Atlanta Group CIO on digitizing insurance broker services

Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth By Mark Chillingworth May 26, 2021 Audio mode
Insurance brokers Atlanta Group find customers more accepting of digital methods as the market changes

Image of Atlanta Group logo
(Image sourced via Atlanta Group )

In the now long-forgotten era known as pre-internet, home and car insurance customers visited or called an insurance broker. The broker had access to a range of insurance service providers and could get the best deal. Today, insurance aggregators and their love them or hate them advertisements have largely taken on this role. 

So what of insurance brokers? As is typical in the internet and business story, the most successful brokers have moved upmarket, offering services that are less vanilla than insuring a distinctly average car or home. Brokers today provide the specialist insurance motorcycle riders, sports car drivers, businesses, and caravaners require. 

These distinct customer groups expect a broker to offer the same online convenience as lesser specialist insurance service, but with the uniqueness of a broker.

James Fairhurst is a veteran of the insurance broker sector in the UK, having led technology at household brand Hastings and Brightside before his current role as Group CIO at Atlanta Group, the business behind Swinton, Autonet, Carole Nash, Paymentshield, Be Wiser, Marmalade, Lloyd Latchford and Healthy Pets. 

Fairhurst joined Atlanta in 2017 as the business commenced its aggressive merger and acquisition programme and major digitization, which he leads. He says:

The car insurance market is an aggregate; you typically win customers on price. Loyalty comes into it where customers receive exceptional service.

Atlanta Group is one of the largest and fastest-growing brokers in the UK insurance market and part of the worldwide Ardonagh Group. With a net worth of over £1bn, over 2500 staff in 10 locations, the business says acquisition growth will continue as part of its strategy to be the leading digital broker.

To enable that continued acquisitive behaviour and deliver the more bespoke service that is expected of a broker, Fairhurst has developed a platform approach to the technology strategy at Atlanta Group and formed a partnership in the Far East. He explains:

Digitization for a broker business is focused on how you interact with the customer.

Atlanta Group customers are typically, not exclusively, insuring a luxury and much-loved purchase, such as a motorbike, sports car, pet or motorhome. The typical, off-the-shelf insurance packages and providers don't have the nuance that is needed. You cannot compare an Mk1 VW Golf GTi with a VW Touran people carrier. 

One is a much-prized classic, the other a boxy bus for dance class duties. As a result, Fairhurst and his team have been developing digital technologies for its brands such as Swinton to compete with regular insurance providers, but also digital services that meet the needs of the more specialist customer. Fairhurst says: 

We have done a lot of work with the web chat functionality, and we have seen significant growth in chat use. Our challenge is how do we give the experience the customer expects in the channel of choice and allow the customer to seamlessly switch channels during the process.

Conversely, for Atlanta Group, the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the switch to digital methods for many of its customers. He adds:

Carole Nash is a unique brand that has historically been very touchy-feely, and a renewal invite would traditionally be in print. However, we have seen a lot of movement to digital channels such as email. There would have been more push-back without Covid; now customers are far more accepting of digitization, including self-service.

Pandemic or not, Fairhurst says the digitization of the insurance broker sector is highly focused on the customer experience. 

How do I make it really easy to purchase insurance, so it is like an Amazon one-click experience.

Fairhurst has been re-platforming Atlanta Group, which is also reducing the operational costs of the business. Fairhurst explains:

We had over 100 websites and customer journeys, and we had to manually crank through all of them if we wanted to make a compliance change, for example. That slowness of process was like painting the Forth Bridge, and at the same time, people were asking for a new bridge. So what you end up with is a load of platforms suffering from erosion. Instead, we built one new bridge that catered for all our future demands.

Carole Nash is on the new digital platform with all the microservices in place, and we are working our way through all the other brands in a programme over the next 12 to 18 months.

Alongside the digitization of the customer-facing technologies, Fairhurst has centralized the technology operations into a shared service unit called ISS. Fairhurst says:

We have a cookie-cutter model to either absorb businesses or to perform light integrations for satellite businesses, typically covering IT operations, infrastructure, cyber-security and PMO oversight. The key benefits include a single architecture to maximise value from data and transactions, along with common strategies for digital, data, RPA and cyber-security.

ISS provides the entire Atlanta Group with a variety of technologies, largely based around the Microsoft stack from Office 365, including Teams to Azure Cloud Services hosting the Atlanta Group digital and data services. Other technologies offered include ServiceNow,  AWS Cloud, Docker and Docker Swarm, whilst Rackspace provides co-location and Cloud support services. Contact centre operations have been consolidated to a single next-generation Avaya platform, managed by Sabio & Silver Lining Convergence. He adds:

COVID-19 definitely drove the usage of Teams, and almost overnight led to a sunset of our traditional video conferencing technologies.

In addition, Atlanta Group will be one of the first in the sector to use the LexID service from LexisNexis to further enhance customer propositions and experience.

Look East

To deliver key elements for the digitization of Atlanta Group, Fairhurst has partnered with NashTech Global, the offshore technology arm of recruitment services business Harvey Nash Group. NashTech was an early mover to Vietnam and exposed CIOs to the wealth of technology talent available there.  

Three years ago, Fairhurst found that Atlanta Group struggled to maintain digital skillsets and capacity in the Stoke and Manchester regions it operated in, which have witnessed a technology boom in the last decade.

Atlanta Group decided to go to the market for a partner that would take on the recruitment burden and deliver not only the people but also the outcomes required. UK and near-shore providers were considered; however, they were not cost-effective due to the increasingly competitive technology jobs market in Europe. With the major global banks having already secured sizable operations across Eastern Europe, Fairhurst realized that Atlanta Group would not gain the calibre of skills it required.

An existing relationship with the Harvey Nash Group introduced the CIO to the NashTech business, and he was impressed with the process of securing high calibre development talent in Vietnam. He says:

They are just our colleagues, who happen to be based in Vietnam, we don't really see them as NashTech, and it is important that they feel like part of the Atlanta Group family.

Fairhurst says the loyalty and quality of skills have put Vietnam ahead of the UK and East European options for him and his organisation. Moving forwards, new squads are being spun up in Vietnam to further accelerate Atlanta's digitization programme.

The term business disruption is often a shorthand for digitization, but the insurance market is set for a major shift in the UK this autumn, as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) fair pricing regulations come into force, heralding the end of insurance renewal prices being higher than the price to a new customer. Fairhurst believes this will drive considerable market consolidation in the broker sector and a rise in innovative new entrants to the market. Atlanta Group's response will be to continue both its digital and acquisition strategies.