Customer Experience — June 20, 2024

Who is your customer, really?

How human-centered design can help expand the idea of the “customer” in insurance CX

by Kate Muth

Customer Experience CX Insurance

Hand holding up a piece of a mirror reflecting an eye

The answer to the question “Who is your customer?” might seem obvious — so obvious that it’s not even worth asking. But in our experience working with insurance carriers and brokerages, reaching a consensus around that reasonably straightforward question can be surprisingly challenging. 

As designers and researchers working to advance customer experiences within the insurance space, we’ve sat in on countless roundabout discussions as clients struggle to align on who it is that their business serves and, consequently, whose needs we should focus on meeting in our work. Clients can claim target markets, share segmentation or personas, and chart average premiums, but they often can’t tell us exactly whose experience matters most when it comes to their customer experience.

It can feel like trying to hit a moving target in the dark. Within the scope of a single project, we’ve watched project sponsors shift their spotlight from the policyholder to the insured to the employer to the agent to the underwriter and back around again. As soon as one audience seems like the obvious priority, the light changes and another set of stakeholders or users appears to be the star. 

It can be frustrating, but that slipping focus often makes good sense and points to a tension inherent to the way insurance is bought, sold, and serviced. Policyholders may be the “end user” of insurance — the ones who pay the premiums and make the claims — but they are often not the buyer, decision maker, or beneficiary. 

Unlike more straightforward B2C transactions, brokers, agents, business owners, HR heads, back-office admins, CEOs, PEOs, and other stakeholders can all take a turn playing the “customer” role in the course of doing business. So “who is your customer?” Often, the complex truth is “all of the above.”

Unchecked, this ambiguity can obscure our work and diminish the quality of customer experiences. If our clients can’t say who their customer is, how can we know who to design for?

Counting all the “customers” in “Customer Experience”

To successfully design within this ecosystem, we step back and think broadly about what it means to be a customer. We ask what value is being exchanged, who is benefiting, and how. We work to uncover and understand all of the individual but interconnected experiences, interactions, and journeys that comprise what’s generically called the “customer experience.”

From this wider vantage, it’s clear that the “customer” contains multitudes. The agent who chooses which carriers to quote and promote to their clients, the alumni association negotiating exclusive rates, the CFO protecting her bottom line, the small business owner balancing her budget with her own family’s benefits — all are people whose needs must be met in order to make the sale and retain the customer account.

Put plainly, in insurance, what most of us mean by “Customer Experience” is in practice a set of overlapping human experiences that add up to a mutually beneficial business relationship.

Designing for people, not policy numbers

Intuitively, we all know that along the insurance value chain, there are multiple dependencies and relationships, and that each plays a part in shaping the overall customer experience. But too often, this manifold reality drives even the most avowedly customer-centric organizations to throw up their hands and mentally swap in “account” for “customer” — reducing a multi-faced human experience to the sum of the technical and operational steps required to maintain each 9 to 13 digit policy number.

This ambiguity can be both a challenge and an opportunity. Our work has revealed that confronting and grappling with it can force insurance companies to embrace a more holistic, inclusive perspective about the range of people they serve, and how their experiences impact the business. The Customer Experience matters, but maybe it’s more important to keep asking, “Who is your customer?” than it is to land on a definitive answer.

Starting with human problems

To make sense of this in our work designing digital products and experiences, we turn to human-centered design. Ideally, this means starting each project with a real human need or problem — a known or newly uncovered pain point that is getting in the way of the business. Customer definitions aside, when we focus on that individual and their needs (not their account number) the experiences that matter become clear. 

For example, if we’re designing a portal to service employer-sponsored insurance plans, we obviously have to consider the needs of the user of the portal, so we could say that the employer is our customer. But as our customer, the “employer” includes not just the buyer but the HR department, the employees who will be insured, and the insurance agents or brokers who will service and facilitate the plan. 

We often see organizations laser-focused on one of these groups (the business owner, for example) without considering the needs of the others along the value stream. This kind of tunnel vision can lead to product failure. In this scenario, a benefit an agent encourages the business owner to select might not meet the real needs of employees or may be difficult for the HR department to understand and administer. The business owner’s tactical needs are met — he gets his benefits program going — but not considering the other leads to headaches later. When one or more links of the value chain are ignored, the whole experience can break down.

How human-centered design can help

As human-centered designers, we employ various methodologies to understand the insurance value chain and help our clients prioritize their various customer and user needs. These methodologies help ensure that the resulting customer experience works well holistically, addressing the requirements of all stakeholders involved. 

Here are some key methodologies we use in our design process:

User Research

Almost all our work involves some level of user research. This often involves conducting one-on-one interviews with customers, agents, and other stakeholders to gather deep insights into their experiences, needs, and pain points. We may also use surveys to collect quantitative data on user preferences, behaviors, and satisfaction levels.

Journey Mapping

Creating visual representations of the customer’s experience across different touchpoints in the insurance value chain helps us identify key moments of truth and pain points and prioritize our efforts and resources.

Personas & Empathy Maps

Sometimes, our research leads to user personas. Using insights derived from research, we’ll develop detailed personas representing different customer segments. These personas help us understand the diverse needs and preferences of various user groups.

We may also use empathy maps to explore users’ emotions, thoughts, and motivations more deeply, providing a holistic view of their experiences.

Workshops and Co-Creation

To align stakeholders and ensure various user perspectives are incorporated into the design process, we often facilitate workshops with stakeholders to collaboratively ideate and design solutions and/or co-creation sessions to involve policyholders, agents, and other players in the ecosystem in the design process to ensure their needs and ideas are incorporated into the customer experience.

Prioritization Techniques

While accounting for individual needs and understanding the value chain and everyone’s place in it is critical to a successful customer experience, these needs must be prioritized. We often use affinity diagrams to organize and prioritize user insights and feedback, as well as impact-effort matrixes to help us evaluate and prioritize features and improvements based on their impact on user experience and the effort required to implement them.

This human-centric approach ensures that the whole customer — the experiences of all the users involved in the value chain — are considered and prioritized in the design process. By leveraging these methodologies, insurance companies can develop a comprehensive understanding of who their customers are, prioritize their needs effectively, and design experiences that are cohesive and satisfying across the entire value chain.

Embracing the humans at the heart of the insurance value chain

Defining the customer in the insurance industry is rarely straightforward. Our experience has shown that the ambiguity and complexity inherent in this task can lead to a broader, more inclusive understanding of the customer as part of a larger value chain. By embracing this complexity, recognizing the diverse roles within the value stream, and applying user-centered design methodologies to address customer needs, insurance companies can better serve their customers and create more meaningful, impactful experiences.

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