How New York Life’s IT chief is helping sales and marketing navigate a post-COVID-19 world

Team hand shake over network.

Dave Castellani was so passionate about eliminating the walls between IT and the rest of the business that when he took over the technology function at New York Life in 2013, he shunned the CIO officer title in favor of branding himself as business information officer.

“What it says to everyone is, ‘Don’t tell me your technology needs. Describe to me your business problems,’” Castellani says. “Technology for technology’s sake isn’t all that interesting. Helping businesspeople solve problems is what gets me excited.”

That has been particularly beneficial while working with marketing and sales to advance the life insurance company’s digital strategy. Over the past several years, Castellani has overseen the formation of agile, self-directed, cross-functional execution teams of technologists and marketing experts. And with co-head of marketing Amy Hu, a performance marketer who joined New York Life a year ago, Castellani has been working to build a more data-driven marketing practice at the 175-year-old insurer.

“In the areas where we have been most productive, you’d be hard-pressed to tell me who the tech person is versus the businessperson,” Castellani says. “That puts me in an empowered position to help the businessperson who is fighting fires.”

That collaborative foundation has proved critical to New York Life’s ability to navigate the fundamental shift brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the company introduced new approaches to the way the business has traditionally worked.

“This is a moment in time where [organizations] have to totally rethink their process and strategy,” Castellani says. “Sales and marketing will be significantly challenged and tested in the post-COVID world. Adaptation — and, in some cases, wholesale changes — to the way companies operate may be required.”

Fighting fires and solving problems

Sales leadership at New York Life acted quickly when the world went into lockdown earlier this year. Previously, sales professionals would typically rely on face-to-face interactions to meet with prospective clients and pursue new business opportunities. Now, and for the foreseeable future, they have to engage and build relationships almost entirely via digital channels.

“That’s where a good technology-business partnership comes through with ideas and solutions,” Castellani says. “Arming your sales force with written material to take in front of the client to use in presentation form is not going to work in a world of social distancing. If we’re having a Zoom conversation and I throw up a dense PowerPoint deck, I will completely lose you.”

That is why just throwing new technology at sales and marketing isn’t enough.

“You can’t just digitize things and think you’ve solved your problems,” Castellani adds. “You need [to rethink] processes and new engagement models and then apply digital tools to solve the problem.”

Among the technologies New York Life is exploring are artificial intelligence (AI) to measure engagement during digital sales interactions, and augmented reality (AR) to create new customer experiences. Castellani’s organizations had looked at AR in the past, he says, but never found a good business application for it until COVID-19 happened.

“We offer long-lasting financial products to consumers, and that lends itself best to face-to-face meetings,” Castellani explains. “If you can no longer do that, we have to replicate that experience with the next best thing.”

To do that, he has assigned a small cross-functional team with a track record of innovation from marketing, sales, and IT to evaluate the technologies available. They’ve been looking for inspiration at what some of the earliest adopters of AR— manufacturing companies–have accomplished with the technology.

“If we keep waiting, we’re never going to learn,” Castellani says. “We take this on while our sales leaders fight the fight, and we’ll give them a set of recommendations.”

The need for speed

The COVID-19 crisis also has placed new pressures on marketing to create compelling materials with fewer words, more engaging graphics, and interactive content.

“Marketing has to be integrated into this plan. Sales cannot run off and design something without having marketing involved, and marketing can’t do that without technology,” Castellani says. “Those three groups [IT, marketing and sales] come together to make this work.”

Castellani and Hu are focused on virtualizing the work that financial professionals have always done in person using virtual seminar software.

“We worked with tech partners in the selection of the right vendor, the right functionality, and reworking the intake and lead management processes,” Hu says. “It’s been a really well-orchestrated process between technology and marketing teams and our financial professionals to make this all happen. We’ve been able to react to this in a matter of months because those relationships, the infrastructure, and the governance were already established.”

Castellani says his role is to enable marketing to seize those opportunities in a way that is reliable, safe, secure, and scalable.

“That’s technology’s domain,” Castellani says. “And the more tech people [Hu] has on her side, the better her [marketing solutions] will be.”

A way forward

For New York Life, the next challenge is helping financial professionals better connect with customers through a strong online presence, which means tweaking content marketing strategy for the digital world and virtual prospecting.

“We’re helping [our financial professionals] refine their websites, maximize their social media positioning, and optimize their SEO, and giving them strong content that will enable the dialogue that otherwise would be face-to-face,” Hu says.

While strong digital marketing brands offer plenty of best practices, much of the work New York Life does for its financial professionals and their customers is “incredibly bespoke,” Hu says, noting that the company has 12,000 financial professionals to serve.

“Everything we do is incredibly individualized, so we have to chart our course with that view in mind,” she says. “We have to do this at scale but also in a way that is personalized because that’s always been our competitive differentiation.”

And as the marketing, sales, and technology organizations have themselves been working remotely, there will continue to be more work to do to make sure they can maintain the partnerships initially forged in physical proximity.

“I’m pleased with how well work-from-home has gone and the relationships we continue to maintain in this new virtual world,” Hu says. “It can still happen. It just takes a bit more effort.”

That illustrates how digital technology can enable the kind of meaningful connections Hu and Castellani want to facilitate between the company’s financial professionals and consumers.

“There are a lot of parallels between how we’ve operated and what we can do to enable our financial professionals to build relationships with consumers,” Hu says. “It requires a good foundation of tools that allows for human conversations to emerge. That’s the goal for ourselves, for our financial professionals, and for the consumers we serve.”

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