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The Principal's Doug Fick: A Customer Advocate

The life insurance carrier's CIO focuses on customer and agent experience in all initiatives.

With customer experience at the heart of many insurance companies’ technology investments and initiatives, it comes as no surprise that Doug Fick’s experience heading up CRM and e-business for The Principal(Des Moines, Iowa; $483.2 billion in assets under management) has led to a distinguished career as CIO of US Insurance Solutions. A longtime focus on rallying line-of-business leaders around the value of operationalizing data and analytics has helped Fick position the company for growth at a time when LIMRA and other life insurance trade groups report that there is a big potential market for life products.

“From a life perspective, the amount of people that don’t have it or don’t have enough is large in this country,” Fick says. “E-business and CRM was something that took care of all lines of business domestically, so I found myself interacting with the CIOs of all the different LOBs on a regular basis. The importance of the experience of the customer was paramount. Everyone was all in; the question was, how do we continue to enrich the data?”

In 2004, when Fick took over responsibilities for IT operations for The Principal’s insurance businesses, he set about building a data warehouse that would lay the groundwork for the company’s customer and agent experience improvements in the decade since.

“It’s not an online transaction system, it’s an analytics reporting predictive environment  — the first thing you get out of it is good reporting,” he explains. “It’s things like, what does our customer base look like? What is the average number of products per person? When you take that warehouse data and append it with external data, you get into propensity to buy and predict behavior.”

“In an adviser-driven world, we’re serving the adviser as that customer,” Fick adds. “An independent adviser that sells 401(k)s might not have as much on the group benefit side, but there’s the career agent that sits out there that primarily sells Principal products; we can help them understand from a propensity to buy what might be an attractive product.”

Fick also has carefully maintained the data warehouse environment to handle the onslaught of consumer data that life insurance companies collect. With so much activity in the area over the past few years, the company can’t afford to stand pat.

“The tech continues to change and different hardware is brought to the table,” he explains. “It’s not like we swap out our database model that much, but we’re constantly looking at the tables, data appliances that are changing the market, that may not necessarily need the structure of the old world of data warehousing.”

Data consumers

The maturing of the analytics market has also led to differences in the way the business users consume data, Fick continues. “Initially, it was simply a way to report. You had all your lines of business putting in a veneer of data to get an idea of what our customer base looks like,” he says. “Harnessing data now follows a continuum from standard reports to query drilldown to forecasting to predictive modeling.”

When The Principal identified group benefits as a potentially large growth area, Fick was tasked with implementing administrative platforms for the products.

“We as a company feel there’s a macro view that employers have to be competitive worldwide,” Fick explains. “We’ve also got governments that are cash-strapped. The ability to provide those benefits as the population ages is going to be challenging.”

The Principal has a long-standing system replacement strategy Fick describes as being guided by architecture principles. The first, where possible, is to reuse an existing platform. If that’s not possible, the company will look to the market for alternatives. The only time the company builds is if there are no vendor options, or if it believes any developed code will provide competitive advantage. It turned out that buying software to support group benefits was the correct approach, but within that Fick took two different approaches: The life, disability, critical illness, dental, and vision administration platform is licensed and hosted in the company’s data center, while the dental and vision claims platform is delivered through software-as-a-service arrangements.


Doug Fick, CIO, U.S. Insurance Solutions, Principal Financial Group

Doug Fick
CIO, U.S. Insurance Solutions

Principal Financial Group

Career bio: Served in the Navy as a noncommissioned officer before joining The Principal in 1987

Education: Associate degree in industrial security from the Community College of the Air Force, a bachelor’s degree in public administration from the University of Upper Iowa, and an MBA from the University of Iowa

Hobbies: Cycling, golf

Quote: “In an adviser-driven world, we’re serving the adviser as that customer.”


“We do have a fairly large data center, but when I’m out looking for platforms, everything is in play,” he says. “For dental and vision, the market’s a lot more mature in terms of software-as-a-service. What we’ve done is transitioned ourselves from an in-house development shop to a service-oriented architecture shop: An app comes in and it’s plug and play, we try to reduce the number of integration points so we can stand the test of time as we do upgrades.”

That strategy shift has led The Principal to embrace Agile development strategies wherever possible, he continues. “Those two technologies, SOA and Agile, allow us to not be as concerned as to whether it’s software-as-a-service or whether it’s in-house,” he says.

But The Principal’s U.S. Insurance Solutions technology strategy under Fick has used these means to reach an end of top-tier agent and customer experience. For example, knowing that many of its existing distributors weren’t necessarily familiar with the group products, and that it would be taking on new brokers who had experience with the products but not with The Principal, Fick and his team developed an electronic administration and distribution platform, eAdmin, focused on ease of doing business. Group insurance customers and their brokers can submit enrollment and eligibility data electronically, even for multiple employers, in a fully automated process.

“We spend a considerable amount of time bringing on data, and we need to make sure we can handle data in a way that makes it easy to do business with The Principal,” he says. “We really wanted to create an easy experience — though this whole electronic world happens behind the scenes, we want it to appear easy at the front end.”

This continues a tradition at The Principal — which doesn’t have a direct channel at all — of making agent and adviser enablement a key component of its technology strategy.

That means that even in data-driven initiatives like automated underwriting, the focus is on how the agents receive it — not to replace them.

“What we’re doing with our automated underwriting process is a differentiator in the market. It is being received well by both career and independent channels,” Fick says. “Where we use publicly available data to underwrite a portion of our applications, the typical turnaround time drops from 25 to 31 days to below five days.”

In his spare time, Fick reflects The Principal’s commitment to charitable initiatives by sitting on the board of the Science Center of Iowa. A military veteran, he also has been able to combine his charity work with an interest in cycling by participating in portions of the Ragbrai charity ride across Iowa from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River.

“It’s a full week. You dip your back tire into the Missouri and then your front tire into the Mississippi after a week,” he says. “I do a couple days out of it, not a full week.”

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, distribution, core systems, customer interaction, and risk ... View Full Bio

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KBurger
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KBurger,
User Rank: Author
11/30/2014 | 9:03:40 PM
Re: Insurance is (still) sold, not bought
True. I guess the bigger challenge might be the overall decline in life insurance sales, and how that can be reversed. Certainly enhancing agent capabilities is a big part of that; it probably also means somewhat redefining the roles and functions of those agents.
Nathan Golia
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Nathan Golia,
User Rank: Author
11/25/2014 | 9:16:30 PM
Re: Insurance is (still) sold, not bought
I don't think they feel that much of a threat. Agent enablement with tech is partially about increasing the agent's intrinsic value in the insurance buying process. Especially with life insurance, a trusted advisor can be a lifelong relationship. That's what giving them the tools to interact with policyholders in a 21st-century way is about.
KBurger
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KBurger,
User Rank: Author
11/5/2014 | 1:59:38 PM
Insurance is (still) sold, not bought
Congratulations to Doug on these achievements. It's interesting that The Principal's distribution model continues to be agent/producer-based -- that makes sense given the complex kinds of benefits and life products the company sells. Doug's insights about harnessing data and automation to make agents more effective and to improve distribution capabilities are very compelling. However, it's likely that the direct distributors are going to become increasing data/analytics-based, so I wonder if he sees any potential disruption to this model down the line.
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