Ryan Downing, Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Enterprise Business Solutions at Principal Financial Group, explores the impact of automation, AI, technology on enhancing the customer experience along with the crucial role of the human element in a high-functioning IT organization.
Principal Financial Group is an American global financial investment management and insurance company who helps people create the kinds of lives they dream about, empowered by financial security and stability. But how do they approach their mission through a digital perspective?
Ryan Downing, Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Enterprise Business Solutions at Principal Financial Group, discusses how technology, automation, and AI can enhance the customer experience, Principal Financial Group’s efforts towards evolving their focus from contracts to customers, the connection between employee experience and customer experience, and more.
Digital transformation is about shifting the focus from contracts to customers, putting them at the center of business processes.
Automation and AI can enhance the customer experience, but it's crucial to maintain a balance with the human element.
A strong employee experience is essential for delivering a positive customer experience. Both are interconnected and drive business success.
Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Enterprise Business Solutions, Principal Financial Group
Ryan Downing is a Vice President and Chief Information Officer of Enterprise Business Solutions at Principal Financial Group in Des Moines, Iowa. Downing has managed new business objectives and built international teams to ensure long-term growth for Principal in India, the Philippines, and South America. Downing supports Habitat for Humanity, American Parkinson Disease Association, and other organizations through giving of his time and funds.
Anthony O'Donnell: I'm Anthony O'Donnell, and this is Life Accelerated, a podcast for life insurers striving to achieve digital transformation. Ryan Downing has an unusual perspective on digital transformation as CIO of Principal's Enterprise Business Solutions. This organization has evolved to be responsible not only for corporate services, technology such as finance, HR, compliance, and actuarial, but also for customer experience through management of major enterprise platforms such as CRM and Principal's call center.
Enterprise Business Services partners with Principal's business units to understand its audiences and to build great experiences for them. Ryan's perspectives on customer experience, technology and teamwork come from a long career at this Fortune 500 company, including working in Principal's global technology operations, for example, as Chief Technology Officer for Latin America, here's our conversation with Ryan. So Ryan, tell us about your role at Principal's Enterprise Business Solutions, what your duties are and what the organization does for the enterprise.
Ryan Downing: Yeah, thanks Anthony. So my role at Principal is leading an organization called Enterprise Business Solutions, and Enterprise Business Solutions, I really think of as having two sort of core missions within the organization.
The first is providing technology for our corporate services capabilities. So think about things like. Finance, human resources, actuarial risk, legal compliance, and really thinking about those functions within the organization and how we provide the right technology to support them as they support our global businesses around the world.
The second part of Enterprise Business Solutions really focuses on customer experience and that comes to life in a couple different ways. One is we bring together our core platforms. That really serve as the building blocks of our customer experience. So these are things like CRM, things like our call center platform, our Principal design system that ensures consistent look and feel, and they're really focused on how we're enabling experience building across the organization and really helping to create speed, create agility, create reuse.
Create that consistency that we're looking for. And then the other part, the way that the experience kind of team comes together is really partnering with all of our business units to create experiences for our customers and really focusing on the audiences we're trying to serve and building great experiences for them.
It's a bit of a broad, diverse set of capabilities, but it's a lot of fun to kind of bring these together. And really thinking about how we serve our entire organization, all of our customers, and you get this bird's eye view of everything happening across the organization. It really gives the team and I a chance to see where are the real opportunities at.
And so it's been a lot of fun as my role has evolved and the work the team has done.
Anthony O'Donnell: So the way your role has evolved, you're kind of the experience guy.
Ryan Downing: Yeah, you know, I certainly experience is not just a technology thing, but technology is a core part of it. And you know, as I think about our business units, our job is really enable and partner and how we bring people together that come around the customer experiences we're trying to build and be that partner and execution and really help invite people to a different conversation that thinks more holistically about our customer.
And so it's been a fun way to see my role evolve and I've really enjoyed getting more and more into the customer experience space.
Anthony O'Donnell: Ryan, as you alluded to a moment ago, EBS serves not only a very important domestic company that we from the standpoint of US listeners, everybody knows Principal, but Principal is actually a global company.
So let's talk about that. Its relevance to your current responsibilities and also how your past experience at Principal has helped prepare you for your current role.
Ryan Downing: Principal has locations throughout the world and our Principal asset management business serves customers in Latin America. Asia serves institutional customers all over the world, and you know, I've had the opportunity to work with many of our international businesses.
I go back to early in my career as we formed our captive offshore team in India. I can remember the early days of setting up. Teams that we were working really closely with to deliver technology and, and what that meant, and working across cultures, having the opportunity to go visit and see a different perspective, but also see a lot of commonality and what really brings people together.
Later on in my career, late 2016 to late 2019, I had the opportunity to serve as Chief technology officer. For our Latin American businesses, and actually my wife and I lived in Santiago, Chile for three years. It was a tremendously rewarding experience, both personally and professionally, and I took away a lot of just really the ability to kind of immerse both in a different culture, but also immerse in part of our business that I just didn't have a lot of familiarity with.
And it's one thing to kind of support our businesses and look at understanding 'em at a macro level, but to get in deep with them to really go live within those businesses, travel around the region to our operations in Chile and Mexico and Brazil. Understand the challenges we are trying to solve.
Understanding where there are opportunities for us to continue to learn and grow and drive the business forward really has helped serve, as I think about my role now as we think about those corporate services capabilities, how do we really think about providing those for our broader sort of enterprise?
And how do we really understand the diversity of our businesses, but really enable our teams to go have the conversation to say, okay, where is their commonality? Where are there things where we can really use common solutions? But where are those uniquenesses that we really need to understand and let's explore those and let's figure out how we solve those together.
What I found that my experiences to help me to do is really to help coach my teams and what's the best way for us to come together. How do we come to the table and help people understand the art of the possible across all of our businesses? But how do we also listen really well to understand the uniquenesses of each of those different areas, whether they're in the US or Latin America or Asia or somewhere else, to ensure that we're actually meeting the needs of the business.
Anthony O'Donnell: This is a podcast about digital transformation. So maybe you can tell us about your perspective on digital transformation, both as a Principal executive, but from your ongoing work at EBS.
Ryan Downing: When I think about this, it all has to start with the customer at the center, just doing technology or just doing digital purely for the sake of executing, you know, a digital sort of initiative without a strong view of the customer.
We'll not yield the results that we want to yield. And so I think that's a really sort of important thing that we start with, and it's an ongoing conversation of how we really come together differently. You know, as we think about the various sort of emerging technologies. There's tremendous opportunity in how we can leverage these, whether it's data and analytics, artificial intelligence, cloud platforms, all these have so much potential, but without a clear view of what problems or what value are we delivering to our customers, and what are the types of experiences we want to create for our customers.
The value delivery of those incredible technologies gets limited, and so that's where we continue to focus on this as we think about our digital or modernization initiatives.
Anthony O'Donnell: As you said, it's an ongoing conversation, I think, and I hope that people are starting to actually forget that one of the industry's biggest challenges historically has been that systems and processes were focused on the contract rather than the customer.
Maybe you could comment on how you felt that change happening at Principal.
Ryan Downing: Yeah, so if I think about our businesses and the way that we've come together with technology has been at times really focused on the various different businesses. And so we had technology that could support our retirement business in the US, technology that could support our insurance business in the US.
Technology could support the various different businesses in different countries, and more and more we're continuing to challenge ourselves. There are certainly technology needs that are unique and specific to each of those businesses, but from the customer perspective, How are we really creating the experience that serves the whole customer that's really creating those simple, meaningful interactions that ultimately help us build trust over time.
That's really the goal of, as I think about our teams and how we come together around experience, that's a really sort of different way of thinking of starting with, Hey, we have a product, say a 401k, or a life insurance policy or an annuity, and let's think about the technology around those products.
That's still an important conversation, but how do we think about. Who that product or those set of products are serving. And let's start with that and let's build technology around the needs of that customer. And then the products and the specific technology for the products will layer into that. And so we've been exploring different ways of bringing teams to come together and think about that differently and, and really seeing fascinating results from that.
Anthony O'Donnell: So Ryan, you and I have spoken a couple of times and I thought one of the most interesting topics you raised was the way employee and customer experience are related. And this is also a longstanding topic. We tend to think of the end customer, but of course we have to think of distribution partners and we have to think about the efficacy of interfaces within the enterprise.
Right? So tell us your thoughts about the similarity or the commonality between the employee and the customer experience.
Ryan Downing: They're absolutely linked to each other, right? Like it's so critical to have a strong employee experience, to enable customer experience. And it's so critical that if we think about our culture, about how we're embedding customer centricity into our culture and helping all of our employees understand that, but the reality is I think it needs to come to life.
But it comes to life in sometimes it's similar ways, sometimes it's different ways. Certainly we explore the idea of how to use things like journey mapping and segmentation to think about our employee audiences, to think about the experience we're creating for our employees, but the way that you might deliver technology.
For an employee experience, many cases will be different than how you might do it for an customer experience. Let me maybe give an example. Employee experience is a lot of times we're gonna look at vendor solutions, vendor platforms that can add tremendous value for enterprises. You think about things like Genesis from a call center perspective, those are great platforms that really help organizations create an employee experience where they can ultimately serve their customers.
Whereas from a customer experience perspective, those are things that we're gonna really build out Proprietary bespoke capabilities and the way that you bring those kind of enabling platforms and the experiences that you build together is a bit of that secret sauce. And so more and more, as we continue to think about employee experience, we're thinking about like, what are those core platforms?
That really go across all of our employee experiences. How do we really get those well positioned? How do we come together, support those? How do those start to create some consistency and experience? But then how do you even go a level deeper and start to think about different segments of your employee audience?
And so if I think about, say the call center agent, so somebody working in a call center, day in and day out, doing really, really important work to serve our customers, how do we really understand what their experience is day in and day out? Because the platforms certainly play a role in that. But the true sort of experience of being on the call, being able to serve customers, how does that feel for them?
Are they truly empowered? Do they have access to all the information? Can they quickly serve customers and then be able to add the value that they want to add within those interactions? That's, I think, the really interesting thing as we explore different audiences within our employee population. So certainly the Engagement Center agent is an audience that we're exploring,
also, the engineer is a really, sort of, fascinating one. If you think about the engineering experience and how are we really providing the best environment truly enables our engineers to do great work and be effective and be efficient as soon as they walk in the door. But again, that's gonna be very different than an engagement center agent experience, but understanding the needs of that employee, how we can make that better, those are really sort of interesting things.
And ultimately those things layer up to building those experiences that build trust over time.
Anthony O'Donnell: So what you're describing is there's a crossroads where employees and customers meet in the same technology application, including on the phone or within the call center platform. But at Principal, it seems there's also an ethos about experience in general, which includes employees, whether they're call center or employees or engineers.
Ryan Downing: Yeah, absolutely. To me, a big part of that when I talked about like how do you create that customer centricity in your culture? Like how do you help employees that are in those roles understand what customer centricity means? How do you really help them ensure that they're thinking about the customer?
We've been doing a lot around customer listening lately, and how do we provide all of our team members kind of a view into what does a customer interaction look like? Here's some call center recordings. Here's ones that have gone really, really well. Here's ones where we have opportunities. I find those to be great moments, one to celebrate where we're doing really great things, but also create a sense of urgency that our customers need our help.
And we have opportunities to continue to be better. And so I think just continue to embed that into the thinking of every single team member and create the connection back to kind of the higher level mission is so critical in how we do this.
Anthony O'Donnell: Ryan, in a previous conversation, you mentioned the term digital first.
It's one of those industry buzzwords that can mean very different things, right? You hear it all the time. What do you think the term means or should mean, and at what point during an initiative should designers, developers, analysts, whoever's involved in that kind of creativity and development, begin to think about customer experience?
Ryan Downing: Digital first is an interesting term, you know, I think it's a term that's been really good to help just change people's perception. Thinking out of the gate. To really think about how technology can enable. And frankly, I think it served its purpose really well in being able to do that. But the reality is, I think the right way to think of, it's the customer first, right?
So you ask the question about when should people start thinking about the customer experience and, and that should absolutely be at the very beginning of these processes. And for me, like that's really, really important because sometimes, Digital is not the answer. There are times where people want some of those human interactions and they want to talk to somebody, and we really truly believe in sort of the mix of digital and human when customers want it.
And it's important that we listen to our customers and really kind of explore those times when people want that in the financial services, insurance industries. There aren't complexities that our customers are dealing with that they're not things they deal with on a daily basis, and they are really important decisions.
And then sometimes they happen at moments in their lives that are just exceptionally challenging and stressful and they need to talk to somebody. And so how do we really think about the customer journey? That we're creating and how do we really understand the emotions that a customer might be feeling at any different point in that journey?
And when do we wanna make sure that we've got the right sort of place for them to interact digitally when they need to do that, or the right place to interact with a human when that's what they need and what they want. And so I think that's the sort of mix I really. Much more into sort of customer focus first.
Certainly I feel really good about people are thinking about the technology that was a challenge in the past, right? And I think we're past that challenge and now it's like, what is the true customer need and how does this human and technology piece come together?
Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah, so your concept of digital first is really what a shift to customer centricity is about.
As we discussed a little earlier, putting the customer at the center should be the default assumption, not an afterthought to a habitual process that puts something else at the center, be that the contract or anything else.
Ryan Downing: Absolutely. Yeah. You couldn't have said it better.
Anthony O'Donnell: Yeah. Well, great. Thank you. Now I'm gonna introduce the hottest topic of the day.
We all have to talk about this. Automation has become a very important part of digital transformation, and the discussion on that topic has only grown more intense with the emergence of generative AI. Everybody's talking about ChatGPT. What are your views of the role of AI in a digitally transformed customer experience?
Ryan Downing: That's a great question. And you're right, this is the buzzword. You know, I was at a conference last month and you couldn't escape a session or a side conversation where AI didn't come up. And I think it's important, you know, I think about back to November when ChatGPT came out. I do think we will look back on that moment as one of those sort of transformational moments in technology, similar to the internet, similar to the iPhone, which is really, really exciting.
And you've seen this sort of explosion of opportunity since then. And the reality is it wasn't as much about. The technology being so new and advanced from where it was shortly before that it was more about, I think society understands. The opportunity and the impact, and ultimately this will change our lives.
And so if I think about AI from a customer experience perspective, what I find really sort of exciting with this is certainly organizations and Principal included has been personalizing customer experiences for many years, and technology has played a tremendous role in doing that. And as we've digitized and as we've moved things more to digital, even as we've personalized, there's been a little bit of this element where the human touch has come out of the experience.
Because even today as organizations personalize experiences, they're still doing it at somewhat of a coarse grain, right? So we segment in customers based on data that we know about them, and then we generate experiences that we think will meet their needs based on how they fit into some, you know, segments or grouping.
So still a rather coarse grain personalization, and that's been really, really valuable. AI, I think, is gonna give us an opportunity to get to a level of personalization that we haven't seen before. Or that each and every one of us can really, truly have a unique experience based on what our true needs are and based on what our experiences have been with that organization throughout time.
Right? So it may be that you can observe and understand how people are interacting and recognize that they need help with something, and how do you start to proactively provide those things in a different way than I think we've been able to do in the past. And so for me, I think AI really starts to bring back this personalized view that starts to almost feel.
More human than I think our digital experiences have felt to date. Now, when I think about AI and generative AI as an organization, we absolutely believe in the technology and the impact it'll have on our business. We're already seeing several places where we, we have opportunities and we've actually already implemented AI technology in several places and seeing tremendous value from an organization and from a customer perspective.
But we also believe it's gotta be really carefully governed. And we're really thoughtfully focused on how do we responsibly use AI. And I think that's gonna be a really important part for all organizations to really rationalize that and spend time and really kind of working through that. And that's something we're spending a tremendous amount of time on right now.
And last, and certainly not least, employees need to be encouraged to use this technology, but we need to make sure that they're well educated and that we hold them accountable to what it means to use this technology responsibly. And I think those are the learnings that we're all gonna have to go through here.
As this continues to kind of evolve on a very, very rapid pace.
Anthony O'Donnell: So we need to be prudent with AI, but it has the potential to open up a new level of personalization, ironically, making the digital more human and also freeing humans from low value tasks.
Ryan Downing: Absolutely. Right. Yeah. I think it'll be really sort of fascinating.
You certainly hear a lot about like copilots and digital twins and things like that. I think from my view, that's the first place where I think we're really seeing generative AI come to life. I think that's just the beginning, right? And so I'm really fascinated to kind of see where the evolution goes beyond those things.
But there's tremendous value that we'll get and certainly we're piloting several places of where those can add value within our organization.
Anthony O'Donnell: Alright, so we've had a fantastic conversation so far, but it's leaned somewhat in the generic area, whether talking about industry issues or talking about your job and how you approach it.
I thought we might now move into some concrete examples of your most important recent and current initiatives.
Ryan Downing: Yeah, so you know, a couple things that really come to mind. One, we really are focused a lot on before we said the customer work, and this year we've been spending a lot of time on conversational analytics, actually using artificial intelligence to really help us better understand what's happening in all of those calls that are calls that are agents are taking every single day.
You know, it's helping us better understand sentiment, helping us better understand what's the intent of the customer, helping us better understand where our agents may be struggling to help customers, right? So back to that. Employee experience. It's been really sort of fascinating as we've been starting to implement this and really unlocking the potential of the information we have within those calls and how that can further drive our customer experience and our employee experience.
So that's been one where I've been really, really sort of impressed with the progress the team has made thus far this year, and really excited about as we're getting these things into production, what are the next steps and what are the next things we're gonna work through? Another key one that we're working on this year is our customer data platform.
Our ability to bring customer data together holistically, continue to improve that. Continue to think about then how do we leverage that data to help them better inform and personalize the customer experience? So by tying back to that core personalization, and then really excited to think about as we continue to evolve and expand our customer data platform, how does AI play a role in helping us to fuel personalization and provide those really sort of unique experiences to customers that they need?
So those are really a couple that I've been really excited about. Teams are making tremendous progress on. We've got great partners that we're working with, and I've really appreciated across all of our businesses the way that we're partnering to kind of think about those capabilities differently with the customer in the center, not specifically like, oh, how do we serve this product?
And so that part I think has been really sort of fun to see the teams continue to rally around that. But then to see the business units say, okay, that's great. I understand how I can use that technology, and now it's really becoming a core enabler for all of our interactions.
Anthony O'Donnell: If you had to name three or four indispensable digital transformation initiatives that you're driving, what would they be?
Ryan Downing: Top for me would be our customer experience operating model, right? So how do we really think about driving customer centricity through the organization and really thinking about within my team, you know, within EBS and that customer area we have, this was kind of a core part of how we've really started to come together differently.
Right? So do we have. The right platforms to serve as the building blocks of building customer experience. And do we have the right teams enabled to partner with all across the organization to build meaningful, simple, thoughtful experiences for our customers that build trust? So that would be first, is just having the right sort of operating model to help drive the change within the organization.
Two is really a strong data and analytics capability. No experience anything with AI, anything with voice of the customer. None of that can really happen with a really strong data and analytics capability. And so we partner with our data and analytics teams to really continue to bring that together. But I think that's sort of an indispensable thing as you think about digital transformation.
Third is voice of the customer. In my mind because ultimately if we talk about the customer being at the center, we have to have a strong ability to both listen to what customers are telling us and interpret what they're doing as they interact with us to help us better serve them. And so that becomes a fuel.
And really the thing I love about voice of the customer capabilities, it helps simplify prioritization, conversations. Because our customers ultimately, if we're listening well and really understand all the information that we are able to gather, they'll help us understand where we need to be focused.
And I think that helps end a lot of those debates, which is really, really helpful. And last is the employee experience. You cannot forget about being thoughtful about creating employee experiences, making sure you've got the right platforms to support employee experience, but also making sure that you're thinking about your employee audience in a segmented way that helps ensure you're building the right experiences so they can serve your customers.
And so those would be the four that I would really think about are just absolutely critical for any sort of digital transformation.
Anthony O'Donnell: So Ryan, earlier you mentioned how your time in Santiago broadened your understanding of what might be the best solutions for the enterprise and also broadened you as a person.
I'd like to address how it has also influenced your style as a leader. We talked about the human element. How do you see the role of the human element in a high functioning IT organization as you approach your job as its leader?
Ryan Downing: You said it well. Like the experience I had living outside the US in Santiago, Chile was really a tremendous time of growth for me personally and professionally, and if I think about kinda my leadership style, a couple things I really took away. One was really being the leader that my team needed. As you work across the world, cultures are different and what people need from their leader, to be able to be their best will be different.
And it took me time to kind of realize that I need to continue to always be thoughtful about my approach to leadership and how I'm helping and coaching people to really fit the needs that they have. And it probably took me a few quarters as I was settling into my role there to really understand that.
But then as I came back to the US and started my role that I have now, it served just to be tremendously valuable. To help me really kind of adjust to a new role and new people and, and understanding and really taking the time to understand the, the leader that they really need me to be. I think that helped me grow and evolve as a leader.
As I think about that human element and kind of a high functioning IT organization, the human element is so critical. Yes, we are a technology organization. Ultimately we're enabling a business and the business that we're enabling is really focused on making financial security accessible for all. That's a really sort of core human mission.
I was actually talking to an intern the other day and the person had asked me about what are the key things we look for when you hire engineers? And I think the person expected me to talk about cloud and talk about data and technical aptitude, and I kind of breezed over those really quick. And I went really quickly to.
Our culture really thrives in this collaborative environment and having the right skills to be able to come in, build partnerships, be able to challenge each other, to be able to be challenged, be able to help contribute and help others is a really core part. And so I think to me, those are the differentiators within our organization that when we hire people, we're really looking for some of those sort of things.
But ultimately, when I think about what I focus on from a leadership perspective in my role today, you know, one, I do have this sort of passion and a strong focus on really helping people understand. What they enjoy doing. Anytime I'm coaching or mentoring, I'm really trying to dive in and help making sure that they have a good sense of that.
'cause the more that they understand that, the better we understand that and the better we get them aligned with those things. Second, I think, is really helping people connect to that higher order mission. So when I think about customer centricity in our mission as an organization, how do we help people really understand that and not understand some sort of fluffy mission statement, but understand.
The work that they're doing and how it can impact that. And just continuing to talk about that over and over and over again because it's so critical that every day we have that. 'cause it helps build that sense of urgency that we gotta keep going 'cause today's problem needs to be solved. 'cause tomorrow's problem is going to be there next.
I really think about, "How do we really create space for people to come together where everyone has a voice?" Partnerships and collaboration are such a critical part of our culture. I think it's comes from being based in the Midwest, but then you kinda layer in a strong focus on inclusivity and you think about like how we're creating those environments for people.
The last thing I think about is like we just gotta give teams space for them to come together and give them outcomes to achieve. We don't want to create like, "Hey, go build a CDP, go build this website." It's, "Hey, we want to focus on simplicity in our experiences today. How can we go drive simplicity in our experiences as we think about a holistic customer experience for an audience?
How would we measure success with that?" And let's get aligned on how we're gonna measure success on those outcomes, and let's turn the team loose on figuring out what's the best way to do that. Creating ways for them to work out loud, creating ways for them to get feedback within the organization. Those are some of the things I really think about just in my day-to-day as leading the organization.
Anthony O'Donnell: Ryan made so many astute observations, for example, when to buy and when to build, or how to focus team members on what customer centricity really means and how it must guide their work. One of the most interesting observations he made was perhaps counterintuitive for a podcast on digital transformation.
When commenting on the buzzword digital first, he said that digital is not the answer. Well, it is and it isn't at the same time. That's because the essential guide to customer experience is to always, and from the beginning, put the customer first. That means, for example, respecting when a customer wants to talk to a human.
The point is not to devalue technology, but to better understand when it is and isn't useful. As if to underscore that point, Ryan also said he believed that AI will contribute to a degree of personalization that will make digital experiences feel more human than they have until now. Thank you for joining us for the Life Accelerated podcast.
For more relevant content to help you achieve digital transformation, visit equisoft.com/lifeaccelerated.
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.