This week sees the launch of the new Protect plus from Friends Life. This replaces the individual protection offerings from Axa, Bupa and Friends Provident. None of the afore-mentioned were slouches when it came to delivering technology and, for over a decade, Friends have actually been one of the leading innovators, so it is reasonable to expect something special.
Having had a chance to experience the system in advance of launch, even in the context of such an excellent pedigree it does not disappoint.
There are some valuable innovations, although there are some excellent features I would like to see extended further. It is not the place of this column to go into detail on product innovation, although I am told there are significant enhancements to the critical-illness definitions which I understand now work on an ABI-plus basis, an enhanced “own-occupation” wording and the Bupa practice of premiums where certain risks cannot be covered has been brought forward to the new product.
From the technology perspective there are two key areas that really stand out. First, an online signature-free trust process, indeed, the whole application process is entirely signature-free, although the adviser can still download a summary of applications for clients to sign if they want to do so for compliance proposes. In addition, the system now pushes tracking messages to advisers whenever certain information changes in the Friends’ administration system.
Within the new service, after the adviser completes the client’s primary client details, they then select the reason for cover, that is, personal or business, which will define which products are available and the product features.
At this point, the adviser can choose to select tele-under-writing or use the online automated underwriting service.
A third option for clean applications, for example, young person with low sum assured and no disclosures, is to proceed without automated under-writing. This means the system will not offer supplementary questionnaires, but if disclosure information arises subsequently the case then needs to go to an underwriter.
Friends Life tell me very few advisers now disable auto-mated underwriting at this stage as they are less likely to get a decision at point of sale, although it can be faster if the adviser is certain that the life is clean.
Once details of the client’s cover have been entered, the trust selection appears. This first asks if the policy is to be written under trust and if the adviser wants to use an online trust. The system automatically appoints the applicant as the first trustee and additional trustees can then be entered.
If a menu plan is used, only the elements that are normally put in trust are selected and there is the option to have different trustees for different covers. Having entered all the trustees required, the adviser then allocates them to the different risks as required, so users do not have to re-enter trustee details each time for each product.
Trustees have to be selected for each individual element of cover. There is no current option to apply the same trustees to all eligible covers.
The system then asks about beneficiaries and if benefits are to apply in equal shares. At this point, individual beneficiary names and percentages are entered. Again, this has to be done at product level. The system applies a check to make sure the benefit allocated totals 100 per cent and the process is repeated for each product.
Trust documents are not generated until the proposal has been finalised and submitted. A similar process is operated for business trusts and the policy declaration includes special wording for online trusts. The trust documents can be printed but the user needs to return to the trusts section to do this. The ability to print trust documentation is not enabled until the application is submitted. Once submitted, a trust date is captured to record the date the trust was established.
Presently, I am only aware of one other provider that offers full online trusts, so this is an exceptional service.
The system has extensive search facilities that can be selected from a range of criteria including proposal number, the advisers own reference if submitted with the application, full name, first and last name, either exact match or starts with match, date of birth and postcode. A range of filters can also be searched.
Emails are sent to the adviser at certain milestones, including the underwriting decision, terms expiring and reminders for medical information. This is a valuable step in the right direction, although ideally I believe the adviser should have the option to be notified each time any status on the Friends’ system changes. It is only by taking such an approach that providers can give admin-istrators the confidence not to chase by phone.
At any time, the full history of the case can be accessed via the Friends Life extranet. Information builds from the bottom with the latest information at the top of the section. This includes when Friends will next chase items. If there is something outstanding from the adviser, this is highlighted red to make clear that action by the adviser is required.
Further enhancements will be added during the first quarter of 2012 including more detailed integration with adviser client management systems and portals.
The elements outlined above appear to represent substantial progress and I would imagine the Friends Life team will be glad to move on from the issues of integrating three life offices and delivering further innovation in 2012.
Protection is a highly competitive market, especially in terms of the technology used and having shown a very good start Friends Life will need to continue to build on this to maintain the leading-edge reputation of the previous business held. That said, all of the above suggests they recognise this and are making significant strides to maintain such status.