Episode 9

Balancing the Human & the Machine to Improve Customer Experience with Protective’s COO

“Software is eating the world,” Marc Andreesen claimed in 2011. He was right.

Technology is intertwined in nearly every facet of life insurance today. But Protective’s COO Cissy Williams takes a different perspective: We can’t forget about the human element.

In this episode, you’ll learn how to use empathy to balance the human and tech elements of the customer experience.

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“Software is eating the world,” Marc Andreesen claimed in 2011. He was right.

Technology is intertwined in nearly every facet of life insurance today. But Protective’s COO Cissy Williams takes a different perspective: We can’t forget about the human element.

In her many experiences in stay-at-home motherhood and various professional roles throughout the industry, she’s learned that empathy is most important in creating products and services that people actually want and use. In this episode, you’ll learn how to balance the human and tech elements to improve both the employee and customer experience.

Key Takeaways:

    • Don’t just add technology to your processes for no reason. You must reduce risk or improve the customer experience.

    • Empathy plays a critical role in providing a memorable customer experience, especially in life insurance.

    • The role of the advisor is changing. Technology has made things more efficient, freeing up time to be strategic and proactive.

We have over 102 million uninsured or underinsured Americans that either don't realize the need for protection, don't realize what value of protection they need, or have misconceptions about the price or process of insurance. Our aspiration is to be America's most protective life insurance company.

Cissy Williams

Chief Operations Officer, Protective

Our Guest

Cissy Williams

LinkedIn Website

Cissy Williams, Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer for Protective Life Corporation, is responsible for the strategic vision of customer experience and information technology. She oversees the delivery of the most important promise to beneficiaries through the claim operation, building the future through leadership of business transformation and acquisition integration, as well as accountability for in-force customer operations and enterprise shared services.


Anthony: Hi, Cissy! Tell us about your career journey to your current role at protective.

Cissy: Thanks Anthony. It's probably a little bit atypical, so I didn't start in the insurance industry. I came out of college with a degree in comparative literature and started in a different function in a different industry worked there for a while. Actually did a stent as a stay at home mom,

So not sure that I got a ton of professional experience at that time, but learned a lot, lot of EQ during that time, if not IQ. And then when it was, the point in my career and in my life, when I was ready to resume a professional career, I ended up, working in the insurance industry. It was very opportunistic.

It was. Something that I came into in a pretty broad generalist role, got an opportunity to see kind of the 30,000 foot view of insurance and got to see how the pieces and parts connect. I played a number of progressive leadership roles in insurance operations, and then in business technology, really strategic programs and deliverables.

And then in 2016, I joined protective. as our first customer experience officer. So like a lot of insurance companies, we had managed the business pretty functionally at that point and protective, recognized the need to engineer more horizontally. Really understand customer journeys and how customers experience the purchase and the ownership process of life insurance and annuities across the life cycle.

So it was a great way to come into the company. and since then, I've taken on more accountability just recently, promoted to, accountability for operations. So operations is really a combination of our customer delivery processes and teams, along with it. It makes a lot of sense, given how integrated and align those two functions are.

So I'm excited about. The breadth of the organization. I'm excited about the size and the scope of the organization. We have about 1400 employees in our organization. and really excited to focus on our almost 13 million customers in that new capacity.

Anthony: Well, let's talk a little bit about what protective needs to get done in the market. Where are places itself in the market? A little bit about the company's history and identity. And then what is your role as chief operating officer in making that happen?

so protective is a, a top 10 player in our target markets with almost 13 million customers and a trillion of life insurance enforce.

Cissy: We've been around for a hundred plus years. And since 2015, protective has been part of Daichi, which is one of the world's largest insurer and a great parent for us. We have an am best credit rating of a plus, and we're also. One of the top 25 highest rated life insurance companies. We're proud of our journey as a company.

And my role is to make sure our team is providing our customers with the experience they expect and deserve. And we're doing this by constantly listening and learning and engineering, our experience to meet those expectations. And I think, you know, like the scope of the organization that I have, the opportunity and the privilege to lead.

Bringing together those human customer and employee components of our delivery with the technology is critical and strategic.

Anthony: Yeah, I feel like we've anticipated our, our next question a little bit. I was going to ask you what digital transformation means of protective. I think you might start by, by telling us a little bit more about your target market and who your customer is.

you know, it's interesting, our customers come from all different, walks of life, all different income levels, all different backgrounds. Basically our customer is someone who wants to be a protector who wants to protect their family, who wants to protect their assets, their financial stability, their financial security.

there's a significant, opportunity in the United States regarding insurance. We have over 102 million uninsured or underinsured Americans that either don't realize the need for protection, don't realize what value of protection they need, or have misconceptions about the price or process of insurance.

Cissy: Our aspiration is to be America's most protective life insurance company. And so that's, you know, when you talk about the, the end objective of our customer experience and our strategy it's to be that.

I would say digital transformation is driven by customer transformation. And our job is to make sure that our technology business processes and people continue to meet the needs of our changing customers.

Cissy: We have a lot of time and resource invested in the design and delivery of our experience to that large customer bas including. Telephone calls in our contact center tele underwriting interviews, underwriting cases, enforce transactions and that tight integration of design and delivery. And the recognition that technology is the base enabler of all our customer journeys requires that we work together as one team.

Anthony: Well, let's talk about that a little bit. you said very early on that there's very tight alignment between the business and technology. Maybe you can drill in a little bit or, or let us be a fly on the wall as to how technology is integrated with the business at protective.

Well, I would say, probably go going back, it starts at the top with our commitment to customers. So we have a commitment to put the customers at the center of what we do to put more within their reach, to deliver on our promises. Always. And to go further or aspire for better with our customers. And while we don't call out price separately in our commitments, we know that it's extremely important to customers.

Cissy: So we're laser focused on being as efficient as possible, keeping our prices competitive. Actually last year we launched a new brand and our teams quickly responded to the new company purpose that I mentioned before of being protect. And while we've always had our customers at the center of our decisions and design, it brought a whole new meeting to our role in the customer experience.

Anthony: So, you know, customer orientation, customer centricity, these have been big buzzwords over the last decade or so, but it, it sounds like your concept of, of customer orientation is a transformational concept. It's something very different than what we used to do. It's often been said, To achieve customer centricity.

Some carriers did really little more than creating an interface that was transactional. In your case, it sounds like your concept of customer orientation is revisiting the processes and ensuring that the customer really is at the center of processes. And also it implies,

There's a new kind of interaction between the

Cissy: between the

Anthony: and technology to anticipate and, and develop capabilities to meet those customer needs.

Cissy: needs.

Yeah, I think so. I think you nailed it. It's a learning process for us. I'm not saying that we're there, but I think that we have made great strides over the last several years. Our competitors are making great strides. Our customer expectations are going up, so we need to continue to evolve the ways we work, our methodologies, our tools, our strategies, and we're very much a learning organization.

So I think we're right on track to, to be where we need to.

Anthony: Well, let's talk a little bit about methodology and how that might have changed your protective since you've been there. you work very closely with your CIO and with the technology organization. How has methodology changed in order to take a certain amount of risk out of the big projects?

we're always looking for ways that we can be strategic. That we can think about what are those customer imperatives? What are our business strategies?

Cissy: And then how do we engineer what we automate, what we don't automate and how we drive really value add in the front to back. So I'll give you one example, you know, we, we created an interaction matrix. For example, where we assess discrete interactions on two criteria, complexity and customer value. So a low complexity interaction, for example, doesn't require the customer to have a significant amount of process, knowledge, or product knowledge.

They don't need to understand our terminology or jargon. A low value interaction, at least from the customer's perspective might be one that doesn't have a significant financial or emotional impact. Low value interactions are typically very transactional in nature. So a low complexity, low value interaction.

Customers can navigate this type of interaction easily on their own with a few steps and little context needed. on the other hand, something slightly more complex that requires the customer to provide some information or maybe even assess a couple of options to complete maybe an interaction that we would want to engineer to start in a digital channel with options to engage an expert or advisor if needed.

For example, if a beneficiary is providing us a first notice of loss, we see great value in having an empathetic and expert representative, talk to that customer in their time of grief and guide them on the process and timeline for their claim.

Cissy: but then once the customer has clear line of sight to what needs to be done, they often appreciate having the automation and the digital options to do it quickly and with high quality.

So we really wanna build a scalable but flexible model for them. Recently, we heard from one customer named Karen. Who was updating beneficiaries, which is one of those simple digital friendly transactions, but she had 12 Benny's to update. So she ended up talking to one of our representatives and, you know, the feedback she gave us was that this, our, our representative Barbara was able to help me getting all 12 updated.

She was polite, knowledgeable, and courteous and, and customer Karen said, I'm so thankful. So that's just an example of, you know, a, a large spectrum and how we need to be very thoughtful and intentional about how we design and deliver.

Anthony: so one of the metrics of success is that Karen didn't ask to talk to the manager

Cissy: manager well, you know, what's funny, she actually asked to talk.

To the manager to give this positive customer feedback. And we love that we get, we get all kinds, but we love that kind in particular.

Anthony: that's great. I'm, I'm really interested in, in.

Cissy: in, in

Anthony: How you balance the human with the machine and how you let the machines do what they do well, and let the humans do what they do well, and the way you're describing it is all in service of the customer. Right.

Cissy: no, absolutely. I mean, that's what it's for. And I think, we definitely know that if you try to automate and digitize too much, you get fallout, right? And, and you end up creating angst on the part of the customer and you end up impacting the productivity of the customer and the organization.

So it's not one size fits all. There are things that are fit for automation and things that are much more fit for engagement, conversation, and even consultation. And that's how we try to engineer.

Anthony: Let's step back a little bit from what protective is is doing and thinking about the customer and talk about some of the most important trends that life insurers need to respond to. I'm gonna back up and talk about a couple of more macroeconomic trends that are really having an impact on our business, our, our customers, and certainly our technology. one. I think we're challenged by and responding to is really just a sea change in our talent and culture. Again, largely prompted by the pandemic protective, as I've mentioned as a human centered company, and we have a very strong culture, but the needs and expectations of our employees are changing.

Cissy: The way we work has changed. And all of the tools and processes that we've typically used to attract onboard and develop our employees are being rethought. This digital transformation is very customer focused, but also very employee focused. So we're really challenged about how do we onboard a new employee into such a complex industry.

how do we engage and develop employees that may not have had the traditional training relationships and cultural elements that you would find in a more traditional office environment. This too is a really significant digital opportunity. Or maybe more accurately a digital imperative. So we're constantly reminded that digital transformation is not just about technology.

but to transform, we have to make sure that our technology business processes and people, customers, employees, advisors, continue to meet the needs of our changing environment.

Anthony: I'd love to hear more about how the workforce is changing. Like if, the people in HR and the, the conversations that go on with people who end up working with new employees They finding that the behavior of applicants is changing. The expectations of applicants is changing and how are they coping

a lot has changed. So you know, I think expectations are definitely changing employees. They have an expectation. Purposeful work. We believe that our industry and our company provides that they have an expectation for, work flexibility, being able to work when and where they want.

Cissy: We've made. Big changes in that big strides in that it's been driven by our employees and by a very, very tight labor market. But, you know, we had a very small percentage of employees that worked outside one of our offices, pre pandemic, and now most of our employees either work a hybrid schedule or.

A fully remote schedule. So employees are expecting us to adapt to their needs and expectations, to live, where they want to balance their home life and their professional life. and really do all of that, but continue to grow and contribute in a meaningful way.

So the ways that we recruit onboard engage employees completely different than it was three years ago.

you mentioned some of the challenges before, essentially a really competitive business technology environment. So I wanted to talk a little bit more about some of the challenges and protective faces in driving digital transformation and modernization in general, what's gone better than you thought it would.

Anthony: And what are some of the, war stories you, could share about the last couple of years?

Cissy: of years? Yeah. So protective has, what we call a cycle, where we try to compliment our retail or our organic growth with. A complimentary acquisitive strategy. So we have done a lot of acquisitions, 50 plus in the history of the company.

And that's one of our growth strategies. So these markets, the organic, and then the inorganic or acquired have complimentary synergies, but they also present very different challenges and, and different customer dynamic. So retail customers, customers that buy from protective that buy through a customer advisor are generally very familiar with us.

So our opportunities there are, how do we deliver the digital capabilities that we've discussed to those who already expect them and introduce digital capabilities, more mature capabilities, more. Intuitive and user friendly capabilities to customers who might not be as tech savvy on the other hand, acquired customers and often we get these in, in, in large groups, you know, 300,000, 500,000 at a time acquired customers, bought their policy from a different insurance company.

And they may have bought it from that insurance company two or 20 years ago. And they're new to protective. They're likely unfamiliar with who we are, what we stand for and what we offer. And in many cases, they were former customers of companies that had different digital capabilities.

So behind the scenes, we have to work very hard to clean up the data and integrate systems. And onboard these customers, it's really make or break. I think we've established a solid repeatable approach to integrating these acquired customers. And we learn something new with each one. We are really investing in the acquired customer onboarding experience so that we connect with these new customers early and earn their trust.

But I will tell you. Over the last several years, we integrated the two largest blocks have acquired customers in our history and we've learned a lot. So I would say we stubbed our toe some, but we took those learnings. The second went much better than the first. So we're really modeling what it means to be a learning organization.

Anthony: So are you moving towards a, a, like a unified customer database, a unified, policy administration environment?

Cissy: Yes. our default disposition is to convert customers onto our admin platforms, rationalize the data. we don't always do that immediately. And we have a few outliers, you know, sometimes you get for example, a really complex homegrown system from an acquired company that it takes some time to do.

Sometimes there are some other considerations that cause us to lift and move a system into our environment before we integrate it. But very much we believe that scale is a big part of our strategy and that one of the ways that we get scale is to have as many customers as possible.

On our core operating systems and using consistent and scaled business processes. So that's definitely our default disposition. And we're generally pretty successful at it.

Anthony: And, and how would you say you've reacted from a technology and.

Cissy: and.

Anthony: Customer service standpoint. Well, how, how have you progressed digitally, generally in the wake of the pandemic when you were forced to work in a remote

Cissy: in a remote environment?

Oh, leaps and bounds. I mean, I think you know, as difficult as it was. And there were so many things that were challenging about the pandemic for everyone, but particularly for our industry, you know, we've paid over a billion dollars in COVID related claims, and we've had to manage, you know, that, that customer impact and you know, it's been very busy for our employees and very impactful for our, for our customers.


it has accelerated digitization. So from, simple things like early in the pandemic, we had a number of customers and partners who didn't go to the post office. Right. They didn't leave their home. And they were used to getting their hard copy documents, or if they had hard copy documents delivered to their place of business or to their.

Anthony: they.

Cissy: you know, we didn't know, right. People didn't want to touch documents that were coming from somewhere else that someone else had put in their mailbox. So that's a very simple example of an accelerator of, digital signatures, digital documents. eDelivery um, similarly, people that did.

Policies became very engaged with the policies, wanting to understand them, to understand the value, to understand, what the face amount was and, and, and what the conditions of the policies were. So we had people engaged with us, and by the way, people were generally at home had more flexibility.

I think they had more time and energy, and commitment to understanding what their digital tools were and to really investing in understanding how they could access their information and use their information. So, you know, just a lot of dynamics from the customer and agent perspective. And then of course from the employee perspective, I mean, I certainly remember, you know, those few days in March, Of 2020 when we were literally taking.

Monitors off desks and computers and telephone systems and packing them up and loading them in employee cars. You know, we had been a very much an office base. We had some people that worked remote, but very much an office based work environment. And that changed literally overnight changed, very successfully changed forever.

But I'd tell you, I, I never used Microsoft teams be before March of 2020, and now. You know, I use it hours and hours every day. It's

Anthony: become normal. Yeah. I, I wonder if there's something also to be said about the

Cissy: the

Anthony: effect of the pandemic and the acceleration of digital on the role of the advisor on the change of the relationship between carrier and distributor.

Cissy: distributor.

Anthony: you know, we think about automation and digital as to, to a certain extent.

It's like when the internet first became a thing and how there was a fear of this intermediation. But what we often saw was that the internet became a greater tool for the carrier distributor relationship for the carrier advisor relationship.

Cissy: relationship.

Anthony: So I'm wondering what,

Cissy: I'm wondering what,

Anthony: experience was with this digital acceleration in that regard.

Cissy: that. Oh, absolutely. And it's not the area of the company that I deal most directly with, but we did little if any digital wholesaling, so we have a group of wholesalers that go out and engage with advisors and advisor firms.

And that was always, you know, road warrior type work. You get in your car, you're on the road, day in, day out, you're going around your territory. And you're meeting with people face to face. I've had an opportunity to, to ride with some of our wholesalers and they literally, you know, go to different banks, go to different advisor firms.

They make appointments, they meet all of a sudden. you couldn't do that. nobody wanted to see you even if you wanted to go out. So, you know, we've really transformed our engagement model with our advisors, much more digital, and we've tried to take the best of that and think about how do we. extend the reach of our intermediaries make more productive.

But also now that things have normalized a bit more, whatever that means, find the best again of that face to face engagement model complimented by the digital aptitude and the digital tools that we learned through the.

Anthony: And again, the right balance of the machine and the human, getting the, getting the advantages of automation, but the human touch where you need it, where the customer wants it.

Sissy's a leader intensely engaged with different aspects of the business from details about system transformation, to the major trends, relevant to protectives competitive position. If there's one theme that unites her wide range of concerns, it's her focus on customer centricity and what that implies for customer experience that focus shows in how she talks about working with her team to determine which initiatives to prioritize.

in this regard, one of her most interesting observations was about protectives interaction matrix, which assesses interactions on the dual criteria of complexity and customer value, meaning value to the costume.

Thank you for joining us for the life accelerated podcast. For more relevant content, to help you achieve digital transformation. Visit equ.com/life accelerated.


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