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Our APIs make us agile and more resilient for an unpredictable future

Interview with Johan Dekens (Managing Director) and Steve Goossens (Chief Digital & Data Officer) at P&V Verzekeringen

"Thanks to our APIs, it's surprisingly easy to offer our products quickly and reliably, tailored to different channels. The high complexity of our back office is no concern for our brokers or end customers. While that technological innovation is in itself already remarkable, what truly matters to us is that these APIs provide us with the opportunity to strengthen and complement the personal relationship with 24/7 available touchpoints," say Johan Dekens and Steve Goossens, respectively Managing Director and Chief Digital & Data Officer at P&V Verzekeringen. "Moreover, the development process has fundamentally made our insurance company more agile and thus more resilient for an unpredictable future."

The rapport between Johan Dekens and Steve Goossens is so strong that one would assume they have been professionally collaborating intensively within P&V Verzekeringen for a long time. Looks can be deceiving. "Our paths only crossed at the beginning of last year."

Can you tell us more about your track record and current responsibilities?

Johan Dekens: "IT dominated the first 27 years of my career, including a role as Director of Informatics in this organization. For the past six years, I have been a member of the executive committee at P&V Verzekeringen, focusing on transformation. This transformation starts with digital and data, but also encompasses HR and company culture, and ultimately IT. Three seemingly unrelated domains, but what binds them is transformation. What we do is not an end in itself but lays the foundations for transforming our business."

Steve Goossens: "I joined the P&V Group five years ago. It's easy to remember because it coincided with the birth of my daughter. Prior to that, I worked in management consulting for 15 years at McKinsey and Accenture, leading projects in various industries such as energy, automotive, and banking. P&V crossed my path more than ten years ago, and it has always been a company I enjoyed working with. The trust has only grown stronger over time. As Chief Digital & Data Officer, I oversee two domains (digitization and data) that we want to keep relevant in the Belgian market. It's quite a significant challenge that extends far beyond the internal workings of our organization. What we do has an impact on brokers, agents, and all distribution channels we work with."

What is appealing about the insurance industry?

Steve Goossens: "Insurance protects you as an individual, as a family, or as a business and is a lifeline for both our economy and our society. With our activities, we find ourselves at the intersection of economic and societal challenges. Whether it's ESG, artificial intelligence (AI), or social cohesion, the world around us is constantly evolving, making the insurance sector one of the most exciting workplaces right now. We're right in the midst of the action. It's quite thrilling."

Johan Dekens: "I would like to add another dimension to that. We place a strong emphasis on societal relevance. P&V Verzekeringen is different from all our competitors because we are a cooperative company and not a publicly traded group. In our employer branding communication, we talk about being 'a tad different.' That translates into many facets. While a traditional company aims for profit maximization for shareholders, a cooperative takes into account a balance between all stakeholders: we create value for the shareholders, yes, but also for society, customers, and employees. That is a fundamental perspective."

"We test every web technology for inclusivity"

How does that 'being different' translate into the company's strategy?

Johan Dekens: "Among other things, it's reflected in remuneration. We pay a maximum of 6 percent dividend on the nominal value of the capital that shareholders invest. It can't be compared to publicly traded companies where annual dividends can be higher, just as the value of the investment can increase with the stock price. In other words, if you become a shareholder of P&V Verzekeringen, you know that profit maximization is not the driving force behind what you do."

What is the driving force then?

Johan Dekens: "Societal relevance. We use the additional resources we free up through our remuneration method to achieve our societal goals. With 20 billion euros in assets, we contribute to shaping the world through our choices. For example, we don't invest in the war industry. To have even more impact, we are part of Euresa, the European consortium of cooperative enterprises."

"To jump to our focus of this conversation, digitalization and innovations: we don't see technology as an end in itself, but as a means, a lever to do better tomorrow than today. To serve our customers, brokers, and employees better. To optimize and connect our operational systems with the outside world, think of our APIs."

How do customers experience the difference?

Steve Goossens: "Based on our mission, we attach great importance to accessibility. For example, we are part of finance&, where we help startups access venture capital. We also closely monitor the proper pricing of our products and study how to ensure that certain segments - such as young people, people with disabilities - are not excluded from fair insurance. Accessibility is not only about pricing but also in the digital realm. There are still people today who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide."

"We test every web technology for inclusivity. People with motor or visual impairments should be able to use our site just as well. We assist visually impaired individuals by providing vibrations and audio for hyperlinks. If you have shaky hands, you can leave the mouse aside and navigate with your keyboard. These are just a few examples. The idea is that everyone should have the opportunity to hop on the digital train. Moreover, the digital train is not the only one running; there is always a traditional channel: the agent, the broker. Even though we have a digital-first mindset, we ensure that the physical network remains intact to include everyone."

"We want to enhance and complement the personal relationship with digital 24/7 touchpoints"

Can APIs play a role in that inclusivity mission?

Johan Dekens: "Absolutely. That's exactly what we expect from our APIs. For us, it's not just about technology; it's about technology that helps strengthen human connections. We want to be present wherever our customers are. We want to enhance and complement the personal relationship with digital 24/7 touchpoints. Only then do you combine the power of humans with the power of digitalization."

Steve Goossens: "The fact that insurance is embedded in the economy and society is not a mere slogan. But of course, we must also put that into practice. Our philosophy leads to embedded insurance. It is the answer to the question: how can we offer our insurance where customers want to be served? Typically, embedded insurance is defined as being able to purchase an insurance product alongside another product (a car, an expensive smartphone...). Actually, that's a weak definition of a 1.0 embedded insurance. We have been doing that with web technology for many years. Nothing new under the sun. What we are looking at is a 2.0 version of embedded insurance where we see it as a flow: from human to human, supported by technology. A customer wants to be served on any platform: website, at the garage, with the broker... Every distribution channel is a platform, and we want to provide digital support. With the added assurance that there will always be an agent or broker to follow up so that there is always a human-to-human connection, as Johan rightly emphasizes."

Doesn't serving different channels with numerous insurance products become too complex?

Steve Goossens: "We have chosen to be a multi-channel, multi-brand, multi-product insurance company. If each of those channels requires its own product or process, it cannot be sustained in a sustainable manner. That's why we opt for one process and one product, while taking into account the specificities of each channel we want to serve."

Johan Dekens: "That's exactly what we do with our APIs, our Application Programming Interfaces that form an intermediary layer between the internal complexity and the simplicity of presentation expected by intermediaries and customers."

Steve Goossens: "That's right, our APIs ensure that all processes always run in the same way, but the practical implementation - the flow and customer experience - differs. The broker wants to enter all risk aspects of a case first? That's possible. The garage owner wants to enter all customer information first and then the risk? No problem. In the end, everyone arrives at the same end result: a binding contract."

"You need to have the internal operations fully in order to guarantee that flexible APIs function externally in real-time and reliably - compliant, true, and tested"

Could you provide some concrete examples of how you are using APIs and how APIs benefit both you and your customers?

Johan Dekens: "One of our banking partners wanted to offer our products, provided that everything would be fully integrated into their systems, so their employees wouldn't have to enter data twice or switch screens. We ensured that our API is available in their way of working, their flow, for their employees, allowing them to provide a consistent user experience to both employees and customers."

"This way of working also benefits our customers in terms of maintenance - that responsibility lies with us. They mainly deal with the facade because the complexity lies mostly in the API and the systems behind it. Everyone can focus on their core tasks. Without that intermediary layer, you would have to set up such development separately for each customer, tailor-made. That's not practical, it's practically unfeasible."

Do APIs increase the risks around data security?

Steve Goossens: "It would be easy if we only had to build the API and everything would then run smoothly. It's a myth that having APIs is enough to work with APIs. What our customers and their customers see is just the tip of the iceberg. It's beneath the surface where the real work lies. For the development, we worked from our back-office outwards. You first need to have the internal operations fully in order to guarantee that flexible APIs function externally in real-time and reliably - compliant, true, and tested."

Johan Dekens: "And do not underestimate the work in that internal domain. We started the digital transformation of our back-office systems almost ten years ago; that is the foundation for implementing this kind of technology, to facilitate flexibility towards the outside world. We have taken it step by step with that transformation (starting with 'claims', followed by 'non-life auto', and 'life') to make our systems future-proof. We are still in the midst of that transformation - it's truly fundamental work. As Steve says, any company can install an API, but that is not the most complex or significant investment. The greatest complexity lies in the back-office systems. Preparing them to integrate smoothly requires significant efforts in terms of time and budget. I'm talking about many years."

"There are many untapped opportunities, and we are fully committed to pursuing them"

What were the pitfalls during such a lengthy process?

Johan Dekens: "To manage such projects, an organization needs to have sufficient maturity. When we started ten years ago, we didn't have that yet. That was a huge risk because it involved significant investments. Precisely because there was no maturity, you become somewhat dependent on external parties that you engage to achieve your goals. That's fine during the initial phase, but you also need to evolve if you don't want to be a hundred percent reliant on those external parties. It comes down to finding a balance between hiring consultants and developing the organization to eventually be able to handle things independently. It's a challenging and demanding journey for which there is no magic bullet, and it requires impact and change at all levels of the organization: IT, HR, call centers, brokers... Good leadership is crucial during such a cultural change to continue coaching and advancing everyone. The beautiful side of this is that if there is success, you can celebrate it together."

What obstacles are there currently?

Steve Goossens: "The transformation of the back-office systems is still ongoing, and we will be occupied with it for a number of years. But in addition to that, we also need to continue working on that intermediary layer, on those APIs, to optimize the customer experience across all channels. Data itself is nothing new to us; after all, we are an actuarial company. However, we can still take steps to further differentiate ourselves in the market with that data. There are many untapped opportunities, and we are fully committed to pursuing them."

"We are also further developing various measures related to security, monitoring, usage guidelines, available contracts, governance, GDPR, and privacy... The goal is to build a well-oiled organization around the potential of our APIs. It's quite cutting edge."

"Everyone loves our APIs and wants to get started with them, but of course, implementation goes beyond the fun factor. Using them involves certain responsibilities. In practice, it's a perfect fit for slightly larger, professionalized parties such as banks, brokers, and even insurtechs. For us, the latter is an excellent way to connect to an ecosystem that is well-versed in using technology to provide an outstanding user experience. Real-time, straight-through processing, seamless integration - that's what we're looking for. We have truly found a match made in heaven with that population. I hope that the insurance sector as a whole will take this step because customer expectations are evolving: look at banking, automotive, retail, energy... everyone is setting the standard for customers who say, 'I want to know now - I want to place my order now, I want to cancel my order now.' Those needs are entering our sector, and we need to take the leap."

"APIs are an essential puzzle piece for tomorrow's success"

AI is all over the place, with ChatGPT coming. How do you see it as a lever for providing even better service?

Johan Dekens: "AI will have a significant impact, not only in externalizing the business but also in how we operate in general."

Steve Goossens: "We are closely examining the new possibilities with a sense of awe and wonder. It's truly impressive, an incredible leap. The considerations we have revolve around protecting our intellectual property. For example, code that we want to verify in ChatGPT is not completely fail-proof protected, so we have aligned closely with the Security Information Officer: our team can use the tool but with restrictions. Every user has an obligation to be cautious with intellectual property; nobody just dumps our code there."

"As mentioned before, we highly value inclusivity and believe in a philosophy of inclusivity by design. Whenever we look at new technology, we always ask the question: does this open up possibilities for new segments? ChatGPT helps us identify which segments we have unintentionally overlooked, the forgotten ones in the insurance industry."

How do you see APIs contributing to achieving business goals, both in terms of cost reduction and business growth?

Steve Goossens: "If APIs didn't play a role in that, it would be very foolish of us. APIs make our highly complex business model sustainable. Without APIs, we would have to duplicate the same investment for every channel and every product. Here, we invest once and then make minimal investments per channel. APIs also drive us to build a smart architecture for our organization and the applications behind it, an architecture that allows us to be flexible and modularize things in a different way, making it easier to reassemble them."

Johan Dekens: "Will there be business growth? Only the future will reveal. APIs enable us to enter into experiments, embrace new channels, and not exclude new platforms with minimal investment - it doesn't cost much, so we might as well give it a try. Our APIs are not primarily designed for growth but rather for quick adaptability. This is where Darwin comes into play: if you don't have it, you're not flexible, and you won't exist in ten years. APIs help us respond to market changes in an agile and efficient manner. Changes that are often impossible to predict now. In this way, APIs indirectly support growth because they allow us to do things that were previously unimaginable. They are an essential puzzle piece for tomorrow's success."

Johan's data

  • 10,000 / Number of steps I try to make every day. Sounds easier than it is.
  • 4 / I have two children and two grandchildren. And also: together with Steve, An and Rudy, we are a team of four.
  • Steve's data
  • 7 / 7 grams of coffee in a perfect espresso. I'm a coffee geek.
  • 2017 / Birth year of my daughter and the year I started at P&V Verzekeringen.

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