Toronto-based sun life Financial Inc. is taking several ambitious steps in an attempt to position itself as the leading innovator among Canada’s life insurers.

The company has embarked on a string of recent initiatives that aim to automate processes, such as underwriting, and improve the customer experience. The firm is also experimenting with new distribution channels.

“I think we have a clear lead on technology and, in particular, digital, data-driven technology,” says Dean Connor, president and CEO of Sun Life.

Insurance advisors such as Brian Shumak, certified financial planner and owner of Brian Shumak Financial Services in Toronto, welcome steps to modernize industry processes. However, Sun Life’s digital efforts also include new avenues for clients to interact directly with the carrier.

These innovations include a new, mobile-friendly life insurance application that clients can submit directly to the insurer in as little as 10 minutes, as well as a digital coach that gives clients advice. Such initiatives raise some questions about whether technology could diminish the role of the traditional insurance advisor.

“Technology makes it easier for companies to go direct to a policyholder, or a potential [client],” says Edward Kohlberg, associate director with Oldwick, N.J.-based credit-rating agency A.M. Best Co. Inc.

Although he adds that advisors will always have a role to play in helping clients with insurance coverage, consumers are increasingly demanding new, digital ways of doing business, which is largely what’s driving the digital efforts by firms such as Sun Life.

“If you’re not adapting to technology at this point, your competitors definitely are,” Kohlberg says. “To keep up, you have to adapt.”

At Sun Life, advancing digital capabilities is an initiative that’s not limited to a single department or team. The company recently appointed Stevan Lewis as its first senior vice president of digital transformation. But the company’s innovation efforts extend much further than Lewis’ office.

For example, Sun Life recently celebrated the opening of its new head office in Toronto, which boasts an entire floor devoted to innovation and the development of new concepts.

Dubbed the Ignite Studio, the floor takes cues from the playful, open-concept offices of Silicon Valley, complete with a Ping-Pong table, board games and plenty of lounge areas and meeting rooms that employees can use for brainstorming.

Sun Life is also tapping into external talent, as it ramps up its digital activities. The company has formed partnerships with Toronto-based innovation hub MaRS Discovery District and with Sunnyvale, Calif.-based global technology accelerator Plug and Play Tech Center, which provides the insurer with access to technology startups around the world.

These digital efforts have spawned a variety of new initiatives recently. Last year, the company revamped its underwriting processes to incorporate a greater reliance on data analytics, which accelerates the process and eliminates the need for many clients to undergo medical tests when applying.

The use of data also helped the company to speed up the application process. Sun Life’s new online insurance application process, called GO, features just 11 questions compared with 90 on its traditional application, according to Connor.

Now, the insurer is exploring ways of making that process even faster, including potentially using facial recognition software as a tool for evaluating the risk associated with an applicant. This tool would be used on features such as the lines on his or her face in assessing risk.

“We’re looking at different technologies out there,” Connor says.

Any initiatives that accelerate the process of getting a policy issued to clients and cuts back on paperwork would be positive for advisors, says Shumak.

“It’s about time,” he says. “I would anticipate that the process of completing an application will be far less cumbersome and, ergo, far less expensive for everyone involved. So, that’s great.”

Much of the recent innovation at Sun Life has focused on the group benefits and savings lines of business. For example, the insurer is launching a new “interactive digital coach” called Ella this autumn.

Using voice technology, Ella can prompt clients to take advantage of the group benefits they’re not using, notify them of steps they should be taking at key life milestones, and respond to their questions about their group plans – essentially simulating a conversation with an advisor.

“The idea is, we’ve built this digital engine that has your back; it’s looking over your shoulder,” Connor says. Sun Life plans to roll out this technology in the individual business eventually, he adds.

Rather than replacing advisors, the digital coach would support them, Connor says: “It’s meant to supplement what advisors do and help them be more relevant, more timely and more proactive with clients.”

In fact, by identifying more opportunities to talk to clients, this kind of digital assistant could ultimately generate more sales and boost demand for advisors, Connor says.

“I like to think that this will, in fact, grow our advisor sales force,” he says, “because we will find new ways to engage with clients.”

Shumak agrees that although technology can serve as a useful tool for advisors, it will never replace the fundamental role that advisors play. “Insurance is not bought, it’s sold,” he says. “It’s a relationship business.”

Nonetheless, Sun Life is experimenting with new distribution channels. In Asia, for example, the company launched a pilot project in which it is partnering with telecommunications companies to offer insurance products to customers using mobile devices.

By tapping into a telecom provider’s geospatial data, the insurer can pinpoint the precise moment when customers might need an insurance product, such as travel insurance. The coverage can be purchased through a mobile device, with the cost added to the customer’s phone bill.

“[We are] trying to be especially timely and relevant,” Connor says, “using data to ‘touch’ our clients – to help them do more for their insurance and their health – just at the right moment.”

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