An Interview with Ben Tan


Great Eastern Life’s Chief Distribution Officer speaks with FST Media about how advisory exchanges over social media will shape the insurance industry over the next five years.

FST Media: How are you leveraging data analytics in order to help deliver a better customer experience?

Tan: I think it is important for us to understand the customer by focusing on data analytics. We want to develop an intrinsic view of the customer and we see data becoming more important in helping our representatives to develop a better understanding and give them a 360 degree view of the customer. 

Recently, we have been working on developing a platform, which is an integrated customer management tool. Using this tool, our representatives in the field can access comprehensive data on the customer such as the policy they own, opportunities for looking at the pulse of the customer business, and identifying moments for us to share insights with the customer and become a part of their daily news coverage.

We have also introduced a variety of financial toolkits, such as iDream. iDream allows staff to talk to their customer about their financial needs through pictures and games. By showing customers various populated visual solutions, we allow our planners to have a meaningful conversation with their customers. In addition, if a customer is interested to continue with the advisory stream, our representatives can use our point-of-sales platform to meet with the proposal and quickly ascertain the solution.

FST Media: What are your priorities at Great Eastern Life for the next 12-18 months?

Tan: In 2013, the regulators in Singapore MAS introduced regulatory changes under the FAIR agreement, which is known as the Financial Advisory Industry Review. The next chapter focuses on the distribution side of operations and we are working closely with our 3000 representatives in the field to prepare for this year.

In April this year, the industry regulatory authority introduced a web aggregator for insurance – the first ever industry-wide aggregator. As a result, customers can go online and compare all the insurance products for all companies. Secondly, the new regulations stipulated that we must offer insurance directly to the customer and this is what we will be focusing on over the next 12 to 18 months.

FST Media: How has this new regulation shaped the initiatives that you are piloting at Great Eastern Life?

Tan: When it comes to regulatory changes, people tend to be wary of their implications and fortunately at Great Eastern we have a very strong training centre, The Centre of Excellence. It is the first in Singapore to have a dedicated training centre for representatives, so we have been preparing them for these regulatory changes through training and communications. Through these training programs, we show that the role of the advisor today is to provide added value advisory solutions to the customer. Increasingly, we see that our customers are becoming self-directed when looking for insurance products. They can research and find out better facts about the products online but they also need advice and that is where our team comes in to support them – in terms of helping customers identify needs and also to provide proper solutions for the customer.

FST Media: How will Great Eastern Life maximise distribution through strategic relationships in Singapore over the next five years?

Tan: For the last two years, we have been working very closely with our parent company OCBC, who are one of the largest banks in Singapore. Collectively, we are trying to understand our customers across the group between OCBC and Great Eastern Life. What we are trying to do now is put these two customer bases together and   understand the relationship that these customers have with us. 

Through this analysis, we try to identify opportunities whereby either the bank can look at the possibility of crossing into our base to understand who are our customers, where they came from, and how much business they have with us. I think ultimately we need to identify a segment of the customer where we can offer both the banks and Great Eastern Life’s solutions so I think the opportunity relationship that we have with the bank is strong. We have a very strong distribution assurance with them, we are working the bank’s other distribution network so we can offer each other’s product outcome and solutions. 

In addition, we have been holding the pole position in life insurance for 14 years. One of the outcomes that came out from this is that we have set up our Premium Client Group, whereby we have a strategy arrangement with OCBC in a way that our representatives can introduce high net worth customers or premium customers to the bank so that the bank can offer them various instruments such as Treasury Bonds and other banking products that are  available to their premium customers. In essence, if you are a customer of Great Eastern Life you can then gain access to some of the premium business in OCBC which previously was not available, so that is something that we started. 

FST Media: What has been your most effective customer acquisition channel and why?

Tan: Primarily, I have three main channels right now. First is our tied agents and we have about 3000 tied agents with us – this is our main core distribution. Secondly, we have our bank distribution network. Thirdly, we have our Great Eastern financial advisor company, GEFA, which was set up three years ago. GEFA is a separate entity of itself but it is owned by Great Eastern Life. Besides advising the customer on insurance, this entity can also advise the customers in terms of unit trusts, refer them to customer trust and the relevant business. In addition, advisors can work with the bank in terms of determining relevant banking products for the customer so it is the first of its kind in Singapore. 

FST Media: What key innovations do you feel will have the most impact in the insurance industry over the next five years?

Tan: If we look at the customer behaviour today, as far as insurance is concerned our customers are doing more research online before they make a choice about their insurance. In the next three to five years, the biggest changes that I think insurance companies have to implement are making significant investments in innovation and technology, particularly in the realm of social media. 

Currently, insurance mainly involves a face-to-face interaction but I would say that moving forward, we will see more transactions and advisory exchanges being conducted on social media. I think this trend will see more people going online to look for advisors – they can select what kind of advisor they are looking for and specify a set criteria of qualifications – and I think a lot of investment will have to go into making sure that the website contributes to engaging the customer. This engagement is crucial not just in terms of obtaining information about the customer, but also allowing the customer to understand their needs better and find the right solution. 

FST Media: How do you encourage a culture of innovation within your own team?

Tan: First and foremost, the senior management have to encourage innovation by leading by example. We encourage innovation in the sense that we like our teams to have open discussions in terms of what is in the market today, what are the things that companies are using, what are the latest trends in terms of technology and innovation, what our customers what are doing today and what interests them. It is like a reward and recognition system that we have in the company to encourage people to come up with different ideas. The second thing I think is important is how you bring the right people, especially young people, who may not be from an insurance background to the team, get them to work with our staff and share ideas around the latest technology. I think the key to innovation is for us to encourage our teams to experiment and try things. Our teams are encouraged to not have a fear of failure and our iDream initiative is a typical example of this. We brought in a young talented addition to our team with very little insurance experience but a lot of knowledge in terms of technology, and he has spearheaded this whole project. With free reign and very little restriction, I am proud to say that he has created iDream, and it has become one of the key tools our representatives are now using in the field. 

Experimentation without fearing failure is key to innovation. If we do not innovate or keep up with the pace of the market today, we may lose touch with the customer and what is going on in the market. 

FST Media: How does Great Eastern Life continue fostering innovation and promoting a strategy of fresh thinking to keep introducing new ideas to the market?

Tan: In terms of introducing new concepts, I think one key goal for us is to understand what is going on in the market. We have a Customer Experience team that focuses on engaging people outside the company, in terms of finding out what is happening in the realm of insurance globally and understanding customer behaviour from this perspective. Our aim is to allow key experts from different disciplines to engage our staff within the company, whether you are from marketing, product development or distribution, as this is the best way for fresh ideas to be developed and injected into the company. Certainly, having the ideas is one thing, but being able to execute them in a very highly regulated environment is another matter. However, with a little bit of creativity, discipline and sheer virtue, anything is possible. We are looking at fostering innovation across the board, including building our presence in social media through Facebook, developing a very different financial toolkit such as iDream, as well as creating integrated customer measuring tools. These are typical examples of having conversations with the right people, who have the technology expertise for execution and it is exciting to have such capability in the company.

FST Media: With respect to your own career development, what is the best advice that you have ever received?

Tan: I have been in this career for almost 20 years now.  One of the best pieces of advice I have received was this African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go in a group.” 

As individuals, if we have the right attitude, the right skills set, the right IQ and EQ and the right motivation we can really go far in our career and climbing up the corporate ladder. However, I think if you want to go far and contribute significantly to your group or the overall organisation, then I think the key will be a team of great people. In a professional sense, if you want to be enduring and resilient I think you need to align yourself with a talented group of people. This idea prompted me to reach for the team at Great Eastern and work with the greatest stakeholders and innovative employees, as this give us the ability to take the company forward to the next level.

FST Media: Every leader has a legacy that they wish to be remembered for, what is yours?

Tan: Technology is changing every week, so the legacy I would like to leave is having created a professional and traditional distribution franchise that can withstand all of these technological changes and continue growing. One day, I would like to take this franchise to other regions of Asia. We have a growing presence in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, China and Brunei. I hope to be remembered as the leader who created an efficient distribution franchise; one that could be exported to other teams of Great Eastern and help them grow in their respective markets.