7 Questions for The Hartford’s Mark Azzolino on Global Specialty Digital Solutions

Mark Azzolino discusses the evolution of digital distribution and the importance of harnessing data to help make more efficient underwriting decisions.
By: | July 24, 2023

In April, The Hartford announced the creation of a new business unit, Global Specialty Digital Solutions.

The goal of the new unit is to offer specialty insurance products to their retail and wholesale distribution partners and customers in a digitized, end-to-end manner. The team will focus on creating differentiating solutions that drive business through various digital channels of an agent’s choosing. The formation of this team demonstrates The Hartford’s commitment to delivering digital innovation and convenience to agents, brokers and customers in the specialty insurance space.

In early June, Dan Reynolds, the editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance, caught up with the head of Global Specialty Digital Solutions, Mark Azzolino, in an effort to understand more about this new initiative. What follows is a transcript of that discussion, edited for length and clarity.

Risk & Insurance: Congratulations on the new position, Mark. Care to tell us more about it?

Mark Azzolino: I’m thrilled to have been asked to take on this challenge here at The Hartford, building out the digital acquisition and service capabilities for our specialty businesses.

I’ve been at The Hartford for 17 years, spending most of my career in our financial lines practice, where I had the opportunity to be involved in some of our early-stage work on specialty digital distribution with our proprietary online agency-facing portal for management liability.

Our distribution partners are looking to be better equipped to offer specialty coverages to their customers and to do it more efficiently. And we want to make sure that we’re operating at the pace of change that the marketplace requires of us for those distribution partners and customers that want to be able to transact business digitally.

In forming this digital solutions business unit, we see the opportunity to coordinate the digital distribution strategies and capabilities across the Global Specialty’s product suite and distribution partners.

One, it helps us align resources to accelerate the pace of change. Two, it gives us the ability to drive consistency in how we operate from a digital perspective and how we continue to iterate on our offerings.

And then third, it affords us the ability to drive the types of changes we may need in our product and underwriting offerings to support more digitally enabled transactions in the future.

As I think about the goals we have, we want agents to be able to access us wherever and whenever they desire. This is critical in our business — agents want the ability to transact digitally while also being able to reach a specialist underwriter for consultation and advice when needed. More than ever, agents and customers need carriers to have advanced digital solutions that accelerate the quoting process and provide efficiency — particularly on lower-complexity business. This requires continuously innovating to create experiences that deliver the speed and ease that agents and brokers are looking for.

We are working closely with our highly capable information technology team, which is expanding the actual foundational capabilities that we need in order to intersect and interact with our distribution partners digitally.

That is really one of our first goals, to deliver on our expansive technology roadmap for digital acquisition. And we’re looking at this a few different ways.

First, this is all about listening to our distribution partners and making sure that we’re delivering products and services through digital means that align with their strategic priorities and the needs of their clients. We will be focused on staying close to our distribution relationships to understand their digital aspirations and capabilities to ensure that we’re aligning our digital capabilities in areas and at a pace that delivers value to our unique customers.

When a broker says to us, “We’re ready to start transacting more business with you digitally,” we will be in a place to deliver quickly with a comprehensive product set and service experiences.

Second, we are focused on delivering industry-leading technology assets for the placement and service of specialty business. This includes the buildout of our proprietary portals, which our agents and brokers can access to submit a specialty piece of business. They can easily go into a portal from The Hartford or Navigators, a brand of The Hartford, and start the submission and quoting effort there.

In addition, we are expanding the specialty products available through APIs. This provides a capability to pass data elements electronically from one source (such as a distribution partner’s technology platform) to our systems to do things like provide appetite information or even a quotation in a matter of seconds. We are expanding our roadmap of APIs so that we can be ready to connect our broad specialty product suite with customers that want to transact business that way.

Finally, the third piece is ensuring that our service capabilities also evolve to support digital engagement — maximizing efficiency without sacrificing quality or the underwriting and product expertise that’s required for specialty insurance. This is a fast-paced environment, and we will need to remain nimble and consistently iterate and improve on our offerings.

For instance, we will be focused on expanding our straight-through processing into other appropriate lines of business, working closely with our product, actuarial and data science partners to think more broadly about those opportunities to leverage automation in a rules-based environment. We currently require little to no underwriter engagement for lines such as management liability, professional liability, and technology errors and omissions, providing a fast and easy experience to brokers.

And it’s not just about the new business buying process. As we add new customers, there will be other transactions that may occur during the policy lifecycle — such as midterm servicing, renewals, billing inquiries and claims — and we are going to make sure we deliver digital components to those transactions as well.

R&I: It sounds like a great undertaking. Just how excited are you to be put in charge of this initiative?

MA: It’s exciting and humbling at the same time.

There is so much that goes into defining what digital means. It could be just a simple process to see whether we have a product for a certain customer, whether we have a product available for them and they fit our appetite, or a more comprehensive service including straight-through processing to an online quote.

There’s so much to consider when defining digital — the technology build and investment as well as the change management required internally and externally as new functionality is launched and processes change. It’s where we know the insurance marketplace is going — there is a lot of investment happening across the industry in the digital space.

So it’s humbling to address all of those different challenges and dynamics. But it’s exciting, too, because it is really helping change the way we work and helping us accelerate the growth of business that’s so critical to The Hartford.

R&I: Is that a big motivator here in terms of what the distribution partners need — that speed, that response, that quick binding or at least some kind of response quickly?

MA: It definitely is. An operating mantra of ours is to meet our distribution partners where they are. I think that’s a key part, too, because not every one of our distribution partners is moving at the same pace on this journey.

We are also focused on “being nimble.” As we hear from a distribution partner that they’re ready to transact digitally, we expect to be able to interface with them in a very short period of time. And as the market, exposures and customer expectations change, we realize the need to be able to move quickly is prominent.

For those distribution partners that might not be all the way there digitally yet, we look forward to sharing best practices with one another, and we still certainly have our more traditional means for accessing and servicing their business. It’s all about providing the right service at the right moment — if agents and brokers want to transact digitally, they should be able to do so, however we are also available when they need us.

R&I: When you look at those portions of the distribution world that are all-in on digital — they get it, they want to go there, they want to go there fast — do you have any idea what percentage of that sector is in an advanced stage of that?

MA: It really varies by the line of insurance, the size of the customer, the complexity of the risk and the type of transactions. In some areas, a majority of the business is supported through digital transactions.

There are some challenges on the path to digitization — things like legacy technology infrastructure or the changing behaviors of customers, distributors and underwriters. The influx of these new technologies in our industry is changing the way we do business and there’s a significant change management component to that.

I think the bigger piece is that awareness of technology can be such an enabler of our distribution partners getting to their customers faster. As time goes on, more insurance buyers will be more comfortable with using digital tools in multiple aspects of the insurance transaction — be it applying for coverage, servicing a policy or submitting a claim.

So, I think that the desire to transition more quickly to digital is there, but the market is at various stages of adoption. And we are going to be well positioned to make these transitions with our distribution partners and customers. The pace of change is only going to increase as additional technology comes into the industry and the expectations of our customers continue to evolve.

R&I: What about product selection? Do you feel the distribution network is happy with what they have? Or are there more products that are needed, and the carriers should develop them as quickly as they can?

MA: Exposures change over time, but I think there’s a satisfaction with the product suite that’s available. I do think there is an opportunity to better provide the level of information about our offerings, where the specialty coverages exist and why they’re needed.

Right now, a lot of our low-complexity risks — financial lines would be an example — are in the digital environment. A broker might ask, “How do we get product lines into this type of a platform for this customer?” So we will be looking at those complementary products where we can make the underwriting and placement process more simplified and digitized.

If we think about today’s specialty insurance marketplace, our agents and brokers provide that consultative service to their clients.

So, how can we bring more of our products and services to them to facilitate that service?

R&I: You’re working with five digital channels currently. Why five?

MA: We’re transacting across five digital channels today because we’ve responded to market opportunity and where we had products aligned with digital distribution. The Hartford is a market leader in small commercial P&C insurance, so we have specialty products embedded into that particular quoting platform.

About 10 years ago, we launched an online portal called The Hartford Pronto that our agents and brokers can access to get management liability coverages. These products were able to be fit into a simplified quoting process and had demand in the marketplace due to the then-recent financial crisis. Our distribution partners told us their clients had more of a need for management liability and were looking for a way to easily offer that coverage in the most efficient way.

Another channel we utilize is APIs, which allow for us to connect different parts of the insurance transaction so that whether it’s a submission or appetite verification, this could be done for multiple product lines. If it’s a straight-through quote online, it might be a slightly more limited number because of the information that might be required to quote.

So again, our current digital footprint, I would say, was more of responding to either a market ask or trying to offer more products through The Hartford’s existing platforms, and our focus going forward is to be even more proactive and innovative in bringing specialty products to the marketplace through technology.

R&I: You’re excited about this new position, but what’s bothering you? What challenges do you face that you need to overcome to succeed in this role?

MA: I definitely wouldn’t say there’s anything bothering me — as I said before, this is a truly dynamic time in our industry and I’m excited to be able to help advance our digital strategies in our Global Specialty business.

That said, like any new opportunity, there are some challenges or changes that come with it. For one, technology is advancing so quickly, and the market is moving very rapidly — so we have to be smart in the capabilities we bring online and maintain our agility to be able to pivot our digital agenda to leverage new opportunities as they appear.

In addition, we’ll need to make sure we’re aligning the right resources — whether that’s product development, underwriting, data science, operations — to support our digital business, drive efficiency in lower-complexity risks and quickly respond to trends we’re seeing and growth opportunities that we want to capture.

And I mentioned before that the increase in digital capabilities will change how we distribute, underwrite and service some of our business.

These are changes that will result in a more efficient operating environment for my colleagues, our distribution partners and our customers — but I’m mindful of how we support the change management activities across the value chain.

We operate in a competitive marketplace and the influx of digital capabilities into this space is only going to further the competitive dynamics. The Hartford is a specialty carrier of choice for our distribution partners and their customers, and I’m confident that we will strengthen our position as we deliver more of our specialty products and services through highly efficient, digital environments.

It’s a unique time and I’m appreciative of the chance to help guide the specialty businesses at The Hartford through this journey alongside my teammates across our organization. &

Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected].