Much of the North Downs has no mobile connectivity and outside of rural market towns broadband internet is a distant dream. In North Wales you can drive for up to half an hour before a mobile signal is evident and when it is, you find yourself staring across a massive, beautiful vista of empty wilderness. In the race to be digital and innovative it is easily forgotten that the infrastructure that supports these services only exists at any meaningful consistency in major conurbations. And good infrastructure and Apps will always rely on an organisation that is responsive and has a genuine relationship with its customer base.
NFU Mutual, with its heritage and link to the National Farmers Union, is one organisation that has to be focused on a direct customer relationship first and fore mostly as its customer base is often unable to benefit from digital services. The Stratford-upon-Avon headquartered organisation underwrites over £1 billion in premiums, ranging from the run of the mill services such as car and household insurance to the more unique needs of rural businesses and of course farming. Farming business models are dictated by geography, whether the 2000 acre arable farms of East Anglia or the demands of Lakeland hill farming.
For the majority of the insurance sector, technology is enabling an ever increasing direct relationship with the consumer and changing business models and services, whilst also allowing digital competitors market entry, such as Neos. For NFU Mutual, and technology leadership at the organisation the focus has to be on the field force of agents. NFU Mutual has 639 agents in 319 offices and it is clear when dealing with NFU Mutual, the agents are the fertiliser that helps the organisation grow.
Tim Mann is CIO at NFU Mutual and has been with them since 2010 ploughing new furrows of agent led innovation.
“A lot of our customers still like to go to the agent and often have a relationship with them for years,” Mann says when we meet in Stratford-upon-Avon. “They like the agent model and the conduct at a time of a claim.”
“You’ll get no better view of the what our business is like as at the agent’s office. Your local agent is Helen in the village of Oxted,” Mann says of the model and their agent closest to the Horizon studio in the Surrey Hills.
The countryside is not preserved in aspic though, technology, economic and environmental change are changing the shape of the countryside. Energy producing windmills stand like white guardians of sustainability, look carefully at fields and you’ll see crops that would not have been seen just a few years ago and digital and creative businesses can often be found where before there was a forge or wheelwrights.
“We are seeing a new type of customer like renewable energy come through our doors and new types of policy demand such as cybersecurity insurance,” Mann says.
After six years with NFU Mutual Mann is now embarking on the second phase of transformation with the introduction of greater automation of areas such as the claims process. “This is a call to action on the line of business tools,” he says. “We are very precise and thoughtful about how these changes happen.” That cultural awareness is key, Mann has been busy redeveloping the relationship his team has with the organisation.
“Our journey has been to get the business more confident to invest in technology. Right now there is an equilibrium, when I first got here they didn’t trust IT. There will always be moments when it doesn’t work. I use the analogy of driving to work and you get in the car, put the key in the ignition and it doesn’t work. You are off to a bad start, you haven’t even dealt with any of the work challenges, that was how IT was. In the last six years that has been our journey,” he says of making sure partners at the mutual business have only to focus on the challenges of their role, not a vehicle that doesn’t work. “There is nothing more complex than making it all work,” he adds. “Our relationship with the agents has never been better,” he says of the constituency he has to keep front of mind. “There is a union of secretaries and most of the agents are part of this union, at a recent event IT was highlighted by the chair.”
“We spend time with the agents to understand them. An hours down time is a pretty powerful disruption for someone who is self employed,” he says of the franchise like dynamic he has to serve. “Understanding that has made us more intelligent of when things do not work. Today IT is not on the agent’s agenda and that is great.”
Part of that journey has been to change the suppliers at NFU Mutual. In recent years Tibco have become a key partner, along with insurance tech specialist Guidewire and Azzuri.
“We changed our infrastructure partners to Computercentre for the datacentre and workplace hardware and telecoms network services is with Kcom, Azzuri supply new telephony services to the agents. When we went looking for providers we focused on those that cared about our customers as much as we do. We got some of their senior people involved from Kcom and Azzuri in our board meetings discussing how they were going to be good partners. I make sure that our suppliers go and visit agent’s offices,” Mann says.
Mann and his team have also been growing the Data Foundations programme to ensure NFU Mutual reaps the rewards of the data it has by the barn load. The programme looked at the data, who controlled it, responsibility for the accuracy and how it moves around the business. Mann advocates accuracy to ensure the organisation knows its customer and delivers the product for the right price.
“I want our data to deliver benefits to the agents, so the accuracy is with the agents and that is because they know the customer and everyone is responsible for data accuracy.”
NFU Mutual continues to adapt and innovate its services according to the changing landscape of its rural constituency, the organisation has created new services for small farmers (50 hectares) and the insurer has been a key partner in promoting and supporting rural innovation events.