As an industry, we’ve all been through one of the most tumultuous periods we’ll probably (hopefully) experience in our lifetimes. While it’s been an incredibly tough period to navigate, the silver lining is the immense volume of learning we can take forward into the future – to reinvent our industry for the benefit of our customers and teams.
For Southern Cross Travel Insurance, this means we’re hopeful and creative. We’re rebuilding our exceptional team, while working to gain a deeper understanding of what our customers now need and want.
I came into the Southern Cross Travel Insurance CEO role in August 2020 – in the middle of the pandemic. I’d spent several years as Chief Customer Officer, so as we were dealing with the sudden and drastic impacts of Covid-19, supporting our customers was very much top of my list of priorities.
It was really important that we acted with integrity. As the first wave of lockdowns and cancellations hit, we proactively contacted customers in New Zealand and Australia, refunding single-trip policies purchased in advance of travel, waiving standard cancellation fees ($35 per policy), while offering extensions to recently purchased 12-month policies.
As CEO, my role expanded to supporting our core team of 45 people. We had to make the heartbreaking call to reduce our team from 116 in July 2020, ensuring the business could remain sustainable through what we thought would be less than a year-long event. While the size of our team was much reduced, our thinking was big. We were always looking ahead, focusing on strategies and plans to manage customer needs in the present – investing in work that would keep our brand alive, sustain us beyond the crisis, and enable us to be ready to scale back up for the ‘new normal’ of travel.
To that end, we deployed several new initiatives:
- Rebuilt our website to offer improved functionality and visibility for customers looking to purchase and make claims online. This included a new feature, allowing them to upload documents and track their claim. Now, over 97 per cent of claims are lodged online
- Launched domestic policies for NZ and Australia. Customer understanding of the benefits of domestic policies was far less than our international travel insurance, but research told us that consideration was growing because of the pandemic
We launched a new chatbot – ‘Scout’ – on our website, increasing the instant communication options available for customers
- A simple and transparent level of Covid-19 cover to give our customers confidence in booking travel again. This relates to cancellation and disruption as a result of being diagnosed with Covid, either before or during their trip, and of course medical support overseas. This cover has been incredibly popular – having it included as standard in our policies has proven very necessary
- Introduced WriteMark-endorsed Plain English (Language) policy documents for our Domestic and International policies. We know that today’s travel insurance customers are far more interested in the ‘fine print’. They want to easily understand what they are covered for, and are more attuned to risks they might previously have not considered. A greater level of transparency and reassurance from insurers is expected
- We knew that when international travel resumed, our challenge would be building the sales and service teams back quickly, so we launched a new chatbot – ‘Scout’ – on our website, increasing the instant communication options available for customers.
The biggest lesson the pandemic brought home to me was that your business is ultimately your people. We have a talented and incredibly committed team at Southern Cross Travel Insurance. Their ingenuity and resilience have been incredible, and I can’t thank them enough for staying the course over what was two incredibly tough years in 2020 and 2021.
As we’ve built our team back with the return of international travel at the start of 2022, the challenges have not abated. Customer appetites for international travel, to reconnect with friends and family, have been significant – and this is happening in a tight market for flight capacity. Travel disruption due to flight cancellations and lost luggage has been considerable and costly. Consequently, the need for the same pandemic-style agility of thinking remains.
We have more than doubled our team in the past nine months, but this in itself has brought about new challenges. This includes training and embedding our culture at scale and pace, while also meeting a new level of customer scrutiny over policy coverage and the risks they may face when travelling. And we have been building back in arguably one of the tightest recruitment markets we’ve ever seen in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Our team has always championed inclusivity and diversity, so we take care to consider how we can nurture this.
To be successful here, we’ve had to think deeply about our culture and employee value proposition. Our team has always championed inclusivity and diversity, so we take care to consider how we can nurture this.
Firstly, we prioritised rehiring former staff where we could, bringing their skills and knowledge of our shared DNA back into the team.
Secondly, we wrote key tenets of our culture into internal policies and onboarding documentation, with consultation from our newly formed Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee (DE&I).
This group was established during the pandemic to help us further develop and safeguard our culture of inclusivity. It includes several members of our leadership team, ensuring follow-through on any DE&I Committee decisions.
Critical to our success in this area is providing training for every new staff member, ensuring they understand our culture of inclusivity and championing diversity. Being clear about our culture from the moment each person joins the team offers an opportunity for them to not just have a job, but to be invited into a strong team with shared purpose and values.
Finally, we made the call to invest in our leaders to help them ensure consistency for our wider team. Amidst the rapid growth, we launched a new leadership programme focusing on developing psychological safety and a sense of empowerment in the people they lead.
We launched a new leadership programme focusing on developing psychological safety and a sense of empowerment in the people they lead
I strongly believe that you can have the very best strategy and systems in the world, but without a team that feels comfortable enough to bring their whole self to work, you’ll never enjoy the excellence in execution that our customers deserve.
Like many, we’re still building back in an uncertain business environment. We’re facing challenges, like simply being able to recruit enough team members, persistent disruptions, and the increasing impact of climate change.
Despite all this, I am incredibly proud of how we’ve weathered the storm, surviving and thriving. The team is creative and hungry for innovation, but the one thing which really matters is the way they care for each other and, critically, for our customers.