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Kyobo’s digital life insurer peps up after a slow decade

Korea’s first licensed digital insurer, LifePlanet, is finally beginning to generate results after 11 tough years.



It’s taken eleven years, but now “we can smell the opportunity” to get Koreans to buy life insurance digitally, says Kim Young-Suk, CEO of Kyobo LifePlanet.

LifePlanet was founded in 2013 as the first licensed digital insurer in Korea. The company is majority owned by Kyobo Life Insurance, the country’s third largest underwriter, with $15 billion in annual premiums. Japan’s Lifenet Insurance is also a shareholder.

It’s been a slow decade. The company was set up to enable customers to apply for policies and file claims online, targeting people in their 20s to 40s. In 2015 it enabled all aspects of selling death, retirement and health benefits to work on mobile phones.

The company still relies on agents, though: most customers need to be pitched to buy policies; it’s just that people would now do so by themselves on a phone or a computer.

It hasn’t worked.

“We struggled for eleven years because of how policies are sold in Korea,” said Kim, speaking at a conference. For the past ten years, digital sales accounted for only 0.2 percent of life insurance premiums. Agents dominate the sales process. General (independent) agents account for 50 percent of business, and tied agents another 36 percent. Telemarketing is also big in Korea, accounting for 8 percent of sales; bancassurance makes up the rest.

“Korea is the most digital country in the world,” Kim said, “except for insurance. Why?”

Covid calling

Insurers’ fears of upsetting their agents was one reason they have not been more aggressive. Kyobo’s own efforts at digital transformation were difficult, which is why it set up LifePlanet. Habits die hard.

Covid scrambled the status quo. “Now people are wondering why they purchase financial services at a bank branch or with an agent in person,” Kim said.

Kim is the company’s new CEO. Previously AIA Korea’s chief technology officer, he got the job at the end of 2023 in part because of his previous experience as a consultant at EY helping Kakao, the country’s dominant messaging app, launch its virtual KakaoBank. Kyobo wanted to replicate some of that magic at LifePlanet, now that Covid has gotten some people, at least, prepared to buy insurance digitally.

The role of chat

“Chatting with agents over KakaoChat or WhatsApp is now a way to sell insurance,” Kim said.

The rise of KakaoBank and the response by other banks to digitalize has transformed the retail banking industry. Insurance has lagged. But Kim  says younger people are eager to buy insurance online – if they only had a place to do so. The big insurers are all slow to invest in digital capabilities. They can’t provide end-to-end online service: instead, they rely on telemarketers to call anyone who clicks on an ad.

“No one is selling digitally except for us, because tied agents never allowed it, and because online products are lower price,” Kim said. “But consumers now realize they’re just subsidizing these agents.”

LifePlanet isn’t doing away with agents, but it’s repositioning them to answer customer questions through chat and then point them to the website to make a purchase. “Agent chat is the bridge” to pure online service, Kim said. “There’s no meeting, no calls. And with AI we capture all the data of that conversation.”

He says chat now accounts for 30 percent of LifePlanet’s direct channel sales. These agents are more effective than digital marketing, Kim said.

Costs of capital

Recent changes to accounting rules are also helping the company. Last year Korea adopted IFRS 17, an international standard for how insurance companies determine how much capital they need to hold, and therefore how much risk they can take.

They now have to mark their assets and liabilities to market rates, instead of relying on a static book value. This, combined with an environment of higher interest rates, has made life insurers reluctant to rely on long-term policies with a savings and investment component. They are looking to balance their portfolios by selling more protection policies. 

Such products are relatively easy to sell digitally. LifePlanet wants to access the national health database so instead of asking people questions about their lifestyle and health, it can simply ask consent to capture their medical and health records.

“After 10 years of struggle, this is our moment,” Kim said. The company has been building its digital capabilities and partnering with retailers. It still relies on KakaoChat and WhatsApp, which charge a lot of money for use of their platform. Therefore LifePlanet is investing in its own healthcare app.

Customer acquisition

It is also leveraging other arms of the Kyobo Group. In addition to Kyobo Life, the group also operates the country’s largest bookstore chain. LifePlanet uses books as part of its rewards program. And LifePlanet keeps tabs on who buys what in the bookstores: if a customer starts buying children’s books, that might suggest a new need.

Kim likens this to the work he did at AIA, where he integrated Vitality, a health and wellness program. He says AIA struggled to convert users into insurance customers, and fell back on telemarketing. He claims LifePlanet’s health platform now accounts for 20 percent of its business.

“There are no ads, just nudges about health risks and products. It works because we don’t call. Customers don’t want a call.”

But insurance often needs someone to explain things. Young people refuse to work with call centers. LifePlanet experimented with removing the option of chat on its app and gave people the call center number instead. The result was those users quit.

Leveraging GenAI

The chat feature works. “People ask a lot of questions,” Kim said. “All the dialogue is recorded, which lets us plug in a generative AI assistant, which is there to offer our agents the answers they should write in the chat.”

He reckons by 2026 generative AI chats will replace human agents for simple products.

But there’s more to growth than just not harassing users with phone calls. The government maintains a database of insurance products and prices, which insurers are allowed to access. With customer consent, insurers can analyze a customer’s entire policy portfolio and see where they are over- or under-insured. LifePlanet packages this into a report for customers, along with some product recommendations.

LifePlanet is looking to expand its platform business, including letting independent agents use it (for a fee). It is also migrating its tech stack to cloud provider AWS, to enable the business to scale the data analytics that are now becoming important. And it’s now in the Insurtech business, packaging its platform as a software-as-a-service offering.

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