You know that expression “can’t see the wood for the trees”? How about: “it’s right under your nose”? In general, they’re phrases you could easily use to describe the state of the insurance industry today.

The insurance world is clamoring to find and launch the next great insurtech idea—the one that will win market share by improving what insurers can offer to customers, without having to compete on price alone.

But here’s a thought: could one solution be right in front of us, right under our noses… even in our own houses?

Some of the most forward-thinking insurers get it and are looking to evolve their voice-strategy to into one that provides a meaningful customer experience. Southern Cross, the largest health insurer in New Zealand, announced very recently that they’re designing a digital human specifically for the health insurance sector.

“A digital human can answer questions often asked about health insurance, such as how the New Zealand health system works, what health insurance can cover you for and education around pre-existing conditions,” explained the CEO of Southern Cross, Nick Astwick. “People can feel embarrassed asking basic questions, but the digital human is always patient and doesn’t judge.”

Hey Siri: How can we revolutionize the insurance industry?

Yes, voice-controlled assistants (some of the most popular today being Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana) have exploded, and the fire isn’t dying down anytime soon.

By 2022, the amount spent shopping by voice is expected to jump to US$40 billion, growing from only $2 billion last year.

That means more people are simply asking their devices to do things. No opening their computers, no going to their local library, no booking a meeting with their financial adviser—just asking a device and getting an immediate answer.

Marketing departments are actively planning for a world where people aren’t getting 20-odd search results on Google, but one through their assistant; online retailers are looking at how they can complete an end-to-end purchase for customers using only voice (and doing so successfully)... but insurers?

The vast majority of insurance companies are missing the wood among all the insurtech trees. The noses in front of their faces. Or, in this case, the devices that are sitting in the homes of 13% of people today—and 55% by 2022.

But it’s not just voice

But don’t jump into voice solutions with both feet yet. To understand what’s making voice the quickly dominating channel, you have to look at what’s attracting people to voice assistants, and what’s missing.

Voice signifies a move to add extra convenience to the way customers interact with businesses. Gartner predicts that by next year, customers will manage 85% of their interactions with businesses via non-human means. They’ll shop online, they’ll turn to bots for customer support, and they’ll fill in drab online forms to start applications—and yes, they’ll do some of that by voice.

But even Alexa and friends have their limitations. Because of a fascination with convenience, they haven’t been designed to be particularly personable.

Their creators know this too, but it’s a difficult problem to solve. Apple, Google, Amazon: they’ve all struggled to create an emotional connection with voice alone.

Siri has moved from a robotic voice in your phone to a human one, but it can’t display tone of voice or body language, two things which combined make up 93% of successful communication.

Alexa has a perceived personality—there’s a reason it’s called Alexa, after all, and not virtual assistant #1142092B. But, similar to how it’s easier to build a relationship with someone in person rather than over the phone, voice alone can be a shallow experience for creating a meaningful connection.

And, most importantly, humans want to connect, especially if they’re expected to speak naturally to their devices.

It also comes down to trust. How much do you trust Siri with your personal information? Would you trust Alexa to give you solid financial advice?

We trust robots to be dependable and to get things right, which is called cognitive trust, but we trust humans in a much deeper way, based upon a belief that they’ll do what’s best for us—affective trust.

Virtual assistants need to grow more into the latter role if they’re to fulfil their potential and cause major disruption to the insurance industry. After all, you won’t fully replicate the human support a customer can get from a real person until you start building the same type of emotional connection.

That’s where digital humans come in.

Beyond Siri

Digital humans work on the same voice-driven conversational ideas as the virtual assistants people have in their homes, but they add embodiment to the equation.

Digital humans use AI and machine learning to have face-to-face conversations on computers or mobile devices, replicating real human conversation. These virtual employees embody the brand of the company that creates them, have well-developed personalities, can smile, read emotional response and convey empathy, understanding and warmth.

For example, if a policyholder is talking about waiting periods with a digital human, and the digital human notices the customer looking confused, they offer a response such as “would you like me to go through that again?”

You also can’t understate the impact of simply saying something with a smile. The emotional response we get from having someone smile at us in our human makeup, and voice alone simply can’t replicate that.

Digital humans provide the benefits that have seen people flock to voice-activated assistants—the convenience of speech, the 24/7 availability, the ability to get an answer straight away—and dial it up to another level to develop more affective trust with the customer and an emotional connection that’s sorely missing in the digital age.

Seeing the wood AND the trees

In a comprehensive recent study, EY found that 39% of insurers say AI is the technology that will have the biggest impact on the insurance industry. That makes it by far the most hotly tipped tech, in front of big data and analytics, blockchain, and IoT and telematics.

The industry knows AI is going to change things indefinitely, but most don’t yet see exactly how it will work. Others are creating excellent use cases for digital assistants specifically in insurance. The explosion and limitations of voice assistants shows us—it’s about creating emotional connection at convenience.

To date, digital humans are the only way to do this. When was the last time a chatbot made your day? When did your website ever make one of your customers smile? When did you ever feel emotionally connected with Siri?


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