As COVID-19 continues spreading around the world, governments have sprung into action to contain and treat the virus. Businesses are also grappling with how to ensure continuity of operations while, at the same time, safeguarding the well-being of their staff and customers.
Gordon Watson, CEO of AXA Asia, shared with Insurance Business some of the steps the global insurer’s Asian arm has taken, especially around the epicentre of the outbreak.
“As the epidemic situation began to emerge in mid-January, our China team took proactive action to protect the health of our colleagues,” Watson said “This meant that we were one of the first insurers to close our contact centre, start a business continuity process, and cease hospital visits by claims staff to limit face-to-face contact.
“As the scale of the virus became clearer with the arrival of the Chinese New Year holidays, our dedicated teams worked tirelessly to ramp up plans in order to ensure we could enable critical service staff in the affected regions to work from home, as well as putting in place digital services to cater to customers’ needs. This included simplified online claims, a dedicated claims hotline, and agile emergency response teams.”
With core continuity ensured, Watson said that the company shifted its focus to quickly rolling out new services to provide coverage for frontline medical staff and reporters. According to him, these were launched in just 36 hours, delivered digitally in partnership with the ShuiDi and Wesure platforms, and saw a significant uptake in policies issued.
To consolidate these early efforts, Watson said that AXA focused on scaling up support – such as upgrading IT systems to enable the entire company to work from home, while also rolling out a 24/7 medical hotline in partnership with Tencent Trusted Doctor to all customers and employees.
“Staff health and safety was our first priority from the outset,” said Watson. “Between AXA TianPing and ICBC-AXA, we have almost 1,500 employees and their families living and working in Hubei province. This made it a deeply personal issue.”
Following AXA moving its operations online, the company instituted health checks for all staff, upgraded the team’s insurance coverage, looked overseas for a source for thousands of protective masks, and put in place a rotational system to avoid the possibility of contamination in the office. These measures were extended to the thousands of staff across mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau.
“The mental wellbeing of our teams has also been a central concern. We have in place a professional counselling service to help staff process this situation, with consultations managed on a strictly confidential basis via a hotline available 24x7,” said Watson.
Watson cited IT as the key enabler in keeping the company afloat as the outbreak progressed, and praised their “exemplary” service.
“While we had work from home capabilities in place for some staff, our IT team worked day and night through the Chinese New Year holidays to essentially implement a company-wide digital transformation,” he said. “This gave all AXA TianPing employees access to work from home capabilities, including claims and telephone service representatives, all while developing the backend for new digital products and services.”
Maintaining customer confidence
Another important struggle for businesses amid the outbreak is retaining customer trust in the company. Watson said that it was critical to reassure customers and give them peace of mind. For an insurance company, this centred on customers’ immediate concerns on whether they had protection, or could get it.
“Our response focused on ensuring continuity of service amid the disruption by leveraging digital channels to handle sales, claims and support as inquiries spiked,” he said. “Importantly, AXA was the first to roll out a free benefit dedicated for frontline health workers in China, Hong Kong and Macau. We have since then also made a customer product available online with simplified claim processes.
“AXA Hong Kong also launched a digital enrolment system for new applications of VHIS and deferred annuity products, which helped ensure customers could still purchase tax-deductible products ahead of an end of March deadline. Health advice on COVID-19 was updated regularly and delivered via Emma, our centralised digital customer platform.”
Contingency plans for the developing COVID-19 situation
According to Watson, the rapid unfolding of the situation and predicting how it will evolve is a major challenge. As such, each of AXA’s local entities is working continuously to manage the situation and protect their staff and customers.
“While we see parts of Asia returning to work, we maintain suitable precautions and continually monitor the situation to review our approach,” he said. “Even now, my management team is constantly reviewing next steps on how we are postponing non-essential business travel, maintaining flexible working arrangements and disinfecting our office, ensuring that staff understand we are doing all we can to ensure their health and safety.”