Manulife: Transforming through customer-centric innovation

Matt High
|May 18|magazine17 min read

“Transformation isn’t simply about applying new technology,” says Kevin Kwon, Chief Operating Officer at financial services company Manulife Vietnam. “Technology, of course, is a major enabler of any transformation, but it’s more about shifting people’s mindsets so that you make change and innovation the new normal. That’s when transformation can become really powerful.”

Since joining Manulife, a Canadian life insurance company that operates in North America and 12 markets across Asia, transformation has been Kwon’s focus. It’s also been the focus of Manulife globally, with the company on a mission to transform itself and the industry in the process.

Driving this transformation is Manulife’s focus on improving the customer experience, an embrace of digital innovation and operational efficiency, and building an internal culture that drives this change. At the heart of this transformation is a focus on making decisions easier and lives better for both customers and employees.

Based out of Vietnam, Kwon embarked on his own digital and cultural transformation, driven by a shift in focus from conventional methods of doing business – which he describes as manual and involving “paperwork from end to end” – to a seamless digital customer experience.

Creating that experience has been a significant journey for the company, as Kwon explains. “In the past, life insurance has seen a lack of automation and digital technologies, which really sharpened our shift in direction. At the same time, if you’re going to make such a large digital transformation, you have to do it right. The most important step, from a technology point of view, was establishing a target architecture that enables a seamless data flow from one end to another and provides our customers with a full end-to-end solution. All the time we were driven by improving the customer experience.

“One of the unique things about our story is that there is this technology piece that’s focused on innovation, but there is also a wider change management story whereby our mindset has to be in line with the evolving needs of our customers; the two feed each other.” On the technology side, creating a simple and intuitive process was key. “In the past, agents would receive paper-based applications, enter our branches and stand in long queues while their policy was processed. We process close to 30,000 new business applications per month, so the first priority for us was the development of an auto-underwriting engine in the back end. This was followed by building the front end to allow our advisors to essentially digitise all the information that was previously on paper forms. On the claims and auto-adjudication sides, we followed a similar approach.”

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These developments are, Kwon says, “major accomplishments” that have significantly improved the customer experience and placed the company in a leading position in the Asian market. “I can confidently say that we are leading in this race,” he says. “So many companies say they’re embarking on a digital transformation, but really they are introducing a series of solutions one at a time rather than having the target architecture that allows a seamless sharing of information through a connected ecosystem. An end-to-end solution really is key here, many organisations only develop a front or back end solution so that they still have employees working between the two on a manual basis – that is not a ‘digital transformation’.”

A significant factor in this success, Kwon states, is working with partners throughout the development stage. “It’s all about partnership. We can’t do everything, and neither can they,” he explains, “but when we work together with partners who share our values and our competencies, we are on the same journey. The other advantage we had was that our solutions were developed in our regional headquarters and rolled out across Asia, allowing for a lift and shift approach. This offered greater economies of scale and made it easier and faster for us to go to market.”

For Kwon, implementing such a transition has only been possible due to a significant cultural shift within Manulife. This change has been driven by a new set of corporate values designed to improving how employees think, act and work. “We truly believe culture can be a distinct competitive advantage for us, which is why Manulife made the strategic decision to refresh its values and focus on building a new culture.

He has been in his current role for two years and has also focused heavily on developing the right mindset to accompany change. “Everything we do starts from customer journey mapping,” he explains. “We never second guess what they want; it is our job to know their needs. That process isn’t a one-off exercise, but a constant evolution based around a concept we call ‘customer experience transformation’.”

This, he says, has involved the realigning of teams within the business so that they are in line with customer requirements across four major segments: search, buy, manage and review, and claims. “Every value stream has its owner, and every owner has full autonomy to decide on how best they can improve customer experiences using the tools that we are giving them,” Kwon notes. “They have the right to prioritise, to see how we can enhance those digital tools and create a better customer journey.”

The unintended positive from such an approach has been a significant uplift in working culture at Manulife. For example, improving the methods by which customers are served, and optimising efficiency in the company’s solutions, creates a better work/life balance for Manulife’s employees. And, because they no longer need to spend as long working through endless paper trails, employees can be deployed to new areas or roles, and thereby add greater value in the workplace.

“It is a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity,” Kwon states. “As a result of our digital transformation, we are working with our training academy to offer better career paths, to provide opportunities to upskill and retrain, and to be successful within Manulife, all while improving the experience for our customers. Often, people think a digital transformation is simply about reducing costs or streamlining. There are far greater benefits than that”.

With the fundamental building blocks of Manulife’s transformation now in place, Kwon hopes to continue to focus on managing change for the foreseeable future. It is, he says, an ongoing process that involves: “making sure we have the right training programmes in place, that we have the right content and are communicating it in the most effective manner. It’s a journey that never stops, but our ultimate bold ambition is to transform and become the most digital customer-centric market leader in our industry.

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