When we catch up with Nellie Chan, Director of Customer Solutions at Google Hong Kong, she kindly agrees to meet with us while in the midst of ‘Baby Bonding’ leave following the adoption of her second child. While most new parents have a fraught and exhausted look about them, she is fresh and eager to talk, reassuring us that this isn’t her first rodeo – and her new little one is already sleeping well through the night.
This is one of the first indicators that Chan takes a magnanimous and organised approach to life – a trait that has seen her champion the benefits of digitised services throughout her two-decades-long career, despite the reticence of unconverted legacy corporation bosses of the early days.
Today, she is the Director for Google’s Customer Solution business and her remit is managing Hong Kong’s market. Google Customer Solution falls under the tech giant’s ad business and the role requires Chan and her team of account managers to work with a wide spectrum of businesses, both large and small. They provide consulting and solution services to help businesses grow both locally and internationally through leveraging Google’s cutting-edge technologies.
Tell us about your career journey and how you ended up at Google.
So, if I were to reflect on my career, it all began in the traditional media industry. I started out working for the South China Morning Post, a major local newspaper, back in the days when websites weren’t even a thing yet. It feels like a lifetime ago. What stands out for me is the incredible journey I’ve had witnessing the evolution from a print-dominated world to the dynamic digital landscape. The pace of innovation, especially in the media sector, has been mind-boggling.
Around 15 years ago, I made a rather bold move. It wasn’t the norm back then for people to jump into the digital realm. Digital was still in its infancy, and the effort required to make an impact was substantial. Despite being part of the underdog digital teams in various companies, it provided me with the chance to work with significant corporations and spearhead digital initiatives within them. Starting with the Financial Times, where I built the digital business for the FT Chinese and FT Asia platforms, to Wall Street Journal and other ventures, I had the unique experience of launching startup-like projects within established organisations.
The challenges were immense. Convincing companies to invest in a digital venture wasn’t always straightforward, even with the support of a larger entity. This journey not only helped me comprehend the intricacies of the digital world but also equipped me with resilience and foresight for the challenges we face today. While digital has become the norm for many businesses, the reality is that companies are still grappling with the ongoing process of digital transformation. Over two decades later, it’s still a prevalent topic. My background not only positions me to understand these challenges but, with Google’s resources and solutions, to assist companies in navigating the complex terrain of digital transformation. It’s not about providing a bulletproof solution, but rather sharing experiences and insights to help ease the journey for others.
You have an incredible reputation in the marketplace for smart and fast business-building. What strategies drive the successful projects you’ve undertaken?
In my experience, working across different large organisations demands a nuanced approach. The key is alignment—from the top-tier executives to the frontline staff, everyone needs to buy into the mission and vision. Securing resources from the top requires influencing and ensuring that the C-level understands the impact you aim to make, not just in terms of immediate revenue but in driving meaningful change.
However, the bottom is where the real action happens. Implementing changes and navigating the challenges of rapid growth relies heavily on the dedication and understanding of the people in the field. It’s not just about hitting revenue targets for the quarter; it’s about inspiring belief in the broader mission. In a fast-paced, evolving business environment, structure is often lacking. That’s where the people on the ground come in—they need to comprehend the vision and find ways to make it a reality.
Hiring smart people is crucial. No one person can figure out everything, especially in an environment where innovation and adaptability are key. The team needs to be on board with the ultimate vision, and that involves them understanding the end goal. Smart people will not only contribute to problem-solving but also come up with ways to realise the overarching vision.
While challenges and struggles are inevitable, having a clear vision keeps the team focused. Knowing that every obstacle leads toward a greater goal makes the journey worthwhile. It’s about persevering through the challenges, confident that reaching the envisioned destination will make the effort and trials meaningful. In the end, it’s the shared understanding of the ultimate objective that keeps the team motivated and propels the business forward.
Asia’s marketplace is incredibly diverse. How have events since 2020 impacted growth in business across the region – and how are these challenges being addressed?
Currently, when we look at the macroeconomic landscape, it’s undeniably challenging. This perspective isn’t unique to me or Google; it’s the stark reality. In the interconnected world we live in today, running a successful business involves considering far more than just the local market dynamics. Geopolitics now has a profound influence on virtually any business, and this holds true not just for us but for businesses across the board.
Taking an Asia-centric view, despite the challenges, there’s a notable growth phase in many developing pockets. Asia Pacific, in particular, stands out as a region with significant growth potential. In my role at Google, focusing primarily on Hong Kong, I witnessed this growth firsthand. The Asia Pacific markets are still relatively developing compared to mature markets like Europe or the U.S. There’s substantial growth, especially within the region itself.
Zooming into Hong Kong, the government is actively supporting the domestic consumption economy. From my vantage point, having worked in the region for years, the finance category holds foundational strength for Hong Kong. As an international finance centre, Hong Kong has the infrastructure and potential for growth in the FinTech industry. Despite the challenges faced by the finance sector, ranging from crypto issues to market fluctuations, the long-term outlook remains positive. Financial services continue to be a significant contributor to Hong Kong’s GDP, showcasing the enduring strength of the industry.
Looking ahead, with government support and advancements in financial technology, I see the finance sector in Hong Kong thriving. From Google’s standpoint, the tools and solutions we offer aim to contribute to the growth and success of our partners and clients in this sector. While challenges persist, the finance sector, given its foundational role and the collaborative efforts in place, is poised to weather the storms and continue thriving in the long run.
How do you see the Insurtech industry within all this? Is there a significant amount of development and opportunity?
While I might not consider myself an expert in Insurtech, I’ve had the opportunity to work with both Insurtech startups and traditional insurance companies, offering a unique perspective. What stands out with Insurtech companies, especially those licensed in Hong Kong, is their startup-driven nature. Being founded by entrepreneurs, these startups are incredibly agile, able to pivot strategies and test new approaches rapidly. This flexibility is a stark contrast to the more established and slower-moving traditional insurance giants.
In the initial stages, Insurtech startups, fueled by funding, focus heavily on customer acquisition—a critical aspect we closely collaborate on. However, over the last 18 months or so, there has been a noticeable shift. As they mature, startups, under pressure from investors, start prioritising margins over rapid growth. This shift poses a challenge—maintaining growth momentum while addressing the increasing demand for profitability. Google plays a crucial role in assisting these companies in finding that delicate balance.
On the flip side, traditional insurance companies, especially in markets like Hong Kong, have historically been people-centric businesses. They heavily rely on field sales agents for customer interactions. Interestingly, customers often follow the agent rather than the insurance company itself. This dynamic creates challenges, especially when agents switch companies, prompting customers to reconsider their plans. Traditional insurers are grappling with this and are increasingly recognising the need to build stronger direct relationships with customers, shifting focus from agent-centric to brand-centric approaches.
It’s a fascinating landscape where the agility of startups and the deep-rooted industry presence of traditional players intersect. Bridging these worlds and addressing the evolving needs of both sides is where the real challenge and innovation lie, and it’s an arena where Google aims to make a significant impact.
From your perspective, how is digital transformation developing – and are traditional insurers making good progress?
Yes. We’re deeply engaged with traditional insurance companies to help them redefine their relationships with their brands. Many of them are rolling out various engagement initiatives, such as simple yet effective apps, to offer services that build loyalty. The key understanding here is that in the insurance business, the lifetime value of a client is substantial, provided they stay due to a positive brand experience. This is a crucial aspect we’re actively working on with traditional insurance partners.
In the quest for enhanced customer engagement and loyalty, traditional insurers are rapidly adopting digital strategies. The pressure on margins is a common challenge across industries, and insurance is no exception. Hence, these companies are increasingly leveraging digital automation, AI, and other technologies to enhance efficiency. It’s a visible shift from the traditional paper-driven operational models to more tech-savvy approaches.
For instance, many insurance agents are transitioning from printing decks of proposals to utilising smart devices like tablets for client interactions. Facilitating this shift and helping them embrace a more digital future is an area where Google is actively involved. Understanding consumer behaviour is a critical component of this transformation. The younger generation, including Gen Z, operates differently. They seek empowerment in decision-making and prefer to find answers on their own rather than having products pitched to them. Google’s strength in understanding consumer behaviour becomes invaluable in assisting insurance companies in adapting to these changing dynamics.
So, the landscape is evolving not just in terms of technology adoption but also in aligning with the preferences and behaviours of the newer generations. It’s an exciting journey of transformation and adaptation that we are deeply involved in with our insurance clients.
The protection of data has never been so critical. What’s Google’s strategy on this, especially in light of increased cyber threats and data breaches?
Privacy is a top priority for Google, and it’s something we take great pride in. When working with clients, a significant part of our role is helping them understand how Google approaches and handles privacy, especially considering the vast amount of data we deal with. We aim to impart this understanding to our clients, emphasising the importance of safeguarding customer data and ensuring privacy.
Given the evolving landscape, we’ve been actively promoting the value of first-party data. For insurance companies, building trust with customers is crucial when collecting and utilising their data. We work closely with our clients to guide them on how to effectively gather first-party data and establish a trustworthy relationship with their customers.
On the marketing front, the reliance on third-party data has been a common practice, but the industry is shifting. Recognising this trend, we’ve been engaging in conversations with our clients for years, preparing them for the impending changes. The transition to prioritising first-party data collection can be a challenging process, especially for well-established companies with decades of history. It requires a holistic approach, and our Google Cloud team collaborates with them to rethink how they handle data more comprehensively.
Leveraging our experience, we guide them on creating a solid foundation for handling data, emphasising not only the technical aspects but also the critical element of building trust with customers. It’s about instilling confidence in customers that their data is handled responsibly and ethically. This approach aligns with our commitment to privacy and ensures that our clients are well-prepared for the future data landscape.
Pivoting a little, you have the reputation for championing female opportunities and leadership in the technology space. Can you tell us more about that and why its so important to you?
A little about me – my background includes earning a degree, though I never went through the conventional university route. I’ve always championed the idea that success isn’t tied to your starting point; it’s about the progress and the journey you take to get there. I may not be the only one at Google without a traditional university degree, but one crucial thing about Google is that talent is highly valued, regardless of the university you graduated from.
I’m passionate about sharing this message, especially with aspiring female leaders. I want them to know that their success isn’t defined by where they begin but by the strides they make. It’s a message that goes beyond academic backgrounds and emphasises the importance of individual progress.
Being an Asian woman in the tech industry, particularly working for a US tech company, can sometimes make you feel disadvantaged, especially when English isn’t your first language. I speak Cantonese. It’s crucial for us to be confident in expressing ourselves. I always tell people that confidence doesn’t require complex language. Using simple words to effectively convey your message is what matters most.
I find it important to continue sharing this message with other female leaders or potential leaders – that confidence is key. Don’t be disheartened because you didn’t graduate from a certain university, English isn’t your first language, or your presentation style may differ. What truly matters is what you can deliver. I appreciate that at Google, my leadership team values this perspective. In some companies, lacking diverse leadership could hinder individual development, leading to misconceptions about communication abilities. Here at Google, inclusivity is a core value. They understand that I may not speak English perfectly, but they appreciate the effort.
So, for any female leader aspiring to build a career in a large or global organisation, remember that language is just one part of the equation. There are now many technologies that can assist you. It’s about what you bring to the table and how you make use of the available tools.
If you could address one major problem within the insurance business today through the simple click of a button, what would it be, and why?
Imagine if it were as simple as clicking a button! For me, it would be solving first-party data issues. While suggesting that clients focus on this might sound straightforward, the reality is that delving into legacy systems and structures poses significant challenges.
Convincing the entire organisation to embrace this concept is no small feat. If only we had that magical button, right? A unanimous agreement, and voila! But it’s not about selling the idea; it’s about executing it, and that’s where the real challenge lies. Many companies struggle with the execution, grappling with competition in the market, especially from more agile, younger companies. So, a button to address all these challenges? Count me in!
Finally, what inspires you in Insurtech today?
Making a real impact on individuals is something I can genuinely feel, especially in my current role where my team and I collaborate with numerous smaller businesses. The past few years, especially during the challenges brought about by COVID, have been a testament to how these businesses grapple with the unknown. It’s incredibly rewarding to help them leverage Google’s insights, data, and solutions to pivot their strategies, enabling them not just to survive but to thrive and grow.
In particular, working closely with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) has allowed me to witness the direct impact on these businesses. Imagine a small business, perhaps with 20 employees or fewer, not having to lay off anyone because they found innovative ways to navigate uncertainties? The ripple effect is profound – it’s not just about the survival of that one company; it’s about preserving jobs and livelihoods.
I find great satisfaction in helping SMEs tap into insights they might not have had access to before. Many small businesses face a lack of information to make informed decisions, especially when dealing with unprecedented challenges. Being able to guide them through these uncertainties and witness their appreciation for the support is truly inspiring.
This experience has become a driving force for me. Knowing that my work contributes to the success and resilience of these smaller businesses is a daily inspiration. It’s a reminder of the tangible impact we can have on people’s lives and the livelihoods of those employed by these businesses. And that, to me, is a source of motivation that fuels my commitment to this work every single day.
Join Google Leaders in Hong Kong at Insurtech Insights Asia, 2023
Leaders from Google will be speaking at the Insurtech Insights Asia 2023 conference, at the Kerry Hotel on December 6th and 7th.
Ken Zhang, Head of Security Greater China, will be a panelist in the session entitled: “Growing Urgency of Cybersecurity: Digital Risks Lanfscape in Insurance”.
Saron Leung, Industry Head, FinTech & Financial Services, will also be taking to the stage as a panellist on the session: “AI and CX Synergy: Redefining Insurance for Unforgettable Customer Journeys”.
And Sanhitha Seerapu, Principal Architect, Insurance Industry Solutions Lead, will be taking part in the panel session: “From Protect to Prevent: Rethinking the Claims Value Journey”
For more information on speaker opportunities, events, sponsorships and tickets for the upcoming Insurtech Insights Asia 2023 conference, visit here
Interview by Joanna England
Joanna England is an award-winning journalist and the Editor-in-Chief for Insurtech Insights. She has worked for 25 years in both the consumer and business space, and also spent 15 years in the Middle East, on national newspapers as well as leading events and lifestyle publications. Prior to Insurtech Insights, Joanna was the Editor-in-Chief for Fintech Magazine and Insurtech Digital. She was also listed by MPVR as one of the Top 30 journalist in Fintech and Insurtech in 2023.