Michael Stango - Don’t Blink: The Changing Landscape of Workers’ Compensation
Welcome back to Safe and Sound, the Workers' Compensation podcast series. I'm Mark Millett, the Director of Human Resources here at A.I.M. Mutual Insurance Companies, and I want to welcome all of our listeners, and thank you for taking the time to check out our podcast dedicated to the emerging issues in workers' compensation. Now, workers' compensation is the very definition of a collective effort. To be successful you need people who can anticipate the needs of brokers, employers, and injured workers. And that means the latest tools, resources, and technology all must be at your fingertips. So today I'm excited to talk with Michael Stango. Michael is a colleague of mine on the leadership team and our Director of IT, Policy and Office Services here at A.I.M. Mutual and Michael is well familiar with these demands and the dynamics driving them. He's very knowledgeable about the inner workings of workers' compensation and what's needed to be successful to support the day-to-day operation. We're going to look at how it all changes at a rapid pace and what it takes to be proactive, pivot and respond. Michael, thank you and thank you for joining us. Welcome to the podcast.
Thanks, Mark. Happy to be here.
I wanted to begin by talking about something that's very important to our company and that's the customer experience. How has technology transformed the customer experience in say, the last five years? I mean, obviously we went through a pandemic, so a lot of things changed and were impacted by that. Can you speak a little bit to that?
I appreciate that, Mark, and that's a great introduction. I wish you always spoke so highly of me every day at A.I.M. Mutual! [laughter]
I'm flattered. So the pandemic was obviously really altering for a lot of businesses and impacted all teams, especially my teams, the operational teams; those teams tend to be a bit out of sight out of mind, but they really are what keep the wheels turning for any company, right? As many businesses saw firsthand, the pandemic was eye-opening in terms of being prepared to provide really an optimal customer service experience, regardless of the circumstance. And A.I.M. Mutual, of course, has always viewed business continuity as a crucial part of our approach. The pandemic did incite some substantial changes to the workflows that support our customers. At the onset of the pandemic, our key focus as an insurance carrier was to enable all of our staff members to work seamlessly from home. And that's whether they were issuing policies, servicing claims, or simply answering questions over the phone. The insurance industry in general, especially workers' compensation, is still heavily paper-driven. And it has been for years and years and, even historically, many of the regulatory bodies that we deal with are large proponents of physical paper. The pandemic was a game changer for everyone. Frankly, today, I feel we have a much more sustainable operational process and technology stack that should be able to weather any number of disruptions, including, but not limited to, a pandemic.
Absolutely. We saw a lot of that paper-technology shift ourselves here in human resources as well. So, definitely a big thing. It seems like so much today is online for consumers, and for B2B, businesses like ours, response times are getting faster and better. How do we position ourselves to meet the expectations of the customer?
That's a great question and something that comes up a lot. I will say one thing I love about this company in particular is that I feel we rarely struggle with response times. The experience getting in touch with A.I.M. Mutual, I feel, stands apart from the experience a customer might have trying to get in touch with maybe a bigger, more automated carrier. Our top priority is to provide a personalized experience and an experience where the customer won't be waiting on hold for 30 minutes or waiting weeks for an email response. And, of course, we've certainly invested in communication technologies that improve and enhance the customer service experience and response times. Overall though, I think we've found that the best way to address this is to have a real person with real answers on the other end.
This is it, right? I mean, this is the “It” factor, our dedicated staff members--and you are familiar with this in human resources, right? You're finding the amazing people that we have that work here and dedicated staff members are what make us tick. Our people are always willing to put in the extra time and effort to accomplish really any goal put in front of them. I've been here for about 10 years and I've seen this day in and day out, week in and week out, whether it's staying up until midnight to ensure a server is fully patched and operational or coming in on the weekend for central air conditioning maintenance because it's going to be a sweltering Monday in July. These teams are always dedicated to getting the job done. Really on top of that --and this is a testament to the human resources function as well--we provide as much on-the-job training and as many certifications as staff members can possibly benefit from and we feel that investing in our people is the same thing as investing in our business.
Couldn't agree more. Right. <laugh>, you're preaching to the choir so to speak. So, you've touched on this a little bit, and I'm sure this question would be applicable to many types of businesses, but specifically with workers' compensation, what advances have you seen in terms of how we deliver services?
Great question. We really are living in a digital age these days, right? That's businesses across the board. Our brokers and our policyholders and all of our customers are looking for solutions that save them time, which ultimately equates to saving money. And we try to implement automation wherever we can without diminishing the customer service experience. That last piece is a really important part. We're currently in the process of upgrading our core policy and claim system. And with that, we're trying to improve our customer-facing web portal as much as possible. Self-service is crucial for enhancing the customer service experience. And we're eliciting feedback as well from our customers as we're doing this. We're also building out our automation tools to alert our customers via email and documents or alerts are available in this portal. And we feel that these notifications are a crucial time saver overall. We're looking to do as much business as we can digitally, as long as the customer service experience is not negatively impacted. That's really important.
I don't want to go too far down the rabbit hole with this one, but this buzzword of artificial intelligence, or AI. What role do you see AI playing in all of this?
It is so funny because, Mark, you're intimately familiar with the conversations surrounding this. We talk about this as an executive group. We just talked to our Board of Directors about this as well. And I'm receiving just hundreds and hundreds of emails now about AI and how AI can change our business and improve our business. And it's funny to me because “artificial intelligence”--and I'm using air quotes here, you can't see me, but you can hear the fact that I'm using air quotes--It's been around for a long time. It's gained a lot of traction as of late due to these free products that are coming out like ChatGBT and other generative AI tools. And the phrase artificial intelligence is being used so much these days. Still I'm seeing not as many products that actually use AI, especially in the insurance industry.
It doesn't mean that they don't exist. There's a lot of them out there. Most of the things being called AI, I'm finding are not true AI. We've put a great amount of effort into researching AI, especially in workers' compensation. And frankly, right now for us as a business, I'm just not seeing the massive return on investment that's being kind of touted out there. From what we've seen, AI is primarily being referenced in terms of pricing policies, analyzing claims, assessing fraud, and automating tasks like document ingestion. I do feel that it can augment our processes, and again, we're looking at these technologies all the time, constantly. I don't think that it should necessarily replace the human element in its current state. And a big reason for that is there really is very little regulation surrounding artificial intelligence right now, especially in our industry. And I really would like to see that landscape harden a little bit before we make a substantial investment.
I definitely agree. I think it's a little too early, right? The jury's still out, so to speak. So let's see where it goes. I'm glad you brought up the regulatory stuff because you can't have any discussion about technology without talking about data security and the unrelenting focus it requires. So how challenging and how fluid has this become? Are you seeing a shift in the kinds of cyber risks that are out there?
Absolutely. These days, aside from a major core system conversion, this is the second thing that I spend most of my time on. And this is a perfect transition because cybersecurity really is a spot to be leveraging artificial intelligence right now. We are using AI heavily on the cyber side, and we use a variety of security tools at A.I.M. Mutual that rely on AI for threat detection. So, you asked how fluid this is. I mean, the bad guys are continuously getting smarter and frankly, the cybersecurity industry is having trouble keeping up. In fact, the bad guys are now relying on AI to develop new hacks and exploits to trick existing security infrastructure. And that's why it's so important for us to now use AI to combat it really against their own creation. The security team at A.I.M. Mutual meets several times weekly. I think we're up to meeting four times a week now to discuss our strategy for combating the newest threats. This is a 24/7, 365 day per year effort. My security team is amazing, fantastic at what they do. And I will say, and I want to highlight this, and thank you Mark, and thank you to the rest of our leadership team here at A.I.M. Mutual: Cybersecurity is an area that our executive team is very passionate about. This is something we talk about all the time, every time we meet, it's on every agenda pretty much. Our CEO is very passionate about this. The rest of the team is very passionate about it. We recognize this is one of the single greatest threats to our business, right? We make constant efforts to also trickle that down and the importance of this down to the rest of our organization.
We can spend the whole time on cybersecurity, right? I want to go back to your folks. So it may seem at times that the customer-facing folks get all the glory when it comes to our success, but they'd be the first to credit our co-workers that are quote-unquote behind the scenes. Our teams in the support areas are just as essential to the policy cycle as the frontline staff. Do you feel like we could or should ever take out the human element and solely rely on technology to drive our service?
That's a great question, Mark. And it's not the first time I've been asked a question like that. And I guess my first response is never say never. If we're talking a hundred years from now, 50 years from now, I, I don't know what the future's going to look like. Currently, I can't see how technology would fully replace the human element of workers' compensation, at least not in the near future. Even the most technology-driven carriers out there, not to name names, but I'm sure you can think of a few. For the listeners out there, they struggle to handle complex lines of insurance like workers' compensation, they just do, right? We talk to our Director of Sales and Marketing about this all the time. Because we're seeing articles out there about products that promise that they can get you a quote in 30 seconds, et cetera.
I’ve got to say, we've even tested some of these products with complex workers' compensation quotes, and they are always referred to a real person who is an underwriter.
That doesn't even speak to the behind the scenes piece of this. It's the servicing of those policies. It's really understanding how workers' compensation works so the customer can get the best service. And as we've been talking about this the whole time, customers want to have an easy experience working with us, and we're of course, willing to automate as much as we possibly can, and we look to automate as much as we possibly can, as long as the experience doesn't become frustrating. We will automate it, we'll make it technology-driven if it's helpful, but we're not going to do that if it's going to become a burden for our insureds, for our brokers, for our claimants [injured workers]. I really do feel our employees are what sets this place apart in the comp space. I think it's their dedication to the customers that will always supersede technology and automation.
Well said. I couldn't agree more. It's been great stuff, Michael. I really appreciate it and appreciate you taking the time, giving us a deeper look into what happens behind the curtain of workers' compensation and how we do the customer experience. And really thank you to all your teams and everything they do. They absolutely deserve some of that glory. So thanks again, Michael. Appreciate the time.
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it. These folks are the engine behind it all. They're what makes it work and we wouldn't be doing this without them, so I have to give a shout out to those teams.
Absolutely. And I want to thank our listeners as well for tuning in. And remember, you can listen to any of the A.I.M. Mutual podcasts on your favorite podcast platform or on our website at www.aimmutual.com. Thanks very much everyone. Talk to you soon.