Some businesses have struggled through the constant changes of the past 2 years. Brian Poppe and his team at Mutual of Omaha had the systems in place to thrive. They shifted strategy, adapted with sweeping change, and embraced technology. In this episode, learn how to approach your customers’ digital demands and what to prioritize in a noisy world.
The last two years have been difficult for many life insurance companies. To meet the demands of a digital workplace and marketplace, some were forced to flip their business models nearly overnight. Others were well-positioned; They shifted priorities and embraced technology to serve their customers even better. Mutual of Omaha was one of those institutions.
In this week’s episode of Life Accelerated, Mutual of Omaha’s Brian Poppe shares how the $10 billion organization adapted quickly and prioritized their talent and mission. Sharing his expertise as SVP of Technology Modernization, Brian discusses how important an efficient, effective, instant customer experience is while also emphasizing data security.
Your mission should not change as digitization takes hold. Instead, use technology to improve your products, services and customer experience.
Remote and hybrid workplaces are common in 2022. If your organization wants to compete at the highest level, it’s critical you meet modern demands of both top talent and paying customers.
While keeping data security top of mind, leverage data analysis and machine learning to make strategic business decisions.
SVP, Technology Modernization, Mutual of Omaha
Brian Poppe is Senior Vice President of Technology Modernization at Mutual of Omaha. In this role, Poppe evaluates and prioritizes tech modernization projects, provides a framework for migrating data and systems to the cloud, and influences IT to help deliver solutions in a way that produces customer value, emphasizes speed and enables analytics.
Previously, Poppe led one of the company’s five business units – Departing Well Solutions – where he managed product profitability for final expense life insurance needs. He worked with a cross-functional team to introduce a customer onboarding experience, led a transformational effort within the direct sales team, and increased revenues at a 10% compound annual growth rate for 2017-2019. Poppe joined Mutual of Omaha in 2009 and served in a variety of actuarial roles on both the product side and the corporate side, including starting the innovation practice at Mutual of Omaha.
Poppe received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). He has earned the designations of Fellow and Chartered Enterprise Risk Analyst from the Society of Actuaries. He currently serves as the chair of UNL’s College of Business Young Alumni Board and as an advisory board member for the Raikes Program at UNL.
Anthony: So how can we understand your job and your work in the context of where the life insurance industry is today? How do you think of addressing current consumer demand? I would imagine even as a mutual company, that's as much of an issue as it would be for a company with shareholders.
Brian: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Where we've been as an industry, as a whole, we are a hundred plus year old industry that, for better or for worse, could dictate the customer experience because they needed it and they didn't have another alternative.
If we needed to do to take two weeks or a month, or even longer to make a risk decision of, Hey, are we going to approve this person or not? We could do that because again, the customer is going to get that same experience in other places. So as you might've heard or expected over the last few years, things have greatly changed both from a customer experience on insurance through COVID and even through. The day-to-day life of customers, so really it is about how do we accelerate the things that we've done. How do we make that easier for the customer?
You have the industries, that have completely shifted again. They used to work probably similar to how we did an insurance of “Where else are you going to go? Sorry. Sorry. The experience isn't great.” You need to bounce around these three different departments to get the thing done that you want to get done as a customer to, oh, no, I can do that instantly.
And I can do that on my phone and I don't actually have to talk to anybody at all if I don't want. That's the challenge that I think us at Mutual of Omaha and many others are facing, whether or not you're a stock company or a mutual company. I try and think about financial services broadly and banking is one that it's a couple of years ahead of the insurance industry and how they've enabled that customer experience customers, to be able to do what they want to, what they need to without much interaction from the company like customer wants to call us.
Great. We'd be happy to talk to you, but we're trying to get to the place where it's if you want to do it yourself, here's all the things that you could possibly need. And the education around either making that decision of buying or making that change to whoever your beneficiary is or whatever it is that they're.
Anthony: Brian, Mutual of Omaha is a company that's over a century old, and I wonder how you reconcile the company's historical market position and its mission with the technology modernization task that you have.
Brian: Mutual of Omaha has historically been a mass market company. We have primarily served folks in the middle-class. We're well-known for reaching all sorts of Americans through the wild kingdom television show in the seventies and eighties.
Anytime you do a customer interview, takes about, I think the over-under is about 12 minutes for when they remember. “Oh yeah. I used to grow up watching Wild Kingdom. We'd get a TV dinner. We'd sit down in front of the TV. We'd watch wild kingdom and then follow that up with the Disney movie of the week.” And that comes up so so often again, it's about every 12 minutes for a customer interview.
We're not trying to sell complicated investment products. It's usually, “Hey, this is the risk that you have as a customer. Here's how we would recommend you cover it. Here's a few things that you might consider that might help you and even enhance that coverage.” But for the most part, we're here, we're making this promise and we're going to deliver on that promise.
So to balance that with technology modernization we are, again, trying to find ways to reach those customers. So in the past it was a television show. We've done a fair amount of direct mailing. We are launching Wild Kingdom again, although instead of on a broadcast television, it's going to be on streaming services.
So we've got several, ways of which we are going to try and reach that exact same customer base. So technology modernization to your point is really all about how do we better connect with those customers. Who we know resonate with a Mutual of Omaha brand, who we know how to serve, who we've been serving for the last a hundred plus years.
Anthony: Right. So technology actually helps you to execute your perennial mission.
Brian: Yeah, the mission has not changed. We help families protect what they care about and achieve their financial goals. That's short and sweet. That's exactly what we're trying to do. And Mutual of Omaha technology is just a way of helping us do that. We're an insurance company that uses technology to provide that insurance. Technology is going to be core to how we do that efficiently. How do we do that effectively? And again, how we do that nearly instantly with the customer base that we have, right?
You've got customers that have that everyday experience of, I can do what I want, and that gets done in three minutes, five minutes on my phone. Like most other insurance companies where we're still struggling with, how do we make that happen? Because we've built around batch processes overnight.
Again, we've centered around our processes and not necessarily around the customer experience. Thankfully we flip that and customer experiences, very high on our list of things to, to work on over the next few years.
Anthony: Let's make it all concrete and talk about some of the other priorities that Mutual of Omaha has to improve the customer experience and to modernize the general.
Brian: We have five business units. They're all focused on the same thing. How do I grow? How do I achieve the profit targets that have been assigned or whatever that we should be expecting from the risk that we're taking on within each of those business units?
So the growth then, right? It comes from, how do I either enable our distributors who are still key to our strategy, whether they are our own advisory group, whether they're independent distributors or whether they're our direct to consumer marketing, how do I enable them again, to be efficient, effective, find the folks that need the products that we have that have, that need to protect what they care about or achieve their financial goals and make them as productive as they can.
Again, that distribution channel to be able to get that coverage in place for those. So that's one, right? You've got the growth target out there on the technology side. It's how do we build in such a way that change is a feature and not a bug?
So in the past it was let's build a requirements document, let's have a big meeting about that requirements document. And then if you want to change the requirements at any point before we deliver this thing all at once that's going to be expensive and it's going to drag out the timeline. So we've at least said that's that worked for a while?
One of the things we're moving towards is a model. Agile way of working, but also an agile way of thinking. So I've got some indications that this is probably the way that we're going to head. Let's start moving in that direction. There's at least some basic things I didn't want to do. And then we'll plan on changing the plan over time.
So part of that is the technology architecture that we're working on. How do I structure this in a way that it's again, API connected. More easily plug and play capabilities along the way, or I can more easily update components if I've got internal teams working on it without completely blowing up the entire process.
So for example, if I wanna make a change to the policy output, I don't have to go back to. Maybe the overall administration system. I can just make the change if I want to change the logo. For example, like we did a couple of years ago, I can make the change in the policy output rather than have to go to each of the admin systems and change that logo individually.
So again, you're trying to maybe plan on change as a feature and not about you're trying to abstract some of the things away to separate them so that you have some ownership on the teams. If you've got some again, separate technology capabilities that integrate nicely, but if something goes down, it doesn't completely blow anything up.
So from the IT side, that's one of the things we're working on in 2022 is structuring the teams and separating those capabilities cleanly in a way that you can, again, begin to do that. So we've got components of that in place. The next gen platform we had talked about just a minute earlier that is one way that we've done that with a couple of our products.
We want to do that with the rest of our business units and the rest of the products that we have at Mutual Omaha. Again, trying to make our lives easier down the line and make it more flexible for how we interact with customers, how they interact with us. And so on. So you've got the growth, you've got that kind of separation and then we've got how do we work more effectively within it as well?
So we've got some items we've called them big rocks, So we've got five big rocks that we're working on. Some of them being the, one of them being the new platform, one of them being a better integration strategy for those components that I had described, one of them being, how do we better communicate with our customers, manage their preferences, think about them as a single entity, rather than multiple policy holders.
For example one of them being, how do we make our distributors lives easier? And how do we better manage the distributors themselves? So from a commission standpoint, from a licensing and appointment standpoint, so Those are super important to us and how we reach the customers.
And you've got three focused on “how do I improve that customer experience” and set us up for success.
Anthony: Let's talk a little bit about the next generation insurance platform. What is it exactly? What are its major components and what will it do?
Brian: We've been somewhat public about this, The next gen platform is a cloud based. API enabled end-to-end insurance customer experience. So everything from the marketing, the application process, the underwriting process all the way through claims.
So one of the main components that we've been relatively public about is we worked with a company called Socotra. They've been doing our policy administration platform for that next gen platform. We have a disability income product on it. We've got another one that'll be launching sometime in the next couple of months.
The hub that kind of makes that work. So if you have heard Dan woods, he's the CEO of Socotra speak about what his model is. He's got a theory that best of breed that has taken over in nearly every other industry is also going to take hold and insurance too.
So he's like we do policy administration. We do that with API APIs. Here's our public documentation. If you want us to do underwriting. Here's a basic underwriting component, but that's not really what we do best. If you want us to do claims, here's how we would administer it, but that's really not what we do best.
We are in the business of keeping track of your policies, whether they've paid premium, but we don't collect the premiums. We were just in, in business of keeping track of them. And then enabling you as the carrier to connect via our platform via API. And then do all the other things that you want to create.
So you're going to want to create a claim system that works for both your customers, your producers, and your internal associates. And he said, that's probably not Socotra that does that best. That's probably some other system. So for a while on disability income we did handle that manually.
Since then we've put a newer platform in place to be able to connect those pieces together. On the application side, we built our own we said, “Hey, we wanna manage the applicant ourselves so that we can do both a customer experience and a shared like producer customer experience.”
So producer can fill out a part and then they can fill that out with the customer in mind. We didn't see anything in the market. So we built all that ourselves. We've also integrated with a couple of other external carriers and things that would have taken us, maybe 12 months or more.
We've been able to do and something like 12 weeks, with a team that's about half the size of what we would've required before. And now we've got culture in place. The culture would tell you there's policy types that they don't do offhand today.
And so they're like if we want to be the policy administration component, but if we don't have. For us, like you can use the rest of the components along the way. We could reuse that application. We can reuse that claim system, but we might use another policy administration platform other than Socotra that connects in again, that's the thing that we're really trying to build is how do I build for that flexibility in the future and not necessarily for the rigidity of the requirements documents that we used to work for in the past.
Anthony: Yeah, it's really interesting to see a kind of a Renaissance of best of breed because we, in the industry, we went through a. For what we went from being homegrown to going to essentially a best of breed strategy to going to the integrated suite of course system. So it's very interesting how API APIs and the, the whole microservices e-economy, if you want to call it, that is enabling that, approach and getting results.
So I wonder as you attempt to do these things, what challenges you might face ranging from. Procurement to staffing a partner management integration in order to make the next gen platform of success.
Brian: I suppose that is one of the other main components of things we're working on in 2022 is how do we bring the talent? When we started the tech modernization journey, a little more than two years ago, one of the things we wanted to do is give our associates that chance to upscale.
So we've spent a fair amount of time and money. And Programs to be able to get them where they need to go. So to give them the skills of, “Hey, here's what an API is, here's how you work with we've been public about our chosen partner in MuleSoft. We use AWS as our cloud platform.”
“Here's how you build on AWS. Here's how you would deploy services. That would be mutual of Omaha compliant with regard to security, with regard to data storage and so on.” So we've done a fair amount of that over the last couple of years and are going to continue to do that. But like the rest of the industry, we've seen turnover tick up.
It's not at a concerning level, but certainly more than we've had in the past.
Anthony: What you think is driving that and what, and whether it is part of the great resignation as it's being called.
Brian: Our headquarters is in Omaha, Nebraska, and up until a couple of years ago the expectation was that if you were going to work for Mutual of Omaha, you would live in the Omaha area. And now we did have a couple of other offices that were a little smaller.
We did have a few folks that worked permanently remote, but for the most part, if you're going to work from each of them or how you had to be in Omaha, Nebraska. we have since changed that stance. We're fully hybrid from here on out.
Anthony: I was going to ask her what did the prospects want these days? What are they saying to you about their expectations?
Brian: But the expectation is they really enjoy working from home. Frankly I do too. It's nice to come in and see your coworkers, but it's also nice to, roll out of bed, grab a cup of coffee and then join that meeting at eight o'clock.
Brian: So there, there are some perks, both ways and we're fully committed to hybrid. We're building a new office building in downtown Omaha. That's about half the square footage. So we expect probably 40% of the Omaha associates to be in that building on any given day, it's going to be much more collaborative space than cubicles.
That's one of the things that I think has changed. Us and the great resignation, is people can work from anywhere for most companies. And we've seen that goes both ways, right? We've seen folks leave because they can't work for another company somewhere else, but we've also been able to recruit folks that we probably otherwise couldn't have if we had required them to move to Omaha.
Anthony: Yeah how has it gone? I've spoken to so many carrier people who have said that when they were hit with the lockdowns, they like you, many of them have had a very aggressive transformation agenda. They were facing all these major initiatives and suddenly they had to do it on a remote basis.
I would say universally, the, what they found was they could do.
Brian: Yeah, you can send that universal group. I think the thing that would have held us back significantly before was we had an on-prem hard-wired phone system up until. 2019 I think is when we finally got them, got rid of all of them. So we transitioned to Amazon connect.
If you call it Mutual of Omaha, 800 number, you're going to get routed through an Amazon connect call center somewhere.was a great win for us.
That, that literally happened over a weekend. We got everybody the things that they needed to be able to do exactly that. I think most of the rest of us who were either handling meetings all day, we found again to be just as effective at home as in person. Now, there are some aspects that you miss. There's some energy that you can't seem to recreate. Quite yet, through, through a camera, there is something to be able to see your coworkers or even the delay, the slight delay from sending things through the internet to a screen somewhere else.
Quite overcome that yet with sitting next to somebody and riffing off of ideas and the white boarding tool. I think that is one thing that universally, we all seem to miss it. Sure. There are plenty of white boarding tools that we've tried, but nothing quite beats an actual whiteboard and a marker and standing up there and riffing on, Hey, what are we going to do next? Oh no. Let's erase that and let's start over and maybe pivot that this way. Okay. What about this other component and so on, right?
Anthony: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I've been working remotely since 2002 and I relish the opportunities to get out in the field and mix with people in person there's really no substitute. I would imagine that as things are opening up, you're encouraging employees to come in and activating that hybrid stress.
Brian: I heard one of my coworkers say this the other day and I loved it. So you've got the Yogi bear line where it's it's too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore. We've got the reverse problem at the office. There's nobody there. So nobody goes there anymore. Just this week though, I started to see a few more folks in the office and they're like, oh man, it's so nice to see a few other friendly faces around.
So I think as we'll open up, you'll get the reputation of, oh, like Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays are pretty busy in the office. So I'm going to start heading in on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursday. So I can see a few other folks and that'll build some momentum. Now certainly it's to the point that we've had over the last few minutes, it's not going to be like, it was where everybody was expected to be in the office every day.
But I think you're going to build some momentum. Certainly we will like mutual of Omaha and I would assume most of their companies are going to end up in that same spot.
Anthony: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense human contact, but also a more streamlined way of working. So Brian, let me bring you back to the technology discussion. The next gen platform is about customer experience, but data plays an important role in making that work.
So how do the data considerations loom in, terms of the creation and operation of the next gen plan?
I already mentioned the API integration. So when you're passing data in between multiple business capabilities in the past, we might've chosen a monolithic system, so you didn't have to pass data or you might've said I want to end thing that does everything for us, which to the point we had earlier about the best of breed, like that kind of flies in the face of that strategy.
So API integration and events, either way, if you're using events to do asynchronous integration I'm using an API to go back and forth. Like those are the ways that we're handling the data in between those capabilities again to build ultimately for that best customer experience. When I mentioned flexibility so think about maybe underwriting data as one way of doing that.
Underwriters have worked for a long time with originally paper documents now, PDF or faxed versions of those documents. You've got electronic medical records that have obviously taken hold over the last five years and have really accelerated over the last couple. And the interoperability of those medical records has been a challenge that, that seems to be breaking down too.
So building in a way that you could get that data into the platform and expecting that to come in different formats in different ways and in probably much larger quantities than we would have. Familiar with in the past is again, one of the things we're trying to build with that, that next gen platform now of the data that we're storing and capturing certainly we're doing all this stuff that we used to do.
But we've also got even more data about the customer experience. Generally, and we've tried to be more thoughtful about capturing those pieces. So things like if they're filling out an application, how much time are they spending on this question or on this screen so that you can either change the way the question is asked, for example, or simplify the question itself, or, maybe there's another way of getting that particular data and you don't have to ask the customer at all.
So we're starting to think more about how do I capture elements of the customer experience, store that, and then analyze it. One of the fun things about life and health insurances, or maybe slightly behind even the property and casualty insurance folks and thinking about how to use big data or how to use machine learning to help make operational decisions.
So we certainly had data scientists around here for, oh, I don't know the better part of 10 years. We've used them as, closer to a super advanced analyst in the past. So they're doing things like taking the dataset and saying what can I learn from this data set that I didn't already know?
And then let me make big business decisions out of it. We're trying to translate the big business decisions into something like how can I do this in real time? So if I’ve learned something about a customer, maybe health as they're going through an application. How do I immediately follow that up with a question directly to the customer?
So I don't have to come back a week later after an underwriter's had a chance to look at it, to ask them that question. So if there's something I can do with machine learning in real time. That's certainly a win for the customer. They're already in the midst of filling out the process that's a win for the underwriting team.
So they don't have to wait that lag time of looking at the data themselves and then coming back. So we're trying to think about where are the places that you can use, that new data that we're collecting and begin to insert that into the customer experience without having to, spend specific, analyzing time down the line and then make a decision after the fact.
And that's. That's a little bit new for us. And one thing that we've been focusing our data scientists on is how do we operationalize some of the things that they're building?
Like, how can we turn that into a real-time customer experience rather than a decision we've got to make down the line. And that's been a fun challenge to think about and certainly enabled by the next gen platform. You wouldn't be able to do that with a on-prem server base. Like you're only able to do that because of the computing power and speed available in the cloud.
Anthony: Brian, if you had to give a status report of where the next-gen platform initiative was would you say relative to when you started what you've accomplished So far and what are some of the main components that still lie in.
Brian: We've got one product live with customers. We've got another product that's coming out in the next month or two. So from an end-to-end standard. It's live, it works. We've been happy with the performance of it. We've got ambitions for each of the business units to build one of their products. They have multiple products under each business unit, one of their products on the next gen platform in the next 18 months. That's ambitious for folks that have been again, building on the mainframe for 2030 years.
Certainly we know how to do that. If a business unit comes to the IT teams and they say, Hey, I want a new product. The it team says, I know how to do that. I know how to do that on the mainframe. Give me 24 months, give me, three to $4 million and we'll get it done for you. We're certainly trying to take that time down significantly, and that spend down significantly.
But it does take some, talent upscaling to be able to do that, to say, Hey, we know you used to do this in mainframe. Here's how you would do this on the next-gen platform. There are certainly some components, as I mentioned, Socotra, doesn't administer all types of business that, that are maybe missing in as we move into those new types of products or the claim system that we have for disability income is probably not going to work for a life insurance customer.
So we've got to find a life insurance claims a way of administering claims. I guess it doesn't necessarily need to be a vendor. There's a couple of different types of vendors. You've got the legacy folks that are in the group of, Hey, let me, use the land and expand a model.
And then you've got the folks who are maybe more coach-like or Stripe. If you're familiar with them of this is our API, this is our product. Here's how you use it. Knock yourself out. we'll charge you per transaction in the case of Stripe. And as you try and find vendors that fit more of that second model within the InsureTech space, we would love to see more of them.
We know that probably the main task that we'll have going forward is going to be the integration of various vendors to be able to create that customer experience that frankly we want to build. And also that they're demanding of us, as a 21st century insurance industry.
Anthony: In the past, we might've had a way of operating where we think about what the technology can do, and then we go out and build it. And like you said, in your earlier remarks, Insurance companies were in a position to dictate that experience and the way you're talking to me today, it sounds like you're very much engaged in a very open approach to what the available technology has to offer and that you're designing these systems from the outside-in you're asking what needs to be done. What do people expect? And then you're building back from that.
Brian: Yeah, exactly. we would love to find vendors that would help us do that. Like we don't want to have to build everything ourselves that takes a long time and it ends up being a little bit more fragile that way.
You're not going to build a payment processor for mutual of Omaha. That's better than something that Stripe could build. That's their whole thing, right? Their whole thing is we take payments via API. we're not going to beat an entire company that does that. So if the goal is to create a ideal customer experience for the moments that matter, like you're going to want to try and find either a best of breed, or you're going to say, man, we've really got the expertise here.
And we've got to be the experts on the things that we want to do really well. And so you're going to have to either put more people on those things that really matter to us or you're going to find a vendor to help you do it. But you're going to need that kind of thought for different components along the way. There's moments again, that matter more to, to customers and others. And that's where we want to start to begin to focus our efforts and then integrate with folks who can help us make the rest of the experience seamless and easy.
Anthony: Well toward those goals, if you had to identify three indispensable initiatives, what would they be?
Brian: That talent one for sure. Without the people that we have at Mutual of Omaha being able to do that integration, being able to have that vision of what the technology can do and creatively solve both the technical challenges and frankly, the curiosity about making that customer experience ideal.
Certainly, that's one indispensable item that I would definitely not want to get rid of. Second one is. Maybe shift to the cloud for the ease of integration and the data that it provides. That's going to be so important to us going forward again, not only about doing the basic things that insurance company must do, but about understanding that customer experience. The third one, how do we better work with our distributors? And again, whether that is making better selections on the direct to consumer piece or whether that's a better working with the folks who are currently out there selling our products, or there's plenty of new ways that have been tried to sell insurance and finding ways to partner with them.
If you just look at the life insurance coverage stats of people that say that they want, or need life insurance, as compared to the people that own it, there's a big gap there. Part of that gap is costs. So technology would certainly help bring down some of that costs, part of that is access.
Brian: Part of that is education, we think there's plenty of opportunity for not only us, but other insurance carriers in the market to be able close that gap through new and creative ways of distribution, as well as making it easier for your current partners to do the business that they're already trying to bring your way.
Anthony: I enjoyed speaking with Brian and found his insights around the next generation digital platform initiative, particularly informative. It takes a full organizational support to pull off digital transformation and Brian and his team at Mutual of Omaha have set a standard for innovation that will surely impact Mutual of Omaha.
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