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Article | Turning the Abstract Into Clarity

Keeping Promises Helps Aflac Build Lasting Customer Trust

Companies make several promises to encourage customers to do business with them. The differentiator among trustworthy companies is that they strive to live up to their promises and ensure that they deliver what their customers expect from them. This is even more important in today's highly competitive and very social world, where customers are not only able to see the difference between organizations, but are very willing to tell the world about their experiences.

Aflac has been sending the message that it will take care of its members during their time of need, helping them pay their bills when they're not well enough to go to work. This message, delivered by the lovable Aflac duck, is the credo that the company has to live up to.

Executive Vice President Michael W. Zuna, also the company's chief marketing and sales officer, notes that for almost six decades Aflac has kept its promise to protect its members when they need it most, gaining their trust in return. Here Zuna speaks about the importance of gaining and maintaining customer trust, the role of social media, and the future of the Aflac duck in driving solid business results.

Customer Strategist: Organizations are striving to be seen as customer-focused. What makes Aflac a customer-centric organization?

Michael Zuna: Our customers have always been, and will always be, our first priority. Despite uncertainty in the economy and on the health insurance front, we have continued to grow over the past 20 years by never straying from our core values and always putting customers first. This is our mantra—it's the "Aflac Way." Since our company was founded in 1955, we've kept our promise to those we insure that we will protect them when they need it most. This is how we've gained the trust of more than 50 million people worldwide.

At Aflac, we realize that unpredictable medical situations can affect every part of our customers' lives. Aflac's success comes from offering voluntary insurance policies that help provide additional financial protection to employees and individuals faced with expenses resulting from an accident or illness. Instead of checks being sent directly to the doctor or hospital, Aflac sends cash benefits directly to policyholders so they can use those funds as they see fit. We also work hard to pay claims fairly and promptly. In fact, our claims are processed usually within four days, according to company statistics. As Aflac continues to evolve, our commitment remains steadfast to providing customers with the products and services they need most.

CS: A good reputation and trust are essential ingredients for organizations, especially in today's competitive market. What are you doing to make sure that Aflac has a good reputation and also enjoys its customers' trust?

MZ: Aflac has provided a strong and lasting safety net for families dealing with medical needs for nearly 60 years. Today, more than 50 million people worldwide are insured by Aflac, and we pride ourselves on the continuous development of innovative, cross-generational solutions for our policyholders. We listen to our customers and have added products to address their needs, like our enhanced individual Vision Now and group accident plans, as well as our New York group accident and critical illness plans. At the same time, our customers can always trust we will stay true to our core values and the "Aflac Way." We will always make it top priority to deliver the products and the financial peace of mind they're looking for in times of need.

CS: What are your priorities and challenges in leading the company's marketing and sales?

MZ: Right now is an exciting time to be part of marketing and sales at Aflac. The healthcare insurance industry is undergoing unparalleled transformations in the face of legislative reform. One of our biggest priorities is to thrive in the changing insurance landscape, and we have put the pieces in place to do that. We believe healthcare reform has created an opportunity for us, especially since our business in Japan is already thriving under national healthcare. We plan to focus our business, broker, agent, and policyholder marketing efforts on educating both consumers and business decision-makers about the need for, and value of, voluntary insurance.

CS: What are some changes in Aflac's sales and marketing strategies since you became the company's Chief Marketing and Sales Officer? Can you discuss your work to continue building the Aflac brand?

MZ: A few years ago, Paul S. Amos II, the COO of Aflac, decided to separate marketing and sales into two entities to enable the marketing function to grow and develop into a more sophisticated operation. We've since seen our marketing function develop into a world-class marketing department, and like many companies, decided it was the right time to bring the two back together to benefit the entire company. Combining our marketing and sales capabilities allows us to better link marketing efforts to securing, serving, and retaining customers through our primary distribution channel: our field force of 70,000+ Aflac agents. We believe the two functions are inherently linked and with both teams collaborating and working together as a united front, we'll drive even greater success and provide greater value to our policyholders, accounts and shareholders.

This move has already resulted in positive changes by enabling our product development and strategy teams to work more closely together. As we move forward, we remain laser focused on what will maximize the sales and profitability of our company. To make these two entities work under one roof, I spend a tremendous amount of time with our sales people to understand their perspectives and to align our sales and marketing efforts in a way that sets us up for short- and long-term success.

CS: In 2011, your first full year as the company's CMO, Aflac U.S. saw a 6.8 percent increase in new annualized premium sales. To what do you attribute this success?

MZ: I give much credit to our sales force—our agents and brokers—who are taking the initiative to get out there and personally educate consumers about our products. I also give credit to our marketing team, which provides support to our sales force every step of the way through brand messaging, our famous duck commercials, and more. One of the great things about Aflac is that our team is made up of dedicated people who are passionate about our brand and about helping those in financial need due to medical emergencies. This passion is a major contributor to our success. We continuously seek ways to enhance and improve our offerings to meet customer demand, and we make sure to listen to what our customers have to say so that we can always keep our finger on the pulse of their needs.

CS: Most often customers contact their insurance company when they're already encountering a problem. What is Aflac's strategy to ensure the best experience possible at a time when customers need the company's help?

MZ: We are committed to providing the best customer service to ensure a consistent and positive experience during any and all interactions at Aflac. We aim to educate our customers to be prepared for the unexpected; we know that they often contact us when they're facing a health crisis. Medical bills can add up quickly, so we make sure to pay claims fairly, promptly, and directly to our customers so they can use those funds as they see fit. We made a promise to our customers to be there when they need us most. We take their concerns to heart during times of need. We realize that stress is heightened during medical emergencies, and we strive to make sure their experience with us puts them at ease. Our mission is to provide a safety net of cash benefits to help with out-of-pocket expenses not covered by major medical so that policyholders can focus on their recovery, not financial stress. We will continue to focus our efforts on achieving unmatched customer service experiences for our policyholders.

CS: It is at times difficult for customers to fully understand insurance policies and what they're entitled to. How does Aflac make sure that it delivers the right message to customers?

MZ: Delivering the right message to our customers starts internally. We make sure our sales force understands our insurance policies and is able to simplify the information and clearly relay it to consumers and business decision-makers so that they fully understand their options. It will help customers make informed benefits decisions that best suit them and their families' needs.

Aflac is committed to providing customers with precisely what they need. This mission led to the development of the Aflac WorkForces Report, an annual employee benefits study of both American workers and business decision-makers that examines the forces impacting the trends, attitudes, and utilization of employee benefits. We share the study's top findings with our agents, brokers, and customers to help business decision-makers reconcile the perceptions and realities of benefits in the workplace. By doing so, we help businesses make better informed decisions and offer enhanced benefits solutions that protect one of our greatest assets—a healthy, engaged, and productive workforce, while also protecting businesses' bottom line.

But we don't stop there. We actively educate the public on all aspects of health insurance: making the right decisions during open enrollment, taking full advantage of flexible spending accounts (FSAs), and taking advantage of employee wellness programs through all channels, including personal interactions. Our goal is to arm not only our customers, but everyone, with the knowledge they need to make the best possible benefits decisions.

CS: The Aflac duck is synonymous with the organization. What does it represent and how are you using it to market Aflac?

MZ: The Aflac duck is a marketing icon and has definitely done great things for us as a face for this company. Thanks to the duck, nine out of 10 people in the United States know the Aflac name. Now we are beginning to see the shift of the duck to representing more than just the Aflac name and helping people understand what we do. Just know that the duck is here to stay and will forever be the top dog—or should we say top duck—at Aflac.