More Technology Ahead
Safeco will continue investing in technology to improve the customer experience, from sales to filing claims, McGavick says. "Now, customers can ask questions or check on the status of their claims and get answers fast. But there are definitely more distinctions in the consumer's mind that can be created as to who we are," he says. "And that is critically important, since we are selling a product that consumers view as interchangeable."
McGavick, Senegor and other top brass are also in the thick of devising Safeco's long-term strategy, which will look out five to 10 years, to be finished in September. The committee is evaluating the marketplace, the competitive landscape and Safeco's own internal capabilities to chart a course. Senegor and McGavick won't discuss the company's likely direction, though Senegor says Safeco is thinking about moving to online sales. "People want to shop for insurance online, but they're approaching the actual buying of it slowly," he says. "I equate it to ATMs when they were introduced. Consumers had no problem lining up to pull money from the machines, but it took them a while to make deposits." Were Safeco to go this route, Senegor says, it would not shut out the company's independent agents. "Consumers always need advice on something as complex as insurance," he says, noting that customers would be directed online to an independent agent near them as part of the inquiry and sales process.
As Senegor dives into these strategy sessions with McGavick, the CFO and the business-unit heads, he does not separate the two functions of his job. After he leaves the strategy meetings, for example, Senegor confers with his IT staff to keep them abreast of corporate strategy. "This is not some business unit tossing a project to IT without IT understanding the strategic purpose," Senegor says. IT also holds quarterly reviews with each business unit and department head to evaluate priorities and the status of current projects. Moreover, IT staffers' salary bonuses are based largely on their contributions to the company's strategic goals.
Senegor is not tearing down Safeco's infrastructure entirely. "The insurance industry was an early adopter of technology, and we've got legacy systems up the wazoo," he says. "But the important thing is not the sophistication of the technology, but what it is designed to accomplish. Sometimes a 1942 Chevy is all you need."
McGavick and Senegor believe the alignment of strategy and technology will bear fruit. "Strategy and technology are wedded," Senegor says. "Technology doesn't run the business, but the business cannot run without technology; it is part and parcel of the enterprise. Once you integrate technology with business strategy, you learn immediately that it can drive enormous value."
Russ Banham is an award-winning business journalist, playwright and author of six books.