October 25, 2013

The life insurance industry is at a crossroads. A third of U.S. households have no life insurance at all, and half say they need more, but 86% say the product is too expensive, according to LIMRA research. At the same time, the middle-income demographic, a prime target for life insurance companies, is "more concerned with reducing debt and saving enough money for retirement" than buying the product, LIMRA says.

That's where Manish Bhatt, chief digital officer for MetLife, comes in. His mandate has been to find new and innovative ways to reach that middle-income market. That group is less responsive to the traditional life insurance sales process that involves going into an agent's office for consultation, Bhatt says.

"This segment definitely doesn't have enough life insurance, and to reach the underserved middle market, you have to be where they are," he says. "Then once you get in there, you have to have simple solutions and simple products. It's a very fast-moving business."

Technology underpins a lot of what Bhatt has done to create a modern customer experience at MetLife, which is making a big push to be more customer-centric and to do business in a variety of channels. That change involves using the power of computing to develop MetLife's "reflective application," which changes questions based on how people answer.

[Meet Bhatt and hear from other prominent insurance technologists, including keynote speaker Marsh COO Bill Pieroni and 2013 Elite 8 AXA Equitable CIO Michael Healy, at I&T's Elite 8 Executive Forum, Nov. 7 in New York City]

"If you say you have a family history of something, we'll give you five or six extra questions on that," Bhatt says. "When we first filed this process with the states, they didn't fully understand what we were doing. But we feel the reflective application is more detailed than paper, and now we can do a fully underwritten policy online."

Manish Bhatt, MetLife
Manish Bhatt, MetLife

MetLife powers its online life insurance sales with real-time third party data sources (which the company declined to name) that Bhatt says "truly help us make good underwriting decisions." That experience led to the pilot of a project that turned a lot of heads: offering "life insurance in a box" at Wal-Marts in South Carolina and Georgia.

Bhatt says the Wal-Mart initiative took a lot of what MetLife learned from online sales, such as creating a simple product and using third-party data. The product is actually a prepaid debit card; interested customers call or go online to register their cards, answer some questions, and if they qualify, they get a policy. If not, the card defaults to a cash debit card.

"We didn't want Wal-Mart to have to get licensed. It would be a logistical nightmare trying to get 300,000 cashiers life insurance licenses," he says. "So we had to figure out a way to sell insurance without selling insurance, which led us to the concept of the card."

Even though it was in a physical store, technology was crucial to the Wal-Mart effort. First, MetLife and partner CSC had to create business processes to make sure previously siloed systems like policy administration and billing could share data required to offer a policy. Then MetLife had to establish and report metrics to gauge if the test was a success. "We went out very quickly, ... and we learned what we needed to change -- like making it simply a card instead of a box," he says.

MetLife also began placing kiosks in stores so consumers could take the card and start the process qualification process right in the store.

Metrics System

From Bhatt's perspective, the most important tactic for reaching MetLife's target customer is trying new things and using metrics to see what needs fixing. "The best way to learn about what works for a customer is in the real world, not the research world," he says. "When we put something out, the one thing we know is if something's not right. That's why metrics are huge for us. We see the trends of where are people dropping off and where they are potentially confused."

As an example, Bhatt says, MetLife used to ask for "daytime" and "evening" phone numbers in its online application. People were pausing ever so slightly over that, perhaps trying to figure out where their mobile phone fit in or if they were likely to be at an office number enough to make it worth entering. A simple switch to "primary" and "secondary" numbers led to an 18% increase in leads.

"In the time they were thinking about it, their phone buzzes and they're on to the next thing," he says. "Subtle changes can make a big difference. When there's a bottleneck, we try to find several ways around it."

[MetLife's Big Data Party]

Bhatt has been with MetLife since 1994. In that time, he says, he's seen a lot of changes in marketing's relationship with the technology department. He himself has been straddling the two worlds, especially since being named head of the direct division in 2006. Companies that want to shift to digital business models need an effective division of responsibilities between IT and marketing technology.

"There's no shortage of articles that say the role of the CIO is changing, and there's no way that an IT pro could add all these things onto what they're already doing," he says. "My feeling is, 'How can I help with those things that take up all your mindshare?' It's trying to find those areas where it's not the highest value in terms of your time."

Bhatt sees his role as pushing initiatives and guiding them through implementation and evolution. "If we don't stretch ourselves and try these things, we don't know what we're leaving on the table," Bhatt says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nathan Golia is senior editor of Insurance & Technology. He joined the publication in 2010 as associate editor and covers all aspects of the nexus between insurance and information technology, including mobility, ...