Episode 31

Strengthening Customer Engagement through Digital Transformation with Susan P. Roberts, Head of Strategy and Transformation at John Hancock

John Hancock's innovative approach to digital transformation can inspire and empower life insurers to embark on their own journey, uncovering key strategies to drive success in today's evolving market. Susan P. Roberts, Head of Strategy and Transformation at John Hancock, shares insights into John Hancock's multi-year strategy to enhance the customer experience and enable teams to achieve bold targets through iterative processes.

Listen on your favorite platform

We take your privacy seriously so in order to view the video content, please accept all cookies

Share on Social Media

Time Stamps

  • 01:43 Breakdown of John Hancock’s role in today’s market
  • 02:49 Susan’s role at John Hancock and career background
  • 05:35 How and why John Hancock is digitizing the insurance experience
  • 10:56 The underlying foundation of digital transformation
  • 11:53 Focus on personalized digital experiences for policyholders
  • 14:46 Educating and engaging customers with a digitalized behavioral insurance approach
  • 17:59 Exploration of how generative AI shapes customer service
  • 22:08 How prioritizing customer needs leads to strategic decision-making


John Hancock holds a distinguished position in the wealth and asset management space and offers a range of life insurance products exclusively through intermediaries. With over 160 years of experience, John Hancock is committed to delivering products that are easy to buy and enjoyable to own.

Susan P. Roberts, the Head of Strategy and Transformation at John Hancock, joined the Life Accelerated podcast to discuss the digital journey of John Hancock and the pivotal role digitalization plays in shaping the life insurance industry. Through the lens of behavioral insurance, Susan shares how digital transformation is redefining the insurer-policyholder relationship and championing the mission to help customers lead longer, healthier lives.

Key Takeaways:

    • Place policyholders, caregivers, and distribution partners at the center of digital initiation for a seamless, personalized experience.

    • Foster a spirit of innovation by leveraging behavioral insurance to drive meaningful interactions with customers.

    • Prioritize data to build tailored experiences for customers across their interactions with your company with foundational digital strategies.

It’s important to really understand our customers, understand where they are, and provide them digital services that are personalized to our understanding of them and their needs.

Susan P. Roberts

Head of Strategy and Transformation, John Hancock

Our Guest

Susan P. Roberts

LinkedIn Website

Susan P. Roberts is Head of Strategy and Transformation at John Hancock with a philosophy that transcends traditional industry norms. She champions the concept of "behavioral insurance," a foundational tenet of her company's ethos. Under her leadership, John Hancock has opted for a business model that relies exclusively on intermediaries.

Susan is redefining the role of insurance in the pursuit of personal wellness and longevity as an instrumental figure in the evolution of the industry and the driving force behind insurance conversation that focuses on providing customers with the financial protection they require while fostering their overall well-being. It’s a strategic approach that underscores her commitment to influence a change in the market by guiding customers towards longer, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.


Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell and this is Life Accelerated, a podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation.

In this episode, we speak with Susan Roberts, Head of Strategy and Transformation at John Hancock. Operating for more than 160 years, John Hancock operates within the wealth and asset management space and offers universal, indexed, variable, and term life products sold exclusively through intermediaries.

Susan is responsible for defining the company's multi year strategy, both setting goals and executing against them, while empowering and motivating teams. Digital transformation is central to John Hancock's strategy and is understood more as a mindset shift than a technology change, according to Susan.

She sees it as key to both growth and efficiency, as well as an opportunity to reinvent the customer experience. Here's my conversation with Susan.

Susan, John Hancock is a household name, but tell us where the company is today, where it fits in today's market.

Susan P. Roberts: Sure, great. Well, thank you for having me.

So John Hancock is a company with 160 year old history. We live within the wealth and asset management space. We also provide individual insurance. to our customers and within the individual insurance space.

It's a couple of things that are important to know about us. We largely focus within the universal, the index, the variable and the term products. We don't sell things like whole life. As an example, we sell exclusively through intermediaries. And I think what's really important about John Hancock and what's really differentiated is that we're really looking to change the conversation as it relates to insurance with our customers.

We want to help our customers have the financial protection that they need, but we're also looking to help them live longer, healthier, better lives. So we talk about it as behavioral insurance, and that's foundational to everything we do and how we show up within the market.

Anthony O'Donnell: We've spoken to John Hancock before about behavioral insurance, so I'm really excited to have this from your perspective. Tell us a little bit about yourself. What's your job at John Hancock and what career experiences led to your current responsibilities?

Susan P. Roberts: Sure. So I lead strategy, transformation and continuous delivery for John Hancock within the US, and what that basically means is I'm responsible for working with our leadership team to really think about where do we want to be three, five years from now, 10 years from now, and what are the bold actions that we need to take to get there. What I also love is I'm also responsible for then saying, "Okay, now that we have that strategy and those bold actions, let's get that work done."

And so the continuous delivery part of my role is essentially the execution, executing against that strategy, working across the organization in a very cross functional way to deliver on the priorities that we've established for ourselves. And to do that, what I love about my role is it's really empowering teams.

It's thinking big. It's really envisioning what the future could be for our customers and for our firm overall, and then challenging ourselves to get there through an approach, which is very iterative. We learn as we go, we set some bold targets, but then how we action them is an ongoing learning and iterative process to get us there.

And my career has really been built around that sort of a theme. I've always worked within financial services, I've always worked with firms that are going through a significant transformation, looking to move to that next level of success, so usually well established firms that are looking to kind of move to that next level, and it's what I love about being at John Hancock.

Anthony O'Donnell: I'm reminded by what you said about your duties of the old UPS commercial where the CEO of some anonymous company brings in these consultants, they give him a big spiel, and at the end he says, "Okay, well, go and do that," and they're like, "Oh, well, we don't do that."

But in your case, you do, you not only help develop the vision, but you also execute on that vision. Very exciting.

So to get a broad view of what that vision is likely to be, let me ask you what digital transformation means to John Hancock. How does John Hancock understand digital transformation?

Susan P. Roberts: Yeah, it's a great question.

Digital transformation for us is really a mindset shift. I would think about it that way, and what our CEO often says is that digital is not something that we do, it's who we are, and that's how we need to think about it. So it all starts with the customer, and it's really evolving our procedures and our practices and everything that we offer to the customer to have that digital lens, putting them at the center of the experience and really building out the experience in a digital way, but to support their needs. And so that distinction is important because it's not saying things like, "Let's take a giant document and now just digitize it," it's stepping further back and saying, "Let's really reinvent that experience and get it to that next level of success."

And so for John Hancock, it's a few things for us, obviously, digital is critical to enabling growth, it's critical to enabling scale. The way we think about that is we want to make things easier, so we want our customers and our intermediaries, our distributors to have a strong experience that's enabled by digital and making it easier is, you know, a big part of that. We also want to save dollars, obviously, and so digital capabilities can obviously be a huge cost savings for us and a powerful customer experience, and so bringing those two together and really thinking about our digital road map through that lens. Let's drive a strong customer experience. Let's also save ourselves some dollars by automating things that maybe would have been manual in an old world.

The other piece of it is really focusing our employees and our professionals on the value added work and so saving time for our external customers and for our distribution partners, but then also internally looking at how we digitize activities and workflows so that we can focus our resources on the higher value activities where a face to face or a personal interaction is really important.

And then I guess I just closed by saying really, most importantly, digital transformation is a big piece of how we talk about reinventing the experience. And, you know, we talk about within the industry, we really want to help our customers live longer, healthier lives, and digital is a huge part of how we do that.

By interacting with our customers on a regular basis through digital interactions, we're able to help them to adopt healthy behaviors and reward them for that, and so it's very central to kind of how we think about our work.

Anthony O'Donnell: You kind of reiterated the reinvention aspect of how you understand digital, so not paving the cow path, but engineering a new highway on the contours of the ground, and I'm also very happy to emphasize John Hancock focusing not on the mortality of its policy holders, but on their wellbeing.

Susan P. Roberts: Yeah, and that is so foundational to who we are. Obviously, the protection that comes along with an insurance policy is important.

But if we can help our customers to live a better life and help them through prompts around healthy behaviors and other things, that's a win for everyone. And it's part of our values, it's part of how we think about really that changing the conversation within the insurance space and making it more than just a benefit when you pass away.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah, there's definitely a frontier in the industry and John Hancock is at the forefront of it.

So let's talk now about what your role is in achieving digital transformation.

Susan P. Roberts: You know, as we talked about earlier, my role is really accountable for working with our leaders to define their strategy, and when we're defining that strategy, we're thinking about digital as a component to that.

And if I want to grow into say a new market, how does digital show up and help me to do that is a great example, and then obviously executing to get it done, and so my hands are in all of it, to be honest, because it's foundational to everything that we're doing.

And so we talk about making things easy, and so we have this tagline, we say at times, make insurance easy to buy and fun to own. And so when I talk about the easy to buy, it's, all right, let's help our distributors to optimize their time. Let's make it as easy as possible for them to go through that application process and that case management process.

And let's digitize that experience so they know how it's going along the way. That can also be things like using digital solutions to help with the underwriting process and thinking about innovation there. When you get to the fund to own side, it's healthy behaviors, and it's rewarding customers for healthy behaviors, educating them on small things that they can do that really improve their longevity,

and a lot of that happens through digital solutions. Also, it's thinking about some of our common transactions. So we have to change your address, you want to update your beneficiary, you know, all that kind of stuff should absolutely be digitized. And then there is this critical moment around the claim.

That is a really sensitive moment. We want to show up with empathy, we wanna be supportive to our customers. There is a personal experience that needs to happen there, but it can be complimented with a really strong digital experience that makes it easy. That helps me to know where I stand in that journey as I'm going through that experience that we also think of.

Digital is really front and center of all of that, and so my role. is to execute on that and much more. But then also to be constantly watching the industry. One of the things I love about my role and all the roles that I've held is it's that sweet spot between looking at how the world evolves and how technology and digital and other things show up and then thinking about how we apply that into our business.

And so a piece of my role is to always be watching things like generative AI and saying, "Alright, how does that show up and how might we leverage that to really support our customers and our distribution partners in new ways?"

Anthony O'Donnell: Let's dive in a little bit into the details of your agenda, maybe start with the underlying back office systems foundation.

Susan P. Roberts: Yeah, absolutely. And so over the last few years, we've been going through significant transformation to really look at our administration platforms and consolidating them down into one platform. And the reason why that matters, obviously there's a cost play there, but more importantly, that's been really foundational to us getting to this digital agenda that we're talking about.

If I have customers on one platform, I can also then support them in ways that really can become personalized to their needs. And so thinking about digital adoption, thinking about digital experiences in totality has really been supported by that kind of consolidation of our admin platforms. If I move on from that, let me point out a couple other things.

So for us, when we think about behavioral insurance. It's a differentiated platform for us. It's really something that's just core to who we are. And we talked about kind of helping customers to have healthy living. We interact through that with them through a digital experience, and that therefore offers opportunity for us to also prompt them in other things.

And so, for example, our newer customers we're talking with daily, they're getting prompts from us around their healthy behaviors. They're doing it through their Apple Watch. They're interacting with John Hancock on a regular basis. And so foundational to our digital strategy is also saying, let's make sure when we interact with them, we also prompt them with other things.

And so, for example, earlier in the year, we launched a nudge, we called it, which was basically just encouraging them to go paperless. And we found that 70 percent of the customers that we interacted with through our behavioral insurance platform went paperless. And so it's a great example of how we can drive our digital agenda forward by getting some of that.

Consolidation of our infrastructure that I already talked about, but then building onto it and really interacting, leveraging our behavioral insurance platform is a way to really drive those experiences. The other piece that's important to that is that not all customers are the same.

We have customers that have been with us since the 40's, probably some even earlier than that, their digital experience is going to be different. And so also really understanding our customers, understanding where they are and providing them digital services that are personalized to our understanding of them and their needs. But also where their level of comfort might be.

And so we don't treat them all the same, and that consolidation onto an admin platform has really helped us in that way. The other thing that I'll mention is that we have a significant book of business, which is our long term care policyholders. Now, we don't sell long term care insurance anymore, but these policy holders are a huge part of our book, and we feel the same obligation to help them live longer, healthier, better lives.

And so here we're also looking at building out digital experiences geared towards helping them to stay healthy and, and building out an engagement platform, kind of building off the success we had in the life. space and really thinking about, you know, when you're earlier in your experience, maybe you're in your fifties, how do we start to prompt you on healthy behaviors with educational materials and other things as you move and you age, then maybe you're getting closer to a longterm care claim and how do we help make that process easy?

And make sure that we educate you on what's available to you. And then when you do go on claim, make that as easy as possible. And so digital for us shows up in a lot of places across our customer base. And again, it's that theme of really being personalized to the customer and understanding what their needs are and supporting them in that way.

Anthony O'Donnell: Now, Susan, you might have been talking about some of this already, but could you tell me what your program or your concept, Start Digital, Stay Digital, for life insurance means?

Susan P. Roberts: Yeah, that's a great one. I'm so glad you asked it. So today when you buy an insurance policy with John Hancock, it will be a partially digitized experience.

But what we recognized is that there's huge opportunity to make that so much better by really starting the digital experience from the moment that you're just doing some exploration. Maybe you're just trying to educate yourself. And we really want you to understand our behavioral insurance offering and the power of it and what it can offer to you, not only in terms of rewards, but more of the personal that it can offer you around healthy behaviors and that kind of thing.

In addition, you move through the underwriting process, all of that. Obviously, we've largely digitized, but there's always room to improve there. But then when you actually are. issued the policy and you've sort of accepted and you're moving forward, we call it Start Digital, Stay Digital because we also want to then build an experience that transitions you into that servicing experience.

So making sure that you receive your policy in a digital way, that it educates you in an easy to understand manner, that it helps you to pay your first. premium, and then it integrates you into then the servicing experience where you can sign up for e statements, you can set up to automatically pay your premium, and probably most importantly, you can really understand at another level of detail the behavioral insurance offering.

So we talk about it as Start Digital, Stay Digital, because we want to really connect with you in a digital way. Early, but then we want to make that a smooth transition through into the servicing. And today we do pieces of that, but it's not as integrated as we'd like it to be. And so we're really stepping back, reinventing that experience and building out those components and that's not only for the customer, it's also for our distribution partners. So we want them to also understand where their customer is in that journey as they're going through the purchase process. And so Start Digital, Stay Digital also means interacting with that distribution partner or intermediary on a regular basis, so they understand the status of everything that's happening and can interact with their customer to prompt them and help them along throughout that journey.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah you know it occurs to me susan that behavioral insurance is really interesting term it's a very useful descriptive term when it comes to the how of what john hancock is doing but i mean what we're really talking about here say yes or no i guess but is largely a new concept of the insurer policyholder relationship.

Susan P. Roberts: It absolutely is. And it's new customers and helping them to really think about when they're buying that protection holistically, what else is important. And then for our existing customers, the folks that I mentioned earlier that bought on in the 40's, helping them to also get the value of behavioral insurance and have those healthy experiences and encouragement along their journey.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, I wanted to get your opinion on some of the major challenges facing the life insurance industry today, and I thought maybe we could transition to that topic by talking about how generative AI fits in within John Hancock's digital transformation agenda.

Susan P. Roberts: Generative AI is such a great topic, and it's obviously very powerful.

Where we are is, you know, we're following kind of this test learn approach. We're thinking of generative AI has huge value in a lot of areas, you could think of it as supporting call centers. Common questions that customers have, for example, could be answered through ChatGPT, that kind of stuff. What we're doing is really thinking about five or six areas where we can test.

Thinking about it first as sort of a productivity tool, and then learning and further expanding out. And so there's things we've already done with artificial intelligence to help us with the underwriting process. That was a logical place to start, and a lot of firms are doing that. But now where we live is looking at things like call center and how do we help ChatGPT to learn and help us to respond faster to common questions and needs.

We are also careful to say we want to use it as a tool to reimagine our processes, but let's also be smart about it. It's not going to be a silver bullet that solves everything. We don't want to lose that personal interaction with our customers. And so we want to be smart about how we use it. And I would say we're in some cases.

It's the underwriting doing a lot and in other cases we're learning and we'll try some things and then we'll go full out based upon some of those pilots.

Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah, and of course this fits in with your focus on value added activities for your employees.

Susan P. Roberts: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things I love about being at John Hancock and one of the things I love about the professionals that I work with is we all really are very committed to this longer, healthier, better lives mission that we talk about. And so when new technologies come about, it's just foundational to how we work to say, all right, how can this innovation help us to support our customers in new ways? And I work with a lot of brilliant professionals that are constantly thinking about what are the things that we might do and how do we try some stuff and learn from it and then expand as appropriate based upon those lessons.

And so hopefully for our employees, it makes it a really interesting and exciting place to be.

Anthony O'Donnell: What kind of skills do you need for your employees? And what's John Hancock doing to make sure that its employees have the right skills or that you acquire new employees with the right skills?

Susan P. Roberts: Yeah, it's a great question.

And I think when we talk about reinventing the insurance experience, it really means also continuing to evolve our professionals. And so there's a lot that we're doing there to really help our talent to grow and evolve their skills. Obviously it's not also all about us though. And there are partnerships that we continue to explore on a regular basis to make sure that we're leveraging the best and the brightest.

Out within our space located in Boston, we have access to a lot of brilliant organizations that we can learn from and partner with. And so we think of. is not only expanding the skills of our talent, but also bringing in partners that we can work with and learn from to make sure that we're meeting the needs of our market in new and innovative ways.

Anthony O'Donnell: Well, I wonder when you're very forward looking, innovative company, is there also an issue about, I don't want to say dragging, but encouraging your business partners to come along with you.

Susan P. Roberts: I'm lucky enough that it's never really dragging business partners. I think that what we have to do is make sure that they understand our mission, that they understand really what is foundational to us, and that we then work collaboratively with them to say, all right, so what are some things that we might want to think about?

And so it's very much a partnership. It's important if we're working with a firm that's You know, outside our organization that they understand our values and really where we want to show up in our belief system around really helping our customers so they can then think about how their technology or whatever it is can support us.

But it's very much a collaborative conversation and discussion and we've got some great partners that we work with.

Anthony O'Donnell: All right, Susan, I'd like to ask you as kind of a closing question. What would you identify as your three indispensable digital transformation initiatives?

Susan P. Roberts: There's three themes that maybe I'd hit on.

The first is really placing the customer at the center of everything that we do. And when we talked about the Start Digital, Stay Digital initiative earlier, that's a great example of that. And remember that when we say customer, we mean not only the policyholder, we're also talking about the caregiver, in the case of LTC, or the distribution partner that might be a sales intermediary for us.

So placing that customer at the center, I think, is foundational to everything that we do and also really helps you to see things in a very different lens. You can get caught up and sort of here's how we do business, and it's important to really step back and say, none of that matters. How does the customer show up and what do they need?

And so start digital stage is a great example of that.

I think the other one I'd mention is really this spirit of innovation. And so we're talking about for our LTC customers are long term care customers, really, how do we reinvent their experience? It's the next sort of big focus for us. Building off the success that we've had with our behavioral insurance offering and really applying that now down to the LTC policyholder and thinking about how we support them in new ways.

And then the third thing that I would guess many within our space are thinking a lot about is data. Data is foundational to everything that we do, and it doesn't mean just data integrity. Obviously, that's critical. Data accuracy will always be important, but really thinking about data and how we think about it as a product unto itself and how we use it to build personalized experiences for our customers across their interactions with John Hancock.

And so really thinking thinking about our data in that lens is an important priority for us. And we're building out data strategies that really say based on different personas and different customer types, how does data help us to support them in new and innovative ways? And that's just foundational to everything we do across our digital strategy.

Anthony O'Donnell: All right, Susan, thank you so much for being on Life Accelerated.

Susan P. Roberts: My pleasure. Thank you.

Anthony O'Donnell: Talking with Susan was a reminder that when it comes to reinventing the customer experience, it would be hard to find a company more committed than John Hancock. Susan reintroduced us to the theme of behavioral insurance and she talked about John Hancock's mission to make products that are easy to buy and fun to own.

And also about how 70 percent of customers interacting with the behavioral insurance platform have gone paperless. She also stressed the need to ease the life insurance claims journey with digital, but being sure to show up with empathy, as she put it. Addressing items on her transformation agenda, Susan talked about the customer experience for long term care insurance.

Though John Hancock no longer sells the product, it has a significant book of business and has the same commitment to those customers to build out digital experiences geared toward helping them to live longer, healthier lives. Susan also shared a view into John Hancock's Start Digital, Stay Digital initiative for life insurance.

This approach focuses on digitizing the entire customer journey from initial exploration to policy issuance and servicing, aiming to make the entire process seamless, personalized, and centered around the customer's evolving needs. Thank you for joining us for the Life Accelerated podcast. For more relevant content to help you achieve digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.


Get new episodes directly in your inbox

Don't miss out on powerful insights from some of the top executives in life insurance. Sign up and get notified whenever a new episode comes out.

Have a question for us?

Contact Us!