The strategic adoption of technology in the insurance and personal finance industry is being driven by a commitment to meet and exceed customer expectations and deliver high levels of service. The industry has quickly recognised the compelling need for digital innovation as a defining and redefining factor to its success and survival.  

“Technology has always been a key part of the financial landscape,” says Hennie de Villiers, deputy CEO of Sanlam Personal Finance – the retail unit of leading African insurer Sanlam. “Yet, things have shifted significantly over the years with technology playing an increasingly important role in our day-to-day lives. This means that, as a population, we expect the same level of technological capability from an insurer as we would from a bank, telco or another service provider.”

Sanlam has, since 1918, strived to be the leader in client-centric wealth creation, management, and protection in South Africa, but it is also a global insurer with an international footprint in 30 African countries amongst others. Adept at servicing customers and with an accomplished track record, Sanlam has realised the importance of embracing technological shifts to continue to deliver and exceed its customers’ expectations.

For de Villiers, a point of departure was to consider customers’ experiences in other industries. “It is increasingly important for us to be able to compete with the best experiences our customers have elsewhere. We acknowledge that they want the same experience from insurance as they expect from their cell phone provider and their bank,” he says.

“Yet, while there is this common pursuit of digital enablement, insurance differs slightly from other industries in that our customers – even millennials – still require an element of human interaction, even as we move further away from it. So, the experience of implementing digital innovation varies across industries.”

Sanlam is driving a company-wide digital transformation that will see it fully embrace the technologies of today and tomorrow in order to deliver the most effective and seamless insurance services to modern-day customers.

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As an insurance services provider, the company engages a number of different stakeholders, from intermediaries and internal staff through to the customer. These stakeholders will all shape and influence the company’s digital transformation, yet for de Villiers there is an elementary core goal at the heart of the business’ digital transformation strategy. “It’s about how we can make the experience for customers so simple, so enjoyable and so pain-free, that they will want to continue doing business with us.”

While Sanlam acknowledges this strategic imperative, it’s not all plain sailing as technological transformation can typically present a number of challenges, particularly to a business that’s been in operation for over a century. A key challenge has been the company’s legacy infrastructure and systems, and de Villiers contends that this challenge is probably unsurprising for an insurance provider of Sanlam’s tenure. This presents its own unique hurdles and de Villiers believes the answer to overcoming these obstacles is to place a great deal of investment in the company’s most important asset - its people.

“You’re used to doing things a certain way, but life, and most certainly business, moves so fast that we have to embrace change, experiment and take risks. This requires a change in culture,” he says. “One of the ways in which we ensure that the organisation embraces change collectively is through continuous staff engagement from the top through to every level of the business.”

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This approach, he feels, is crucial in order to implement technology and empower employees to open their minds to this changing landscape. It allows employees to recognise and understand their role, not only in the organisation of today, but the one of tomorrow.

“We need to ensure that people are empowered and enabled,” he says. “Technology is complex and there is no silver bullet for us, but we have motivated and incredibly hard-working employees and so continuous engagement really brings people along.”

With the technology conversation defined by buzzwords such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotic Process Automation and Data Analytics some companies may fall into a trap of investing in these technologies for the wrong reasons in order to ‘keep up’ with the industry. De Villiers recognises this and understands that in order to grow in the right direction, Sanlam has to embrace appropriate technologies. “We will always base our technology decisions on whether we believe it will have a specific strategic value for us or if it will help us to achieve a specific strategic outcome,” he says.

To this end, Sanlam has been able to call on the invaluable support and experience of a key strategic partner in Zensar. Zensar is a leading digital solutions and technology services company that specialises in partnering with global organisations across industries on their digital transformation journey. Coupled with this, Zenzar also helps companies like Sanlam develop the internal skills needed to drive digitisation.

 “South Africa is an emerging market with growing skillsets. Zensar has done a tremendous amount of work with us in assisting to develop those critical skillsets through a number of programmes and training opportunities. This has really been a key element that has allowed us to both focus on, and enable, the technology implementation.”

Technology and digital transformation is an ever-evolving process and Sanlam cannot rest on its laurels. It has to be mindful of the future and how the technology trends of today can and will influence the industry of tomorrow.

Regardless of where the next shift in innovation comes from, Sanlam will continue to ensure that it provides the best possible service to its clients and customers.

“Whatever the future holds for us, I believe it is critical for our technology adoption to be in line with our strategy,” he says. “It needs to help us to really win the battle for the customer and ensure that we engage them at a level that will make them loyal and persistent - with no desire to go anywhere else.”

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