“Our mission is to help customers protect their world and build their dreams,” says DJ De Villiers, CIO of AXA Singapore.
“You might be trying to protect your health and wealth but also live a certain lifestyle, save for education or retirement or buy a house, dreams you have for your future. That’s what we help people do, our core business is risk, helping people understand and navigate risk.”
A current trend across the financial services industry is simplification and data transformation and this is something that De Villiers recognises - customers across all industries are much more in control.
De Villiers points to Uber as the perfect example, where the power has shifted completely from the taxi drivers and into the hands of the passengers.
“In order to stay relevant and competitive it is essential, as a matter of survival, for large established financial services firms like AXA to get out of our comfort zone and go out there and meet our customers and give them what they want at their fingertips, which is what customers expect today,” says De Villiers.
“Customers are much more knowledgeable of the products available and everything is more accessible. They want more relevant services and products and they are not willing to wait for them anymore.”
New challengers in the market
Bringing AXA’s services and products closer to the customer is the driving force behind the company wide transformation, but there are both internal and external factors that brought upon change – namely, new entrants.
“The rise of new entrants in insurance space has applied pressure where we’ve recognised that there are more and more smaller companies now starting to come into the space. I think in the past there were very big barriers for entrants,” says De Villiers.
“What’s been happening is with the rise of technology companies on the internet, specifically about Fintech those barriers are much lower. They may not require as much capital; they can more rapidly get a very big distribution footprint. So the only thing they really need is an understanding of insurance products and risk. Those companies come with a better understanding of what customers want and how to have a good customer experience.”
With an easier pathway into the market for new entrants, how does a company like AXA stay ahead of the game to remain the number one insurance brand worldwide?
“As a company, every year we identify the priorities and things we’d like to do for our customers and our distributors. There were already a number of initiatives that we had launched that had something to do with customer centricity, digitisation and simplifying our products,” says De Villiers.
“I think the digital transformation is really the coherent umbrella, that ties all of the initiatives together with specific outcomes and specific timeframes.”
A culture of change
Undergoing a digital transformation process brings with it certain challenges, and changing the ways of working throughout the whole company is no easy process.
“Internally, cultural change is very important,” explains De Villiers. “We’ve got a lot of people who have been working here for a long time that have certain ways of working and it takes a lot of work to get all of those people thinking outside-in from the customer’s perspective, as opposed to inside-out from the insurer’s perspective. They’ve been working a certain way for 30 years, what we are trying to do now is put the customer at the centre of what we do.
“We are approaching problems from a whole new angle and that takes a lot of patience and a lot of encouragement. It’s very important to us an employer that we are attractive and relevant for the younger generation. We want smart bright energetic young people to come and work for us, so we need to have a balance in our workforce between the people with years of insurance experience but we need those smart tech-savvy people to work hand in hand with our existing workforce.”
Cultural change involves the people, but another challenge which presents itself is the use of legacy systems. Historically, AXA Singapore has followed the concept of core IT – big complex systems.
De Villiers concedes that these legacy systems slow down the process of getting products to market.
“Large and complex core IT systems for financial institutions need to be very stable and well governed,” he says. “This slows us down with regards to taking things to market, but it is necessary to maintain stability. The challenge is balancing that with the need to be more agile and flexible.
“The closer we are working to the customer and the distributor the more flexible and agile we need to be.”
Technology: power at the fingertips
Moving the business closer to the customer and responding to the increasing demands placed on the business through innovation and technology has seen businesses make the move to mobile and tablet devices.
“Banks went through the process years ago of moving out of the branch and closer to the customers, through online and particularly mobile phones. In a way they are ahead of insurers,” says De Villiers.
“It’s the same with insurers, we need to move closer to customers and distributors in terms of the services that we are providing – being right there when needed on the device that they want.”
AXA is already in the mobile app market, but De Villiers believes that there is soon to be too many mobile apps. This is where AXA is streamlining its apps into one place.
“It’s not always clear which apps customers need and where to go when they need certain services,” he adds. “Part of what we are doing is bringing it all together, instead of 10-20 apps with different user experiences we will have one app and one experience. Leveraging what we have built into one place, putting together a more integrated customer experience around it.”
Recruiting the right people
Moving forward, it is the recruitment of those smart young technology focused people that is crucial to the success of the business, believes De Villiers.
He says: “When I am interviewing people to join my team I always ask ‘When was the last time you learned a new technology?’
“As an IT professional it’s a given that you have to stay current and I don’t think you can work somewhere and expect people to spoon feed you the new stuff. As a matter of survival, you have an obligation to yourself to stay up to date, research, and read. A lot of IT people are where they are by looking for training opportunities and educating themselves continuously.”
Recruiting the right people is a representation of the wider AXA brand. As the number one insurance provider in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands, the AXA brand is built on trust.
“We have a strong brand, both externally and internally. Customers and partners believe our vision and are keen to work with us. Perhaps more importantly, the brand is very strong internally. Myself, my team, people who work within the company believe in that vision and go the extra mile to serve customers,” concludes De Villiers.