The Misunderstood Digital Customer

Neil Gardner joked that his organization has been around for 188 years, "and has survived all that time without being customer-centric."

Gardner is the chief digital officer for Asia at insurer Generali and said that much of his company’s focus on digital technology comes from customers.

"Customers have gone digital, and organizations like mine are playing catch up,” he said.

“The biggest shift is that we are not in a zero-sum game in our industry, as we have been for 180 odd years, where it is about ‘I win, the customer loses. It is just not like that anymore.”

Leadership Matters

Gardner made the comments at the second Chief Digital Officer Summit in Hong Kong recently, where he was a panelist on a session with the title "Stop Talking Digital: Start Talking Customer Experience."

As organizations catch up to increasingly digital customers, said Gardner, clear and decisive leadership is critical.

“The challenge becomes one of fighting against the tide in an organization which has muscle memory of a certain way of operations,” he said.

“So absolutely it comes down to the will of the organization and [you need to have] that leadership, or a figurehead to plant a pole for the organization and drive it.”

Panelists agreed that before organizations attempted digital transformation on any scale, the goals needed to be well defined so that they could be monitored or measured.

Will the Real Customer Stand Up

There was often also conflict on the definition of customers, as in some organizations, internal stakeholders functioned as customers, and this often created poor results.

“The digital team has relationship managers as their internal customers,” explained Ronald Fung, the chief digital officer at China-based funds group Noah Holdings. "The relationship managers think they are the ones giving the requirements, and they have their own objectives regardless of what their clients say.”

“So, the digital team thinks they have delivered their products perfectly because they have done exactly what the requirement says. But the relationship manager thinks that it sucks because they have feedback coming from the customer, and the chief executive gets lots of complaints from real customers, and that is how digital transformation fails.”

The Elusive Starting Point

From insurer Manulife, chief digital officer Josianne Robb said that if transformations had a starting point of "fixing the problem from a customer perspective," they would have different outcomes, and have more chances of success.

“If you just think about IT and technology, it doesn’t get you anywhere,” said Robb.

“If even the programmer understands that his or her coding today will fix that pain point for the customer, then that gives a good chance of a positive outcome.”

Truly putting the customer first, said Robb, was often “very uncomfortable” because of the changes it would have on the organization and its various stakeholders.

“An organization is a different country in itself,” she said. "You have different stakeholders with different objectives, all contributing to an end result, and you can't expect everybody to forgo their interests."

Educating all stakeholders on principles of "human-centric design," Robb said, was one positive move that could help ensure that these principles "become part of our DNA" in addressing everyday processes.

Getting on the Same Page

Neil Gardner and fellow panelist Ashok Krishnan, the chief data officer and head of customer experience at AXA Hong Kong, both spoke about the challenge of digital transformation in a global company with several country-based units.

Gardner said that his organization now aimed not to do large scale multi-country projects, basically because getting stakeholders on the same page is very difficult.

Country heads, he said, were “ultra-competitive and hate to lose.”

A better approach, Gardner said, was to find proven case studies and then “promote the hell out of the CEO who promoted the project” as a way of demonstrating to others what had been achieved.

“Local organizations think they know their customers, which we appreciate,” said Gardner.

“This approach works better than someone in a regional role, telling them they know more about their customers than they do."

On this subject, Ashok Krishnan said it is important for people at a senior level to “see the wins” from digital projects.

“They are thinking ‘how are they going to keep funding this thing this year or the year after,” he said.

“If people say 'thank you for the money, come back in three years, and I'll show you the benefits’ that is not going to cut it.”

Trying Not to Be Creepy

There was also an issue regarding what companies could do and what they should do. Insurance companies, for example, know that the demand for insurance increases for people when they experience significant life events, such as the birth of children.

While it might be easy for agents to see – from social media – when these events occur, was it the right thing to do to contact them at these points and attempt to sell more products?

Immediate results are also an issue in the China market, according to Fung, as the economy is expected to slow down in the next few years.

“It comes to a point where the company is between the red and the black, and that is the time for hard decisions,” he said.

“Very often, right in the middle of digital transformation, you will be the first to go because the company doesn’t see the immediate benefits.”