“It’s been fascinating,” says Louise Colley of her first and rather hectic nine months as head of retail protection at Zurich Insurance.
Colley is one of the insurance industry’s most recognisable and lively leaders having spent more than 15 years at Aviva, including as managing director of the firm’s protection business.
So when she joined Zurich at the end of last year, “going from A to Z overnight”, to lead its protection business, she was clear what the first course of action would be.
“I’d always looked at Zurich with great admiration, thinking they should be very serious contenders, so I was quite perplexed why they were not bigger in the market than they are,” she says.
“So when the opportunity came about, first and foremost I was very clear that to make Zurich successful it was all about organisational design and being set to succeed.”
Historically the insurer had been organised at a functional rather than business level, Colley explains, with distribution, sales, claims, underwriting teams all in different business units.
Now she has overturned that approach for the protection business and brought the whole end-to-end operation under her control.
“My remit before joining was they have to organise this business end-to-end and once we organise this business that will make a massive difference, because you’ve got one leadership team all focused on one clear set of goals, objectives and a specific vision,” Colley continues.
“So that was the thing I made clear what I would expect, and Zurich delivered to that and that’s what I’ve now got, which is amazing.”
Changing adviser stigma
One of the early developments under Colley’s regime has been the hiring of Sam Wells as head of proposition innovation and Nik Erskine as director of distribution as the insurer committed to investing in the proposition.
With the team building completed and Colley largely confident about the products already available, it appears the distribution footprint and working with advisers is next in line.
A review of the insurer’s distribution approach is underway, but Colley acknowledged that Zurich was historically known for working with generalist and wealth advisers because of its background.
So it seems likely there will be a focus on expanding more widely in the advice sector, looking at different adviser markets and ways of interacting; broadening its distribution and reach.
But it is the identity that continues to loom large for Colley and answering the “Why Zurich?” questions for advisers, as she aims to change its reputation and stigma, which she also recognised.
“When I was asked what I thought of Zurich before joining, I thought: ‘large, quite predictable, steady and large cases.’ That’s how I’d always looked at Zurich,” she says.
“There’s a large case underwriter which is very niche, but we are not a niche player. The proposition can serve anyone from all walks of life and all age groups.
“That stigma of using Zurich solely for large cases, that is a bit of a myth – we’re actually all to all. “And for us to grow in the market we need to be known for that, we shouldn’t just be known for niche – so it’s re-establishing ourselves and our positioning.”
‘Not chasing market share’
Throughout this process the insurer has been considering which components needed more attention and so it is now investing more in straight-through underwriting processes.
And there will be some more proposition developments “coming down the track” with what the insurer offers off the shelf.
Of course, all these team additions, investment in the proposition and significant restructuring are ultimately seeking sales growth, but Colley is tight lipped about targets and is preaching patience.
“There’s no question in the UK market there is opportunity to grow our footprint,” she continues.
“At the moment we’re not chasing market share which is really important, because sometimes that’s what insurers do, but you need to get all the component parts right to be able to do that.
“Some players could chase for share just by pricing, but I don’t think it’s about rush, rush, rush.
“We’ve got a clear strategic pathway in place and I’m a big believer if you focus on things in the plan, and if you execute them well, all things being equal, that should drive growth.”
Technology adoption missed opportunity
And what of the wider protection market, how does it look at present and what has changed throughout the pandemic?
Having been researching the subject recently, she is surprised the adoption of technology by advisers has not been more extensive.
“If anything there was a brilliant opportunity for advisers to adopt more technology during the pandemic, for example they can send links for customers to do things online, but we didn’t see a take up,” she says.
“It increased slightly but not at a fast enough pace. Now is the time to really embrace this stuff.”
Colley notes that underwriting fact finds and medical evidence questionnaires are prime targets for this, where consumers can answer what are often quite intrusive and personal questions in their own home and in their own time.
“There’s lots of fascinating reasons, but if you look at what’s in the best interests of the client, surely it’s better for them to have the ability to disclose and share information freely,” she continues.
And she suspects that the majority of customers would want to do it themselves too, with such offerings now becoming standard practice.
Digital patient data could be transformational
However, it appears there is still positive news for advisers in how consumer behaviour has shifted post-Covid.
While in America the direct life insurance market grew notably, in the UK it did not. Instead, it appears consumers shifted to doing more research and information gathering online, before then going to an adviser.
And this again supports the expectation that customers would be happy to do more through their own laptops when going through the submission process.
But ultimately, Colley would love to be able to remove the need for medical underwriting questionnaires, instead getting data either directly from GP surgeries or the NHS itself.
This is not an imminently likely proposition or without potential controversy around access to data, but it is a journey which the industry is on at present, working through GP surgeries.
There has been an improvement in return times for GP reports but it remains an imperfect set up with many doctors still retaining patient records on paper files.
“It’s pace of adoption [of the digital link ups for surgeries],” she says.
“That could be truly transformational in terms of driving efficiencies for all concerned, because it is the biggest slowdown in the process.”