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03:45 PM
Mike Boltz
Mike Boltz

Insurers Must Take Advantage of the Economic Climate to Realize Future Gains

Times may be tough, but insurers should take advantage of the current economic climate to realize future competitive gains.

As 2009 begins, financial services firms are weathering an economic hurricane. But despite the challenges that today's environment presents for insurers, there has never been a better opportunity to leverage current conditions for competitive advantage.

It's time to turn and head into the wind by focusing on employee engagement and stepping up customer and distributor communication and service efforts. 2009 is not the time to wait the storm out. While many firms will alienate employees and customers with a do-nothing, business-as-usual approach, others will leverage the market climate to their advantage and emerge from this economic downturn better positioned for future success.

Employees drive everything you do, including establishing and maintaining competitive advantage. Happy, engaged employees aligned with your corporate values, goals and strategy produce amazing results. A culture of pride of ownership permeates the entire organization and results in better products, better customer service and a real boost for your brand.

In these times of uncertainty, it is especially important to go above and beyond to foster employee engagement. Communicate, communicate and communicate. Don't just send out e-mails; get out and touch everybody. Walk the floor and reach out to folks personally, and demand that your managers follow your lead. Keep an open-door policy. Have group lunches or breakfasts and really talk to employees about what is going on -- and listen to what they say; it's amazing what you can learn from them.

It's a good idea to have a confidential employee survey program to get the feedback you can't get in person. But you must act on the results and communicate early and often that you plan to do so. Define a program and communicate progress along the way. And remember that this is not a once-and-done process.

And leverage technology tools to foster employee engagement through collaboration and social networking. Add wiki and blog capabilities to your internal site, and encourage your employees to be a part of the solution, as they are closest to the work in your organization. Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.) SharePoint and IBM (Armonk, N.Y.) WebSphere Portal are just two examples of platforms that support collaboration right out of the box.

Reassure Your Customers

Your customers and distributors also need reassurance in these difficult times. Making an effort to connect with them now will pay dividends over the long term. Brand loyalty leads to competitive advantage, and customer loyalty boils down to excellent customer service, which enables trust. Now is the time to reach out and communicate your strategic outlook. Update your customer and agent Web sites with enhanced communication tools. Again, wikis and blogs are powerful ways to regularly update your customers and distributors and get their feedback. Streaming video and podcast updates about how you are weathering the storm also are excellent tools.

There are also some quick wins that will serve customers and foster sales in the current economy. New products with lower pricing would be an example. They are easier for your distributors to sell and satisfy a short-term consumer need.The lower margin pains you feel now will be rewarded when customers come back for your bread-and-butter products and services when things turn around.

Finally, implement electronic application and order entry (particularly in the life-and-annuity arena) to streamline processing and make your firm easier to do business with. Also, make sure your call center representatives are ready to respond to calls with a higher level of empathy and support for the customer. Now is not the time to offer bad customer service, as emotions are running high and customers will vote with their feet.

Mike Boltz most recently was EVP and CIO of West Des Moines, Iowa-based Aviva USA. He left the firm in November. From 1998 to 2004, Boltz was a VP at Charles Schwab.

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