Digitisation with a human face

Text: Eric Johnson | Images: Marc Wetli | Magazine: Trust in the Digital Age – December 2017

#don’t  #quiver  #deliver

One of the leading Swiss insurers sees electronic communication as a way to enhance ­customer confidence. COO Thomas Trachsler of Swiss Mobiliar speaks of digital trust and decentralisation plus gives an insurer’s view of self-driving cars and cybercrime.

With the rise of digitisation, what has changed the most for you?

When I started my career, most people – myself included – learned to use computers in their workplace. Today, most people learn to use computers and related technologies at home or in their private life. What’s changed the most is communications: today there is almost total connectivity. You can reach nearly anybody, anywhere, anytime. On a personal level, I speak regularly via Facetime to my brother, who lives in the USA. We were always in touch, but less so and with more effort, before connectivity became so obvious and so easy.

Did it change your leadership style?

Today we do a lot more electronic communication, by email, text message, intranet and so on. But it is still very important to me to get an image of the person on the other end of the message. Who are they, what do they need, what can they do? You can’t really get that by email, so I make an extra effort to see people: colleagues for lunch, staff at coffee breaks and even just the chat in the hallway.

“Our customers want to feel that behind the electronics, people are there to help them.”

Email is useful and usually efficient, but still we need personal contact. Especially when it comes to problem solving, often it is better to sit with someone or pick up the phone, rather than to send an endless string of emails back and forth.

In the digital world, is trust different than in the ‘regular’ world?

Yes, and especially so in insurance. When our customers buy a policy, they don’t get something tangible. We’re not selling them a soft drink or a snack, we’re selling them a promise: a promise that in future when they encounter a loss, we will help. This has everything to do with trust, and Swiss Mobiliar views it as a personal bond. That’s why our people are spread all over Switzerland – to be close to our customers, to help them locally, at their home or workplace. Digital communication, we believe, can enhance this closeness to the customers, but it needs to be digital communication with a human face. Our customers want to feel that behind the electronics, real people with real names are there to help them. With this human approach to digitisation, we’ve been successful and have continually expanded our customer base over the past 10–15 years.

With no background or connections in insurance, Thomas Trachsler in 1986 accepted a colleague’s invitation to tour Swiss Mobiliar’s headquarters in Bern. Today, 31 years later, he’s still there. The Swiss-born economist, now 52, has moved through a variety of locations and positions over that time. Indeed, that variety was what attracted him to the business. “It’s a house of a hundred professions,” he says, noting that insurance involves analysts, architects, clerks, custodians, investment managers, mathematicians and many more. After lastly serving since 2010 as Head of Market Management, Trachsler was appointed Chief Operating Officer in July 2017. He also is President of the Vocational Education Federation of Switzerland’s Insurance Industry (VBV).

So, will all your customers move to digital communication?

A lot of them are doing that, but the move is entirely up to them. Our aim is to communicate with them in whatever way they want. Email, text message, telephone, internet chat or a personal visit to our office or their home: whatever, we follow their lead, and we try to make it a personalised contact. Personalised presence – whether physical or virtual – ­creates trust between us and our customers.

Having all those communications channels, does that create internal competition?

We deliberately have avoided ‘channel competition’ within Swiss Mobiliar. Our strategy is throughout the organisation to have the same brand, same products and same prices. Our customers should all receive the same quality and service, whether they come to us by electronic or analogue paths. To keep things personal, we continue to resolve claims directly at our local agencies, not at a call centre. We’re the only Swiss insurer to do that: when a customer in Zurich has a claim, it is resolved in Zurich (or Basel or Lugano or wherever). Electronic communication is part of that work, but it is still personal: customers speak to their agent or their claims adjuster in their region.

“Our customers want to feel that behind the electronics, people are there to help them.”

Does decentralisation cost more?

Not necessarily. A small, local organisation can be more efficient, less bureaucratic and faster than a large, centralised one. At the same time, we don’t compete only on price. Swiss Mobiliar is not a cheap insurer, and we don’t want to be, because you can’t give the best quality for the lowest price. We want to offer the very best products and services for a fair price – and that strategy must be working, or else we wouldn’t have so many customers and so much growth.

At 191 years old, Swiss Mobiliar is proud to be Switzerland’s oldest private insurer. Proud, too, of its roots as a cooperative, one that shares not only costs with its customers but profits as well. The company is still overseen by a cooperative board and is not a public stock company, but since 2000 its day-to-day operations are run by a holding entity. In 2016 Swiss Mobiliar earned Swiss francs 3.6 billion in gross premiums, some 20% from life insurance with most of the remainder from automobile, property, casualty and health insurance. The company has about 4,500 employees in 160 general agencies and agencies throughout Switzerland and Liechtenstein.


You’re big in car insurance. What’s the future of self-driving cars?

They are coming. They will probably progress in stages, perhaps starting on roads such as motorways, and I doubt they will be fully in place within the next five to ten years. As insurers, we see some control and liability issues that need resolution. If an accident is unavoidable, does the self-driving car steer into a tree, endangering the passengers, or into a group of pedestrians? Today that’s the driver’s choice, right or wrong – but how do we turn this over to a computer? Or, who is responsible for damages – the passenger, the owner, the software designer, the car-maker? At the same time, the potential benefits are enormous. Greater efficiency, more productivity, and most likely fewer accidents. The value of individual claims, however, will increase: because the cost of replacing self-driving electronics will be higher than typical damages today.

Cybercrime – is this also an issue for you?

It brings opportunities and threats. One opportunity we’ve pursued is the offering of cybercrime insurance to individuals. Part of that is protecting their data and information, another part is supporting them if they are libelled or maligned on the Internet or in social media. So far this business has taken off and is going well. This autumn we will expand the offering to small and medium-sized companies. One threat is to our own operations, to the security of our customer data. Of course we have our defences in place. Another threat is the liability of our cybercrime coverage. The risks our policy-holders face in this area are new and evolving. We are still learning what the risks are. We want to be sure that, no matter what, we’ll be able to protect our customers from those risks.

The work environment at Mobiliar: Making room for networked interaction, creative thinking and recharged batteries.
The work environment at Mobiliar: Making room for networked interaction, creative thinking and recharged batteries.
The work environment at Mobiliar: Making room for networked interaction, creative thinking and recharged batteries.

Thomas Trachsler
Short questions – short answers

What’s your favourite app?
There are lots of good ones, no single favourite.

Can you remember the first cell phone you ever had? Which model was it?
A Nokia 2110, with telescopic antenna.

What do you have as a background on your smartphone or laptop?
On my phone, I have a photo of my partner. My laptop shows the Mobiliar logo.