COVER talks to The Exeter’s chief executive, Isobel Langton, about her time in the role so far and where the industry can be better at developing and increasing awareness of income protection.
In mid-February, Isobel Langton was announced as the successor to The Exeter's outgoing chief executive, Andy Chapman, who was retiring after 40 years in the insurance industry and 12 at the helm of the provider.
Langton joined The Exeter from Royal London, where she served as chief executive of its intermediary division, where she oversaw and implemented the insurer's protection business strategy and led the pensions business. Prior to that, she was group customer service director with Royal London and held senior roles within Scottish Life and Irish Life Assurance.
Six months into the role, COVER spoke with Langton about her experiences with The Exeter so far, how she plans to lead the provider going forward, the importance of technology for the industry, and the progress of gender diversity within the protection space.
What has been at the top of your agenda for your first six months as Chief Executive of The Exeter?
Having worked at Royal London for quite a number of years and seeing changes in CEO, I was really determined to be disciplined about getting to understand the organisation before becoming too action oriented.
In a way that was helped by us being in lockdown and therefore everything had to have some structure in terms of who I was meeting and how I was meeting them. That was quite helpful to stop me from diving in and making all sorts of assumptions. So, I spent most of the time meeting as many people in the organisation, albeit virtually, as I possibly could.
Andy [Chapman] has been amazing; we have just had his retirement party and he has literally sailed off into the sunset. He's been really helpful being the person I could run those initial assumptions past and see whether I was picking things up right or not.
I've tried to stay very much in listening mode; it sounds like a cliché, but I have really forced myself to do it and I'm glad I have because I've learned a lot about the organisation and people in that time. By meeting people virtually I've been able to meet all of them, whereas in 'real life' you meet the extroverts first!
I have also been getting to understand what the business strategy is because we are at an inflection point of needing to think about the strategy going forward, which is quite exciting.
Then there is the whole hybrid working part, which was a big factor and has been really interesting. That's been a company-wide, leadership-wide problem, or opportunity, whichever way you want to look at it, so that has been a useful project to get to understand how everyone ticks and what matters to them. Over 90% of the employees have said they want some kind of blended working, so we have had to respond to that.
How are you looking to lead The Exeter going forward? Where are your priorities focused?
I was very keen that one of the first things we work on is providing real clarity for the organisation, for a number of reasons. Andy had been in charge for a long time, a lot of people within the organisation know him really well; I wanted to avoid that period where everybody is trying to second-guess what I might be thinking and instead communicate a strategy, a way forward, as quickly as possible without rushing it.
Clarity is important because of the change of CEO. It's also important because the organisation has grown a lot. It was only a few years ago that it was 60 people, now it's 170 and I know from the growth we had at Royal London it is really important you recognise that new people coming into the organisation are keen to add value but can only do that if they know what is important and how everything works.
Also, with blended working not everyone is going to be in the office all the time, so you have to be a lot more intentional about your communication and about preserving the culture, which is great at The Exeter.
We have been working with the executive team and have just started engaging the wider leadership team on our purpose, vision and our strategic priorities. We want to maintain growth and do that in a sustainable way.
We are not taking a massive change of direction, but just being much clearer about who we are and why we exist; providing that context so we can devolve decision making and be more fleet of foot. There is a big focus on that, and we've reached a good point in terms of being able to communicate more widely.
We're also looking at technology. We're a small organisation and I think that gives us a real advantage when it comes to digital; we don't have lots of legacy systems or divisional politics, the things that the larger organisations can struggle with. So, working at the art of the possible with the digital agenda has been very front of mind.
Do you think technology is being under-utilised within protection?
It's quite interesting because someone recently pointed out to me that since 2004 there hasn't been anything revolutionary in protection, which was the first online applications. When I was at Royal London, we worked with UnderwriteMe in the early days and I guess that was the next lift up from there.
Currently, we are getting close to 50% of all GP reports being returned electronically; this is a significant increase from pre-pandemic, and we are experiencing reports being returned considerably more quickly and comprehensively. Particularly for our Life proposition and this is going to give us a huge amount of scope for using technology more widely going forward.
We do need to speed up the whole process from quote to being on risk; if you think that medical doctors are being replaced in some instances by technology then we should be able to use technology to ensure that we can save our underwriters for the really complicated stuff that requires human judgement, the parts where they add the most value and get the most satisfaction from their job.
GP reports aren't the only areas in which technology can play a part in making protection more attractive particularly for those advisers who are reluctant to get involved with the trickier stuff and the whole area of electronic health records has the potential for us as providers to make that journey better.
Again, that is one of the things I have been talking to the team about. It's really important to think about where people add value and where they're just doing repetitive tasks that technology could do for them.
Sometimes the mistake we have made, as an industry, is to automate the easy things which might not necessarily be those that customers want automated. Then the things that really irritate them and they just want to happen, can be manual and clunky. We need to use technology to enable people to do their best job.
We want to take a longer-term view and work back from that, rather than just fix the next thing. I believe the size of The Exeter gives us an advantage, as long as we work intelligently with partners to accelerate our plans. We have a great relationship with our reinsurers and our tech providers.
Do you believe the industry is doing enough to promote income protection? Where can improvements to these efforts be made?
There's the awareness side of things and then there is the proposition side, and they are equally important. The industry has started to do some things really well; the Income Protection Awareness Week was really good and got people working together to think about that product. And obviously income protection has been growing; 2019, before the pandemic, was one of the biggest years for IP applications, so good things are happening.
Taking a step back from income protection, it worries me how many advisers don't sell protection at all and of those who do it's a smaller percentage again that advise on income protection.
There is a bigger picture to think about as well, which is how do we make it easier for advisers to recommend and think about protection. Having worked on the pensions side of the industry, I know that a lot of those advisers are quite concerned about protection and the uncertainty of the process, it's not something they are comfortable with, not least because they are quite often advising people who are a little older, have the stresses of running a business and might therefore be an underwriting challenge.
I think it does come back to raising awareness, but also making the customer journey a lot easier than it is now while at the same time making the adviser journey easier on the back of that. It needs to be easier to buy/advise on and then raise the awareness; I don't think you can do one without the other. The products are good, I just think we can make the experience better.
I'm sure there will always be product innovation and we'll think of other things, but there is a danger with product innovation that you go more complicated rather than simple. The focus should definitely be on the experience, looking at tools that make it easier for advisers to get people's attention and we can work with the adviser community to raise awareness.
We're a long way off it being a direct-to-consumer model; with advisers saying it's only around 2% of customers that proactively ask about income protection. That may change over time but at the moment the best way of promoting income protection is to improve the customer journey and work with advisers on how we make the experience better.
Is market competition a threat to collaboration within protection?
One of the things that has always struck me about the protection industry in particular - I'm talking about product providers here, not intermediaries - is the almost obsessive focus on what competitors are doing, instead of what the customer really needs.
That is changing, which is good, but because you've always had these dominant players like L&G and Aviva, it's easy to get distracted by what they are doing.
We need to take a step back from that and really think about what our customers problems are, how we are trying to solve them and be really clear about what we do and what we don't do, because you can't do everything.
I recognise it more because having worked in pensions there is so much more legislation and change all the time; you have no time to worry about what anybody else is doing!
We also need to focus on working with the adviser, as there has been a bit of an obsession on cutting the intermediary out of the loop and when people talk about digital transformation, they sometimes think you mean D2C.
It doesn't have to mean that; it's about using technology to support the whole ecosystem and recognising that people don't wake up in the morning thinking: "I need life cover." They do need nudging, so how do we work with the people who are in a prime position to do that, including mortgage brokers. Those are the places we need to focus on.
How do you rate the industry's progress on improving gender diversity and attracting more female advisers?
The progress since I started in the industry has been quite dramatic and continues to be very good - over 30% of the large adviser academy intake are female. You could argue that means that 70% are still male, but that number would have been a lot lower previously.
We know from other industries that once there is more representation it creates momentum, and 30% is good representation so I think that will start to drive that percentage up.
It is a good thing because we know that female customers are quite hesitant about engaging with financial services and more female advisers would help change that.
There is definitely progress and we are at a tipping point now if that's the kind of intake that these companies are getting, which is a credit to them.
This interview was first published in COVER Magazine on 14/12/2021.