Kelly Coomer, CIO of Sammons Financial Group, reveals her vision, systems, and how she is investing in technology to help her business grow and maintain the pace of growth.
Would you classify your company as one that experienced growth but now is in a dry spot and has plateaued?
If so, Kelly Coomer, CIO of Sammons Financial Group, has an answer for you.
Developing and evolving the business into a product mindset.
Kelly is on the hunt to obtain technology to improve customer experience, keep employees satisfied, and hire and retain workers. She shares her journey and changes that she has made in order to keep the company growing - all centered around the company-wide shift to a product mindset.
Shifting into the product-mindset is the glue between business and technology teams which results in a clearer and more efficient path to improve capabilities.
Adapting to modern systems can be more beneficial than legacy systems in improving digital capabilities and self-service.
Focusing on both the agent and the customer experiences when deciding on innovation efforts is crucial.
Chief Information Officer, Sammons Financial Group
Kelly Coomer serves as the Chief Information Officer at Sammons Financial Group Member Companies, where she is responsible for leading technology operations and strategy to enable strategic growth. In addition, she is on the board for Urban Gateways, a program bringing creative engagement and artistic connections to young people in Chicago and beyond.
Prior to Sammons Financial Group, Kelly spent twelve years at Allstate as a Divisional CIO responsible for Allstate’s consumer website and mobile applications as well as the core property and casualty policy administration systems. She also spent eight years at Accenture providing consulting guidance related to policy administration systems and program management office practices to various property & casualty insurance clients. In addition, she has owned and operated two Cold Stone Creamery franchises in Chicago.
Kelly holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Southern California.
Anthony O'Donnell: So Kelly, tell us a little bit about Sammons financial group's place in the market. Its product range and its distribution channels.
Kelly Coomer: Sure. So I'm responsible for all of the technology and use throughout the company. That includes, you know, software development, infrastructure, security, you know, all of it. it's a combination of daily operations or that you would think in most it organizations. But we're also undertaking significant transformational initiatives.
So we're doing a lot of investments in technology to really help the business grow and to keep up with the pace of growth we've had over the last few years.
Anthony O'Donnell: Maybe can talk generically about the vision and the kind of company that salmons is working on becoming.
Kelly Coomer: Yeah. I'd say we're working on becoming one that is better able at servicing agents and customers and having a more positive experience when they call and or being able to transact business more digitally. And in order to do that, like I said, on the life side, we had, you know, the, the work we had to do to implement a new policy admin system first, but then everything we're doing around that looks at all of the digital capabilities the agents interface with us on, take, an IUL product, which is one of our bread and butter products on the life side.
They need to do illustrations of that product. They wanna be able to submit the application seamlessly electronically, which we do offer. but you know, they want a better experience as to how that illustration application process works than it does today. So we will be making investments there to improve that experience for the agents.
Just as an example, when I talk about that next phase of work, that's where we're going next.
Anthony O'Donnell: Okay. So let's talk about some of the particulars of your digital transformation and overall modernization agenda. How have you prioritized your initiatives and what's on the table?
Kelly Coomer: So we have quite a few big initiatives going on. I think, you know, the covid, situation for everyone opened many eyes to the need to invest in more modern digital capabilities. I saw an expediting of basic foundational capabilities, like e-delivery, signature type capabilities. but we've continued that journey.
Now it's well beyond covid and more about looking at our business model and what do we need to continue to grow and like I said, properly, service our agents and our customers. So we are doing things like implementing a new policy administration system for our life division. That’s quite a big undertaking and we have as many life insurers do a lot of legacy older policy administration systems.
Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. You know, I, do like to talk about legacy systems and about core systems in general as an aspect of digital transformation, because very often you're restricted in what you can do in servicing your agents and servicing your end customers based upon the capabilities, the limitations of those legacy systems.
So I imagine that had something to do with your thinking, about going in that direction.
Kelly Coomer: You are spot on. Yes. this isn't the end all. Be all of how we modernize, you know, in this case, the life business. This is just the start. I call it, you know, basically transplanting the heart. We get the heart transplant done, and then all of the bells and whistles and all of the digital capabilities and self-service will be vastly improved by a more modern system that can connect and deliver those things more seamlessly than the legacy systems we have in place now.
Anthony O'Donnell: It's just the beginning. Yeah. what's your timeline on this initiative? Have you begun it? Are you about to begin it?
Kelly Coomer: Yeah, we're in flight. We're, like I said, we're live in production, with a subset of our distribution force. So over the course of this year, we expect to see it expand. We expect to see rollouts every month we're, you know, agile and how we're adding to the capabilities scaling the distribution.
So we will continue to do it over time throughout the rest of the year and we hope to have more products available on this year as well could carry into next year. We’re still in our planning phases there.
Anthony O'Donnell: And what's your view as CIO infrastructure and of the migration to the cloud?
Kelly Coomer: I'd say for us at Sammons, I mean definitely we are looking at cloud going forward, so for us it's less about looking at the things we have that currently are on-prem and re-platforming. That's not an area of focus for us, but we are definitely an organization that is, likely to buy over build software.
And so SaaS is a good spot for us. We do look at a lot of SaaS rather than custom engineered solutions. And that SaaS offering obviously runs in the cloud. so, I'd say, you know, a lot of it is more net new going forward. If we were gonna build something, we'd wanna build it on the cloud, not build it on prem. But we don't have significant, you know, effort lined up to look at what we have in house and re-platform, get off the mainframe, for example. Like we still see having data centers and that there is no plan to actively move out of having our own data centers.
Anthony O'Donnell: Has your IT organization evolved over the years in the direction of being, less a staff of programmers, more a staff of partner managers,
Kelly Coomer: Not yet. I don't think we've hit the tipping point yet to say that's really how it's shifted. I do think over time if we live into this philosophy of buy overbuild, you do see naturally less developers and more analyst types. but we aren't there yet. There's still plenty of software that we're building.
Kelly Coomer: So it's definitely top of mind, part of the conversation, but we aren't past that tipping point.
Anthony O'Donnell: I'd like to bring you back a little bit. You mentioned Covid, right? we started this podcast series going on about a year now, and of course, we were a lot closer to the rigors of the pandemic and we've talked a lot during this series about The influence of the pandemic on development, on staffing and that sort of thing, I wondered how much that changed the view of modernization and perhaps the pace of modernization at salmons.
Kelly Coomer: I think it inherently changed everything, whether people recognize it or not. I can say from my own employee experience at Sammons, before the pandemic, we had a pretty large, distributed workforce in multiple locations as well as already working remote from their home. but we didn't necessarily think about what that experience felt like to those employees.
Often we would have meetings, and the meetings would be in-office centric. Even though we had a video conference capabilities, we wouldn't use it other than to show slides. Like we weren't on video, for instance. We couldn't see reactions, and that was just the normal way to work. We never thought any differently. I think when people go and live through and experience themselves, they start to think more broadly about what others are experiencing. And so I think for many of us understanding what digital did or didn't offer at that point in our lives, when that was the only alternative, we really had opened up our eyes to the need to think differently about its importance in every aspect of the companies we interact with.
Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. It sounds like to a certain extent, it validated what you were already doing since you had a fairly large distributed workforce, and yet it also forced you to concentrate on thinking about the experience of remote work. And so now I suppose you're somewhat of a different organization building on what you had.
Kelly Coomer: Yes. I mean, even internally, again, I'm talking more about some of our externally facing impactful work, like our policy administration change and what we will end up doing with agent and customer experience after that, but even just internally for our employees. We're moving forward with things that had been on the docket for quite a while.
We just hadn't gone to something as basic as, like, Microsoft 365 is an example. I mean, definitely going through Covid it influenced the need to have better collaboration just amongst employees. So yes, it definitely brought multiple big initiatives, digital initiatives to the table that had been talked about but hadn't been pursued.
Anthony O'Donnell: Right. So you had remote work already established as a kind of infrastructure. You've learned better how to do it. you've probably get gotten some support from senior management to operate the way you are now.
You had mentioned Agile before and I wondered how, you talked a little bit about collaboration, about how the remote work has shaped the way you approach development.
Kelly Coomer: It's definitely a topic of conversation all the tiWe, right? we used to have teams more co-located. before the pandemic. That has definitely shifted as we are now hiring people where they're willing to work, to get, you know, the right people. That's what we have to do. So it's definitely more of a conversation, especially among management of how do you create a great work environment and work experience when the teams are more distributed, even within the team itself, that works together regularly.
Anthony O'Donnell: What are your feelings about the ability to attract and recruit top talent as your organization continues to evolve into something a little different than it's been traditionally?
Kelly Coomer: Yeah. Well, Sammons is highly regarded. If you look at the best places to work, it always has a very high CEO satisfaction rating and an employee rating. I think being an, employee stock ownership program company has a big difference in how we work. I've come from public companies in my past, and you have to change your decisions.
Pretty often, depending on how the market reacts, and in an ESOP structured company, you don't have that external pressure on you. So really, I think when you set your course, as long as you're willing to see it through, even if it gets challenging you, you do that, you're more likely to follow through on that course and that vision.
I think employees, like companies like that who don't feel that whipsaw effect of, we're gonna grow. We need to grow our technology staff. Oh, now we need to shrink our technology staff. and less investment. Like we stay a little more sturdy and predictable. When we go after something, we complete it.
So I think that's all what contributes to our ability to hire and even in the tough, market that we've had in the last year, I'm very happy with our, um, ability to retain our IT employees because it was a very good market and a lot people, a lot of companies, our attrition definitely went up, but definitely was, you know, below what I would expect the industry attrition rate to be in that type of market.
Anthony O'Donnell: Well, and now a lot of these big tech companies are laying off large numbers of, of, uh, talented professionals and maybe that'll be an opportunity for life insurers to pick up some really good talent.
Kelly Coomer: Yes, I agree. I think that's helpful for us.
Anthony O'Donnell: Let's now talk about some of the digital capabilities that stand above that, that are kinda liberated by that. And, some of the initiatives that you have planned or in flight that are going to improve the experience of your agents and perhaps also your policy holders.
Kelly Coomer: Sure. Well, on the other side of our business in the annuity space, we have been investing in improving what we call the agent experience, the agent capabilities they have related to those annuity contracts they sell for Sammons. So that started, a couple years ago actually, it had been before the pandemic that we even started pursuing that path, but really has made traction in the last couple years.
So that same concept of wanting to have the right agent experience applies more broadly as we look at life as well. But again, we have to do the heart transplant first, and then we can start focusing on adding those experience, capabilities into that and hooking that. So I think there will be an ongoing, evolution of what it feels like to be an agent selling and servicing Sammons business for both life and annuity over the next few years as those initiatives start forming.
We're still early on in, in planning and discussing what those look like, how we'd enable them, and where we'd start our initial focus. But definitely we'll see more of that coming to life.
Anthony O'Donnell: So as that's kind of being set up, I would imagine you're doing various kinds of analysis with regard to the customer journey or the agent journey, and you're considering some technology options for capabilities to deliver.
Kelly Coomer: Yes. And not even just related to their own digital experience, but it also touches in on our operational side of the house and our. Call centers and our, business processors and what do they need to better service and sell, for the agents and the customers. So it isn't just about digital self-service for agents and customers, it's also, you know, our own internal folks that have to support and enable them and making sure they have the right platforms, the right capabilities and that we make, you know, their jobs easier. So they can get those questions and those work efforts done faster for the people that are, calling them or inquiring of them.
Anthony O'Donnell: Kelly, I know you're passionate about the product mindset. Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to that vision, if we can call it that, and, how you're thinking about it?
Kelly Coomer: Sure. Uh, I think, agile was a great, a great thing for many of us in it, right? It really helped break down some of the challenges we have with big waterfall projects that we can't estimate. in the end, take take too long, and what you deliver is, not what you need at that point. But agile by itself for me, doesn't give you all of the benefits.
And for me, that's the product mindset piece. Really shifting the way we think about technology to be joint between someone tied to a business function or business purpose, and the technicians that support it, and that together when they work closely together and understand each other's world collectively, the outcome is,
So for me, the product mindset piece, having active, like I said, business organizational people tied into the development of software yields better software. And that's the difference between, agile and product mindset for me, and that's been a big transformation here over the last three years and people have really gravitated towards this concept and been open to different ways of working.
Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. So with agile methodology, we've, moved a long way from what we used to call throwing it over the wall, right? And, and to where, when the delivery came, the business might have moved on. Or they, for one reason or another, thought that it wasn't what they had asked for. And with this mindset, and if you have technology and business working together, you, you're going to have a kind of on ongoing alignment, but even beyond that, you're gonna have a focus on, on the end product.
Kelly Coomer: Yes. And getting value out of that product and knowing how you're gonna measure it. I mean, ultimately that's where you wanna go. Well, we're still early on in our journey, but, like I said, I see a, a gravitation towards the concept and a willingness to try things that are different and we'll,
Kelly. It's been great getting to know you and uh, you've given me a really great kind of podcast interview today.
Kelly Coomer: Thank you. I appreciate your time.
Anthony O'Donnell: Thank you for joining us for the Life Accelerated Podcast. For more relevant content to help you achieve digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/life accelerated.
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