Sonia Notani is a founder member at IndiaFirst Life, with wide-ranging expertise in the BFSI space. In her decade-long stint at IndiaFirst Life, she has handled a well-rounded portfolio across functions and verticals. Currently, she spearheads the company’s Marketing, Products, Customer Experience, PR, Strategic Alliances, Direct & Digital Sales functions. As a thought leader, Sonia continues to carry the “forthright substance” baton through her enthusiastic participation in panel discussions and authored pieces, to be part of a dialogue-based ecosystem while raising awareness around life insurance as an essential risk protection tool.
IndiaFirst Life Insurance began its operations in November 2009 as the 23rd entrant in the life insurance market in India where one company is the well-known, household brand LIC, which is publicly owned. The same year, Sonia Notani joined IndiaFirst Life as its eighth employee. Now the Chief Marketing Officer of IndiaFirst Life, she handles a wide range of functions such as Marketing and PR, Products, Customer Experience, Strategic Alliances and Direct and Digital Sales. “It has been fascinating and fulfilling to launch a whole range of products across multiple channels besides a multitude of brand awareness campaigns that bring a paradigm shift from ‘fear to confidence’ in the conversation. It certainly has been a decade of many Firsts!” says Sonia.
As a founder-member of IndiaFirst Life, Sonia started on a clean slate. She led her team and ventured along with them into unchartered territories, with award-winning outcomes. Sonia recalls, “Back then, the entire set-up was like a start-up – a lot of scope to experiment new ideas, limited resources yet so much space and acceptance for innovation, with employees enthused and driven with a purpose to make IndiaFirst Life a preferred insurance company in India.” Headquartered in Mumbai with a paid-up share capital of Rs. 663 Crores, IndiaFirst Life ranks 12th in the private sector in Individual NB APE for FY 2020.
“We were keen to make ‘Insurance for All’ a sustainable reality. To do that, we had to quickly ramp up and build critical mass to ensure operational efficiency and economies of scale,” shares Sonia. The company had the advantage of not having legacy systems pulling them down. It could adapt to a lean and agile way of working, leveraging technology and offering simple products and solutions across touchpoints of sales and service. “From setting up the founding processes to balancing innovative thinking with business decisions that are profitable and scalable, while creating value for every stakeholder including our distributors, shareholders, employees and most importantly customers, the focus has always been on delivering an optimum outcome,” adds Sonia.
Scaling New Heights
In the beginning, IndiaFirst Life had the privilege of an illustrious parentage which included two eminent banks – Bank of Baroda and Andhra Bank (now, Union Bank of India) – and access to promote insurance to their customers. “We, however, needed to gear up and provide best in class, value-adding products to these customers. We needed to scale quickly, gain critical mass, enable economies of scale and become relevant in a market with dominant players who had been there for over a decade,” says Sonia.
The critical challenges for Sonia and her team started at brand recognition and recall, as they had limited marketing budgets for a small company. Sonia remembers, “We did a lot of focused marketing to our customers who visited bank branches and ensured brand recall. We launched need-based products that the customer understood.” Further, the company moved applications quickly and cut down operations costs by focusing on digital processing of applications while reducing any physical branches or infrastructure. “At that time, each salesperson was like a mobile branch. We enabled self-service and centralised operations to support customers wherever they are. We broke even in 5 full years of operation, and then focused on retail growth and rose through the ranks!” states Sonia.
IndiaFirst Life has come a long way and has had a fantastic journey. The company is now ranked in the top 10 private insurers in terms of gross new business premium and the top 12 private insurers in terms of retail new business premium. Sonia claims, “Our retail CAGR in last five years is around 40 per cent, and we continue with the same fervour and passion, to make a difference while keeping the CustomerFirst!”
The Success of the Customer First Approach
While the category narrative in insurance always plays on fear, IndiaFirst Life took the most off-beat approach ever made by an insurance company. “We simply decided to, ‘Talk Life, Not death.’ From here was born the brand campaign, ‘Because Life is Full of Certainties,’ which reflects in our communication across Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and our website,” says Sonia.
Today, the product portfolio of IndiaFirst Life is enabled to cater to the needs of every customer segment from wealth accumulation to retirement planning to even assurance of returns in current challenging times. “We put our ‘CustomerFirst’ not just in beliefs but also in practice. Our underlying principle is to have products, which can be customised to suit the needs of all type of customers. Such customisation has not just benefitted our customers but has also made selling simpler for our distributors as our products slowly progress towards pull purchase,” opines Sonia. Today, IndiaFirst Life offers 34 products to its customers that include 22 individual plans and 12 group plans. The company also intends to continue providing relevant, need-based and feature-laden products to our stakeholders even in the times to come.
IndiaFirst Life can service customer requests through traditional as well as digital touchpoints, such as intelligent IVR, Chatbots, WhatsApp and Mobile Apps. “We have capabilities to integrate and interact with different ecosystems based on business and data needs. Our infrastructure and system architecture are based on microservices. It provides reusability and flexibility to integrate and scale on-demand,” shares Sonia. With the help of technology and advanced customer analytics, IndiaFirst Life offers customised services, that too in a preferred mode of delivery. The company is also able to optimise communication for precise messaging and are moving towards multi-lingual conversations as well.
Fighting the Pandemic
As India fights back COVID-19 through government-run measures and with the support of citizens of India, IndiaFirst Life ensures the safety of its employees and customers. The #CustomerFirst and #EmployeeFirst ideologies, together, form the nucleus of IndiaFirst Life Insurance. “In testing times like these, the safety and well-being of our customers and employees is our top priority. We have moved to a complete Work from Home (WFH) policy, yet we are fully operational and serving our customers across channels electronically and digitally,” pinpoints Sonia. The infrastructure readiness coupled with the adoption of some of the best industry practices enabled IndiaFirst Life to take proactive measures at the right time.
“I connect with my team regularly via digital mediums. We do weekly meetings like we used to. Nothing has changed much except that the presence is digital instead of physical. We are in the business of protecting people. We cannot rest; the business must go on,” opines Sonia. The teams at IndiaFirst Life are confident of complete support from the organisation to keep their well-being as a priority. The same trust is passed on by every employee to the customer directly or indirectly. It spreads a strong message that we are all in this together!
“During the COVID-19 phase, we have set-up processes to enable faster claim settlements electronically, especially in the affected areas. Our official website is updated with information related to arrangements made for alternate modes to pay premiums, renew policies, settle claims, and lodge requests among others regularly,” says Sonia. Now, IndiaFirst Life is communicating regular updates to customers and policyholders via e-mails, SMSs, and calls (if necessary). The company is also urging its customers to use the self-service options and digital modes – IVR, Chatbot IRIS, WhatsApp Bot, Customer Portal, Pull SMS – to their advantage and avoid in-person meetings.
The Cornerstone of Success
Sonia has been brought up in a way where she was taught to believe in herself. Born and raised in Mumbai, she was always free to make her own choices that were also respected by her family. That also meant that Sonia was responsible for the consequences – good or bad. She understood the concept of risk and reward, along with complete accountability, early in life. Sonia says, “Education has always been crucial in our family – no compromises there. I have always been ambitious and wanted to make a difference.”
Sonia desired not just an excellent education but a good institute that could foster her abilities. So, she chose to pursue a Bachelor’s in Economics from St. Xavier’s College. This experience was central in shaping a large part of her personality as it gave her tremendous exposure to different possible vocations. “The college made me strong and taught me humility. As I started to understand the world a little better, I realised that to make a difference, one must stay relevant. High on ambition and keen to make a difference, I chose to do an MBA from NMIMS,” shares Sonia.
While Sonia had the ammunition of academic degrees from credible and reputed institutions that paved her future course, she has worked hard to reach where she is today. “The best learning through these years included being extremely persistent, agile and hardworking – all leading to my mantra of ‘success favours the prepared mind’!” pinpoints Sonia.
On the other hand, Sonia had the privilege of learning and growing with the company, IndiaFirst Life. “We, naturally, attempted some projects that were ahead of their time, hence had limited success. We also had to let go of a few opportunities while we waited for a more opportune moment to pursue them,” recalls Sonia. Today, if asked to pick and mention her most significant learning, she would say, “to seize opportunities after evaluating the downside.” In most cases, one must take calculated risks and quick actions. Inaction is often a bigger threat than the risk of failure. “We, at IndiaFirst Life, have learned to innovate, move quickly and adapt to change swiftly. This has helped us stay ahead of the curve, rise to the top 10 in gross business and 12th rank in individual APE despite being the 22nd entrant among private-sector insurers,” adds Sonia.
Sonia has been in the workforce for 16 years now. At different stages of her career, there have been quite a few people who have influenced her professionally. However, she believes that one’s professional ethos is usually formed through personal influences. “It may be clichéd, a key influencer has been my mother whose advice to me has been to be responsible for myself – the outcome of all my decisions and choices will be mine – be it good or bad, rich or poor, happy or unhappy! I believe this learning I received at an early age laid the foundation for me to have complete clarity of thought, enabling quick decision making and high accountability,” explains Sonia.
Over the years, Sonia has learned that the right attitude is the single most critical success factor. Knowledge and skills are more external and can be learned formally. However, attitude is a personal choice. “Good attitude exudes through initiative or a “can-do” approach to work, and perseverance. If you have the right attitude to learn, to contribute and to succeed, you do not get constrained by context, function, company, or industry in the longer term,” concludes Sonia.