borders, and the exciting market of Asia is becoming an important region for developing new ways of working. Sun Life, which is present in seven markets across Asia – Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, with joint ventures in China, Malaysia and India sees Asia as a tech-savvy market with huge opportunities for growth, not just geographically, but also in terms of the innovation and services it offers. “Asia is an important growth engine for many global businesses now,” comments John Trotter, Head of E-Distribution and Fintech at Sun Life Asia.

Asia has several elements that come together to create a wealth of opportunity for a global insurer like Sun Life: a large and growing population, an emerging middle class, low insurance penetration across most countries, and a young demographic which is digitally savvy and used to leapfrogging technologies to take advantage of the very latest advancements. The company is highly enthusiastic about the region, and encourages the Asian businesses to drive their own developments for the local markets. “This is a really sensible approach,” comments Trotter. “Of course we share learnings across all our markets, but a one-size-fits-all model across countries rarely works – there are always local considerations that may mean something that works well in one country will not necessarily work in another: regulation, market maturity, culture etc.”

As the company embarks on an ambitious journey to digitise its overall operations, Head of Digital for Asia, Gavin Gollogley, adds that Asia is the perfect place to experiment. “From an innovation perspective, there is a sense that people typically look toward the US, but there is equally as much going on this side of the world, particularly in China and India.” Gollogley adds that Sun Life’s ‘client obsessed’ CEO, Dean Connor, has put a lot of focus on digital and data to drive Sun Life’s client strategy, actively encouraging our transformation agenda, and new ways of operating in some of the world’s fastest growing markets.

Focusing on Digital

Gollogley highlights that digital transformation is not simply a matter of technology advancement and application. “There’s a definite need to clearly articulate what digital is, and how it supports business strategy. It touches on many elements, some more transformational in nature than others. From building new business models, enhancing operational and value chain efficiency, and creating best in class experiences, to building a digital culture and mindset – all enabled by the latest technologies, data-driven insights, skillsets and talent. When you look at it through these lenses, it is a pretty large beast. As we are a traditional life insurer, with over 150 years of doing business, this requires taking transformation in bite size pieces.”

Sun Life Asia’s digitisation kicked off in earnest in early 2016. “We have made good progress across the region in advancing our Digital and Data & Analytics agenda,” says Gollogley. “The core focus has been on digitising our current processes, creating a data & analytics centre of excellence and embedding a digital friendly culture, with investment in upskilling our people with key digital skills.

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It’s important to understand how data, coupled with intelligent analytics, supports business needs” – Head of Digital, Sun Life Financial Asia, Gavin Gollogley

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The initial focus was on a three year road map, its objectives having largely been achieved in developing a ‘common core’ across all business units; including building an integrated customer engagement platform, developing a point of sales and productivity suite platform for advisors, improving our digital marketing and social media capability and creating a data analytics center of excellence.”

In 2019, Sun Life will further strengthen their digital foundations to push for differentiation. “There is a definite awareness that we need to be vigilant on areas like talent, structure and culture to achieve our goals,” Gollogley adds.

Growth through partnerships

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As part of the company’s digital transformation journey, Asia has also proved the perfect place to explore new digital distribution channels by collaborating with partners to enhance the experience for Sun Life’s clients – for example, the business has recently invested in startup Bowtie, which will be Hong Kong’s first purely digital insurer. “Sun Life has a proud history as a partnership business,” says Trotter, explaining that in order to reach new groups of customers who may not have access to Sun Life’s traditional channels, the business is experimenting with new forms of distribution through strategic partnerships. Currently, insurance penetration is around 3% on average across all Sun Life’s Asian markets, so as Gollogley puts it: “There’s a huge opportunity, a veritable ‘blue ocean’ out there to navigate and explore.”

Telecommunication companies such as Malaysia’s U-Mobile have become an interesting component of Sun Life’s growth plans. “We’re experimenting to see if we can sell insurance through non-traditional partnerships and ecosystems,” says Trotter, demonstrating Sun Life’s focus on pushing boundaries and extending its customer reach beyond traditional means. Additional telco partners already include Indonesia’s Telkomsel and Philippine’s Smart – both sector leaders in their respective countries with tens of millions of customers each. Sun Life has also recently formed another interesting partnership with one of Southeast Asia’s major e-commerce platforms, Lazada, which itself has over 50mn customers in the region. “It’s a really interesting new model for us,” says Trotter. “We’ve simplified insurance to the extent that we can almost put the products on a supermarket (eCommerce) ‘shelf’ and observe how consumers respond. At this stage it’s still an experiment, but a good example of how we’re thinking – we need to push the boundaries to reach new types of customer.”

Another element of the client-obsessed firm’s digital transformation journey is to offer products and solutions for those who may not be catered for by traditional insurance offerings. “We’re interested in helping increase the 3% penetration rate and appealing to new customers,” says Trotter. “We’re also very conscious about customer groups who may not have the same level of affluence or consistent income to afford our traditional products. We are redesigning our products in several markets to offer credibly priced on-demand value options. There are groups of consumers in Asia that don’t want to buy a 10-year insurance policy the first time they buy – they want to dip their toe in and try something more affordable and short term. We’re trying to deliver that for them.”

Connecting with the customer

In addition to getting the product right, it’s important to explore different avenues of bringing these products to the customer. “We’re trying to reach that niche of customers who can afford what we’re selling, value what we’re selling, and who want to get into the protection market at a price point they can afford.” Whilst advertising directly to such a vast landscape of consumers would prove costly, this is one area where e-commerce and telco partnerships have been vital. “People are interacting anyway, so that gives us a good opportunity to put products in front of people and test what works, what price point and coverage are right for them.”

Across its business lines, Sun Life has been quick to recognise and leverage the benefits of social media marketing across Asia, having garnered over 2.5mn followers on platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter. In doing so, the company makes up for its relatively small footprint in some markets with an amplified voice online. “Sun Life uses social media to reach out to people who don’t know the brand or understand the insurance need,” says Gollogley. “We’re using it for education and a lot of creative engagement supporting brand awareness and sponsorship. Social media and digital marketing in general is a way in which we can present who we are, and what our purpose is – and in equal measure, it is how we will be perceived by prospect and client alike.”

Though Facebook isn’t advertised as a customer service function, Asia’s well-known thirst for omnichannel and choice is reflected in the way many users engage with Sun Life via the platform. “Our clients are saying that’s the way they want to engage so we have to cater for this,” says Gollogley. “It’s the same with chatbot technology. We have a chatbot sitting in our Philippines Facebook page – but we also understand that’s not a channel of choice for everybody. Some people want to call us, some want to speak to their advisor, some want to go through email or through Facebook. We have to build an ecosystem that matches our customer needs and customer intent.”

Social media is instrumental for an organisation like Sun Life as it aims to engage with customers at different stages of the client journey in order to provide ongoing support from initial awareness to sustainable retention. Sun Life also uses celebrities, KOL and supports its advisors through social selling workshops. Here, content and context are king. Gollogley poses a key element of content marketing as a question: “How do we reach users who are unaware their needs may be met by a financial product, regardless of the brand?” With creativity, transparency and education highlighted as key, Sun Life has created ‘life moment’ frameworks which target human experiences – ‘Getting Married’, ‘Building a Family’ or ‘Enjoying Retirement’ – in order to show prospective clients how its products may help them at vital stages in their lives.

Leveraging data in client obsession

Along the path to purchase, awareness of the right products and services available to prospects and clients, and the experiences they receive, can be enhanced using the most vital resource available to businesses today – data. Organisations worldwide are leveraging as much information as they can to provide a more personalised, predictive and proactive service and Sun Life is no exception. Indeed, its centre for data & analytics aims to accelerate the capabilities and development of best practice around data and analytic solutions. The team works with Sun Life’s various business units to leverage machine learning and infrastructure development, and also draw conclusions on how data and analytics can be applied across client, distribution, operations and digital partnership.

“It’s important to understand how data, coupled with intelligent analytics, supports business needs,” comments Gollogley. “Recently, we’ve been leveraging data strategy workshops to develop a target state of how we maximise value from data assets – the outcome gives us the ability to develop a high-level data roadmap with new insights and use cases that reflect the organisation’s data and analytics maturity and business priority. These use cases can be offensive in nature, focusing on growing our business (for example, client engagement), or defensive, focusing on increasing efficiency to lower costs.”

The client experience is also digitised every step of the way in order to build and develop sustainable relationships. “Persistency is one example of how the application of insights from data can bring a lot of value,” explains Gollogley. “How do we deepen that relationship with the client so they don’t lapse their policy after a short period? After buying the policy, they’re still with us – not for six months, or six years, but for a whole lifetime of value, for them and their beneficiaries.” This year, the company is focusing on two particular areas: what Gollogley refers to as the first and last mile. “The first mile is the data piece: understanding what data we have and being able to access that in the most digestible format” explains Gollogley. “In addition, from an external perspective, what data can we get our hands on and what will bring true client outcomes?” The ‘last mile’ involves the business executing on insights. “There’s little point spending 80% of the time on modelling and analysis, and only 20% on the execution of the insights generated. What are those insights that have tangible business value? When our data scientists bring those insights back into the business, are they different than anticipated? If so, are we willing to execute on the results, and do we have the ability to do this at speed? This can be our formula for success.”

Data, just like all the other resources leveraged by Sun Life, always comes back to an obsession with clients – clients whose expectations are increasing every day. “The focus is on client experience: trying to understand the needs and behaviours,” Gollogley emphasises. “We know expectations are not set by insurance companies and banks, but by those companies with the large market caps – the Amazons, the Facebooks, the Googles. Our strategy is to deliver experiences that are proactive, predictive and personal. An example of this would be offering clients a ‘next best offer’ – matched to their current needs, life segment or mirroring what people ‘like them’ purchase. This is only possible through advanced analytics and targeted marketing. That’s the lens through which we try to match customer expectation, while supporting and fueling our advisor and partner ambitions.”

Innovation in an open landscape

As the financial landscape changes and develops, becoming ever more competitive with the advent of fintechs and insurtechs, Sun Life is focusing heavily on upskilling and innovation – on a global scale through its Ignite Studio in Toronto as well as regionally with the creation of an Innovation Hub in Asia and active participation in the fintech community. Trotter stresses these burgeoning, disruptive startups shouldn’t be seen as a threat, but as an opportunity to collaborate and innovate. “We’re very comfortable looking outside the business for solutions that we can’t build ourselves. That’s something we’ll do in terms of core technology as well as emerging technology. Collaboration is really where the industry is going and businesses that do well with this will have a much better chance than those that don’t.”

Run by Accenture, the Fintech Innovation Lab Asia Pacific runs annual 12-week mentorship programs for startups. Launched in 2014, companies which have utilised the lab have raised a total of US$288mn to date. Sun Life is one of the principal partners of the lab, alongside other global organisations such as HSBC and Goldman Sachs. Ignite, meanwhile, is Sun Life’s own centre for innovation which opened in 2017 to act as a ‘living lab’, advancing innovation and collaboration between employees.

Trotter also stresses that partnerships are often the best way to go to introduce innovation. “The idea that a startup could be a serious industry competitor is obviously unlikely – they understand that they need to partner with the incumbent in the industry, and likewise we as the incumbent understand these insurtechs have ideas that can accelerate our transformation. Whether that’s claims process, RPA, AI, facial recognition – they have specific talents and techniques we can leverage and vice-versa.”

A continuous journey

As finance and insurance continues to evolve, particularly in the exciting and fast-paced Asian markets, Sun Life is reaching out to new clients continuously, and adapting new experiences for its existing client base. “We’re only three years into our digital journey. It’s a story that’s going to continue, with perhaps a narrative that is challenging but exciting,” says Gollogley. “I expect the word ‘digital’ may be out of fashion in a few years’ time.” Gollogley goes back to the importance of talent: “Transformation itself will never cease, and will continue to rely heavily on people. Building a team, bringing in the right talent and capability is challenging, but it’s a challenge that the Sun Life team, and those at the forefront of the journey across the region are managing well. I read somewhere that digital transformation challenges the very concept of career paths and traditional job profiles, with the agility and innovative capacity of organisations resting on the diversity of experience of those who comprise it. I believe this sums up pretty well the challenges before us on talent hiring, retention and increasing capabilities, in today’s environment.

“At Sun Life, we’ve been fortunate to hire some brilliant individuals across the region. We constantly learn from each other, and there is a real sense of purpose, co-creation and collaboration for our mission. As a whole, Sun Life is a great place to work, a friendly and encouraging environment, with a great culture.

“We know Digital is no longer an alternative: it must be viewed as core and the new way of doing or providing ease of business. Sun Life is well positioned to accept, prepare and embrace this disruptive and chaning world.”

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