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Cigna reboots with WhatsApp/chatbot mashup

The U.S. firm is leveraging WhatsApp business API and A.I. to get a leg up in Hong Kong health insurance.

Yuman Chan, Cigna

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Cigna is the first insurer in Hong Kong to deploy WhatsApp Business API, a feature introduced by the Facebook-owned messaging platform in December last year. 

WhatsApp Business API allows an enterprise to manage one-to-one communication with customers using the messaging app. With over 1.5 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp is the largest messaging platform in the world. In markets such as Hong Kong, it is the dominant messenger (see chart*).

Source: Hootsuite

What’s the importance of APIs? Applied program interfaces connect two different networks. A Cigna customer would normally need to log into the company’s app or website to receive service. But Cigna has now linked its server to WhatsApp, the favorite communication channel for Hong Kong people.

Adding chatbots

WhatsApp built its Business API service for large businesses to easily handle big volumes of notifications. For example, Booking.com and Wish use WhatsApp API to send booking confirmations and shipping information to individuals.

Cigna took this a step forward. It has hired Hong Kong fintech Clare.AI to build a Cantonese-language chatbot to field customer inquiries. The chatbot uses APIs to source answers directly from Cigna’s database, so there is no human intervention.

Its first use case is to help customers find a doctor.

Yuman Chan, Cigna’s CEO for Hong Kong, says the company routinely gets such inquiries, and it wanted a way to automate the process. It was also an easy way to begin working with artificial-intelligence tools.

It chose Clare.AI because of its local-language capabilities and its reliable natural language recognition, says Johnson Wong, Cigna’s senior manager for transformation.

“For some other [vendor] solutions, if I asked a question a bit differently from the standard question, they can’t answer – especially if it’s in Cantonese,” said Wong.

Bianca Ho, co-founder of Clare.AI, says security and compliance are also important components to providing chatbots to financial institutions.
Clare.AI doesn’t keep or use data with personal information. It uses aggregate data to provide analytics.

On-premises database

WhatsApp’s messages are encrypted end-to-end. Therefore only the two parties in a communication can see whatever content is stored on WhatsApp’s database.

For Business API, the data is stored on the servers of the corporate client (Cigna).

“It’s the consumer and Cigna and Cigna’s database that have the information,” Ho said.

Cigna launched its WhatsApp chatbot in April, and since then it has handled about 1,000 queries a week related to “find me a doctor”. The company is working to build out more functionality over the messenger, including claims submissions for both individual and group customers.

It will therefore need its chatbot to field questions around policy administration, so that software can match tasks for call centers such as informing customers about policy features, upcoming premium amounts, and managing routines such as changing addresses.

Wong says Cigna has the infrastructure ready for the automated process.

“If you ask about your claims, we can easily retrieve the data from the back end to the top. We’ve built the core already,” Wong said. 

Its WhatsApp chatbot will then help it collect data based on customer questions, said Chan. For example, if customers ask about particular doctors, they could potentially be added to the insurer’s panel of clinics.

Doctor Now

Cigna is also working with a Hong Kong telemedicine company called Doctor Now. This began as a voluntary service created by local doctors for elderly people. Cigna is the first insurance company to work with the service and commercialize it.

The idea is to let patients receive a consultation from licensed doctors via the app at home, instead of having to go to a hospital and wait in a queue. They can also get medicine shipped to their residence.

The business model is similar to Ping An Good Doctor, while Cigna aims at the health-insurance market for local, Cantonese-speaking residents.

Good Doctor is huge in mainland China, where it provides teleconsulting, appointment bookings, and medicine home deliveries. The app serves 265 million users, as of December.

The unit behind Good Doctor, Ping An Healthcare and Technology, listed in Hong Kong last year; the app is now available in Hong Kong and Singapore, and will soon enter Thailand, although its clientele remains mostly mainland Chinese residents or visitors.

WeChat’s parent, Tencent, has its own healthcare app in China called WeDoctor, or Guahao, but which relies on a British health-tech company, Babylon, for doctor consultations. It claims 27 million monthly active users. WeDoctor has announced plans to set up a “Greater Bay Area” business unit for Hong Kong and Macau, but has yet to launch.

Of course, in mainland China, Ping An and Tencent have built digital health empires on the back of poor traditional healthcare infrastructure, vast reservoirs of people (=data), and looser data privacy rules.

Hongkongers have access to doctors already. Its public hospitals have some of the same problems: with an aging population, doctors can be overwhelmed. But the system functions and is widely available. Cigna is a relatively small player in this market: according to Insurance Authority statistics (most recent data available only for 2017), it ranked 23rd in gross premiums. ( For direct medical business, it was ranked sixth in 2018).  

It might be adding a feature similar to Ping An’s playbook but its real target looks to be gaining market share against its larger, traditional rivals.


*None of the internet companies release statistics but Hootsuite graphics and unattributable Reddit opinions suggest WhatsApp leads in Hong Kong thanks to a longer history and a local English-friendly culture, but WeChat is catching up and Japan’s Line also has traction.

Banking & Payments

Citi, Mastercard vouch for digital coupons

Mojodomo, a Hong Kong fintech, is helping insurers and banks engage directly with consumers.

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Financial institutions are digitizing their product design, sales and operations, in order to cut through middlemen and reach end users. But one fintech is working with insurers and banks via their marketing departments.

Mojodomo is a Hong Kong-based company that digitizes coupons and vouchers, like gift certificates. Citi and Mastercard are introducing it to their B2B customers. The company is now raising an initial seed round of funding to help it expand to other regional markets.

“The Citi virtual card account lets us offer a redemption-based payment model to clients using our loyalty voucher platform,” said Dennis Shi, CEO of Mojodomo.

The insurance use case

The best way to understand what this startup does is to take one of its current use cases: insurance.

Enterprises, including insurers, banks and other corporations, pay hundreds of billions of dollars per year in coupons and vouchers, as a means of winning or rewarding consumers.

An insurance company may, for example, hand out supermarket coupons or vouchers for holiday mooncakes. Insurers might do so via their tied agents, as an incentive for agent networks.

We offer a redemption-based payment model to clients

Dennis Shi, Mojodomo

But agents are also middlemen who own the customer relationship – an arrangement that insurance companies are keen to sidestep, particularly if they can avoid spooking the agents they depend on for revenues. Hence the vouchers as one way to engage with end users.

This activity is paper-based. It is based on pre-paid vouchers (the insurer buys loads of them from the mooncake shop), with no quantifiable return on investment. The insurer hands out the vouchers to its policyholders, but has no means of knowing who spent them. Many vouchers go unredeemed, or customers give them away to others.

Adding the retailers

Tyrone Lynch, chief investment officer at Mojodomo, says the company’s platform allows insurers to issue vouchers in the form of credit, with each tied to a token, similar to a credit-card number. Insurers can issue these digitally – perhaps as an incentive to get people to download their app – and they only pay the retailer when a voucher has been redeemed. With everything tracked, the insurer’s marketing team can get a precise hold on what’s working and who’s cashing in.

The mooncake shops would lose out on giant, up-front bulk sales. They’d only get paid for vouchers that redeem. But the payment would be instant, via Mastercard and the banking system, versus having to wait for the insurance company to send them the money owed. Today, retailers have a cumbersome audit requirement to report the vouchers they do receive, whereas there’d be no need with a digitized process.

We’re using digital tools to move into an open-loop platform

Tyrone Lynch, Mojodomo

Lynch says the company is in a proof of concept with a global insurance company in Hong Kong that wants to connect with its most lucrative policyholders, particularly when an independent sales agent quits. It is also working with mainland Chinese banks. These institutions can issue a voucher either directly via SMS, or from their app.

“They were getting only about 50% utilization of their prepaid vouchers, but now they’re redeploying their marketing budget and getting realtime feedback on their clients,” Lynch said.

Revenues from marketing budgets

Mojodomo is more of a marketing business than payments, at least in its revenue model. Instead of charging the merchants (the mooncake shop) like a credit-card company, it charges the marketers at the insurance company or bank 8% of the value of redeemed vouchers.

That’s a large fee – but Lynch says it’s worth it to marketing departments that need to deploy their budgets but haven’t been able to find reliable ROI measurements.

“Most enterprises are simply digitizing their paper-based vouchers,” he said. “They’re still operating in a closed loop. We’re using digital tools to move into an open-looped platform.” A closed-loop means customers can only convert with the issuer itself: like using a Starbucks voucher. But open-loop is based on credit, using a B2B payments model, so that now the retailers or other third parties are part of the circle.

Mojodomo’s tech itself is not unique: it’s raising money now to be first into various Asian markets, such as Taiwan and Singapore, while relying on partnerships with Citi and Mastercard to get introductions to clients – such as the global insurer in Hong Kong and the banks in mainland China. Citi has also provided a credit line, while it is relying on Mastercard’s virtual card and payments rails.

In the case of the Chinese banks, part of its selling appeal is digitizing vouchers that customers can redeem overseas, using QR codes at participating retailers. Using Mastercard, the company is giving Chinese banks a means of issuing loyalty points that customers can use abroad. The fintech is still working on a mechanism for foreign exchange.

The fintech is currently seeking a $2 million seed round but expects to immediately follow up with a $15 million Series A round early next year. The proceeds are to go to building a presence in multiple markets, including credit lines. To date the company’s founders have bootstrapped it by about $500,000.

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Insurance

MSIG’s Asia offices file separate claims to digital strategy

The insurance company is pursuing digital transformation, but that means different things to different local teams.

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Mack Eng, MSIG

“Insurers are late adopters of fintech”, said Mack Eng, Singapore-based executive vice president of Japanese insurer MSIG. So insurers bring in third-party fintechs to help speed up their transformation.

MSIG’s claims system alone involves three partners: DBS Bank, NCS (a robotics company) and Laserfiche (enterprise software). Their services may overlap, but MSIG is open to explore with different partners.

MSIG’s example is in line with industry trends. Sanjay Varma, director for Asia Pacific at vendor FIS, says financial institutions in the region are increasing the number of third-party collaborations.

FIS just issued a report that says only 47% of Asian companies with clear leadership in digital transformation say their technological capability is sufficient to meet their growth plans.

Varma says the pattern is for companies to hire outsiders who bring change to the corporate culture; then they build internal digital platforms; and finally they bring in third parties to fill the gaps.

Singapore goes robo

MSIG has travelled down a similar road. Eng was hired in 2018 just after the insurer embarked on a digitalisation campaign for Asia. “It’s critical that leaders set the right tone,” Eng said, to ensure the urgency of the task is communicated to all levels.

Since then the company has built a foundation for a new generation in core infrastructure, and followed by partnering with outside players.

MSIG’s regional strategy has been based on robotic process automation (RPA), deploying computerised tools to handle simple, repetitive, time-consuming tasks, in order to save on human costs and reduce processing errors.

Business units can select what is most relevant for them

Mack Eng, MSIG

NCS, a subsidiary of Singtel, has tailored two bots for MSIG. One is called Zac, which processes travel claims submitted online, giving customers immediate emails back to acknowledge when a claim’s been filed. It cuts processing time of claims submissions from 14 minutes to 3 minutes, a time savings of 70%.

The second bot is called Velma, which enters details about automobiles for policies covering fleets. The time to log vehicle information has been slashed from about two minutes to 40 seconds.

Hong Kong’s holistic approach

Zac and Velma have been introduced to MSIG’s Singapore and other regional markets, although not yet to Hong Kong. That market has taken a different path: “Business units can select what is most relevant for them,” Eng said.

MSIG Hong Kong works with Laserfiche, which provides software that manages the overall flow of information through the enterprise (this is known as enterprise content management, or ECM; Oracle and IBM are industry leaders in this space).

ECM analyzes all kinds of information, including emails, documents, and images, in order to redesign workflows (as opposed to RPA, which simply improves existing processes but doesn’t change their function).

“It’s starting from scratch,” said Alan Yue, MSIG’s I.T. leader in Hong Kong. “We digitize our claim service to make it basically into a clean sheet.”

Hong Kong customers can now upload their supporting information instead of mailing hard copies when submitting a claim. The firm says 80% of online customers have used this channel. The software now also confirms submissions instantly via email or SMS, and it can forward them immediately to authorized insurance brokers or agents.

It’s starting from scratch

Alan Yue, MSIG

ECM, in theory, should be a more strategic solution than RPA since it paves the way for artificial intelligence and cloud computing. ECM help companies transform data sourced from many places (including social media) into data that is structured, and therefore machine-readable for analytic purposes.

API -the payments piece

Finally, MSIG has partnered with DBS to enable real-time payments for claims that are approved. MSIG is the first user of DBS’s RAPID program, which launched in 2017. DBS customers can buy an MSIG policy on the bank’s website and enjoy real-time payment of claims, with DBS’s payment API integrated into MSIG’s claims process.

Having onboarded partners, MSIG now needs to make sure it stays on top of other relevant solutions in the market – not a simple task, given the ever-growing number of insurtechs and other tech providers. MSIG became a founding partner of startup accelerator Plug and Play’s insurtech platform in Singapore. Back in MSIG’s home market of Japan, other institutions are also joining this network, including Japan Post Insurance.

Eng says membership keeps the firm on top of emerging companies as well as mature vendors. MSIG has set up dedicated teams in Asia and Silicon Valley to manage its Plug and Play relationships.

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Insurance

Manulife begins digital journey with China in mind

The insurer’s Hong Kong arm has launched its first digital distribution platform and teamed with fintechs.

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William Man, Manulife

After listening to Manulife’s digital initiatives, DigFin asks William Man, the insurer’s Hong Kong chief information officer and COO, where it’s all headed. With artificial intelligence-based tools, what will global insurers look like in, say, five years’ time?

Man has been in his current role a little over one year. Previously he worked for nearly 10 years in Shanghai, becoming the COO of Manulife-Sinochem Life Insurance. He’s been in China throughout its sudden digital transformation. So naturally that’s how he frames his response.

“In China, large companies have created a complete loop for customer experience. They’re using all manner of OCR, voice recognition, all kinds of biometrics, and putting analytics on the back end.”

This is not just improved processing. It’s reshaping how business gets done.

Redefining CX

For example, it’s now standard for big insurance companies in China to have customers purchase policies via mobiles. Insurance regulation requires companies make a statement confirming they understand what they’re buying.

Traditionally this is a piece of paper signed in the presence of an agent. But when customers purchase policies by phone, they can record a verbal affirmation and send the voice file to the insurer or its agent.

This allows virtual onboarding but it also gives the insurer a record of that person’s voice. Using A.I. tools, they can now almost instantly recognize a customer when that person calls the help center. Instead of a long wait and then explaining who you are, the call center addresses you by name straight away.

“Fast forward a few years, and we’ll have that same seamlessness,” Man said. “That’s the best use of technology to reduce or remove pains” in buying insurance and getting service.

Where to begin

Given the unique circumstances in China – a shoddy traditional sector, a vast population (lots of data to learn from) and a different regulatory framework – how likely is it that Manulife and other global players can match this?

Man says it’s possible, noting that Chinese insurers could move fast because they have less history and younger legacy systems to surmount.

In some ways Manulife is already beginning to use the same tools. It is not following other fashions in fintech, however.

For example, the firm hasn’t explored an “ecosystem” approach by which it would team up with a coterie of giant consumer-facing companies. It prefers to focus on improving customer experience and its own long history and professionalism.

A.I. partnership

But it is now starting to work with third-party software companies, and Man has a small team scouring the planet for innovative fintechs. The company is now close to deployment with an Israeli company that specializes in optical character recognition (OCR) for Chinese characters. (Man declined to name the company.)

OCR is one tool to let computers read and categorize documents, saving the back office lots of time. It’s a big deal in paper-intensive areas such as health insurance.

“If you think doctors’ handwriting is bad in English, you haven’t seen it in Chinese,” Man said.

Discussion of digital strategy began four years ago but began in earnest in early 2018. This has involved three major areas.

Switching engines

First is to find ways to introduce agile development for new products and services. The company will retain its core legacy systems but only as a system of customer record; new transactions are now being served through a new stack, which Man calls “engine two”. A data lake and microservices connect the database – “engine one” – with the application layer.

The idea is not to ever retire the original stack but to slim it down to serve the one function of customer recordkeeping, which is then used for financial and regulatory reporting. This is 25-year old technology but it remains robust for this purpose, Man says.

It is based on “waterfall” project management, in which tasks are sequential, with one step dependent on the previous one to happen. This doesn’t work for product development and anything to do with customer experience, so the “engine two” stack is built around principles of agile DevOps.

Operating shift

Second, Manulife has changed its operating environment from one of product silos to four general threads also built around customer experience: how customers search, find and buy Manulife products; ongoing service; and claims; plus a enterprise-wide capability to process things that cut across all business lines, such as payments or customer communications.

Claims in particular is another area where a lot of efficiencies can be made. Man says about 95% of all claims are in health care, which is another reason why the insurer has made reading health-related documents a priority. Claims is also the area that gets the most customer complaints, but he thinks technology can enable a majority of these to be processed automatically – and that will extend to complex products too.

Digital sales

Third, starting on April 1, it began selling its first end-to-end online products, both for new government-sponsored products (extra pension contributions, and voluntary health-insurance savings).

And on the distribution side, it recently rolled out its online sales platform, called ePOS, intended to support its agents’ sales. Man says this now accounts for 50% to 60% of new business in Hong Kong.

“Adoption will rise and this will eventually become like a mobile office,” Man said, in which agents can help push through online claims. “I’ve seen that happen in China.”

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Cigna reboots with WhatsApp/chatbot mashup