By nickjohnson - May 24th, 2013

Claire Burns is the Chief Customer Officer at MetLife, a leading global provider of insurance, annuities and employee benefit programs, serving 90 million customers.

Claire is one of 40+ senior communications and marketing executives who contributed to the Incite: Summit East.

We spent some time discussing customer-centricity and Claire's role at the company. This is part one of the interview. Part two is available here.


You’re the Chief Customer Officer at MetLife. Can you give us as sense of what that role entails?

My role at Metlife is leading a transformation - we’re trying to transform the company from a product-centric to a customer-centric organisation. It’s a huge change remit - in terms of transforming almost everything that we do to an outside-in perspective, from what today is very much inside-out.

To get there, we’re doing a lot around gathering customer insights, both in terms of improving our existing experiences, and in terms of helping design new experiences for customers.

We’re also fixing a whole lot about today’s experience, and we’re making more consistent experiences across multiple products, markets, channels of communications, channels of interaction.

There’s a lot that’s in flux!


With that sort of remit, you must need to work across pretty much all existing departments at MetLife. Who are the departments you work most closely with when striving to become more customer-centric?

Yes, we work across all existing departments, across lines of business, across markets and across product lines. In terms of departments, we work across product development, marketing, call centre operations, e-service, our mobile app development team, back office operations - pretty much everyone.

Our technology department is probably our core partner in this. Because we need to have the systems in place to gather data, to share that data, and use that data to then inform service interactions and purchase and cross-sell type interactions.


What’s the relationship with marketing and communications?

My boss is the CMO, so we work very closely with the marketing team, we’re a part of it. I partner with the Chief Communications Officer on everything, lots of messaging as part of the culture, change and change management effort.

We also look to engage our employees more generally. The aim is to communicate a higher purpose for the company, our reason for existing - and that’s delivering on promises for customers. That form of communication is certainly not something we’ve done before.

After that internal focus, we’re now starting to tell that same story externally.

It’s a long term process, a multi-year journey - we’re only in year two, so there’s plenty left to do.


One of the big things we’ve noticed is that the marketing and communications departments are in flux right now - and in a few years they’re going to look very different.

From our research, it seems that the dividing line between the marketing and communications function is going to disappear. And that’s because nowadays one needs a consistent message, coming from one unified company - not a collection of silos.

Is that the end goal for MetLife? What will the company look like internally if you are going to be completely customer-centric?

Today we’re organised in product silos - we’ve always gone to market that way throughout the 145 year history of the company.

But we’ve begun to change. We have a plan to shift gradually to customer-level P&L, so instead of P&L by product, it’ll be P&L by customer.

And, over time, we’ll re-organise the entire company along those lines.

Today, we have to work across pre-existing silos to get something to market. But as we progress along our customer-centric journey, as we start to develop customer-centric products, we’ve begun to create small task forces focusing on customer segments to enable this.

At the moment, it’s all soft structure - the hard structure of the company is still very much in silos.

These customer-driven task forces are part of our transition. Another element is the establishment of internal forums where we work together on a segment, look at the end to end ‘customer experience map’, and start to design what we want, both from product, and service, and other interaction perspective.

But it’s very much something we’re prototyping, and practicing right now. The aim is to get the organisation more agile - with the ultimate end game being to organise our ‘hard structure’ that way.


One thing we haven’t covered is the ‘why’. Why is it you’ve decided to make these significant shifts? What is it about customer-centricity that appeals to MetLife?

Well, obviously the whole world is moving in this direction, recognizing we’re in the age of the consumer.

Consumers are more powerful, have more access to information and technology, and there’s a whole lot more transparency.

To be successful, we know we have to behave differently with consumers, and deliver solutions that address their problems and needs - rather than trying to push products that may or may not be relevant, as we have done in the past.

What’s driving our push from an internal, financial perspective is that 80% of our earnings come from two markets - US and Japan. These are the two most mature insurance markets in the world. There’s not a lot of new ‘white space’.

So in order to survive, grow, thrive - even possibly survive - in this environment, we have to keep the customers we have, and convince them to buy more from us.

At the same time, we need to try to shift our mix of earnings more towards emerging and developing markets - we do already have a presence in quite a large number of markets outside those two, though they still represent a relatively small percentage of our earnings.


Let’s talk about those different geographical regions. As you aim to be customer-centric to each of them, does that mean you will need to give a greater level of autonomy in those geographical regions than currently?

We do already have quite a lot of autonomy in those geographic regions, they’re able to market what’s relevant to local market needs.

Actually, we’ve begun to find some themes that are relevant across these markets. For instance, there is an emerging middle class in Asia, in parts of Latin America, and in parts of Eastern Europe.

To capitalize on those synergies, our leaders from emerging markets are getting together, and developing an ‘innovation lab’ that will help them serve all of these regions with new products that address the needs of emerging middle class consumers in a way that’s simple, straightforward and clear in terms of the need it’s addressing, and how it’s going to be helpful.


One practical question - if a company has acknowledged that there is a need to be increasingly customer-centric, but they’re not yet, what advice would you give them as they start on this journey?

First off, one must recognize that it’s a multi-year journey. Second, one must recognize the degree of commitment that’s necessary from leaders in the organisation to affect the degree of change necessary to be successful. The more commitment you have from your top leadership, from your CEO, the quicker the path.

I remember talking to American Express - who said that had they had that top-down commitment, they would have accelerated their path from what took ultimately 7 years to maybe 3.

So those two pieces are extremely critical.

Third, always bear in mind the notion that to be customer-centric requires a systematic retooling of almost everything that you do.

If you are designed and built around internal processes and internal systems, in pushing something to market that’s very complicated, as we are and a lot of financial services are, it requires a wholesale retooling of almost everything that you do.

At Year One, starting this journey, you don’t necessarily realize the degree of difficulty involved.


So what you’re saying is this isn’t so much an evolution as a revolution?



This concludes the first part of our interview with Claire Burns, Chief Customer Officer at MetLife. Part two is available here.

Claire is one of 13 C-suite executives contributing to the forthcoming Incite Summit, taking place in New York on September 18-19. The Summit is co-located for, and will investigate the relationship between, marketing and communications.

For more on the Incite: Summit East, go here. For further detail on upcoming Summits, visit here.

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