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Why AXA’s Gordon Watson is betting big on telehealth

The insurer’s Asia CEO says “Emma” is expanding the business model from agents to ecosystems.



Emma, and Gordon Watson

AXA had already decided to sharpen its growth on health and protection products when COVID-19 hit early this year. Now telehealth via its chatbot-powered app has vaulted to the forefront of the insurer’s regional and global ambitions.

Gordon Watson, the firm’s Asia CEO, says telehealth – doctor and clinic interactions, advice, and care delivered electronically – is not new but only now has become popular. AXA has invested in telehealth initially for rural customers but the pandemic has made it relevant for everyone.

“Telehealth’s been around for a few years but we hadn’t seen any traction until last few months,” he said, adding that it is expected to grow into a $130 billion industry worldwide by 2025, encompassing the value of medical services, fees, and insurance premiums.

The sudden demand for remote access to healthcare is also giving AXA’s chatbot strategy a charge. “It’s serendipitous,” Watson said. “COVID-19 hit at a time when our strategy already shifted to focus more on health. We are becoming a partner, not just a payer.”

That means interacting directly with customers, with its chatbot, Emma, leading the way across a broader digital offering. For now, Watson says telehealth is the biggest driver of adoption: in April, AXA offered to handle 5 million free consultations for both its customers and non-customers, including emerging consumers in rural areas of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

But how customers get that access is still a work in progress.

From payer to partners

Since Watson joined as Asia CEO in January 2018, he has supported the development of Emma as the firm’s universal chatbot identity for what he describes as a “concierge service for all health-related issues”. It’s still early days, with Emma now available as a standalone app only in Hong Kong and the Philippines, with mainland China and Japan next to launch.

The app is expressed in different ways depending on local partners. In China, for example, Emma will be made available but through WeChat; AXA is also partnering with third-party apps Halodoc in Indonesia and MyPocketDoctor in the Philippines.

I want to keep Emma pure

Gordon Watson, AXA

Where Emma is not present, such as in Thailand and Japan, the insurer offers telehealth through local telecom or other parties. The chatbot is also being stylized for certain markets: for example, when Emma debuts in Japan, the imagery will look more like a manga cartoon.

DigFin asked if this proliferation of apps and relationships is creating a new “spaghetti bowl” of channels that could become difficult from both an operating and a brand point of view. Watson says although delivery channels may vary, the firm is committed to Emma as its sole app: “A single source is easier to do business with.” 

Lead-gen machine

Emma was originally conceived as serving employee benefit plans. AXA beta tested it with its own Hong Kong workforce and is now offering it to health policy customers. The bot will be rolled out for other customer groups in health and protection.

He doesn’t see the app being extended to commercial lines, nor to wealth products: “I want to keep Emma pure, and not be seen as always trying to sell you something.”

This does not mean, however, that the app isn’t a lead-generation machine. It is. AXA is just trying to be discrete. The firm sees all the customer data and uses analytics to determine an individual’s propensity to buy something. Those leads can be passed on to agents, or to AXA’s direct digital sales team.

AXA has already begun doing so with its employee benefit plans for small enterprises in Hong Kong and with telehealth seminars with individuals in Japan, funneling tips to agents.

Stress relief

Online education is increasing the footprint, allowing the firm to reach more people than it would have by hosting in-person events. The driver isn’t the tech: it’s the topic. AXA policies already (pre-Emma) include features covering what Watson terms mind health, which is mental health support. That can range from soft services like stress prevention techniques, to insurance cover for wigs for cancer patients.

COVID-19 has generated a lot of anxiety, so AXA is finding this is something a lot of people want to discuss. It is looking to artificial intelligence to detect or prevent depression and is piloting a virtual-reality room to provide calming experiences.

Getting the lead is the hardest thing

Gordon Watson, AXA

In turn it generates a good impression of the firm and greater willingness for customers to use digital services. The proportion of claims filed electronically in Hong Kong has already jumped from almost zero a year ago to 42% by July 2020.

“It used to be that life and death were the only chance an insurance company had to deal with its customers,” Watson said. “Today we can be more active when we come with a social purpose.”

From agents to ecosystems

This leads to the obvious question: how is AXA presenting this to its agents, many of whom might have reason to fear they’re being cut out? Across the industry, insurance agents are jealous guardians of their customer relationship.

Watson says on the one hand, AXA is shifting from a strategy of relying on agents to working with partners. But there is still a need for agents, who provide a level of assurance and personal assistance that no chatbot or ecosystem can. But Watson says the type of person who can succeed as an agent is going to change.

A lot of fintechs just talk

Gordon Watson, AXA

“For lower-tier agents and for new, younger agents, these tools are powerful. They are the ones who need leads and to build a pipeline. Digital channels give them an excuse to talk to customers. Digital creates leads. Yes they are going to see less commission [from a lead sent by Emma], but getting the lead is the hardest thing.”

He is less enamored of agents who just throw themselves at the private-banking level of service. “We’re not interested in agents who just go for the high end of wealth management,” Watson said, noting that space is too competitive. AXA still sells investment products, but the firm can distinguish itself in health and protection.

“Our sponsorship of Liverpool also helps in Asia,” Watson added – the future isn’t just about digital.

Working with fintech

To compete in these areas requires partners, not just for distribution but also for software. Watson says he’s interested in working with insurtech companies that can add value to the carrier’s existing scale and data. AXA’s innovation arm, AXA Labs, has offices in Shanghai, Paris and Silicon Valley.

But Watson is also skeptical about these companies. “A lot of fintechs just talk,” he said. “They go to conferences and talk to likeminded people. We have a bias for action and for discipline.”

He also says tech startups can sometimes be arrogant. For example, AXA ended up partnering with a Hong Kong A.I. company, Neurum Health, which produces its mind-health conversations using neural networks. A key reason AXA selected Neurum over bigger firms from the U.S. and Australia was that it was flexible. “Those other software firms couldn’t be bothered to translate into Cantonese,” Watson said.

Watson believes telehealth, particularly around mental health services, will be a big business beyond COVID-19. “Mental health could be the next pandemic,” he said. “People don’t realize what an important issue this is. It’s part of holistic healthcare, not just something to stand on its own.”

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