by Nicki Doble

How Cover-More Group is overcoming COVID-19

Jun 08, 2020
IT Leadership

The word ‘transformational’ might disappear from your professional vocabulary as COVID-19 passes, says travel insurer Cover-More’s tech chief, Nicki Doble.

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me one thing, it’s that the word ‘transformational’ might have to disappear from our professional vocabulary.

Because if you’re a CIO who emerges from this crisis with your role (and your reputation) intact, then you won’t need ‘transformational’ in your job description. The very fact you and your employer are still standing will be enough to say, “I transformed and survived.”

You will either have street cred in the world of CIOs, or you will no longer exist.

COVID-19 has hit the Australian travel sector very hard. The challenge for Cover-More, and many others, was to juggle the three key elements of our business continuity plan – response, recovery and restoration – in an environment where the rules were changing daily, and often hourly.

In the past, if we were handling a significant event such as a natural disaster or an airline catastrophe, we could have a strategy in place and work to it. But with COVID-19, at any one time we have had to have an immediate response ready, then a strategy in place and also a long-term plan on how to rebuild the business once the crisis passed.

Normally, we might have been looking at a shift in the business model for one of our partners, or even a restructuring of an individual business. This time we are talking about an entire industry having to rebuild and restructure.

Our immediate response to COVID-19 was “how do we keep our business going?” while, at the same time, seeing our partners being really badly impacted.

We had multiple streams all happening concurrently, including looking at how we could get our people working from home. And because we operate in 22 countries, it was complicated by the fact we had different countries doing things at different times and different speeds as far as lockdown was concerned.

Although our sales quickly slowed, the claims sides of the business became busier, with calls coming in at unprecedented levels and some of our call centres seeing an 80 per cent increase in call volume.

And then there was the medical arm of the business, with a huge increase in clients wanting medical assistance support all over the world. We couldn’t simply put up an IVR or a banner on our website, saying “we are experiencing unprecedented demand.” Calls still had to be answered in 15 seconds to provide medical advice.

The end result was that we split our physical call centres and in a period of around four days we moved one of our call centres to the cloud, which increased the number of concurrent phone lines available.

So, although the travel side of the business was hit hard, we were still experiencing growth and demand on the assistance side. In three weeks we had moved a global business to a 100 per cent remote workforce.

Then the next wave came. The impact on the travel industry meant our development sales pipeline had slowed and we needed to keep our dev teams utilised or let them go. They were too valuable a team to break up and we knew we would need them to help build the future, so we immediately started to retrain them in different tech.

Investment in cloud

We bought forward our cloud transformation and started working with AWS to make it larger. We began investing heavily in our API library, which was something we had planned to do but hadn’t started on. Our recovery meant we needed to be available in lots of different global markets and quickly, and we needed that API library more than ever.

Because we didn’t want to lose developers, we took on more work that we would normally have handed to a partner to do and kept it in-house. That meant re-training some of our developers so that instead of getting a partner to deliver something for us, we can bring in key technical SMEs to make sure we get it right.

I think it is fair to say that nothing will ever be the same from the perspective of our business model and the behaviour of our customers.

People are forever more going to buy travel differently and they are going to buy travel insurance differently. So, technology needs to switch from serving the business to serving customers in ways that work for the business.

As far as Cover-More is concerned, sales staff would previously have told IT what travel policies they wanted to sell and where they would sell them. IT would then work with the rest of the business to deliver the technology quickly, with a low delivery cost.

We would make sure we applied good IT principles such as re-use and standardisation and use agile methodologies to deliver. Once the project was finished it would move into business as usual. All good stuff.

Post COVID-19, we are moving to cross-functional business, UX and technology product teams, similar to what is common practice in tech companies such as Apple.

A product is an entire traveler experience from specific target market point of view, including numerous services and policies they might need.

The cross-functional team bundles together the policies and services to create a product, decide how it will be sold and the method of how the services would be delivered best for that type of traveler.

We will still use agile methodologies to deliver but the teams won’t have an end date – instead they will continue on and be involved in product sales, optimisation, profit and cost ongoing.

So, our team will care from when someone started to think about going on a holiday through to making a claim, needing medical assistance and renewing their policy next time they travelled.

Targeted customer problems

It sounds like a simple change but having a ‘traveler centric’ strategy is a significant change for companies. Sales teams no longer decide what sells and companies will most likely have less things to sell because they will have targeted customer problems in mind, rather than trying to sell as many offers as they can.

The concept fell into place for me when I looked at how Foxtel sells product types, rather than selling the different TV channels they have available. So, instead of selling different policies, Cover-More will start selling types of travel experiences.

For example, families travelling domestically and all the different types of policies and services they may need (car gap, event cancellation, flight delay, medical assistance) rather than just one type of policy such as flight cancellation.

So what of the future for travel and travel insurance? I think it will be a bit messy for us for a while longer, partly because there will still be a lot of tactical decisions to be made. It won’t be “we’ve had a pandemic, so here’s a new business strategy” but rather “we’ve had a pandemic, how can we continually tweak our business strategy to meet the changing demands?”

We will be focusing more on international corporate travel and domestic leisure. Previously we had a heavier focus on leisure international travel, so we will need to change our approach, the products we offer and the speed of which technology can move them to the market.

We have a company called WTP – World Travel Protection – that sells to corporates. If corporates have someone stuck overseas, they want to know if they can get them home. Our brand has a unique opportunity which we had identified for 2021, but now we are doing the work in 2020 so when next year arrives, we can take full advantage of it.

Application innovation

We are also working on an app, similar to the government’s COVIDsafe app but it will also be used overseas. It will have geolocation capabilities so if a customer is in a pandemic-affected area, we will be able to warn them.

In many ways, the future is being forced upon us. All those things people used to navel-gaze about are actually happening. Our development pipeline has become more global, more complex and strategic than ever before. The sales development work has started to return so the demands on the team are challenging.

Our technology staff have developed and grown a great deal and I am now concerned with retention, so we are looking at if ‘work-from-anywhere’ would suit us. It’s a great way to keep people and encourage them to travel.

This constant push and change is the new reality that is being forced on us, with a timetable we can’t control and companies will soon discover whether they are able to adapt or not.

Transformation is a skillset that some people have, some can learn and some will simply never grasp. So when the dust settles after COVID-19, every CIO still standing will be able to put their hand on their heart and say, “I can do transformation.”

Then we can stop using the word because it will be a given that if you are still in the game, everyone will know you’ve earnt your transforming stripes.

Nicki Doble is chief information officer at Cover-More Group.