Episode 5

How Northwestern Mutual remains agile with customer needs

In the world of finance and insurance, it’s often difficult to earn clients’ trust. In fact, just 52% of people trust financial service providers today. Northwestern Mutual has not only flipped that statistic on its head, but led the market in innovation to meet customers’ modern-day needs. In this episode of Life Accelerated, learn how Chief Customer Officer Christian Mitchell built their latest product to be high-tech yet accessible to both their advisors and customers.

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Only 52% of Americans trust financial service providers. That’s why Northwestern Mutual’s Chief Customer Officer Christian Mitchell has led product development with an open mind: To find new challenges along the way that perhaps are more important than initial research stated.

In this episode of Equisoft’s Life Accelerated podcast, Mitchell recounts the story of building Northwestern Mutual’s newest platform. They prioritized flexibility as today’s digital products must be both high-tech and accessible to all. Take it from Christian: Learn how to strike the right balance of art and science to ensure you’re giving your clients the best possible advice.

Key Takeaways:

    • Being a chief customer officer means combining organizational and strategic skills to provide the best tools to solve the biggest problems for clients.

    • Flexibility is key to providing a high-tech yet accessible tool to advisors, who need a fair balance of art and science to ensure they’re giving the best possible advice to clients.

    • Enter new initiatives with an open mind. As your process unfolds along the way, you’ll find new client challenges to solve that perhaps are more important than your initial research stated.

A big part of our go to market and how we really believe we can drive superior financial outcomes from our clients is this artful mix of insurance and investments. They can work together synergistically to drive higher income and return.

Christian Mitchell

Chief Customer Officer, Northwestern Mutual

Our Guest

Christian Mitchell

LinkedIn Website

Christian W. Mitchell is executive vice president and chief customer officer at Northwestern Mutual. His executive responsibilities include the company’s planning philosophy and experience, consumer insights and experience strategy, and the development of digital tools and processes to deliver a distinctive client experience throughout a client’s journey.

He serves on Northwestern Mutual’s Senior Leadership Team and sits on Northwestern Mutual’s Future Ventures investment committee.


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell editor of insurance innovation reporter, and this is life accelerated a podcast for life insurers who want to achieve digital transformation

Anthony O'Donnell: Christian, let's start with a brief discussion about what PX is, what makes it special compared to other platforms used by advisors and agents?

So PX, it is a financial planning platform that our advisors use to engage with their clients around their financial security. And I use the word platform, very carefully because it's more than just a tool. We really want to use this as the means of broader engagement with our clients and what makes PX special or different in the market is, it's very, client-centric a lot of the planning tools out there are very focused on the advisor.

Christian Mitchell Now we're focused on making the PX a wonderful, experience for our advisors, but we really want the pages to sing and come to life for our clients. Secondly PX really brings to life the intersection, the synergies that can exist between. Various risk products, life insurance, as well as, investment accounts.

And thirdly, it is a platform that we really developed in tight partnership with our advisors, and is really bespoke to the way that our advisors like to go to market, which is very comprehensive, planning, really getting to know our clients, their hopes, dreams, and.

Anthony O'Donnell: That sounds wonderful. And you know, it's interesting that after we agreed to meet, I came across your LinkedIn posts that spoke of the drama of this initiative. It started with a recollection of a moment of doubt, stress and pepperoni pizza. It seemed at that moment that PX was at a kind of crossroads. What was going on then?

Christian Mitchell Yeah, I can just give you a brief sketch of the narrative here. So when PX was launched, the development team was very focused on getting PX academically, right. With little regard to how it would actually come to life in the advisor's hands and how clients could really embrace it. And so this purist approach to planning.

As we initially rolled it out to our advisors was just an absolute fail. It just hit with a thought no one wanted to use. That was part of the reason that, I came into being responsible for PX. So I start to wrap my head around it, realize that this is worse than just starting from zero.

We're starting from a deficit in terms of the hearts and minds of our advisors. We have a tool that just is, maybe something someone would love, but just was not, didn't meet the reality of what our clients and advisors need. wrapping my head around that, trying to chart the path forward, changing out leaders. And I found myself outside the Walker Greenwich hotel, in Union Square, like 3:00 AM waiting for a DoorDash driver. To deliver a big greasy pepperoni pizza. And in that moment, I just realized wow, I'm in a tight spot.

This doesn't feel good if I'm ordering a pizza at 3:00 AM. I got some problems, but I use that as an opportunity to take a step back and say, okay, we need to fundamentally change the approach. I engage some of our top advisors and it was painful. It didn't change overnight, but we were able to put the whole project on a very different trajectory.

We'll talk more about the challenges of the initiative later, but let's go back to the inspiration of PX. Why did Northwestern Mutual decide to build a proprietary financial planning platform? What were the business drivers? What were the competitive issues?

Christian Mitchell Yeah, so, there’s a number of facets to it. First off planning is core to our go to market. We take a planning approach. We've taken a planning approach for decades. So it's so critical to who we are. It makes sense that we own that capability. So that's the first driver, secondly, a big part of our go to market and how we really believe we can drive superior financial outcomes from our clients is this artful mix of insurance and investments.

They can work together synergistically to drive higher income and return. Better legacy values, downside protection, no other financial planning software out there does that. And that we really believe that's part of our S our secret sauce. So we wanted a software package that really brought that to light.

As mentioned earlier, a big part of PX was making planning come to life for our clients. It certainly has to make our advisors happy, but we wanted to set a visualizations that were easily accessible, digestible for our clients and made all of this. These concepts come to life in a way where they understood where they were, but also allowed them to lean in and help.

Christian Mitchell: So all that taken together, motivate us to embark on something that's like a non-trivial, task of creating our own financial planning platform.

I wanted to ask you how the creation of the. Reflects Northwestern. Mutual's broader strategy, both in terms of distribution and customer experience. And you've just said that, that you have this artful mix or it's characterized by this artful mix and making planning come to life. it sounds as if the project began as something a little more straight forward and then actually reflected your broader customer engagement strategy in a more luminous way.

Anthony O'Donnell: Is that fair to say?

Christian Mitchell Yeah, I think, the customer engagement strategy was there from the beginning. it was one of those projects where we just got so much smarter and more nuanced and focused on that. As time went on, that we were able to engage our clients in a different way and recognize that I get so much of. It evolves.

These artful mixes, the artful mix of different products, but the artful mix of digital and the advisor and client experience and striking that right balance. And so through time, we've gotten much, much better about figuring out how we bring out the best of the advisor. We're a digital visualization can really make something sing all the while, keeping our view on making this something that the client can take away or view on their mobile app or log onto our website.

And it makes complete sense to them and they know how they're tracking against their goals.

Anthony O'Donnell: So were you not initially involved in the project, but then at some point at that pivot point, it became clear that your expertise as a customer officer was.

Christian Mitchell: I was not involved in it for a period of time and as I had mentioned that the initial innings of PX war, pretty rocky. I was brought in to help figure that out. And I think one of the things that qualified me for that role is not that I'm some like amazing technologist, but that I have a real grasp of our products, our field, what it means to be a mutual insurance company.

How to drive strategic clarity amongst a diversity of teams with different talent profiles. So it was really those that organizational and strategic skill to rally the team around the goal, but also to bring, to bear the flexibility and the agility of working with our field to take something that, again, we had this massive deficit of trust and turn it into something that our field has really embraced.

That's a really good insight into the how of doing it. But I'd like to talk about the, what, what are the goals of PX? What specifically are you looking to accomplish with the platform?

Christian Mitchell Yeah, so I'll give you some goals across different time horizons. The near-term time horizon is we really want PX to better engage our clients, bettering HR advisors. part of the planning experiences. It's not, again like a discreet tool, it's a platform. So you get a plan, you run a plan, those goals show up in your mobile app or on our website experience, you can go in and engage with them.

So we want to make that plan understandability much higher drive, much more client engagement with their goals, with their plan under or over the short-term. But the long-term and this is what I really feel most passionately about. PX is about making people better off financially. I will know that PX is successful.

If in five years I can demonstrably show that people that have engaged with our advisors and use PX are better off financially than those. That haven't that's for me, that's really the top node and it's very consistent with who we are as a mutual company. Our policy holders are literally the owners of the company.

So we have this incredible incentive alignment to make them better off financially. That is at the heart of PX.

Let's get into a little more detail about how that happens, how you do make them better off financially. Why is it so beneficial for clients? So what advantages do they ultimately get from PX.

A lot of it comes down to, this idea of exploring the synergies between these various products. So you have, like a life insurance, for example, our whole life or universal life. It's an interesting bundled product. There's a protection element. There's an asset accumulation element.

Christian Mitchell There is a tax element and you can use that product in really interesting ways. You couple that. With an annuity with an advisory account, with a brokerage account, and you can use all of those assets in concert to construct a stream of income in retirement, as well as legacy value. So PX allows our advisors and our clients to look at all of those instruments in concert, their unique characteristics, how they perform in various economic scenarios.

And construct that stream of income and that legacy value. That's going to be very, very durable, whether they retire sooner or they retire later, or they have a health care event or there's an economic downturn. That PX really brings all of that to life in a really powerful way that makes our clients better off.

They can't, it will make them better off like mathematically, long-term but also gives them this great peace of mind that they can come back. If they're worried they can come back to that plan and look at those scenarios and find comfort in, the level to which they're protected.

Let's talk now about the development phase and let's go back to the beginning before, before you ran into the trouble. How did the planning began? What resources were dedicated to the project? Why did you make the decisions or why did Northwestern mutual make the decisions it made and what kind of expertise did Northwestern mutual see that it needed?

So we brought together at the very initial phases various, constituents that you need to build an incredible digital product or a digital, platform, people, designers, technologists, et cetera. but what we lacked and eventually we ended up solving.

Christian Mitchell: Really defining very clearly what we're solving for strategically. What are those key metrics and importantly, involving our advisors. Involving the advisers, really, for two reasons, first off, they're using the tool. They need to make it come to life. They've got to embrace it, but secondly, our advisors are on the front lines with our clients every day.

They've got this deep intuition about how to engage with clients that they've developed over decades. That initially we didn't mind. And it was a huge missed opportunity that we then subsequently went after, this like a crucible moment of me, waiting for my pepperoni pizza on the street corner.

Anthony O'Donnell: And did you engage partners to help with the initiative? Did you go looking for software providers, consultants, anybody like that? Did you have to increase staffing?

Christian Mitchell: We did. We increased staffing quite a bit and we looked very creatively for partners and we continue to look for partners. if there's anyone out there that offers expertise that could be helpful, in the development of PX, we're more than willing to work with them. But often we find in PX that what we want to do is unique.

There aren't a lot of other companies out there that are trying to solve these problems and the way that we're solving them, which has led us to do a lot of the development on.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. So you've spoken a couple of times already about this being more of an in-house project. Did you have an explicit discussion along the lines of buy versus build beyond what you've already said?

At the very beginning, we had, that discussion very explicitly. We looked at all of the other software providers that are out there and we continue to, and I have a lot of admiration for the money guide pros and the monies, and a lot of the other software packages that are out there.

Christian Mitchell: Those providers need to provide key planning capabilities that apply to a, such a wide range of advisors and situations and distribution channels, and some that do insurance. And some that only do wealth. We really had this opportunity to do something that was so special. Bespoke. and we thought there was great power and I even have more conviction in that assertion that there's great power in having something that's customized to us, that we arrived at the decision that we did want to build this ourselves as opposed to partner or by

It seems also that when you went through the difficult part, that didn't really change that it was still very much a matter of finding what you needed to do.

Christian Mitchell: Yes, that's right. it was. It was a question of continuing the proprietary development, but doing that in a much more. Customized way doing in a way to actually this was much more, culturally aligned with who we are, which involved bringing our advisors again into the tent and taking all of these incredible client heuristics that they've developed over decades and decades and decades mining it from our best advisors, and then incorporating that directly into the tool.

Let's talk a little bit about the timeline. When did the initiative kickoff, we could start with conception and, and then we can go through whatever challenges you faced on the way.

Christian Mitchell: Yeah. so it was this great demarcation point, technical. excellence, but didn't meet our advisors or clients where they needed to be. I had the pepperoni pizza moment and then I ran into one of our advisors after that.

Through that moment, I realized we needed to put this on a very different trajectory, was back in the home office few days later. And I ran into one of our top advisors. I've been with the firm for many, many decades and he stopped me and said, Hey, PX is in a terrible place. And I said, yeah, I know that, and he said, I can help you.

Christian Mitchell: And I said, really tell me more about it. And he proposed the idea of putting together a panel of some of our top advisors, to essentially. ride shotgun with the developers and designers and business people to put PX on a different trajectory. And my response to him was like, how quickly can you have the names?

We got the names together. We got everybody in New York as I mentioned earlier, we had a trust deficit with PX initially. So we had to have the first hour of that initial meeting was them telling us everything that was wrong with PX. So we drew out the venom a little bit.

But from there we got on a biweekly cadence with this group where we were regularly showing them screens. They were providing guidance and product expertise that the developers and that started this virtuous flywheel. That puts us where we are today helped us win the award. And the award that we recently won and it continues to drive adoption amongst.

Tell us a little about the award since we haven't addressed that yet.

Christian Mitchell: Yeah. So we won this award for best in InsureTech. A solution is something that I was incredibly proud of. I think it recognizes the incredible progress that we made with PX, but I think one of the cool aspects of it is PX, is proprietary to us. you can't just go and buy that off the shelf.

And so the fact that. third party industry observer looked at PX, something that, isn't publicly available and saw the power and then subsequently gave us the award. It was just a wonderful kind of proof point and a Coda to this, the journey that we've been on, with PX. And it certainly helped us, continue to drive adoption with our advisors and.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, congratulations on the award. It sounds as if your engagement with your advisors turned out to be key, not just for the design of the platform, but also for Adobe.

Christian Mitchell: Yeah, good. Having them involved along the way.

They became the champions. And I know this is one of those key plays, the change management professionals like to do, but I just saw were workout in spades where we would be at various conferences. we would have members of our field, our advisers complaining about PX are asking us questions, why we made this decision or that decision.

And in those instances, we would actually have some of the advisors that had been helping us along the way, stand up and answer the questions in our stead and essentially take their peers through the change management process. It was a very, very, powerful manifestation of the partnership we'd we had established with that working group.

Anthony O'Donnell: Did you face any technology challenges that you didn't anticipate or where the challenge basically conceptual challenges that you solve through this greater engagement? through reconsideration of what you were doing internally and also engagement with your advisors.

The biggest challenge we face it's part technology and it's part human. What advisors are very adept at doing is meeting clients where. Understanding their situation, their hopes needs dreams, et cetera, and knowing what the best page or the best visualization or the best graph is going to be to help that client understand their specific financial situation and then take action on it.

The technical slash human challenge. How do we build enough flexibility into the tool that we can allow the advisors use that art without having the tool like, so open-ended that an advisor could do whatever they want and could conceivably provide bad advice to the client. So striking this right balance between how much art do we allow and where are the right, science bounds that we put in this to make sure that our clients are getting the best possible advice.

What are some other ways the PX helps advisors to do better? One of the things is the two things that have been really powerful and this gets into some kind of the specific features of PX is templating. And so the advisors do have this ability to. change PX or rearrange pages or, present their story in the best way possible. They can save those as templates

Christian Mitchell: So an adviser knows if he or she is meeting with a 32-year old doctor who’s graduated from med school, they can gather the facts and then they can run a pre-packaged PX that has all of the bright pages in the right order. So that templating a huge benefit in terms of operational efficiency, the other page, which sounds so simple, but it's been so powerful is a page that we affectionately call.

All of the decisions that he or she has helped that client make over the last few years or the last few meetings and revisit that it's powerful because it allows the client to see the progress they've made, but it also allows the advisor to show their unique value.

Christian Mitchell: And often that value is not just market performance, or you bought this purchase, you bought this product or whatever it's we helped you navigate this difficult financial situation or you want it to take a six months sabbatical from your job to go and travel the world and we help make that happen.

So that what have you done for me lately page again, like it's not super, technically difficult to put something like that together, but it's been such a powerful aspect of the software.

Speaking of what have you done for me lately? What improvements have you made after the initial rollout? It sounds very much as if you've engineered in a kind of ethos of continual improvement.

I often tell my team, I borrow a line from Winston Churchill, like we're at the end of the beginning of PX. we almost have full adoption.

Christian Mitchell: We're going to be pulling the plug on the incumbent planning software, but we're just getting started. There's so much that we can do. So I'll give you some examples of things.

I'm really excited about plan automation. So you get a financial plan. You need to make various deposits into your insurance and investment accounts. We're working on just automating that. So we can just draw from your bank account on a monthly or a quarterly basis. All of the money goes exactly to the right place.

So you can just put your entire financial plan on autopilot. I'm super excited about that. The flip side of that is retirement income distribution. So we can, what PX can do is take a snapshot. Point in time, all of the assets that you have, investments, real estate insurance, et cetera. And then the algo can determine how to construct an optimal income stream for you in retirement.

And it can actually, and then what we're working on is coupling that with the money movement to actually cut that. you spent your lifetime earning all of this stuff, accumulating all of these assets, we're going to help you cumulate in the most efficient tax sensitive way to meet your needs.

And you essentially will just have a regular paycheck in retirement, and you have confidence that, that paycheck isn't going to run out. I'm super excited about that. The last thing that I would mention is PDX provides a platform for us to bring so, many other financial products to market for our clients, banking insurance, explore the convergence of health and wealth.

Again, we're just getting started with PX. It's going to be a platform for so many interesting avenues of client engagement.

Anthony O'Donnell: Speaking of these new avenues, what might be some next steps for the platform in the near future?

For plan automation and retirement income distribution, we're building that capability in right now. And so in some of that, some of the more advanced aspects of that are going to be in a pilot at the end of this year. The convergence of health and wealth is one that I'm spending a lot of time thinking about myself.

It’s very natural when you're having a planning conversation with someone to project, future expenses, and to even have a conversation about, Hey, how long might you live that naturally brings this idea of health into that conversation? How healthy are you, is that determinative maybe of the medical expenses you might face later in life, how long do you think you're going to live?

Christian Mitchell: And so exploring that, and then maybe even taking that to a place where we could help people adopt more healthy habits and, enjoy their lives more. I'm really excited about that. But in terms of the near term, we're really just exploring how we bring that health aspect into the planning, conversation CMS.

Anthony O'Donnell: So we talked a little bit about your engagement with advisers, but I'm sure you still face practical issues of adoption. How many Northwestern Mutual advisors are now? And what are you doing to ensure the optimal or maximum adoption?

We have over 80% adoption of our advisors right now with PX. So we've got, some groups that are holding out. Some of that is due to some more, esoteric features that we need to develop. those are all slated to be rolled out. And then, the rest of them, it's just good old fashioned change management.

They just don't want to change. They love the old software, and there’s a number of reasons why people are resistant to change. And so we've got a SWAT teams that are going out into the field, working with those advisers white glove service. We have all kinds of transition, software that will help them.

Christian Mitchell: And so between now and the full transition, it's just, that trench warfare of helping all of those final advisors move over to the promised land.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah, I have to say you, you tossed off 80%. They're like it was nothing. I would imagine. You're very proud of 80%.

Christian Mitchell: I'm incredibly proud of 80% adoption. Particularly if you go back to the point at which PX was. It was like a swear word or something. I mean people just the hatred almost. They had a PX to a place now where we have 80% adoption and our best advisors are our best spokespeople for the platform.

It's incredibly gratifying.

The impression I get is that this turned out to be a more ambitious project than it was initially designed to be. And that ended up more profoundly manifesting. What Northwestern mutual is this.

Christian Mitchell: Absolutely. I think that's typical, you have a strategic hunch, you have intuition, you have motivation to do something and you set out on that journey. With an idea of what you might maximize and what it might be, but to be open-minded along that journey. And as you start to gain momentum is to allow the horizons of what you might accomplish to expand.

That’s what we've experienced with PX and that's why I go to my team often and say, gang we're at the end of the beginning, there's so much that we can do with this.

Christian Mitchell: Take this software coupled with our incredible advisors and make millions of Americans better off financially.

Anthony O'Donnell: Christian. If our listeners wanted to look at PX in more detail, what resources would you point them to?

Two avenues, I would encourage you to go to our website or connect with one of our advisers. They can certainly run APX plan for. Or feel free to send me a message on LinkedIn and I'd be happy to get you connected with her advisor or share a sample plan. this is like my child I'm so proud of PX.

Christian Mitchell: So I would love the opportunity to showcase it with anyone who's interested.

Anthony O'Donnell: Thank you for joining us for the life accelerated podcast, undertaken by insurance innovation reporter in partnership with Equisoft for more relevant content, to help you achieve digital transformation, please visit equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.


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