The year 2020 challenged deep-rooted beliefs and transformed the way we work. Beliefs such as sales can occur only in physical branches or physical documents are required to be presented in person to close a sale or we will always need branches to service customers no longer hold true.
The pandemic also tested the resilience, adaptability and sustenance of individuals and organisations. Adapting to long-lasting shifts in consumer and distributor behaviour is now a necessity. Displacement of the 'usual' and advent of the 'new normal' may be spoken of for generations to come.
However, even in the context of this new operating environment, I believe that the fundamentals of running a business and leadership principles don't get altered completely. Certain aspects of business may get amplified and certain aspects may become obsolete. However, the core of how you run a business remains the same. This crisis has taught me how to keep the core while adapting to an ever-changing environment.
Ways of Working
For leaders, the challenge during uncertain times is two-fold - making the right decisions and setting a positive example for others. While leaders may have felt the urge to limit authority and tighten control, what was, in fact, needed was reassurance and decentralisation. Organisational resilience depends on acquiring wider perspectives across functional teams, being open to listening to different points of view and thereafter taking quick decisions. At HDFC Life, at the start of the pandemic, we created zonal teams, led by an Executive Committee member, to take quick decisions depending on the changing on-ground situation. Our BCP (Business Continuity Planning) team was empowered to not just monitor the situation but also think creatively, exercise agility and quickly adapt to make the most of opportunities. Interestingly, as we look back, we feel that the outcomes that were delivered with lesser control were far better than when we had tight controls - people rose up to the challenge and delivered not like it was merely a job, but a higher calling!
It goes without saying that safety and well-being of all our stakeholders was of paramount importance. Hence, we took a bold step to shut down our offices and branches even prior to the official lockdown and started selling products and servicing customers via digital modes. While ensuring 'business as usual', it was also important to stand by employees and address their emotional well-being through reworked wellness strategies. It was also imperative to upgrade, upskill, reskill and adapt. While employees needed to put in that extra effort, it was also the responsibility of the organisation to provide them the necessary infrastructure to do so. We have moved from a 'one size fits all' approach to technology-enabled personalised learning.
Understanding changing customer needs and building products that address these needs is core to our DNA. We have been the pioneers of identifying whitespaces and launching innovative product propositions in the life insurance space - for example, recognising that certain customers are not willing to take riskier bets and, hence, may prefer guaranteed products; we were the trailblazers with our competitive Sanchay Plus product.
At the start of the pandemic, insurance was being reckoned as a 'risk cover' rather than a mere investment product, leading to increased preference for term plans. Accordingly, we bolstered our term offerings and topped it off with an innovative term product Group Poorna Suraksha. Although our product strategy will keep evolving, our focus on innovation and maintaining a balanced product mix will continue to remain a core pillar of our long-term strategy.
Organisations that have been early adopters of technology were able to overcome challenges and capitalise on opportunities presented by the pandemic. It is all about foresight - being able to foresee and prepare for the future instead of waiting for things to unfold at their own pace. At HDFC Life, we have been sustaining focus on digital transformation, starting way back in 2013. As a business, we have reimagined our operating model from being product centric to being customer centric; we have shifted from being a traditional 'distributor and product play' model to becoming an evolved matrix of platforms, digital channels, ecosystems and traditional avenues.
During the pandemic, our investments in technology paid off with higher adoption of digital assets across channels. While digital is an enabler in the current environment, it will be the core in a post-Covid world. I firmly believe that we should continue to keep the customer as the No. 1 reason for investing in digital initiatives that will enable organisations to attract, onboard, service and fulfil all commitments. HDFC Life has invested in making the buying and onboarding journey easy for customers and enabled online claim submission early to ensure that claimants need not step out of their homes. Our video life certificate launched last year ensured that senior citizens did not have to step out of their homes during the pandemic to submit a life certificate for their pension!
While customers have been at the core of what we do, the importance of working 'at the speed of the customer' has been amplified through the pandemic. Such a mindset requires deep understanding of our customers and their experiences. There is a need to analyse customer buying habits and model out long-term implications to adjust faster to the industry's new normal.
Customers are now comfortable with digital apps with a fundamental reset towards performing different activities online (witnessed through the surge seen in time spent on apps). To ride on this behaviour, we launched WISE, an industry-first video-based end-to-end sales enablement tool. Customers continue to prefer digital. While the digital way of selling and servicing continues to see increased adoption, a segment of India's population who may have adopted digital out of compulsion during lockdown may still prefer the physical or phygital mode, especially for complex transactions. Hence, while we push the pedal on digital, we are calibrating our strategy to meet requirements of different customer segments.
Customers are also expecting 'convenience & customisation'. We continue to make investments in data and analytics to model such personalised experiences .
The concept of life insurance is about foresight and preparation. It is about purchasing an umbrella when you don't need it, so that you are prepared when it rains. This concept also applies to running a life insurance business, or for that matter, any business in today's dynamic environment. The pandemic has only strengthened the need for foresight, resilience, innovation, digital & customer centricity.
While we adapted quickly to shifts in customer, partner and employee expectations, we continue to remain focussed on our long-term strategy of running a sustainable and profitable business backed by balanced product mix, diversified distribution, continuous product innovation and reimagining insurance.
(The author is CEO and MD, HDFC Life)
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