Individuality and innovation

Metropolitan's combination of head and heart stands out


Arthur C. Clarke once famously declared that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” We spoke to Berniece Hieckmann, Head of Client and Channel Solutions at Metropolitan Retail, to find out how the company’s digital strategy is using technology to inject magic into people’s lives – by personalising the client experience and empowering financial advisors to perform at their best.


Metropolitan Retail’s digital strategy is founded on two important elements. The first is a profound insight into the nature of the emerging market that Metropolitan seeks to serve. At some 85% of the South African population, it’s too big and diverse to take on all at once: “So we’ve sub-segmented, using a client segmentation model based on 200 clustered variables of client behaviour,” says Hieckmann. “There are a lot of different financial behavioural patterns that you need to understand really well. In choosing where we think we can play, we pick certain emerging market segments and certain middle market segments and customise a value proposition for them.”

This includes understanding people’s feelings and behaviours towards digital: the way that they interact with money and what they digitise. Far from being digitally naive, the emerging market is extremely selective about digital usage. “They will do things that add enormous value for them,” says Hieckmann. “Where they choose digital, they’re actually very sophisticated in terms of what they can do with that.”

Although automated channels have been widely adopted for routine monetary transactions, in this market, emotion and expenditure frequently converge – often when a significant life event such as a wedding or a funeral suddenly causes expenses to exceed income.

“When expenses exceed income you’re no longer in a logical state,” says Hieckmann. “You’re in an emotional state, sometimes even in a limbic state; when you have such a highly charged relationship with a financial necessity, you want a human interaction.”

Here the art is to use digital technology to ensure that the human interaction is “as magical as possible” – and that it is experienced as such every time a client interacts with one of Metropolitan’s four to five thousand advisors. “We’ve got a lot of robot advice in our systems to make sure that our clients can get a holistic approach,” comments Hieckmann.

The second element of Metropolitan’s digital strategy is not multi-channel but omni-channel: clients who need guidance can ask for any kind of interaction they need, but, says Hieckmann, “It’s exactly the same solution, the same price, the same experience and we keep the thread – you can start in one channel, continue in another and end in a different one without losing the thread of your interaction at all.”

Clients value this approach for allowing them the flexibility to change their minds in the course of an interaction depending on what they want to know and how they feel about it.

From logic to magic

The interplay of client insights and the omni-channel approach inside the digital space yields two important benefits. The first is efficiency: “We build a solution once and then we just deploy it through tele-channels or through face-to-face; we don’t build for different channels, which is extremely expensive,” says Hieckmann.

The second? It’s a kind of magic … “The client doesn’t walk away thinking that the machine was magical, they think the human was magical, that their advisor is amazing,” says Hieckmann. “If they have that same experience with every advisor they deal with at Metropolitan, they will think all the advisors are amazing, which in turn will make them think the brand is amazing. The same goes for service interactions.”

Within this affirmative framework, Metropolitan's financial advisors are now benefiting from digital supervision.

“We have our channel, where an advisor must think his manager is magical,” says Hieckmann. “With data analytics and artificial intelligence, we can ensure that the machine is observing the advisor’s behaviour and then alerting the manager to any weak spots.” No more sleeping through generic training courses – now managers can be told exactly what coaching and counselling their advisors need.

“But the advisor mustn’t just think the machine is clever,” says Hieckmann, “he must think he’s got the best manager in the world.”

Individual dignity

For a practical example of digital strategy in action, look no further than Metropolitan’s funeral plan with its winning combination of personalisation and straight-through processing.

“Commercial businesses have deprived the emerging market of individuality,” Hieckmann comments. “It’s an economic convenience if everyone is the same and wants the same stuff, because then I can mass-produce a product at a decent margin. It isn’t true, though – so when we asked how we could stand out as business in a very highly contested market, what really resonated with us was the idea of giving individuality to a so-called mass market person.”

By recognising that dignity in death is a profound human need but definitions of dignity vary greatly from one person to another, Metropolitan’s digital strategy shifted from selling a product to selling the life event and completely customising it to the client’s needs.

“The digital interface is to help you build your own perfectly customised funeral solution, and our job is just to fund it,” Hieckmann elaborates. “You put in whatever you want for your funeral plan, then we will help you cost it and make a plan to fund it based on a combination of insurance, saving and borrowing blended together for your own personal situation.”

The same approach applies to Metropolitan’s forthcoming “Children’s Future” and “Special Events and Milestones” solutions. “The advisors don’t have to worry about how to put the funding building blocks together, we do that for the client, but digital allows you the personalisation that paper was too expensive for,” says Hieckmann.

“It’s beautiful, agile and innovative, and it feels like you co-create because you’re getting continual feedback from consumers on how things could work. It creates a sense of possibility.”

Head and heart

This approach is certainly paying dividends for Metropolitan. Not only was the company ranked at the top of the South African Customer Satisfaction Index (SACSI) for Life Insurance Companies in 2017, but it also received the Ask Africa Orange Index award for service in the long-term insurance category.

“The secret isn’t in the facts, it’s about how we make our clients feel,” says Hieckmann. “Some clients can have a great experience according to the numbers, but they don’t feel awesome. Sometimes clients don’t have our gold standard service experience, but we leave them feeling incredible. So we have a head and heart approach: we use digital to ensure that clients have as few obstacles as possible, and we inculcate a heart into our people so that they are purpose driven and not just pitching up to work.”

The service ethos of Metropolitan advisors in the field is proof positive that the heart is beating.

“At a funeral, it’s the advisor who is setting up the marquee to make sure that people have shade,” says Hieckmann. “They’re directly involved in their clients’ lives, they live in their communities, and they’re invited into their clients’ trust circumference.” 

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Issue 72