Q&A: Principal Financial Group CMO Beth Brady on Customer Experience

The Principal’s new website represents a first step of several planned for enhancing customer experience in order to engage consumers more closely, educate them about products and give them the support they need to make informed financial decisions.

(Image credit: Dollar Photo Club.)

Principal Financial Group (Des Moines, Iowa; $539.9 billion in assets under management) debuted its new website recently and we decided it was a great opportunity to get on the record with Beth Brady, who became the company’s chief marketing officer last September. The Principal’s main site—which has over 37 million visitors annually—has been recast with responsive web design to optimize use across devices and includes new functionality to help consumers understand complex financial topics. The site features an enhanced “Find an Advisor” capability to connect visitors to financial advisors, and provides other capabilities to support investments and other financial transactions, as well as to find articles and other information based on the user’s life stage. The site also provides tools and videos to help consumers navigate product overviews and explore relevant financial topics, and it also gives users access to insights from thought leaders at The Principal as well as views of peers in social communities.

Beth Brady, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Principal Financial Group.

Beth Brady, SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, Principal Financial Group.

A new insurer/financial services site launch tends to be a bigger occasion at a time when companies are striving to meet customer experience standards constantly raised by other industries. Also, a company’s public website has become a key portal into its larger concept of customer experience. Brady telegraphed this with a comment in The Principal’s announcement: “Our new website is just the first step of several over the next year to enhance the customer experience by extending the excellent service we’re known for across every device.” We thought this was a great reason to engage with Brady herself and share her thoughts with our readers.

Insurance Innovation Reporter: There’s a temptation to think about a renovated website as if it were simply a cosmetic improvement like painting a house: it was getting a little weather beaten and old-fashioned, so you spruced it up. How do you would you summarize the departure signified by your new site?

Beth Brady, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Principal Financial Group: I love your metaphor! The new site launch is one of several efforts at The Principal to make our company as approachable and welcoming as possible. How consumers or any constituents interact with us is very important, and technology is enabling better experiences. That includes better navigation, but in our business it generally also means communicating complex information. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but rather finding ways to make it more consumable, more interesting and compelling. I always tell my team that it’s important to let customers know what they need to know, not everything that we might want to tell them. Effectively delivering that need-to-know information is no longer a “nice to have.”

In terms of “departure,” we undertook rearchitecting the user experience for consumers. We paid attention to both the “pretty” stuff and made some foundational changes to improve speed and navigability. To follow your metaphor, it was not just repainting, but restructuring the flow of the house. Previously we had many rooms that didn’t connect well. We opened it up to flow better.

IIR: Kind of applying the Feng shui of website development?

BB: Yes, you might say that! It’s no longer a case of “Build it and they will come.” You have to go to them. And you need to provide a structure to make exploring the space easier, but also a visual element that not only makes being where the user is more pleasant but also makes moving from one place to another easier.

(Related: CIO Survivors: Partner in Growth – Gary Scholten, Principal Financial Group)

IIR: The insurance industry has struggled to educate the public about its products. How important is education to the design of Principal’s new site?

BB: I would reiterate the point on simplifying complexity, and also that when people want to understand things, they don’t necessarily need to know every nuance of how they work. We have to figure out the right balance so that they can easily consume the information that they need for making decisions. Part of that is understanding their journey. We also have understand which difficulties that users encounter cause them to disengage. In general, we want to become more of a problem solver. We also understand that people are very visual, and so we seek to have the right mix of written content, visual elements and human interaction. Finally, we’ve heard from people that we use too much jargon in this industry. Education starts with enough of the right information delivered the right way in order to engage the consumer. When people are comfortable taking the first step, they’re more likely to continue the journey and learn more and more.

IIR: Are you seeking to personalize the experience for users?

BB: As we continue on this journey, we’ll be collecting more information to power greater customization and personalization. In this regard, we can learn from online retailers such as Amazon.

IIR: What were some of the tradeoffs and priorities associated with designing the site?

BB: The first priority was to make the site useful, navigable and easy. Recognizing that people respond to visual elements, we sought to build that in wherever appropriate. Those were the top priorities. As we get feedback from users we’ll work more on transactional elements and personalization.

IIR: Partnerships with intermediaries is vital in your business. How did that relationship shape design of the site, and what are some of the capabilities that emerged?

BB: While the primary audiences for principal.com are our customers, both individuals and employers, we engaged the field very early in the process. In fact, we tested and launched the design on our new advisor website before launching the consumer site. We completed field interviews and usability studies with advisors in both instances. Our intermediary partners were very anxious for us to improve our website, as it’s a critical piece of what their clients are evaluating when assessing our capabilities. Financial professionals also appreciate the fact that customers often work to educate themselves before meeting with an advisor to make a purchase decision.

IIR: What are some of the other releases The Principal has planned for the site during the coming year?  Should we expect to see some use of gamification?

BB: We will continue to enhance the features connecting our customers with the individuals who can help them implement a plan of action—through the “Find An Advisor” feature—as well as take the steps they need to protect their financial well-being.  We’ll deliver on this promise through a host of self-service improvements.

Gamification in financial services is an interesting concept, as competition and privacy can conflict with one another. Privacy remains imperative for our customers. However, providing virtual insights to customers actively engaging with their accounts has proven it can lead to positive behavior changes.

IIR: How would you characterize the site improvements as a reflection of The Principal’s philosophy of customer experience, and the evolution of that experience?

(Related: The Principal Speeds Life Insurance Underwriting to within 48 Hours without Labs)

BB: The Principal has a long history of being known for its commitment to customer service. We pride ourselves on being in tune with how to deliver on customer expectation. The evolution of our customer experience strategy is focused on how a customer feels when engaging with us from beginning to end—keying in on our shared humanity and what they tell us about the way they like to engage with us.

IIR: Is there anything you would like to add, in conclusion, about the longer-term evolution of customer experience in general, and what it means for how The Principal will be able to interact with customers?

BB: We’ll be investing in further customer understanding, measurement, design, culture and strategy. We’re excited to further our customer experience strategy and grow the strength—or love for—our brand. A customer’s experience online directly relates to how they feel about the brand. Brand isn’t just about what we do. It’s about what we do for people, how we make a difference in their lives.

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 AnthODonnell@IIReporter.com or (503) 936-2803.

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