Breaking Down Barriers: EVP Chris Smith on MetLife’s Global Operational Transformation

Global Operations brought together over 40 separate operations groups across the world with the task of utilizing MetLife’s scale to create a differentiated customer experience and increase operating leverage for the company.

(Chris Smith, Executive Vice President, Global Operations, MetLife. Source: MetLife.)

MetLife (2014 revenue of $71.1 billion) is one of the largest life insurance companies in the world with operations in nearly 50 countries and approximately 100 million customers. Like other global insurers, MetLife evolved as a vast, complex international company—particularly as a result of the acquisition of Alico in 2010. At the time, leadership recognized that a global footprint does not make a global company, and a key tenet of its strategy, introduced in 2012, was to leverage the scale of MetLife’s global footprint to improve the customer experience and drive greater operational efficiency.

That led to the creation of a new Global Operations organization in 2013, led by Executive Vice President Chris Smith, within the insurer’s Global Technology & Operations organization. Global Operations brought together over 40 separate operations groups across the world with the task of utilizing MetLife’s scale to create a differentiated customer experience and increase operating leverage for the company. As the head of Global Operations, Smith oversees operations across all of MetLife’s markets. His organization, staffed by 11,000 employees, is responsible for new business and underwriting, claims, contact centers, policy administration, and billing and remittance. Global Operations’ remit also includes Global Shared Services. Smith reports to Marty Lippert, Executive VP and Head of Global Technology & Operations. Insurance Innovation Reporter recently spoke with Smith about his position and its transformational mission.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: Tell us a little about the origins of your role and what it’s intended to accomplish.

Chris Smith, Executive VP and Head of Global Operations: It’s a story of change at the company, a change that is bringing together over 40 operations group which used to report directly into the business or country leadership. In practice, that meant we had different ways of operating in many organizations. When our Chairman, President and CEO announced the formation of the group, he expressed our goal of breaking down barriers, establishing clear lines of reporting, leveraging our scale and simplifying the organization. One of the most important related goals was to create a differentiated  customer experience; we’re responsible for customer experience from the underwriting process all the way through the policy life cycle. At a higher level, we’re driving MetLife’s ability to operate as a global company with world-class processes.

IIR: What are some of the challenges of pursuing innovation across what were, in effect, many different companies in different regions across the globe?

CS: The first challenge is language. Secondly, these groups operated independently for a long time, essentially as each company was formed. When people don’t talk much across organizational boundaries, they develop the view that they are different and have different challenges from other units in the company. What we’ve shown is that the problems we all face in operations are not that different, but the way we went about solving them was. Now we’re working to drive innovation and best practices in a more uniform way across the enterprise.

IIR: What are some of the ways you’re doing that?

CS: When we first formed the organization, we launched an innovation program across five geographical areas—the U.S., Japan, Russia, Iberia and Persian Gulf countries—to generate improved policies and procedures that impact the customer. What was amazing to me was that if you ask employees for ideas—if you give them a platform and a voice—they will shout those ideas from the rooftops. About 4,000 employees participated and we generated over 3,000 ideas across those five geographies. We then had them vote on the best ideas. Our view is that our associates on the ground know best what’s broken from a customer point of view.

Another way we’ve driven innovation is through a Best Practice Sharing Platform, where our experts within our five areas of responsibility— underwriting, claims, contact centers, policy administration and billing—can now share best practices with each other. We’ve already done a best practice sharing exercise for claims, for which 80 experts from around the world submitted over 130 ideas. They documented the practices, voted on the best ones and are now committed to implementing 40 of them consistently across the organization by the end of 2015.

We also have a global online community for people to share ideas and communicate across geographies.

However, it’s important at some levels to get people together in person. When Global Operations was created, we went through a strategy definition exercise, asking what the future vision of service was at MetLife. We conducted that exercise in New York, but then we held regional workshops in Buenos Aires, Warsaw and Hong Kong. I could have sat in New York and come up with a vision and strategy for how we were going to change operations and then try to sell this to the local business and operations teams.   And I can tell you that would not have worked. It would be something done to them by another team from corporate. In the end, we got to a strategy that all the local teams agreed to before it was even final.  It was a strategy done by them, not to them.

(Related: Why MetLife Chose Asia for its New LumenLab Innovation Center)

IIR: I would imagine that there’s always a tension between what might work globally and how regional executives believe things must be done locally. That being the case, how was the exercise received in the regional headquarters?

CS: I’ll tell you a story: We held our first workshop in Argentina, with all the heads of the Latin American operations. We also invited reps from other regions, including the heads of our Greece and Australia operations. Both said, “We’re excited and it’s an honor to be here, but we’re not sure we’re going to get much out of it because our businesses are so different.” But by the end of the week, they acknowledged that they were all dealing with the same issues. The lesson is that we need to develop best practices that can be leveraged across different geographies—there are certain things that can be done consistently across the enterprise.

IIR: So there are advantages in imposing common practices; are there also advantages associated with learning from how things have been done differently—of having all these different colors on your palette, so to speak?

CS: All the different colors create a more beautiful picture when you can bring all the different cultures and ideas together. When I first took this job in 2013, we did a tour, visiting operations in Poland, France, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Dubai, Japan, Hong Kong, India and parts of the U.S. What we found was that there are great ideas emerging in different places, and unless you create tools to cross-pollinate or share, those ideas tend to stay in a geography.

We can learn from some of the great work happening at the country level.  For example, our operation in Mexico created a video kiosk that lets customers connect to an agent to accomplish tasks such as printing ID cards and making changes to policies. We toured our operations center in Mexico City with the heads of operations in Asia and EMEA. Without that tour, they wouldn’t have known that this innovation existed. In China, WeChat happens to be the largest messaging app. We service our China customers on WeChat, and over 15 percent of policy address changes are done there as well as policy inquiries. In Korea we launched a program called MULAN [Mobile Ubiquitous Life Insurance Access Network], which is a mobile customer portal for self-service that many countries are learning from. We can look at these examples and ask, “how can I make something like that work in my market?”

IIR: All of these examples demonstrate a commitment to the goal of customer-centricity. Why is that so important today?

CS: Customer centricity is one of the cornerstones of our enterprise strategy, and it’s built on the realization that insurance companies have tended to be product-focused. Our strategy recognized that we must allow our customers to do business with us in the manner that’s most convenient for them, and our service and sales teams needed tools that provide a more holistic view of the customer’s relationship with MetLife.  Historically, insurance companies, particularly life insurance, have fewer interactions with customers than, say, banks.  We wanted to focus on the  moments of truth between a customer and insurers, for example, the loss of a loved one, a doctor visit, a car accident or something that happened within the home. We want to make sure we provide an empathetic experience in all those cases.

(Related: MetLife Launches Rideshare Insurance for Lyft Drivers)

IIR: What are some of the initiatives that exemplify this strategic goal?

CS: When Marty Lippert joined MetLife, one of his focuses was to review customer technology. For example, the IT department came up with The Wall, an initiative that provided a 360 degree, consolidated view of the customer and all the products they have with us.

The strategy is also reflected in our four-point Global Operations plan of Serve, Simplify, Strengthen and Scale. Serve is delivering a differentiated customer experience; Simplify is about simplifying operations with improved technology and global consistency in the way we work; Strengthen is about strengthening the foundation with an engaged workforce focused on operational risk and professional operating practices; and Scale is about leveraging scale through better knowledge sharing and more efficient sourcing.

IIR: You’ve given some great illustrations already that fit “Serve.” What about the other terms in the four-point strategy?

CS: The best way to answer might be to refer to our Model Office work. The objective is to reimagine and redesign how we work to better service customers. Think of this like a blue print for a home.  It tells you how all the pieces fit together and the best ways to build. Without the blue print, you’d just start hammering 2×4’s together.  The Model Office is a blueprint of world-class practices and technologies for operating more efficiently and effectively around the world.

For our five areas of responsibility or capabilities, we’ve gone through a diagnostic process, followed by a few months of designing. These Model Offices were designed by our subject matter experts around the world.  Again, we didn’t do this sitting in New York.  For each Model Office we brought together experts for 10 of our countries to design the gold standard. We were going to change how they were going to work and we wanted them to be a part of the design.  With this process, we spent the first few months in design.  Then we moved to the pilot phase where we are testing components of each Model Office in specific countries. Based on business needs, we’ve focused on contact centers in two countries, claims in two other markets, and focused on new business and underwriting in another market, and billing and remittance in yet another. We’ll be working through the end of this year and part of 2016 with some technology builds and process changes for these pilots. We have a roadmap to extend components of the Model Office to other countries for each of the capabilities through 2019.

IIR: Change is never easy. How are the various regions responding to the Model Office efforts so far?

CS: The enthusiasm of the teams has been exciting. We did a workshop for the claims Model Office in Dubai, where we recently launched a claims e-service mobile app, where we brought in experts from 10 countries, and they were enthusiastic about the ways we can process claims more accurately and efficiently. I sat through the workshop with the team, and I can report that they see the value.

Of course change management is a big part of the program, and we’ve created a separate group to focus on that aspect of our work. We hold a Change Leaders Forum for each geography to teach leaders on the ground to be better change agents. The enthusiasm we’ve seen has amazed me.

(Related: MetLife Rules-Based Field Underwriting Tool Speeds Estimates)

IIR: It seems that change management is part of the essential character of Global Operations. What might be some of the longer-term operational developments we can expect to see in the industry, and at MetLife specifically, and how are you approaching change within your organization?

CS: With regard to the direction of the industry, data will play a more important role in insurance and in the life insurance industry in particular. Life insurers were among the first users of big data, in their efforts to understand mortality. As an industry we fell behind, but we have an opportunity for a kind of renaissance in our use of data. Data models are becoming increasingly important for a variety of purposes, such as fraud detection, provider management and especially underwriting. Property and casualty companies are currently using data more, but life insurance will catch up, with advances such as fluid-free underwriting for more traditional products.

Younger demographic groups are more inclined to share data, whether through wearables or other sources, in exchange for discounts. However, I think we’ll see a move beyond discounts to different ways of underwriting.

The motto has been that insurance is sold, not bought. I think the industry will have to change more to a situation where insurance is still being sold, but also bought—if we can make products easier for consumers to research and also successfully digitize the application process. Consumer expectations are going to continue to change, and that’s what makes building the customer relationship so important.

Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 936-2803.

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