‘I’m still standing’ – AIA NZ’s Sharron Botica, on transition, acquisition & the Covid response

Sharron Botica

“Empathy is a critical part of what we do to support New Zealanders, most notably at claim time. We work to prioritise good customer outcomes, understand customer vulnerability, and seek customer feedback to make changes to the way we do business.”

speaks with Sharron Botica, Chief Customer Officer, AIA New Zealand, on leveraging technology to build an empathy-driven business, AIA’s rapid Covid response, and lessons learnt from a career of change, transition, and rebirth.


FST Media: Digital has long been recognised as a powerful vehicle for customer acquisition; increasingly, however, it is seen as key to supporting whole-of-life journeys. Take us through AIA’s CX agenda over the year ahead. How are you leveraging digital to optimise customer outcomes?

Botica: We have laid the foundations in the digital space with our digital quoting and application solution tool for advisers, AIAHub, along with our customer self-service digital portal, MyAIA.

In the year ahead, we are investing further in digital, analytical tools, and platforms to help us better understand and demonstrate our delivery to customer needs.

Our revised CX strategy is simple yet will allow us to quickly react and proactively demonstrate our care for delivering the best outcomes. An example is, during lockdown, where we quickly launched LiveChat to our customers. An essential tool and alternate contact route when our contact centre performance was under pressure.

Following the completion of our IT transition (technology integration post-AIA acquisition of Sovereign), we now have a foundation to accelerate our digital ambition.


FST Media: In a 2018 interview with FST Media, you alluded to the imminent launch of AIA NZ’s now-highly regarded Vitality program. Take us through the program’s accomplishments to date. How will Vitality’s proposition evolve in the years ahead?

Botica: On a global basis, Vitality has been running for 25 years, has amassed over 20 million members and has been launched in 24 markets with significant new market development underway. Within AIA, AIA Vitality has been launched in 11 markets, with New Zealand being the most recent with the launch on 5 August 2019. In the time since launching in New Zealand, we have enrolled 15,000 members and have experienced a high degree of member engagement in the program. Members have collectively uploaded more than 7.4 billion steps, done 2,250 Vitality Health Checks in partner pharmacies, 1,500 advanced health screens, earned $200,000 in Active Benefit rewards and donated $10,000 to our two donation partners, Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand and the New Zealand Heart Foundation. We have just brought on two new partners: Mentemia, focusing on member’s mental health, and a sustainability donation partner called Trees That Count.

AIA Vitality will continue to focus broadly across multiple facets of members’ health and wellbeing. There will be an ongoing focus on clinical relevance, creation of additional healthy activities, nutrition and mental wellbeing. Improving member experience and value is critical, as well as potentially creating an offering tailored to the corporate market.


FST Media: AIA made the notable acquisition of Sovereign Insurance back in 2018, boosting your life market share within New Zealand. As a member of the executive team, what do you feel were the greatest challenges in successfully integrating the two businesses? What lessons did you take away from this mammoth feat?

Botica: Acquisitions are exciting and yet, for many staff, there can be uncertainty of expectations/change and roles. So, we started with people and culture. Our team is the face and voice to the market and, without their engagement and connection, we would fail to deliver to our customers. We worked hard to develop a new culture (not one over the other) and communicate what the integration would bring and expectations.

Another highlight in successfully integrating the two businesses was taking to market our single product offering, combining more than 100 enhancements across our existing AIA and Sovereign insurance products, along with a competitive pricing structure including a multi-benefit discount and simplified commission structure.  At the same time, we launched AIA Vitality and our eApplication through AIAHub, making it easier for independent financial advisers and customers to do business with us.

The key lesson from this was the importance of engaging with advisers and customers along the way to ensure that we are meeting needs and inspiring positive behavioural change. And while we had an enormous amount of internal change occurring, delivering to the external market and our customers was critical.

Finally, we successfully carried out our IT and telephony transition, migrating all our systems and processes from our previous provider, ASB, onto AIA infrastructure, and we managed to do this during Level 4 lockdowns due to Covid-19. This was a significant undertaking that involved more than 450 people over a two-year period, including third-party suppliers, vendors, and colleagues in AIA Australia and our group office. The size and scale of the undertaking included transitioning 800 databases, 500 services, 130 applications, 370 SharePoint sites, 1,200 phone configurations, and more.


FST Media: As customer-centricity becomes industry orthodoxy, how do you as CCO drive a culture of empathy within your team that ultimately supports your wider business objectives?

Botica: Empathy is a critical part of what we do to support New Zealanders, most notably at claim time. We work to prioritise good customer outcomes, understand customer vulnerability, and seek customer feedback to make changes to the way we do business.

Further, by listening and taking quick action where there’s an opportunity to demonstrate, we are responding to our customers as well as bringing to life what we do through our Voice of Customer (VoC), Intermediary Experience (IX), Customer Experience (CX), and complaints programs of work. It keeps us grounded and ensures we remember why we are here to deliver to our purpose, vision, and brand promise.

Finally, having strong measures, clarity on what’s expected, and sharing customer stories are essential.


FST Media: Covid-19 has upended and changed consumer behaviour, perhaps permanently. How has AIA tailored its customer agenda in response?

Botica: With moving all staff to work from home within a matter of days and utilising Microsoft Teams, we were very quickly able to drive stronger internal alignment across the business that enabled us to understand what customers needs were and quickly get the right solutions to market. This ultimately made us nimbler and more responsive to our customers. An example of this was the release of our insurance premium relief package for people who may have been experiencing financial hardship due to Covid-19.

It also moved us to leverage, adopt, and accelerate the use of digital, technology, and data tools to create better customer outcomes – for example, we were able to implement LiveChat, utilising AWS VPN, within a matter of days. LiveChat gave customers another way to interact with us during this period.


FST Media: Data security has grown to be a major concern for customers, particularly as the increasing frequency of cyber breaches sees personal information funnelled into the dark web. Operating against this volatile business context, how does AIA seek to build and nurture customer confidence in its security systems?

Botica: Data security is embedded in AIA’s culture. We ensure all customer data is secured by ensuring the following:

  1. Security design review and security testing of new products and services from inception up to deployment
  2. Secured storage in our systems, when it is moving from one point to another or when it is being processed
  3. Regular security awareness to all staff on how to handle customer data
  4. Regular Third-Party Security Assessment (TPSA) of our vendors who we are working with to handle customer data
  5. A dedicated team in NZ to manage the security of the local business unit in alignment with AIA Group’s policies and security controls


FST Media: In 2018, you cited AI and robotic process automation (RPA) as key technologies being leveraged within AIA to improve business processes. Two years on, how are you reaping the benefits of these technologies? 

Botica: A lot has changed since 2018 that’s for sure. However, we remain committed to the use of ‘AI’ across our business. We’ve managed to do a lot of machine learning modelling across various products and processes and this is gaining traction to become a daily occurrence.


FST Media: Finally, what is the best career advice you have received and how have you sought to put this into practice?

Botica: Never accept the status quo.

I’ve been a part of five company acquisitions and, as Elton John sang: ‘I’m still standing’. It’s always important to me to look forward, acknowledge the past, and use those learnings to push you forward and bring your people with you. Acquisitions can be scary, and I’ve said to many of our leaders that this experience will be one of your greatest learning experiences in your career: so, lean into it and not against it, be open to change and part of the change you want to see.

I was also fortunate to lead our People and Community area for a number of years and really saw the opportunity to begin our Diversity & Inclusion agenda. With no budget, a limited executive appetite, and no organisational priority for this work, this was really a great example of not accepting the status quo, working with what you have, finding your allies, choosing your battles, and being extremely determined to do the right thing and create great change. I’m thrilled with our progress and change created. Winning three category awards and then the supreme award at the UN Women White Camellia awards last year was a career highlight for me.

Sharron Botica will be a featured keynote speaker at the Future of Financial Services, Auckland 2020 virtual conference. Register now!