Hugh Moncrieff
Courtesy GreatWest Life Co.

What with economic challenges, volatile markets and changing consumer behaviour, businesses face plenty of headwinds. Insurance is no exception. Hugh Moncrieff, executive vice president, advisory network and industry affairs, Canada Life Assurance Co., with Winnipeg-based Great-West Lifeco Inc., spends a lot of time thinking about how the insurance industry and advisors can successfully navigate the unknown terrain ahead.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, Great-West Lifeco hit the ground running in 2020 following the consolidation of its three insurance subsidiaries — Great-West Life Assurance Co., London Life Insurance Co. and Canada Life Assurance Co. — under the Canada Life banner. Moving to one brand and one product shelf meant a unified digital presence, and Moncrieff says he is pleased with first-quarter sales. Within Canada, sales were up 14% in the quarter year over year, to $3.6 billion. The increase was due mostly to higher sales in segregated funds, third-party mutual funds and individual insurance sales, a report to shareholders said.

Digital investment will be key for further growth. “Almost all of our current processes will be digitally enabled in the future,” Moncrieff says. “We’re looking at where we can have the biggest impact now, and investing heavily in that.”

When Investment Executive spoke to Moncrieff at the end of March, the pandemic had changed the world — but not Moncrieff’s views on digital technology. At that time, many workers in industries who didn’t lose their jobs were forced to work remotely. While the transition to remote work wasn’t seamless for Canada Life, digital capabilities already in place helped the firm meet the challenge, Moncrieff says.

The firm’s continued focus on digital innovation means advi-sors will have a new tool, Advisor Workspace, to serve clients this year. Moncrieff spoke with us about Advisor Workspace as well as about other developments.

Q: What’s your priority for the next year, given the economic challenges resulting from the pandemic?

Our first priority is the health and well-being of our staff, advi-sors and customers. When the pandemic began, our firm — and the industry as a whole — quickly transitioned to working at home and leveraging digital. We transitioned more than 90% of our staff to working remotely. We were in a strong position to start, because we had already successfully migrated communications systems to online, and had also launched SimpleProtect, our digital onboarding tool, about a year earlier. We had also leveraged e-signatures and electronic policy delivery.

Other moves were increasing our threshold for accelerated claims to $100,000 from $50,000 and underwriting up to $2 million [from $1 million] in life insurance without vitals or fluids for those [aged] 18 to 40. [Canada Life and other insurers dropped premiums on group benefits as claims decreased during the pandemic.]

While everyone, including our advisors, adapted well to our new virtual operating model, we’re getting comfortable with leading teams 100% virtually to manage large-scale projects such as product launches and technology deployments.

Our second priority is keeping our promises to the 12 million Canadians we serve through group plans, individual products and investments.

Q: Looking ahead to an eventual economic recovery, what opportunities do you foresee?

The pandemic has demonstrated to our company that we can collaborate virtually. We need to continue to think about the power of digital and leveraging virtual work to move the business forward.

[The pandemic] also highlighted the power of advice and advisors. While advice can be perceived as a means to an end — to develop a plan or make a transaction — the pandemic showed that advice gives clients confidence and helps them stay the course. We saw the power of advisors counselling clients and their families through this crisis — coaching small-business owners, explaining to clients why they should continue to pay premiums or making changes to plans to adapt to new circumstances.

Q: What innovations could we see in life insurance products or sales?

All companies, including ours, need to raise their game in terms of innovation in life insurance. In contrast, wealth-management [firms] and group life and health [insurers] have generally seen significant innovation. We see opportunity within client flexibility: how can we design our products so they work for clients’ changing needs? Sometimes, clients are expected to adapt to products instead of the other way around. Winning companies will be those that create products for clients that are flexible, customized and digitally enabled in terms of how they’re bought and managed. You can’t scale paper.

Q: You’re experienced in public policy. What policy developments are you working on?

Our policy work has recently been tactical [in response to the pandemic]. Longer term, we’re focused on the value of advice, and advisor training and qualifications to provide advice. We’re also focused on the fair treatment of customers, including fee disclosure, and we’re involved with the Canadian Council of Insurance Regulators to advance that discussion. Information regarding fee disclosure must be relevant without creating confusion.

Q: After Canada Life moved to one product shelf, how did advisors and clients respond?

While our three product lines served us well for many years, product development, marketing and legacy technology were becoming more difficult. With the move to one shelf, the feedback has been positive because it’s easier to understand the company and our products, and we can be more responsive to client and advisor needs. With a single brand, we’ve been able to invest in a single product delivery, with improved efficiency and quality. We also introduced a new segregated fund shelf late last year with 75 funds chosen from the Canada Life, Great-West Life and London Life shelves.

We had an outstanding first quarter [for] life insurance and segregated fund sales, which I attribute to product quality and excitement for the brand. Uniting our 11,000 employees across the country under the new brand has resulted in significant energy and positive momentum.

Q: Among recent product enhancements was the introduction of a no-sales-charge option
on seg funds. What was the response?

There’s a move to no-load in wealth management, and we brought out the no-sales-charge option last year. Where advi-sors had perhaps relied on a deferred sales charge in the past, the no sales charge was a good option for them and their clients. We’ve seen the funds being adopted quite well, as expected.

Q: Will advisors see changes to the firm’s digital tool, SimpleProtect?

We’ve made changes related to efficiency in response to advisor and client feedback. The program now includes term, critical illness and [participating policies]. Our view is there should be a simple, digital version of almost everything that we do.

As risk becomes better understood, we’d like to offer more coverage digitally, with less evidence. [For people aged 50 and under], we recently increased our coverage amounts available through SimpleProtect to up to $1 million without any vitals or fluids.

We’ve seen a significant increase in non-face-to-face use of the platform, driven in part by the pandemic. That could be the new normal as advisors learn to trust the platform.

Q: What plans do you have for technological innovation?

Advisors [currently] are asked to spend too much time on administrative tasks, which prevents them from doing what they do best: spending time with clients, identifying goals and solving problems. To help, we’ve created Advisor Workspace, a workbench program that will provide advisors with a consolidated view of their businesses, and which we plan to launch in the second quarter.

The program includes search and filter capabilities, and will allow advisors to edit client information in real time and upload documents securely and submit them to head office. The result will be greater productivity, compliance and [a better] client experience.

Q: What’s your advice for advisors?

We’ve made a corporate commitment to our staff and advisors to communicate. During the pandemic, that means weekly calls with thousands of advisors, with information from doctors and our investment experts and operations staff. That way, advisors stay up to date and know what we know in real time.

Just as advisors need to hear from the firm during a crisis, clients need to hear from advisors. A crisis is an advisor’s time to shine, when clients need advice and support. Our business isn’t only about sales; it’s about taking care of people and making a difference.