Prudential office in Newark, NJ

How Prudential Built A Data-Driven, Customer-Centric Organization

Rewiring a 144-year-old organization is no easy task. But it’s one that Naveen Agarwal, CMO of Prudential, took on back in 2016, when the company embarked on its digital transformation journey.

From the beginning, Agarwal knew Prudential’s people would be key to his mission.

“The first thing you need to drive is the shift in mindset,” Agarwal said in an exclusive interview with CMO by Adobe. “The customer has to be in the center. It’s not what you do or the products that you build. It’s the needs of the customer becoming the center of everything that you do as an organization. And, frankly, it requires rethinking everything.”

According to Agarwal, the marketing department quickly realized a shift in how it communicates to customers on its website, via e-mail, and by the phone was in order. That, in turn, would require changes in the back-end operations driving all of that connectivity. Bigger picture, it also meant the involvement of multiple teams.

“The only way you can do that is by changing the thinking of each part of the organization so they all can think about customer-centric digital transformation in the same way,” he explained.

Top-Down Approach

Getting an organization that has 50,000 employees globally in alignment required a top-down approach. Agarwal focused on collaborating with executives across the organization who were already driving the company’s larger thinking.

“These business leaders understand that we all have to change together,” Agarwal said. “That clarity of mission is what really propelled us forward and helped us prioritize where we were doing incremental work versus where we were doing transformative work.”

Agarwal’s advice is to start with the business leaders whose roles have the biggest complexities. In his case it was the legal, compliance, and risk teams. Once they were on board, it paved the way for other areas of the business to pivot.  

His second piece of advice for rallying the troops to become more customer-centric. “You've got to lead, and you've got to own it,” he said, suggesting that executives first align on a few small goals. “If you can execute on those, it actually creates a seismic wave across the organization.”

Agarwal also pointed to the reality of introducing any kind of change: About a third of the people in an enterprise will embrace it, another third will resist, and the remaining third will sit on the fence to see where things are going. His advice? Spending time with the nay-sayers is not going to drive value. It’s those sitting on the fence who need to understand the value of being part of the movement. Clear communication is key here, across all of the various business units.

Redefining Culture And Purpose

Earlier this year, Prudential business leaders worked together to define the purpose of the company, and they had an extensive dialogue around how to change the culture of the financial conglomerate.  

Tied to that was strategizing around what the company needed to do in order to set itself up to be relevant in the future. “We are really well-known for our products,” Agarwal said, pointing out that historically, Prudential was seen as an insurance company with an investment management brand called PGIM. But the key to building the company’s future would be ensuring consumers know Prudential as a financial services company that creates financial wellness for people across every life stage

From a marketing perspective, Agarwal said, the mandate became clear: Prudential would need to change its brand perception while retaining the trust it had built over the years. “For us it was really about leveraging that trust to become a modern brand,” he said.

That was the thinking behind LINK by Prudential, an online platform the company launched earlier this year to help people (including its own employees) reach financial wellness. The direct-to-consumer service—which offers an interactive, personalized resource to help identify customers’ most important financial milestones, such as purchasing a house or retiring, and create a path toward achieving them—is a new approach for the company.

Business Intelligence = Marketing Intelligence

Reporting to Agarwal is Hema Widhani, chief customer officer (CCO), who leads a team of individuals—marketers, data scientists, and others—who ensure Prudential understands its customers’ needs. This team relies on massive amounts of data, artificial intelligence, and other technologies to identify what the customer experience should be across all touch points.  

“We’re already using data science in our personalization thinking, in our product design, in terms of how we understand the needs of the customers and think about future solutions,” he said. “And we are doing all of this in an integrated manner. We are using artificial intelligence across a base of 22 million customers to better understand details about their lives and financial needs.”

For example, LINK by Prudential uses AI technology to analyze users’ existing Prudential retirement accounts and outside accounts they’ve identified to help round out their financial wellness road maps.

Prudential also uses machine learning models to better understand the people who buy its life insurance in terms of their individual risks or longevity (how long they will live).

Using data to ensure that Prudential marketing is creating the best outcomes to address the needs of customers is one of Agarwal’s strategic priorities. “Having that integrated technology and data science behind our decision-making really empowers us to create a modern marketing organization,” he said.

Now Agarwal and his team are thinking about ways in which the company can use data so that Prudential doesn’t need to ask the customer the same questions over and over. The experience consumers have is still semi-disjointed, he admitted, but he is optimistic in his team’s ability to make it more seamless across channels, platforms, and devices. 

Customer-Focused Talent

With technology changing so rapidly, staffing this customer team was a bit of a challenge, Agarwal said. Generally speaking, he looks for people who have good technology and marketing understanding, but, crucially, he’s on the lookout for fast learners.

“They must learn the customer, learn the economics, learn the legal, compliance, and regulatory frameworks, and learn what has already been done,” he told CMO by Adobe. “And, essentially, we want people who are very good at making decisions about all the needs the customer has, but also who understand what the primary need and secondary need is.”

Prudential recently set up a team of about 150 people in California who are focused primarily on digital transformation and emerging technologies to ensure the organization is staying on top of technology trends. The customer office under the CCO works closely with these individuals to ensure Prudential is offering the best possible experiences across all channels and technologies.

Last but not least, Agarwal said he is keen on finding people who understand marketing analytics.

Tips For Success

Agarwal had a few tips for business leaders who are currently undergoing change within their organizations. His first piece of advice: You must be agile in the way you tell your story.

“You need to reach as many people as you can, as quickly as you can. Then you have the next few months to see the impact and the things that you want to amplify and things that you don’t want to amplify.”

He also pointed to the “white space” that occurs when a change isn’t thoroughly explained within a company. People tend to fill in the blanks with negativity, he said: “They must be planning something nefarious, right?” His advice to leaders is to be open and honest with employees, instead of leaving parts open to interpretation.

“If you are trying to drive a culture change, be honest about it,” he said. “Own it and be honest. Acknowledge that you need their help and that there will be ambiguity. Just say, ‘We don’t know everything. We will need your help, too,’ and you’ll be surprised by how many people will be right there with you.”

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