An Interview with Vivek Bhatia, Chief Executive, Australia Pacific, QBE Insurance

"I think the biggest challenge for insurers is thinking that AI is a panacea for all insurance problems. It’s more appropriate to think about AI as being part of the jigsaw in solving insurance and other business problems."
 

FST Media: At the end of last year, QBE’s technology team was elevated to become a standalone function, having previously been part of operations. (Chief information officer, Mark Gay, is now part of the executive management board, reporting directly to the chief executive). Take us through the reasoning behind this change. How do you feel this will shape a better outcome for your long-term digital transformation program?

Bhatia: The changes are part of our ambition to be simpler, stronger, and a more customer-centric organisation – and the reality is that much of this work is and will be underpinned by technology.

The elevation of Mark and his team will help us ensure our technology strategy and transformation agenda remains a priority for all our leaders and people, building on momentum to date and better positioning us to meet our ambitious technology-driven goals.


FST Media: You have a distinguished track record steering business transformation initiatives across your career. Can you talk to how you’ve applied that experience at QBE, and what do you feel has defined QBE’s transformation process?

Bhatia: QBE has been on a transformational journey for a couple of years now – one that is focused on making sure that we get closer to our customers – and seeing them drive our decision making.  

Our transformation process is not only about technology but also about all aspects of our business and how we deliver value to the customer. Culture is a very important element of the transformation journey at QBE. Our drive to simplify the business and get closer to the customer has required a focus on empowering our people and bringing the customer focus to the centre of all that we do. We’ve set out a corporate ‘DNA’ that gives us all a framework in which we can meet the challenges not only our own transformation but also the broader changes in the insurance industry.

I think what also makes our journey today so interesting – and this is not just QBE’s experience – is the pace of change, and particularly technological change.

Developments in technology are changing the way consumers expect to interact with us, and it also gives us the opportunity to get closer to our customers, getting to know them better and providing them with more tailored solutions.


FST Media: Taking lessons from QBE’s digital transformation program thus far, what is your golden rule for delivering a successful digital transformation?

Bhatia: Remaining focused on the customer. We need to make sure that everything we do is focused on improving customer experiences and outcomes, ensuring we are delivering on our customer promise and fulfilling our purpose as a business.

This includes expanding our data, AI and digital capabilities and platforms in line with customer needs and expectations. It also means leveraging this technology and the customer and partner insights that come with it to help create seamless experiences for our customers and partners.

It’s also very important to remember that different customers have different levels of expectation and comfort for interacting with us digitally. We need to identify where each customer is comfortable and meet them there - we don’t leave any customer disadvantaged, offering them the choice is key.


FST Media: As the lifeblood of the modern enterprise, quality data and actionable analytics are a make or break for today’s businesses. How has the executive team at QBE sought to ensure data integrity and leverage these assets to make better business decisions?

Bhatia: As part of our broader data strategy and governance practice, the integrity and quality of data is something that we are constantly working on and of critical importance to our business. Having said that, the most important aspect of this is identifying the data that forms part of key business decision making – the metrics that actually drive our decision making.  

A lot of the work we have done over the past year or so is to identify which are the most important data points that drive business decisions and making sure that these are flowing from our front-line systems into critical reports.
 

FST Media: The rapid emergence of Internet of things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies have augured a major shake-up of insurance, promising unprecedented insight into customer behaviour and the possibility of tailoring service offerings to individualised consumer needs. What is the main challenge for insurers in leveraging these technologies? Has the promise of IoT to ‘revolutionise’ the industry been overblown or are we still yet to realise its full potential?

Bhatia: I think the biggest challenge for insurers is thinking that AI is a panacea for all insurance problems. It’s more appropriate to think about AI as being part of the jigsaw in solving insurance and other business problems.

So, for example, looking at how we engage with customers – it's not just about AI, it's about our frontline customer service, the response that we give to our customers. We are using AI as just part of our processes – using AI to support decision making to deliver improved service to our customers.

What this means is that at QBE we don’t think of AI as “artificial intelligence”, but rather as “augmented intelligence” – so in the example of customer service, we need to make sure we are still maintaining frontline human contact as we employ AI. In practice, elements of this may involve using AI to reduce manual processes and using machine learning models to make sure that our frontline staff are not focussed on administrative tasks, but rather focussed on the specific needs of each customer.

Personalisation is also something that we need to consider. We need to determine what is the right level of personalisation for each customer – we need to work out where the boundary between automation and personalisation for each customer is. The questions we need to keep asking ourselves: “Are we adding value to the customer, or are we making it simpler for our customers, by using AI?".

Another important point I want to make is that we don’t want to just think of AI as a machine learning or technical thing, but rather to think of it as a problem-solving mechanism. The biggest challenge I think is not about the technical aspects of machine learning or the tools, it’s about framing the problem – making sure that we are focussed on the right problems.


FST Media: FSIs have been amongst industry’s foremost pursuers of customer-centric digitisation, from personalised service hubs at the frontend to ‘single-customer-view’ at the back. Take us through QBE’s technological journey to personalise its service offering. What does the ‘ideal’ customer interaction look like to you?

Bhatia: Digital innovation is important, but it’s crucial that we make sure that we don’t leave any customer behind. We need to try to understand what each customer’s ideal interaction is – and make sure that we meet the customer where they are. Some customers are very digital savvy and want a light human touch. Others want to talk directly to our staff throughout the process.

A really important part of delivering on this is making sure that customers can transition between automated platforms and live conversations with our staff in a seamless manner.

We also want to look beyond the transaction and try to understand how we can most effectively interact with the customer. For example, we are experimenting with online communities; these allow us to engage with customers directly and on an ongoing basis, effectively moving beyond the transaction. These communities allow us to have an ongoing conversation, sharing ideas, and maintaining an open dialogue. Ideally, this can facilitate co-design and a shared journey with our customers.


FST Media: Technological innovation is a fickle and seldom predictable pursuit. What do you feel will be the next ‘game-changing’ technology for financial services over the coming 18 months?

Bhatia: Text and speech analytics offer some exciting and promising value. We are particularly interested in seeing how this technology can help us identify vulnerable customers so that we can ensure we are offering them the best solution in the most appropriate manner. AI may be better at identifying these customers, allowing us to respond more meaningfully and in a more timely manner.

Another application for digital technology that we are looking at is to support financial capability (or ‘financial literacy’). Disengagement with financial products by many members of the community is an ongoing problem; it means that many consumers may not know exactly what they need and how to access it. We’re hoping to close this gap by improving the digital experience, leveraging behavioural science to improve customer experience and knowledge.


FST Media: Looking ahead, what legacy do you wish to leave as QBE’s chief?

Bhatia: The insurance industry is rife with change as we face emerging technologies, new entrants to the market, a shifting regulatory environment, climate change and the changing nature of risks more broadly, as well as evolving customer and community expectations. Amidst all that is one unchanging constant, the reason we exist – to deliver on our promise to support our customers in their times of need and provide them with exceptional experiences.

I’m passionate about customers and building an organisation that cares. This is why when we experienced the devastating Australian bushfires recently, we made a decision to waive excesses for bushfire-related insurance claims for individual policyholders and extend our employee wellbeing program (REACH) to customers in bushfire-affected areas to offer support for their recovery and welfare, including free counselling with experienced psychologists. The transformation journey we’re on and the technologies we’re adopting are critical to us becoming a simpler, stronger, and truly customer-centred QBE that operates and makes decisions based on doing right by our customers.

Caring is also about caring for our people and ensuring they have a great experience when they come to work. We’re creating an organisational culture in which our people bring their whole selves to work, understand our customers and their needs, are enabled to perform at their best, and are recognised for the right behaviours. When our people have a great employee experience, we foster an environment in which great customer experiences can happen. 


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Vivek Bhatia was a featured keynote presenter at FST's Future of Insurance event, revealing technology's potential to humanise the customer journey.