Featured today in our exclusive series of interviews – Business Leaders’ Perspectives – Praveen Kumar, CEO, Al Ahlia Insurance Co, shares how the company purpose is driven around customer-centricity and inspired by its core philosophy – One Step Ahead. Excerpts:
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, when business in Oman faced a challenge like never before?
The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly thrown unprecedented challenges at corporations across the world, and Oman is no exception. While COVID-19 has impacted the health and safety of the people it also impacted the social behaviours and norms during this period; this has telltale effects on business.
Few sectors associated with medical, health, safety, and new technology have seen significant increase in demand for their service and products. Those industries which were able to meet these increased demands with their agility and automated processes, not only helped mankind to be safer, they also had a positive impact on their businesses.
Apart from these few sectors, most others have been impacted during COVID-19 at various degrees, some sectors impacted more than others. The insurance sector, I would say, has been impacted moderately during this crisis compared to other sectors.
While most of the ‘Risks or Perils’ covered under the general insurance remained during this period; for example, Fire, Weather etc, the need for the risk protection/risk transfer, i.e. the need for insurance, also remained during this period. However, with reduced discretionary spending of individuals and businesses, the lack of new developments or projects, lack of new car sales, reduction in utilisation-based risks, for example, travel/transit, shall have an impact on the business.
Al Ahlia was quick in understanding the challenge/interruptions and managed the safety of our staff and new ways of staying connected, of course remotely, with our customers to continue providing our easy and best services. We accept the industry challenges on the new business opportunities, and with Al Ahlia and RSA’s long experience and rich expertise in general insurance, we will be innovative with new distribution and new products, to continue delivering our value propositions to all our stakeholders.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past 2-3 months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
Al Ahlia continued to be performance-driven, customer-focused and continued on its journey of providing best-in-class services. During the first few weeks of the pandemic, we quickly leveraged our already established contactless platforms to extend our services seamlessly to customers, in a safe and secure way following the directives of the Supreme Committee appointed to deal with COVID-19.
Our WhatsApp services and call center have been working continuously through the lockdown, providing customers with essential services such as new insurance buying, renewals and registering claims. We also introduced an active ‘WebChat’ function on our website which has been a valuable tool for customers to reach us anytime.
The benefits of these innovations and channels have been immense, not just for the business, but for our customers who rely on us, and we are glad to be doing our part to keep the community going during these unprecedented times.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help the company recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
Safety and security of our staff and customers are of paramount importance to Al Ahlia and RSA. As we ease back into a new normal, our focus is to do so in a manner that reduces risks and is sustainable. We realise that there is no quick and easy solution to this crisis, so, we are working on phased reopening plans that are practical over a longer term.
Our purpose is driven around customer-centricity and everything we do is inspired by our core philosophy of ‘One Step Ahead’. As we understand the new risks better, we shall develop new products, in discussion with our reinsurers, to help our customers manage and transfer these risks to insurance companies.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare and work culture, in view of new guidelines related to COVID-19 (social distancing, hygiene/sanitation, health and fitness)?
We established capability for 100% of our staff to work from home as immediate safety measures without compromising our services to our customers. We have made detailed reopening plans over 90-days and 150-days, factoring several steps, such as creating separate zones, minimising people working within each zone, and limiting movements between zones, isolation centers within the premises, counseling to manage employee anxiety, overall employee health and wellbeing, staying agile for customer needs through technology interventions, and so on. We will initiate the reopening plans at an appropriate and conducive time.
What do you see as the most feasible solutions for mitigating losses experienced due to the lockdown (cost-cutting measures, downsizing staff, enhancing performance, increasing work hours, any other). Do you consider these as short-term or long-term measures?
We have maintained our employee base during these difficult times and they have stretched themselves well in adapting to the new processes with a short learning curve to deliver on our customer propositions. Establishing and reestablishing an optimum cost base which is agile, scalable, and helps to build a growth momentum, is a continuous process, and the current situation is no exception. We are investing in new technologies to drive efficiency and enhanced customer service propositions.
What are your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, post-COVID-19, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
Al Ahlia has earned respect and reputation with a strong brand image which, we believe, gives us the confidence to build on during the post-COVID-19 phase. This is, thanks largely to our branding and communication efforts over the last 2-3 years and our increasing footprint in new media, such as digital and social channels. We envisage that the post-lockdown era will see brands competing for attention and growth, while they adopt proactive approaches, with investment in the areas of technology. Our marketing and communication teams are engaged in realigning our marketing approaches to new realities, reevaluating our product propositions, and developing new ones, which will keep our customers ‘One Step Ahead’.
Our brand ethos is about being curious, courageous, and to lead, and we strive to maintain the same tone of being positive in all our communications. Our behaviours and passion will be critical to inspire and instill renewed trust and confidence in all our stakeholder relationships.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
We rolled out the ‘Work From Home’ (WFH) plan for all our staff to manage their responsibilities remotely before the lockdown. The process was being tested since early March, which helped us overcome the challenges and fine tune technology solutions to deliver good level of efficiency and productivity during the lockdown period. Fortunately, the insurance sector, like many of the financial and services sector businesses, could function well under the WFH model.
With ever improving technology, WFH shall be part of our strategy towards driving efficiency and reaching new capabilities. I also believe WFH would be the new norm for businesses across many sectors, however, at varying levels
In your opinion, how important it is for staff to undergo training to realign themselves with the company’s policies/new strategies as well as to immerse themselves in a new work culture that the pandemic has dictated?
As we roll back, to a new normal, it certainly is important for staff to be acclimatised to the new process. However, we are seeing this already in place, and people have been quickly trained on the job, as they are using the new technology and processes. Effective communication within the organisation is key and we believe in continuous learning.
While the operational model in managing the pandemic as a crisis has stabilised over the last three months, we believe the company’s policies and new strategies will keep evolving over next few quarters, over the phases of elimination of the pandemic and resumption of business post-pandemic, probably with different dynamics. These changes will demand continuous review and adoption of new policies and strategies demanding ongoing learning and training for our team. At Al Ahlia/RSA, training is not a moment in time, but an ongoing function.
Are there examples of new thinking in other sectors that your’s could adopt to good effect?
Yes, there are lessons all around, and one can absorb a lot by observing without the need for reinventing the wheel. We have teams who continuously monitor the landscape, gauge customer insights, and make changes along the way. We believe most of the changes shall be towards adapting to new technologies and personalised customer services.
Our aim is to keep our customers and ourselves stay ‘One Step Ahead’ in all functions of the business.
What is the No.1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
COVID-19 has called out the vulnerability of the human race and made us look weak and defenceless. In the same breath, it has also demonstrated the strength of the human spirit to come together, even at a distance, to work on ingenious solutions to keep moving forward. The one positive aspect would be the recognition of this spirit within each of us that empowers us to believe, and keeps us, as well, ‘One Step Ahead’.
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