Ameritas is striving to put the “life” back in life insurance. This week, Anthony speaks with Richard Wiedenbeck, CTTO of Ameritas on how their centuries-old institution puts innovation–and the customer’s wellbeing–at the forefront.
How does a 150-year old organization go from being “data rich and information poor”, to leading the technology transformation in the life insurance industry? This is Ameritas’ story–and Richard Wiedenbeck is currently leading the innovation charge for this century-and-a-half old institution.
Richard Wiedenbeck, CTTO of Ameritas, joins Anthony to talk about how he’s helping to lead their charge in digital transformation. Richard shares his insights on customer-focused technology adoption, how to begin your journey toward operational efficiency, and seeking out a “digitally enabled” workforce as they continue to grow.
Your customers are online-first–you should be innovating their digital experience
Your channel strategy should be focused on providing an easy on-ramp experience
Your workforce must be digitally enabled–are you creating an environment that entices them?
Richard Wiedenbeck is the Senior Vice President and Chief Technology & Transformation Officer at Ameritas. He is responsible for all technology enterprise wide and is a member of the executive management team helping to build the company’s vision and strategy. His responsibilities also include executive leadership for the Ameritas' journey to becoming a highly technology enabled and digital company, including our journey to becoming insight-driven company, customer focused, and channel effective.
Prior to joining Ameritas, Richard led the insurance division for two global software firms, was a global leader in Capgemini’s financial services practice, was the founder of a niche technology consulting company, and worked for major corporations such as TRW, Boeing, and RR Donnelley & Sons. Richard is an energetic executive with a track record of solid accomplishments in revenue generation, execution/operations, and creating high-performance teams. He has been a frequent speaker on the future of IT, future of work, and transformational programs. He was inducted into the CIO Hall of Fame in 2020.
Richard: I think we've got to lean into where our, customer expectations are moving towards where, products and solutions, the way they're being sold and the way they're being understood and the way they're being participated in over time.
And I think it's gonna dramatically change, uh, how we have to go do that. But I think the core of who we are, um, still holds. I'm Anthony O'Donnell editor of insurance innovation reporter, and this is life accelerated a podcast about digital transformation in the life insurance industry. Joining me on this episode is Richard Wiedenbeck, chief technology and transformation officer of Ameritas.
Richard is responsible for all technology enterprise wide and is a member of the executive management team executing the company's vision and stress. Richard is applying his vast industry experience on both the carrier and vendor side to help this 150 year old insurer become a truly digital and data-driven company in our conversation, he shares how Ameritas is working to become. Insight-driven how its technology initiatives are driving customer centricity and how the is working to attract digitally ready talent.
Here's how Ameritas is handling this time of transformation.
So this is a, this is a, an organization that's in the throes of transformation. It's an organization whose leadership recognizes the necessity of transformation. Now we typically talk about legacy in a pejorative way.
Anthony: Right. As in legacy core systems, but there's another meaning, which is not only positive, but we could even say precious Ameritas is 150 year old company. How do you balance conserving that legacy with the task of modernization?
the life insurance industry at its heart has this altruistic mission, uh, that I think we're trying to be true to. We're trying to find a way.back to that and closer to that mission of in, in our terms, fulfilling life. Um, and, and what does it mean to have a fulfilled life?
Richard: There's so many dimensions of that wellbeing that we're trying to connect back to, uh, in terms of that mission, uh, our challenge of course, is how do we make it easier to understand how do make it easier to buy? How do we make it easier to participate in the products and services that we provide? So I think, you know, that balance is coming in the.
How do we preserve this? What I would call core altruistic mission, which is positive and good. And I think there's a value to it with the way in which we're gonna have to go do that in the future. It, I think we've got to lean into where our, customer expectations are moving towards where, products and solutions, the way they're being sold and the way they're being understood and the way they're being participated in over time.
And I think it's gonna dramatically change, uh, how we have to go do that. But I think the core of who we are, um, still holds. I hope you believe that. I know you've been in this industry for a long, long time. So I, I think you're, you're an advocate of that core mission, a as well as, uh, as the industry is.
Anthony: Yeah, I am very much. And I think that one has to reflect on the insurance industry, the insurance industry's beginnings and, and it had different beginnings at different times, but it was an industry where people got together, uh, spontaneously to spread their risk. And, uh, it was something that we is understood as having a positive social mission.
And I think that, uh, while my hope anyway is that we're. At a stage of the industry where the efficiencies of technology are going to enable us to, to recover the positive reputation that the industry has had in the past.
Richard: Yeah. Agree, agree wholeheartedly with that.
Anthony: I wanted to follow up something else. You said you, you know, it, it seems more and more life insurance companies, as they transform are making life insurance less about the death of the policy holder and much more about the wellbeing of the policy holder.
Richard: uh, yeah, I, I think what we're trying to figure out, this idea of well wellbeing, the broad wellbeing and how, uh, how a consumer thinks about financial wellbeing and social wellbeing and community wellbeing.
and how do our products and services fit into that broader kind of, uh, construct? Um, how do we, how do we then maybe with others, uh, in fulfilling that, um, and how we're gonna have to fulfill that? So I, I think we're trying to figure out. Where the consumer is gonna go. And in that concept of how they wanna buy, I, I think you, you hit it very clearly. Are they gonna wanna buy just our products and services, the way they were bought, right. There's this old construct in the life insurance industry, life insurance is sold, not bought. Right. Um, and, and that's probably true because some of them are very, you know, you get past term insurance and, and they're very complex, uh, financial products and they have really neat features.
Richard:You know, I, I simplify those features in. Bad things happen and you die bad things happen and you live, um, and wealth accumulation, you know, there there's actually wealth accumulation, parts of this and, and broad, uh, financial planning and retirement planning. And how do we make sure that we're putting things together in a way that aligns with the consumer's idea?
So that shifts us, us that shifts us from a product focus to a customer focus. And, and that's new ground, right? How do we go navigate that new ground? Um, but we gotta do it in a way that, you know, you're B you're, you can maintain the change, right? Uh, our distribution partners have to move with that. Our, our consumers have to actually wanna do with that.
And so how we figure out how that advice and help works over time and how we, uh, how, how we lean into the way the customer's gonna wanna buy. And I think they're gonna wanna buy very differently and they're gonna wanna participate with us very differently.
Anthony: well speaking about that evolution, uh, and its pace apart from the central consumer and policy holder relationship question, what are some other issues that simply have to do with being a life insurance carrier with today's technology and customer expectations? What's the especially interesting and perhaps challenging about the moment we're living through.
I kind of. Uh, bifurcate it a little bit. I think we've got the right now, we've got the customer acquisition side and the experience that we need to help make that easy. And then we've got kind of the service side of that equation. And how are we taking care of you and servicing you, um, over the duration of, of, of that contract or fulfilling that obligation that we made on the acquisition side.
Richard: And, and that fulfillment is not a. You know, uh, annual thing or a semi-annual thing when you're really in kind of the life insurance space, that's, that's potentially a, you know, an 80 year commitment, uh, you know, 70 year commitment, 60 year commitment. If there's a joint spousal rider, it could be 120 year commitment. So You know, we have to think about that side. So on the acquisition side, we're seeing a lot of movement. You and I have talked about this in various occasions on a lot of the insured techs in the life insurance base are leaning into that. I'll call it customer AC acquisition side. How do we make it easier to connect with the customers, work with it?
And I think that's gonna evolve more into the, how are we integrating up into the. Platforms in the communities that customers are are, are in themselves. And then how do we make our products available in the natural state of those, but that that's where we're seeing a lot of I'll call it the insurance technology firms leaning.
We're not seeing a lot leaning into this kind of service experience. Uh, and how are we working on that now? I suspect that will change. Um, but I think the economics, uh, play out better on the acquisition side, uh, than they do on the servicing and the regulatory requirements play out very differently. At the end of the day, the regulators look at the insurance company as we're the one on the hook for the responsibility to fulfill that promise.
And that promise at the end of the day has a financial backing to, to it. Right. There is, there is a financial component and you need to be, um, strong enough. And, uh, financially strong enough for a long period of time to make sure you can fulfill that commitment. And that commitment is a commitment to fulfill it again, 70 years from now, 50 years from now, you know, the policies we're putting on our books today, um, management of the future, uh, is the one who has to be around to make sure they do that.
So we have to be good stewards. To make sure we are in the position where whatever we're doing today puts us in a position to be around 50, 60, 70 years in the future so that when it comes time to fulfill that promise and to your point, that's how we view it, fulfilling that promise. We're there the day we're supposed to fulfill that promise, even though we agreed to that promise today.
Anthony: So it's kind of a perennial question as to whether a, a carrier strategy focuses on being a, either a manufacturer. A distributor or a service company or some kind of combination. So, uh, I wonder if you could summarize a little bit how you, how you negotiate to that encroachment, shall we say on the part of insure tax and how you, how you work out that balance?
Richard: Yeah, I, I think we see it right now, again, with the, a lot of them focused on what I would call. They're just a channel and, and we believe that. Knowing that we have to take care of the service side, that the policy obligation is ultimately ours. We have to be in a position. So we look at it as what I call one of our major focuses is the business to business integration, the ability to quickly on-ramp any of those new, uh, players that want to come in and, and give us a channel to market and give us an opportunity to get product on a shelf or in a store or in an environment as the best analogy I've got, um, for that today.
Uh, how quickly can I hook to you, give you an opportunity to do that piece, it's more of a channel strategy, right? We, we think of it as different routes to market different stores, different shells, different, you know, places, whether that's a little marketplace or it's a fully financial wellness practice that is trying to do solve broader problems. How do we make sure we're showing up in those environments and we can quickly hook to 'em and I'd like to say quickly on ramp 'em and quickly off ramp 'em. So that's the balance. How do we make sure we are working with people to do the things that are important to the consumer, but recognizing our role is to still, uh, own that promise and fulfill that promise and fulfilling that promise does require us to make sure we can do that.
And we can fulfill the regulatory obligation as Well, as the. Wellness and wellbeing obligation.
Anthony: Well, let's get into more detail about how Ameritas fulfills that promise that you spoke of in terms of how your organization supports the company. What are the most important areas of work for the company's technology organization?
we're all on transformation, journeys of some flavor or color, right? We all are. I think each one, depending on where they started from is a little different.
Richard: Ours is very heavily focused on, um, cut, pull parts. How, how do we improve the customer experience and the acquisition side? Uh, how do we, um, become more operationally efficient and effective? I think it's not just inefficiency play. It's an effectiveness play. And then how do we become more insight driven? How do we make sure we can use data and analytics to improve, uh, where we're going? So I, I think it's kind of multi-pronged across those.
I think we have to focus on all three. Um, and we have to try to move the needle on all three of those, especially at emeritus, right? Eight now. No, and I, and I think most life insurance companies are gonna give you a similar story where they're starting on each one of those is probably a little different.
And how fast or aggressive they're trying to get through them, uh, might be a little bit different. Um, we, we decided to make a, a major investment in accelerating that journey and pushing hard on it, as opposed to just what I would call the standard investments you make every year in, in your, uh, set of enhancements.
We decided to, you know, really, truly double down and push that investment up and try to, and try to compress it down and get it done in a four to five year period. Really kind of. Right. Push ourselves. And that's really, I think what justifies the transformation is is that, that level of investment, that level of push, uh, to kind of accelerate that journey and get there, we believe, you know, in five years the world will have changed.
So if we take any longer, we'll be another, you know, 10 behind. So we've gotta get that done in order line ourselves up to go next, cuz we think there will be someplace next.
Anthony: Yeah, well, it's, it's hard to imagine any company that's not dealing with these three major priorities, but let's talk about each of those in turn. How do you see the importance of customer experience and how is that manifested in particular initiatives?
Richard: Yeah, I think, uh, the customer experience side, uh, and, and how it, how it manifests. It's very important, right? There's producer experience, there's customer experience, and there's how the producer and the customer are interacting with each other. And we have to care about both. when you're dealing more in, in middle market and different income brackets, you know, who, who don't want to go, um, the, through a financial planner yet, how do we take care of their, uh, short term needs, but maybe set them up.
So that long term, when they. , you know, what, what is maybe a hundred thousand dollars, uh, of investment today or 50,010 years becomes half a million to more, and you're gonna now want a different profile of advice, right? So how do we move you through that? So I think that's how we look at that. How we're instantiating that is we're looking at, uh, obviously making sure that our online, our websites, our portals, our mobile apps.
You know, how do we get in and actually take all of those concepts and put 'em to practice? Well, you put 'em to practice by making sure your, your websites and your portals, uh, are easy to do business with, have, have a little bit of a better UX design, have some design thinking in them, um, but are also focused on giving you tangible things you can do.
Right? Uh, I think we, and I've heard others struggle with this idea that. Hey, let's just, you know, let's just go create the perfect website and the perfect experience. Well, if you can't do what you need to go do, you're not coming back. Right. Um,
we need to give you the transactions that you're after.
Richard: So I would say. It instantiates itself in those websites and portals, it ins it also instantiates itself. Those projects are about pushing into our backend systems and making sure we can push that transaction into the back and bring it back up, uh, so that, you know, we satisfy your, uh, your, your transactional need as fast as possible.
I, I look at banking and go back shoot, um, five, six years and. , you know, you logged into your credit card different than you logged into your checking account, different than you logged into your mortgage. And now you log in and you can see them all and you can move between them and even something as simple as that, is a new world for life insurance companies.
Anthony: You make an interesting point about the need to make transactions more efficient for customers on the front end. And I guess now we should talk about operational efficiency on the back end. What's different about, about how you approach it today, given the state of technology and what opportunities does technology present today?
Richard: Yeah, and I think, um, I'm probably gonna hit this two prong first focus is, uh, shifting our focus to. Especially when you think about backend, uh, operations, what is the unit cost, uh, of, of a particular backend business process? Right. So what is the unit cost of claims processing claims management? What is the unit cost of, uh, policy changes?
What is the unit cost of, you know, um, Ah, you know, billing and collection pick a major business process. So we start with that unit cost. Now the number of technologies, we have an opportunity to probably go buy as many packages. Uh, the life insurance industry has a lot of opportunity to buy. There's a lot of software vendors that have built good practices.
So we get a lot of automation out of that. Um, We can also get automation, uh, by leveraging workflow tools, low code, no code tools. So I think, I think the obligation is on the technology organization to go take all those technologies and go find a way to improve the unit cost of that transaction into end.
So we've built kind of what we call an automation co. and it looks at end to end process. How are we gonna automate that? How much of that should we automate in a particular package? If the package gives it to us and how much should we automate across or between the package or where do the packages not do it?
And we just need to write some type of a quick automation. I know that's simplistic, but I think it's as simple as that with a on I'm driving the cost of the tech. Um, pays for itself by the ongoing unit cost change, right? So your cost curve changes. Uh, and so now you get into both efficiency and, and effectiveness.
We want that process to have a higher quality. We want it to have less touches. We want it to have less opportunity for error. So not just faster and, and just use tech, but make sure it's got a decent level of quality so that as you're scaling. As volume is cranking up your ability to execute that transaction at a high quality rate faster.
Right. Uh, and do more with less is there. On the tech side, we gotta make sure we're not adding so much complexity.
We can't maintain it. Um, cuz you and I both know I can build those really fast the first six times and then I'll get bogged down in maintaining them. So as we're transforming, we wanna make sure we're taking all the things that we built that complexity over the last 40 or 50 years. And we are not just building that complexity in new technology.
Anthony: We're actually stripping the technical complexity out as well as stripping out the, uh, business process complexity. Sure. Well, let's talk about the, the data aspect of your agenda. Now, I, I sometimes think that in some ways, all the focus on the front end that we've seen in recent years has just been about insurers embracing modern, electronic commerce in their own way, of course. Right. But, but it's really more about that, about becoming a modern business.
Uh, now do you see data and analytics as an area where more. Insurance specific innovation can take place. What's on Ameritas agenda when it comes to data.
so a data and analytics is a key part of our transformation agenda for, for sure. Um, first and foremost, um, I, I used to make this comment that, uh, the life insurance company was data, rich information, poor and analytically ignorant.
Richard: And I, and I didn't mean that as a slight, I meant that more as we started in data, we were rich in data. We had a ton bit, but we developed a set of practices in the sixties and fifties and seventies around data. That became outdated and we kind of held onto 'em maybe a little bit longer. So I think first and foremost, we have to use data and analytics to improve our ability to make informed decisions.
second in our transformation, we want to. Drive AI into those processes. So we know that, you know, automation is one thing, but intelligent automation is another level. And how do we start driving that in.
Richard: Uh, which then, you know, gives us another level up now that affects, you know, kind of the workforce, because I'm not asking you to be a knowledge worker anymore. I'm asking you to be an intelligent worker and you have to, you now have to work hand in hand with, uh, robotics and AI infused and machine learning processes as well as system automated processes.
But we think that's the second prong is how do we go figure out where data.
and analytics can actually help us make a process better and, uh, give that, give some type of a feedback loop on that. . Um, and then I think, you know, the third is how do we prepare, for where we can use that to, uh, improve the experience.
Uh, and, and drive that experience loop. Right? So I think we're starting first with, how do we make better management decisions to, how do we connect that into being smarter about the way we operate and then three, how do we, how do we tie that back out? And, and again, get better at experience and somebody could choose to go a different route on that.
I think we, we felt that was, is the right kind of way for us to get smarter over time and use those technologies in a way to do that. But that's kind of. Uh, what our, our approach has been to the data and analytics journey. Well, having talked about these important areas of work for emeritus technology organization. I can't help thinking about the challenges you face in acquiring the skill sets you need as these change. And, uh, I wonder what your plan is for doing that. How do you make sure you can attract the talent you're going to need?
what we're looking at is how do we, create the I'll call it the digitally enabled workforce? Uh, and, and that is not just an it challenge. That's a company challenge. So what, what does it mean to be a digitally enabled workforce?
Richard: Um, what does that look like on the business side that I think as, as, as we cycle back up to, why do you have a title that's chief technology and transformation is you have to think about that transformation, not just on the tech side, but on the business side. So we are trying to, uh, and this is part of our transformation agenda, figure out what is the digitally enabled workforce look like and then how do we start to develop the skills, the attributes, the competencies around that to go do it? I think on top of that in the technology place, we all know technology is more of a horizontal, uh, market. It's not insurance specific. my, uh, talent acquisition approaches and strategies, can't be insurance siloed.
They have to be multi-industry, I'm looking for, I'm looking for some of the same talent that, you know, Amazon's looking for and Google's looking for, and, and Kroger's looking for, and GEs looking for and Proctor and gamble. So part of our talent strategy is, you know, how do we make ourselves an attractive place to work?
And, and this kind of gets back to. I think the world's moving towards this purpose driven mission centric. And, and, and I think people like that, people want to be associated with a firm that has a purpose and, and a mission that might be a little more altruistic. So we think that's a piece of our talent acquisition bubble puzzle.
And then I think the third piece is we're leaning out to strategic technology partners, where we can de-risk our talent, uh, cycles. Um, we can find places where maybe between, uh, internal and an external partner, we can solve the problem together and we can work together. But I I'll bring it back home to that digital readiness profile. We have to figure out what that looks like for technology, but we have to figure out what that looks like for the business and, and, and how we solve.
Those might look a little different. Um, but we have to, we have to go figure that out. So one final question, Richard, what would you regard as the three initiatives that are indispensable, that you could not cut from your transformation program?
Yeah, and I'm gonna, uh, go up and take my job as transformation leader on this one. Uh, because, uh, as emeritus, uh, yeah, we're a life insurance company, but we also have a major, uh, dental practice. Um, our transformation of our dental, uh, operations is absolutely middle to staying competitive in that space.
So that one, you know, we need to make sure stays, um, our, uh, I'll call it business to business integration work, uh, giving us the business flexibility to quickly integrate new business partners in different ways and onboard 'em and offboard 'em I think is critical to our future success. Um, I think, uh, the fundamental automation and straight through processing work, you know, in our, in our I'll call it back office, right.
Our internal side. Uh, is important. Um, so I think those are probably the three, the reason I didn't list kind of what I'll call the website customer experiences. I, I think that work would continue whether we were doing a transformation or not. That is a evolution journey. Our industry is on and we would be doing that work regardless of a transformation.
This has been an inspiring and encouraging conversation. Richard and I have actually been friends for years, so it was great to catch up with him and hear about how he and his team at Ameritas are approaching digital transform. Ameritas emerges from this conversation as an excellent example of not just an incumbent insurer, but an institution that has survived changes over a century and a half.
The companies ensuring its further survival and success through a carefully calibrated approach to innovation through judicious adoption of technology with a customer first perspective. As we continue in this podcast series, I look forward to seeing how other life insurers will continue to adapt to a real-time commerce environment with constantly changing customer expectations.
Thank you for joining us for the life accelerated podcast, undertaken by insurance innovation reporter in partnership with Microsoft for more relevant content, to help you achieve digital transformation, please visit dot com slash life accelerated.
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