(Nov 13): Last month’s launch of Prudential Singapore’s Fintegrate Partnership, which seeks to collaborate with fintech startups in Singapore and globally, and co-develop digital solutions for customers, is one of many steps that the long-standing insurer is taking to stay relevant in the digital era.

Unlike most accelerator and hackcelerator programmes, the PRU Fintegrate Partnership provides a clear goal, as selected start-ups may enter into a commercial engagement with Prudential. Pru Fintegrate is also a rapid- deployment programme offering start-ups an opportunity to build and validate prototypes.

“Digital innovation is a key component in our overall growth strategy. It’s essential to our efforts in making insurance simpler and more accessible for our customers, and to help our financial consultants work more efficiently. Collaboration with fintechs will enable us to develop such new solutions at speed,” says Wilf Blackburn, CEO of Prudential Singapore.

Digitisation has made Prudential a more efficient and productive organisation. “Our customers are leading digital lives. As part of our digital roadmap, we are building new digital capabilities to understand their needs better and to provide a seamless and convenient experience for them at all our touchpoints,” he adds.

Cutting-edge products
One of the ways Prudential uses technology is to connect with customers and financial consultants through the PRU for You online community. This a real-time interaction that allows the insurer to respond to customer feedback more promptly, gain insight into new trends and design solutions from customers’ perspective. After feedback from PRU for You, Prudential redesigned its private hospitalisation insurance plan to a claims-based pricing that rewards customers who stay healthy and make smaller private hospital claims, with savings on their premiums.

Another tech-driven service is ask- PRU, a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence. askPRU provides financial consultants with real-time information that is specific to their customers’ life insurance plans, including a customer’s policy cash value, policy premium due date and status of submitted claims. Prudential’s financial consultants are also equipped with PRUONE Express, a digital point-of-sale portal that generates a detailed quotation in just three seconds. It uses the latest technologies, such as SmartData Capture and Fingerprint Authentication, to facilitate a quicker and more effective consultation and sales process, and the submission of new policy requests.

Prudential also partnered Prenetics, a genetics testing company, on the my DNA programme, in which a simple saliva test reveals how an individual’s genes may affect his or her nutrition needs, dietary sensitivities and fitness. Individuals can find out which exercises and foods are best suited to them.

More recently, Prudential is experimenting with machine learning for faster claims assessment. This AI application is at the core of a new e-claims solution that makes claims assessment in seconds. “We’re using AI and machine learning for data- driven decision-making. This cuts down on manual processes and frees our people to focus on more meaningful customer engagement initiatives,” Blackburn says.

New Google-like office
Prudential has just opened a new stateof- the-art office at Marina One to cultivate a culture of innovation. Inspired by Albert Einstein’s philosophy that play is the highest form of research, it engages employees with activity-based working options and areas for experimentation and exploration of ideas.

Since Blackburn was posted to the Singapore office, he has injected pizzazz into the 200-year-old insurer. “We got some of our youngest and most creative employees to design the office brief. We said it shouldn’t be people like me designing it but people we want to attract.”

The office has an open-plan environment with flexible workspaces. It supports Prudential’s outcome-based work culture, which means employees have the flexibility and autonomy to work from anywhere and at any time. For one thing, there are only 700 workspaces for 900 people. Nobody, except personal assistants and receptionists, has his or her own workspace.

If there is space for only 700 people, how do 900 fit in the office? Apparently, space utilisation studies indicate that only 70% to 80% of staff in an office need a desk at any one time. This is because people go on leave, they are sick, or they are out for meetings.

The new office design is also space-saving. The company is saving about 20% of rental costs with the new design.

Blackburn says the seating arrangement in the new office is a bit like loungers at a swimming pool. The lounger does not belong to the person sitting on it. “You take the available lounger and, when you go off, you pack your things and take them with you. Tomorrow, you may use another lounger.” Interestingly, Blackburn does not have an office or even his own desk in the new office. “I will sit anywhere. Everyone has the same-sized desk. We will find a desk when we come to work each day if we need one.” The new office has breakout rooms for meetings and start-up-style collaborative spaces for ideation sessions.

The whole point behind the design of the new office is to break down hierarchy. Business cards will not carry designation or rank but responsibilities. Promotions will not be announced. “The idea behind that is that everybody has a voice. An idea from frontline staff carries equal weight as an idea from the CEO,” Blackburn says. “Young people don’t like hierarchy. If they wait 30 years before they have a voice, they’re not going to come and join you.”

Taking market share
Singapore is the second-largest market for Prudential in Asia, based on annual premium equivalent sales. APE sales rose 23% y-o-y to £195 million ($353 million) in 1H2017, contributing 10% of Asia’s overall APE sales. Asia in turn contributed to 54% of APE sales and 65% of the insurance group’s new business premium.

For 1HFY2017, Prudential announced that its Asia post-tax operating profit based on longer-term investment rose 36% to £1,641 million and accounted for 55% of total long-term business posttax operating profit of £2,991 million.

Prudential Singapore continues to take the market share from its competitors. Recent industry statistics from the Life Insurance Association points to Prudential Singapore’s widening the gap between itself — as the No 1 life insurer for new sales of regular premium products — and the No 2 insurer in 1H2017. The tussle for second place is believed to be between Manulife and AIA. Prudential also has one of the largest market shares for private hospitalisation plans.

“We’re No 1 for the new regular premium sales. We’ve been No 1 for a while,” Blackburn says. “We sell mostly regular premium.” Regular premium products are for protection. “That’s really our focus, protecting people,” he adds.

Protection is where Blackburn sees Singapore as something of a growth market. The growth of the life insurance market tends to follow the growth of the middle class. They have lifestyles to protect and the affordability to save for the future, so they need medical protection, education and retirement plans. “Helping our customers save for their retirement and children’s education, that’s where we’ve been the leader for decades,” Blackburn says. All in, Prudential Singapore has 900,000 customers, or one-third of the market, with total sum assured of $147.7 billion.

Prudential’s financial consultants remain its dominant form of distribution despite the appearance of insurers that sell mainly through online channels. Blackburn is emphatic that the financial consultants will continue to be relevant and their numbers will continue to grow. “Junior-level accounting and actuarial work like I was doing 30 years ago will disappear, but not work that involves advisory,” he acknowledges. “Technology will help our financial consultants with fact finding, but not the interpretation of customer needs. Robots cannot empathise and build longterm relationships with customers.”

Blackburn gives an analogy of how the old and the new work together. “If the financial consultants are like our army, then all this technology is their ammunition. We’re equipping them to give better advice and be more effective. Our agency is growing and it’s bigger than it’s ever been.”

United Overseas Bank and Standard Chartered Bank are Prudential’s bancassurance partners and they sell Prudential’s insurance products exclusively.

“We’re future-proofing ourselves. We’ve been relevant for 86 years in Singapore and we’re making sure we will be relevant for the next 86 years. You could say we’re building an environment for the 22nd century,” Blackburn says.

This article appeared in Issue 805 (Nov 13) of The Edge Singapore. Check out our Fintech Special this week!

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