Photo: The Managing Director of Generali Spain, Santiago Villa. Credit: Courtesy of the interviewee.

By Patricia R. Guevara

The coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has changed our behavior to the point that the thought of having to go to a health center or hospital can now cause panic. In addition, there are cases where, either because of distance or because of measures such as confinement, these displacements are complicated. Health insurance companies have taken note of this and have begun to offer remote alternatives such as medical video consultations, virtual technical assessments, conversational assistants and other developments driven by artificial intelligence (AI).

In adopting these measures to improve their clients lives and their mediators, they have been working hard since Generali, where they have also had to change their way of working internally. When the pandemic broke out, the Italian insurance company started working from home overnight. Now that they are partially recovering the activity in a face-to-face way, the CEO of Generali Spain, Santiago Villa, takes stock of how technology and digital methodologies have made it possible for the insurance company's activity to continue, and reflects on the future of teleworking.

What has the pandemic meant for Generali in terms of innovation?

This period has allowed us to promote the use of digital solutions and processes in the technological projects that we had been developing in the last few years and that had not yet taken off. We have been able to verify that our efforts in digitalization and business models, processes and work methodologies have borne fruit; and now we have a very thorough knowledge of all of them. Even in the worst situations there are positive experiences and learning.

Which innovations have been adopted to continue the activity in a normal way?

With us, the client can have 100% of the service processes available digitally. Also, the whole mediation network has a series of digital functionalities that allow the mediators to manage their business completely online. 

Virtual technical assessments through photographs and video; medical video consultation; the consultation, 100% digital issuing and management of policies, also driven by digital signature; and the integrated use of online functions within claims applications are services that we already had, but that had not been rolled out quickly enough until now.

Regarding medical video consultation, one of the major focuses of the sector during the pandemic is precisely health insurance.

We conducted a group-wide survey of more than 60,000 clients in Europe. The first concern was the uncertainty and insecurity in terms of the economy and savings, and in terms of health. This aroused a lot of sensitivity and we saw the opportunity to give solutions to that fear.

The client did not want to go to hospitals or medical centers because of obvious fears; as a result, digital medicine has increased considerably. Gradually, new consultation methodologies have been generated by the doctor and user confidence has increased. It is not a question of technological solution, this is already developed, but of culture and dynamics.

“Giving the opportunity to see a medical specialist at the click of a button is absolutely disruptive”

Once that barrier is broken, in a country like Spain, so geographically dispersed within rural areas or with less population density, health insurance services through medical video consultation are here to stay. There are many clients who, in order to see a certain specialist, have to go to Madrid or Barcelona. Giving that opportunity to a click becomes something absolutely disruptive.

These new digital ways of treating health require even more data from the client. One of the TR10 of 2020 from MIT Technology Review is differential privacy, a technique capable of measuring the level of privacy in sensitive data sets. How do they ensure this from Generali?

It is essential to have strict security controls for the various treatment operations carried out with them. We constantly monitor which data is critical and necessary, which we should dispense with and which should be destroyed or made anonymous when no longer needed.

Continuing with technological innovation, and thinking about applications such as artificial intelligence conversational assistants, what role does AI play in Generali?

AI is going to be fundamental and will allow a critical qualitative leap in service companies. It will improve the ability to meet new customer expectations in terms of customization, response times and efficiency, and individual solutions. 

“We must learn to make a management not only efficient, but also lose as little emotional contact as possible”

In particular we see a huge disruption in the area of customer communication management thanks to chatbots. Generali receives about 2 million calls a year. We have conversational assistants in several service areas: they are especially useful in parameterized cases and in times of peak demand. 

How do you keep close contact with the client, including through chatbots? 

It is clear that one thing is the operability that digital solutions give you and another is personal relationships. You have to learn to manage not only efficiently, but also to lose as little as possible the emotional contact that is established in any service company. In the insurance company it is even more important because you work on the layer of trust, there is an empathy that in one way or another is lost without human contact. 

We tend to confuse productivity with effectiveness and quality of messages, and it is also a critical point that we have learned during the pandemic. 

To develop these innovations, although Generali is a corporation with a great technological muscle, the tendency is also to look to external talent. How do you collaborate with third parties? 

We develop initiatives of intra-enterprise and open innovation to incorporate new technological trends. Thanks to the collaboration with third party insurtech, we are introducing new components in chatbots, robotic process automation engines, intelligent optical recognition software and technologies to extract information from documents. It has also allowed us to develop several AI prototypes that have made us scale up to production level. 

“We keep ourselves permeable and open. It is essential to create synergies within our industry to provide greater value”

We also launched open innovation challenges within the start-up world; in June we precisely initiated a line of collaboration in e-health. We keep ourselves permeable and open to select and implement the best ideas. It is essential to create synergies within our industry to provide greater value. 

Here we are talking about start-ups that cannot compete with large corporations, but what about other technology outsiders such as Google and Amazon? 

In the case of these giants, only at very specific moments, and in an almost pilot and experimental format, they assume the role of the insurance companies. They are aware that their greatest value is speed and immediacy. We see this in the ratings of clients on Amazon, where what is most repeated is “it came to me immediately”, even ahead of quality. All this translates into a huge and almost infinite source of data generation, and they will continue to enter all industries where customer knowledge allows them to offer services. 

But the professional mediation networks (insurance agents and brokers) continue to grow and do not lose their position with respect to the large technological ones. Trust and professional advice is important in the insurance sector, and this is where the weak side of the big technology companies still lies. 

“Telework cannot limit the team's contribution in terms of collaboration and innovation”

For a year and a half we have been developing training programs for digital tools, and for more than two years we have had our entire commercial distribution network digitized. Although there are undoubtedly work positions that are less “teleworkable”, we have hardly had any incidents. 

How do you see the future of digitalization in the workplace? 

One of my main concerns about this new way of working, combined in presence and in remote, is not in the digital maturity or the inability to use digital tools, but in looking for ideal balance models for the future. Teleworking cannot limit the contribution that each of us makes as a team member in terms of collaboration and innovation, which is absolutely essential. 

We will undoubtedly have to continue providing training, developing tools and digital skills, but we have to look for the spaces and models of on-site and remote balance to ensure that the collaborative dynamics remain a priority.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition