Insurance is a peculiar business because customers don’t really want it, hence the adage, “insurance is sold, not bought.” As much as she’s a customer, she’s also a counterparty: what’s good for her (a claim) is not good for the company. There’s a zero-sum dynamic to the relationship, which means that the classic Amazon flywheel around customer experience and lower pricing doesn’t work.
This concept got Lemonade tied up in knots this week. In a series of tweets, the company told of how its platform is getting better at “delighting customers”. One way it does this is, “when a user files a claim, they record a video on their phone and explain what happened. Our AI carefully analyses these videos for signs of fraud. It can pick up non-verbal cues that traditional insurers can’t, since they don’t use a digital claims process.”
It seems a strange way to “delight” customers by allowing AI to auto-reject their claims based on how their face looks or their accent sounds. The company realized its (PR) error, deleted the tweets and issued a denial. But this is what happens when your customers and your shareholders start mixing in an industry that doesn’t lend itself very well to that.
Studying successful entrepreneurs is great; I am looking forward to reading Brad Stone’s new book, Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire. But studying unsuccessful ones can be more enlightening. As Charlie Munger says, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.” The trouble is that there are few books written about unsuccessful entrepreneurs. The next best thing is a parliamentary hearing. This week, Lex Greensill, founder of Greensill Capital, appeared in front of the UK House of Commons Treasury Committee to help lawmakers understand what went wrong.
The Chair of the Committee cited the piece Steve Clapham and I wrote back in July last year warning of problems at Greensill. Lex Greensill didn’t confirm if he’d read it but replied that he didn’t become concerned about the position of his business until December. His view is that the failure of his firm rests with the insurance company that denied him cover. He even used the opportunity to give the Committee a recommendation: “…one of the real lessons from the failure of my firm… is that a heavy reliance on trade credit insurance is dangerous. I urge you and the Committee to consider the manner in which that is regulated, because it is fundamentally counter cyclical in its behaviour.”
No surprise that he would deflect. The firm failed because it was riddled with conflicts of interest, carried heavy customer concentrations and grew too fast. The problem with unsuccessful entrepreneurs is that they may be less than honest.
Policymakers are increasingly confronting a new problem, though: the entry of technology companies into financial services throws their trade-off framework off-kilter. There are two issues.
First, financial regulators don’t have jurisdiction over technology companies. They have jurisdiction over their financial activities but not over the companies themselves. At the entry level, this works fine. When a company wants to do payments, they need to get a payments license and when they want to do credit underwriting, they need a credit license.
Sometimes, new entrants skate round these rules. Afterpay in Australia is not regulated as a credit provider since it doesn’t impose a charge for the ability to pay; nor as a payment system since it conducts relationships bilaterally between consumers on the one hand and merchants on the other. In response to impending regulatory scrutiny, the company points out that the major card providers got away with it for 20 years. “The dominant international card payment systems…were launched in Australia in 1984 and were not subject to RBA [Reserve Bank of Australia] regulation until 2004.”