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How Generali sees digital transformation of insurance

Asia head Roberto Leonardi talks fintech, ecosystems, AI – and why tech initiatives aren’t differentiators.

Rob Leonardi, Generali

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By 2021, all agency transactions across the eight Asian markets where insurer Generali operates will be paperless, says Roberto Leondardi, regional officer for Asia Pacific. 

It’s part of a broad drive to embed digital transformation in the Italian group’s growth strategy. During a lengthy discussion with DigFin in the firm’s brand new Hong Kong offices – with a trendy co-working space vibe and excellent espresso (of course!) – Leonardi outlined how fundamental digitization has become to the firm’s ambitions – but also to the extent to which such tools are generic.

Generali is a traditional insurance company in that it continues to base its future expansion around agents. In the mid 2010s the group decided to make a serious play to become a retail player in Asia, and it’s doing so by growing an agency force but supporting it with an almost totally digitized platform to work from.

Leonardi became the Hong Kong-based regional head in 2016, and inherited a corporate drive to become a relevant retail player in Asia. Generali has a 25-year old property & casualty business in the region which historically was focused on catering to its European clients operating locally, with group employee benefits and direct marketing its principal life-related operations. Only in China had Generali built a retail side (today China remains its largest market in Asia).

Conservative investment

Today it is building retail-focused life insurance businesses across all of its markets in Asia. Digitalization and innovation are part of that, along with increasing profitability and improving capital and operational efficiencies.

The headwinds it faces are not unique to Generali, but affecting the entire industry: slowing growth across the region, and the challenge of low and falling interest rates.

The business case is incremental innovation

Rob Leonardi, Generali

In this climate the company is investing in technology, but conservatively.

“We’re not in the disruptive innovation space,” Leonardi said. “The business case is incremental innovation, based on customer and agent feedback, and making many gradual improvements.”

Local rules

It’s not question of degree: the firm is digitizing many of its practices, particularly around the agent’s entire workflow, from recruiting customers to managing sales leads, and even assisting with claims. The question is how much of this is “hygiene” and how much is a differentiator for the business – and Leonardi’s answer is it’s mainly hygiene.

All insurers are looking to digitalize their interaction with agents, distributors, and customers,” Leonardi said.

The extent of digitization also varies by market. Generali runs a federated business model, in which country CEOs enjoy latitude in terms of priorities, spending, and development. Some markets have the desire and the resources to move more aggressively on digital projects than others.

Similarly, local conditions in some Asian countries can impede rolling out best-of-breed digital solutions developed elsewhere. Markets with laws requiring data localization can’t fit into global platforms.

Fintech challenges

For the most part, Generali prefers to build its own technology, or use solutions from large corporate vendors. Leonardi says partnerships with fintechs are rare.

“Startups focus on what they build for themselves, and usually can’t convert that to what businesses need to meet customer expectations,” he said.

The challenge has been getting customers to keep the app on their phone

Rob Leonardi, Generali

There have been exceptions. Earlier this year, Generali’s Hong Kong business partnered with Shanghai-based CareVoice to build a employee-benefits platform specifically for small tech businesses.

From RPA to A.I.

The firm is also looking more closely at artificial intelligence. Generali is a heavy consumer of robotic process automation (RPA), so much so that Leonardi calls it “routine”.

“We’re moving more to A.I., but it’s not a heavy investment,” he said. “We’re interested where it works better than RPA” or provides superior data analytics. For example, the India business is becoming a major user of chatbots.

The digital side depends on what the customer wants

Rob Leonardi, Generali

Digital tools are now more important for customer engagement. Generali’s major distribution channel is through its agents, but the company realizes the need for customers to buy insurance directly online or from its B2B2C partners.

“The challenge has been adoption, and getting customers to keep the app on their phone longer than 90 days,” Leonardi said. Some markets are more focused on developing engagement strategies. In Vietnam, the firm built GenVita, a local customer portal with health and wellness content.

Brand and partnerships

Brand plays an important role in its ecosystem strategy as well. Generali works with e-commerce platforms in China and India, for example, but Leonardi says his priority is on partnerships where Generali keeps the relationship with the customer. “We want our brand to be visible,” he said.

For example, in India the insurer has a distribution relationship with The Future Group, the country’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer. The partners are building a new, bespoke insurance company called Future Generali. Customers can access its services directly through The Future Group’s mobile wallet. Or they can phone up, or transact in person at one of the company’s stores.

Generali has other hybrid, consumer-facing partnerships such as the cooking-gas subsidiary of China National Petroleum Corporation (for insurance against accidents) and Thailand’s Central Group (providing health cover as a benefit to the retailer’s loyalty program).

“The digital side depends on what the customer wants,” Leonardi said.

Generali is also eager to build API connectivity with aggregators such as India’s PolicyBazaar. “We want to interact with all ecosystems.”

Digitization is a must-have if not a differentiator, an imperative to support creating lifetime relationships with customers and agents, and sustaining profitable growth. It’s a non-stop effort.

“There’s no end to the horizon,” Leonardi said. “Digitization is constant work.”

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How Generali sees digital transformation of insurance