AXA Life Japan: Technological innovation in Japan’s insurance industry

AXA Life Japan: Technological innovation in Japan’s insurance industry

In the ever-evolving world of financial services and insurance, technology continues to steer the industry in new and often unprecedented directions. How a company embraces this rapidly expanding marketplace is a task facing many all over the world. For AXA, providing insurance and asset management services for more than 30 years, innovation has been and will always remain firmly at the heart of everything the company does.  It is a core value to the business and has played a crucial role in establishing AXA as a global leader in insurance and asset management.

In June 2016, the company announced its Ambition 2020 strategic plan as it looks to continue to meet and exceed its customers’ rapidly evolving needs and grow in a challenging economic climate. The bottom line of this transformation is simple: to further its growth and accelerate its transformation to best serve its expansive customer base.

“The defining factor of our ambition is to be better at helping our customers by providing greater power to them in order for them to live a better life,” says Hervé Le Hen, Chief Operating Officer (COO) at AXA Life Japan.  “Particularly here in Japan, we want to become customer vigilant, thus leading this ambition to become a facilitator for our customers, leveraging both human interaction and technology.”

Having worked with AXA for over 20 years, both in France and in Japan, Le Hen has seen first-hand the transformative and truly disruptive role that technology has played in the insurance space. Most importantly, he has learned how companies have to react in order to continue to deliver and exceed what is expected of a modern-day insurance provider. He feels that technology has started and will completely redefine the insurance and asset management industry, and that it is important for AXA to understand and combine the best of both worlds –human interaction for the emotional connection coupled with technological innovation to provide convenient and consistent services.

As a company that has always placed innovation firmly in its strategy, AXA has very much always placed a great deal of time and investment into its IT and technology capabilities. But as Le Hen notes, with the pace of change across the industry even AXA has had to redefine its own IT infrastructure.

“Industry wide, IT was still perceived as simply a cost centre. We have to immerse and invest in IT, because that's how we run our own business,” he says. “Traditionally there has been product development and service to customers, two separate elements that were never truly aligned. This is what needed to change.”

In order to drive innovation, part of AXA’s ambition will see the company look internally within the business and reassess where more investments and greater efficiencies can unlock further value as the company grows. “We want to become a tech-led company and a data-driven company and so IT has had to take a seat at the table because without it, it would be very difficult to drive any form of transformation,” says Le Hen.

Such a seismic shift in the perception and valuation of IT is felt industry wide and in order to fully embrace and harness this, communication and collaboration will be essential. After all, for some this shift is tearing up the traditional ways of working, which in itself can cause a challenge.

This is where AXA looks within to internalise, develop and reward key expertise within the business. “This is especially true regarding new technologies, but we also look and examine our capabilities to better understand our business and drive transformation,” says Le Hen. “This requires a new operating model and for us to adopt a more agile business mindset to leverage technology and to drive innovation.”

As it moves away from its traditional function as a mere cost centre, now better enabled by a new, agile operating model, AXA’s IT role now operates alongside distribution, marketing, finance, HR, compliance and customer service as one unified service in order to deliver the most efficient and optimal solution.

“In order to achieve that we have to educate our business partners and help them to fully understand how and why technology is transforming the world we and our customers live in, the market we operate in and how it is transforming our competitors,” says Le Hen. “Once they can understand how we can better leverage technology to continue to grow and better serve our customers, then we can challenge the way we work even more, which in the long run will allow us to become more efficient as one unified team.”

Since its very first day, AXA has provided only the very best service as well as insurance and asset management products to its customers. The insurance customer of today is not the same as that of 30 years ago. With the incredible growth of technology and the disruptive effect it will continue to have on all areas of life, customers of today have more access to information than ever before. This, Le Hen feels, creates a whole new level of demand particularly in a challenging environment with prolonged low interest rates and an increasingly aging population.

“The insurance customer first and foremost wants to know that their life is protected, and their insurance will still be there when they need it the most,” says Le Hen. “They are looking for value for money and are more empowered through technology, meaning they search for and have access to more information. They are more aware and more informed and so we have to be responsive to that.”

He describes this modern customer environment as the digital reality, one that is defined by greater customer experimentation, whether they are purchasing insurance products or booking a hotel. To this end, AXA must provide the same level of convenience and ease of access that customers expect.

This in itself presents a key challenge for the company – how can it develop and deliver new technology products and services to a market such as Japan that is still finding the balance between technological innovation and face to face interaction? “In Japan, there is still a huge demand for face to face interaction in insurance and that goes back to the whole trust element,” says Le Hen. “We are providing online channels and a call centre operation, but we are doing so in a more agile way that is responsive and listens to the customer. It’s a key part of our transformation in Japan, allowing the customer to decide which access point they ultimately want to use.”

AXA achieves this through an industry first approach. The company works with a provider of transaction-based reviews and ratings called Transparent Customer Feedback (TCF) that works with some of the largest companies in the world. AXA Life Japan is the very first insurance company in the country to proudly display its customers’ rating on its website.

For Le Hen, this is one of the most important elements in developing trust with AXA’s customers. “It’s about transparency. We disclose it on our website so that customers can see how we are performing and more importantly they can see how we are responding to their feedback and complaints,” he says. “We have a duty in insurance and we have a core value as a company, which is customer first at the very beginning of all of our decision making actions.”

With the transformative nature of technology and more and more companies playing catch up, it can be easy to fall victim to just investing in technology for the sake of investing in technology. After all, nobody wants to be left behind. The industry is awash with current technology buzzwords like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data and cloud services, but what can a company like AXA do to ensure its technology investments have a clear business case behind them?

“The idea is to be able to focus on value and move quickly, but to be able to stop quickly too,” says Le Hen. “It’s part of the agile operating model we have designed and put in place. I challenge my team to come to me with ideas, to pilot these ideas and understand that if they don’t work then we need to be able to stop and not disrupt the business and our service to the customers, but if they work we also have to scale-up quickly.”

Le Hen’s core remit centres around modernising AXA Life Japan’s legacy infrastructure and systems. These he feels are the company’s greatest assets, and so he and his team work to provide flexibility around this infrastructure in order to open it up to new technologies and platforms. AXA Life Japan works with  cloud service vendors as it migrates its core IT to private and managed public cloud services, enabling the company to access and implement data analytics and data mining tools in order to disrupt and bring business innovation through greater efficiency.

“We are also utilising Robotic Process Automation (RPA) software as well as chatbots and machine learning to automate and straight through process our operations” he says. “Ultimately, we look at ways in which we can improve our cycle time, save costs, achieve more with less and reinvest to improve the customer’s experience with AXA.”

Digital transformation and digitisation require a strong and robust network of vendors and partners that can guide and support AXA as it navigates the ever-changing landscape of technological innovation. Le Hen acknowledges this but is keen to stress that AXA approaches partner relationships with a long-term mentality. “Vendors are often used for their specific capabilities for a specific purpose and period of time,” he says. “Partners are different because it’s about the long-term value chain we build together. You share capabilities and risks.

“We want partners with the same beliefs and dynamics. That’s what forms a strong chain. We develop and we grow together. This is key to identifying opportunities for growth.  You win, you lose, but you do it together and that’s a win-win model overall.”

The financial industry has already changed significantly, and if it continues to evolve as rapidly as it has done over recent years, then the innovation of today may very well be usurped by the innovation of tomorrow faster than ever before. Le Hen knows that AXA must continue to ready itself for the future and wherever possible, predict the unpredictable to continue to provide the best service for its customer base.

“It’s all about the customers. We want to develop innovative products and services which meet with that changing customer needs,” he says. “IT will continue to be challenged on its flexibility and how quickly we can bring products and services to market. We need to continue to challenge ourselves to be quicker and be more responsible and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow.”

Herve Le Hen