Frédéric Tardy (Axa) : insurance agent is a job for the future in a digital world

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During the the Vivatech conference that took place in Paris from june 30th to July 2nd and gathered 5000 startups, investors, 500 speakers and 45 000 attendees I spent some time on the AXA booth, one of the more voluntarist french companies regarding to digital transformation and had the opportunity to meet some of the people making this transformation happen.

For a company like AXA, digital impacts not only the business, operations but also distribution. What makes the matter even more significant is that insurance agents are entrepreneurs, not employees, and they can see digital distribution as a competition coming from their main partner. That’s what I discussed with Frédéric Tardy, Chief Marketing & Distribution Officer at AXA.

Bertrand Duperrin :Hello Frédéric. What does digital mean regarding to distribution for a company like AXA ?

Frédéric TardyFrédéric Tardy : For example, if we take auto insurance, digital accounts for nearly 1/4 of our revenues what makes us the worldwide leader in direct insurance.

BD : More generally, what are the stakes related to digital on the marketing and distribution side for an insurance company like you ?

FT : Actually we have two main work streams.

The first is the disruption of insurance. To handle this one we have labs in San Francisco and Shanghai to capture the main trends, understand the customer and identify possible partnerships. We also have the AXA Strategic Ventures fund that helps us to invest in startups. Last, we have an internal program called KAMET that helps us to start our own startups, with our own talents and assets.

The second is AXA’s core business. It’s about making our distributors sell our products through digital assets. So we equipped our agents with Ipads Pro and built worldwide partnerships with LinkedIn or Facebook to make our agents present and visible on these platforms.

BD : How did you do with the agents ? They’re entrepreneurs and not employees so they can be scared of seeing you selling some products directly to the customer.

FT : First of all we took a long time to explain them that the world of insurance was omnichannel. Customers don’t follow a path that’s either fully digital or physical. They take information in our branches and take out online or get information online and then go to a branch to take out. It depends on the product.

There are still insurance agents in the Valley

The best evidence for that is that there are still insurance agents in the Valley while book stores and travel agencies have disappeared. Financial products are complex and often imply a long term engagement. One cas take out an auto insurance online but preparing for retirement is a more complex matter. Deciding to save every months is not instinctive, not a natural behavior.

In the insurance business the physical touchpoint will stay and still account for most of our revenue. It will decrease in percentage of operations but will remain the biggest revenue driver.

BD : It implies a new definition of insurance jobs.

FT : Of course. Being an insurance agent is not a sales job anymore but an advisory one. 70% of the decision is made online but deals are closed in agencies.

People most stop setting physical and digital against each other. When the agent uses a tablet to sell a product, make a simulation, is it a digital or a physical activity ? Digital is present in every interaction.

Consumers want agility, simplicity and human contact

There is only one thing to bear in mind : consumers want agility, simplicity and human contact. All at the same time. It’s our job to deliver on this.

BD : How did you onboard everyone in this project ?

FT : We used a Corporate Open Online Courses solution (COOC) to train our 150 000 employees. Besides that we trained in a specific fashion 600 leaders.

Anyone must understand that employees are the ambassadors of the transformation. Nothing happens without them, nothing is possible. They are at the heart of the program.

Moreover we started a program called Start-In for them. It’s a collaborative innovation program that resulted in the submission of 850 projects and 28 000 employees voting to choose the best.

Insurance agent ? A job for the future ?

Agents are in a more specific situation. We had to accompany them, reassure them regarding to the future of their job, show that it’s a job for the future. We started accompanying them 3 years ago.

BD : When will this work end ?

FT : In a very long time. We’re just at the beginning of the disruption in the insurance world so we’re far from the finish line. It’s an ongoing process.

For example we’re insuring 19 millions of Blablacar users, through Blablacar. It’s a new model, we’re not insuring the vehicle but mobility.

BD : By insuring the new usages promoted by such startups you’re turning these startups into a new distribution channel.

FT : Oui absolutely, they’re becoming the distributors of a new model.

Insurance brings trust in the sharing economy. The sharing economy can’t work without trust. Insurance brings trust in a community. When my daughter takes the train I’m not wondering if the SNCF (Rail company) is insured but when she uses a car sharing service I want to be sure that the driver is.

BD : And how do you see the future ?

FT : With no surprise, the future is about data. Insurance has always been about data. In France we have the best data scientists in the world. The future of insurance is InsurTech and AXA is a major player in this field. We organized the InsurTech summit in Shanghai.

Insurance companies have always been data companies and will stay like that.

There’s also the blockchain. We invested in Blockstream.

We also invested in Africa Internet Group who is the e-commerce leader in Africa, ahead of Amazon.

BD : Will data change everything for you?

FT : No. As insurers we’ve always been a data company and this is not going to change. What changes is that data is now important for anyone, at an unprecedented scale.

BD : Thank you Frédéric