Life Insurance Via Text

Remember the friendly agent who knocked on doors? Korn Ferry’s Michael Distefano takes a look at China’s 21st-century bid to get into this sector.

In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s chief marketing officer and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

You arrive in Beijing assuming you’ll reach your destination in 15 minutes. But this is a traffic-choked city, so naturally it takes the cab three times that long. Fortunately, you’ve just received a text on a topic so riveting the time just flies by. It’s about life insurance—both whole and term life.

No, this hasn’t become a common scenario just yet. But the idea is likely to get its first real-world test on a mass scale in China, creating yet another challenge for tech giants here that have taken on many. Firms including Tencent, the parent company of WeChat, as well as a subsidiary of Internet giant Alibaba, have been investing in online life insurance companies with an aim toward developing a more direct, personal, and regular connection with consumers. Already, buying and selling consumer products via messaging is an established practice; company records show that some 200 million WeChat users signed up to make purchases through the app, each spending an average of $72 a month on it.

Granted, selling life insurance is more complex and regulated than selling sneakers. But what’s important here is that Tencent and Alibaba are positioning themselves for a seat at the table in shaping how the online life insurance industry in China develops. When seen through that prism, it’s clear these moves aren’t simply opportunistic but strategic. The companies are exhibiting many of the characteristics that agile organizations share, among them visionary leadership, innovation mind-set, comfort with risk, tolerance for ambiguity, and ability to adapt.

And certainly, they may need those skills to sell life insurance. There’s a reason the business has traditionally been left in the hands of individual agents who walked the consumer through a very complex product (quick: do you know the difference between whole and term life insurance?). Not everybody wants to think about their own mortality, so hand-holding has often been a part of buying life insurance.

But selling it cheaper, which digitization allows, can be huge. What’s more, China has a lot of people on both ends of the demographic spectrum who could be in the market for life insurance—with an estimated 330 million Chinese hitting over 65 by 2050, and one-third of the population currently millennials. According to some latest research, six in 10 of all Internet users in China bought something digitally. Moreover, most of them are probably on one of Tencent’s or Alibaba’s many platforms. Bottom line: Don’t be too surprised if the next life insurance pitch arrives not at your door, but right in your hand.