In Conversation with Narendra Ganpule, Digital and Strategy Advisor on impact of Nudges

Narendra Ganpule on data-driven nudges

With a two-decade-long career spanning banking, insurance and consulting, Narendra has anchored several large-scale digital transformation programs as a consultant and as a practitioner. He is deeply interested in Behavior Economics and pioneered nudge deployment at a leading life insurance company in India. He shares his experience with Anant Sood, diving into the relevance and effectiveness of data-driven nudges to shape behavior and boost the productivity of sales reps in the BFSI sector.

 A: What was your first experience with neuroeconomics and more specifically with the concept of nudging?

N: I had read Richard Thaler’s book Nudge. And after he was awarded the Nobel, the idea (of Neuroeconomics) became much more popular.

I predominantly operate in the BFSI industry, either as a practitioner or as an advisor, which has highly competitive products. A lot of these are commoditized products. Most of the feet on street work as part-timers – in the credit card industry, the loans industry, or in insurance. This means that motivating the sales guys on a continuous basis is a permanent struggle. Age-old techniques like the morning huddle etc. ultimately have scale limitations to it.

Now that we’ve started capturing data in a much more robust fashion as an industry, there is the power to leverage that data in a manner that benefits the organization. And that’s when the idea of automated data-driven nudges really came to my mind. Nudges and the behavioral aspect of it occurred to me as a powerful tool to motivate and direct the front-line salesforce in a more effective manner.

Nudges and the behavioral aspect of it are a powerful tool to motivate and direct the front-line salesforce effectively.

A: What have been some of your learnings from this? Do share some examples of what you’ve tried, what worked and what didn’t.

N: The concept is reasonably commonsensical. But the learning really came when we saw it being translated into practice. Most of my learnings were around what the nudge should be, when it should be given and how much should be given in order for it to be most effective.

In the largely physical world, (that’s about 10 years ago or so) while managing the salesforce, I discovered that the best day to give nudges was Wednesday; that is to say, the best time to do those weekly sales meetings was the middle of the week.

Effective sales reps spent Monday and Tuesday pursuing their own to-do list, based on their experience and assessment of the previous week and where they needed to push further. And actually, those things help a person to do those right behaviors on a Monday and Tuesday. And then when has checked off his bunch of to-dos, that’s the time when he needs another nudge.

Basically, any push or nudge that we give has a certain impact for a certain period. It doesn’t have an infinite impact.

A: Based on the data of about 60-70,000 salespeople, we see the ephemeral nature of the nudge, too.  worxogo’s behavior lab has found that salespeople who are high achievers consistently are usually early starters and their responsiveness to a nudge is the best mid-week. Glad to hear the same from a practitioner’s point of view!

N: Absolutely. And that was my starting hypothesis when I looked at nudging in the digital world, and surprisingly, I found a similar pattern. That nudges at a particular time, like the middle of the week, actually work better.

Fundamentally the human mind doesn’t change how it operates based on whether the nudge comes from a physical person or a digital identity. Of course, the refinement of nudges in a digital world is far superior and a force multiplier.

The refinement of nudges in a digital world is far superior and a force multiplier.


A: How has the focus on sales employees been changing over the years, with special reference to the insurance industry?

N: Firstly, one needs to look at insurance in two buckets – life insurance and non-life insurance. Non-life insurance is typically non-discretionary, while life insurance is a discretionary product. You have no choice about buying motor insurance if your car is on the road, or property insurance if you have set up a factor or marine insurance if you’re sending a shipment.

On the other hand, life insurance (and to a certain extent health insurance) is a discretionary spend. Many of us don’t think life insurance is essential. Covid has given a shot in the arm to life and health insurance, though. But that’s where you really have to drive people to do the sales activity.

Life insurance also has a very long sales cycle. One, the ticket size is reasonably large. Two, the duration of the product is pretty long in nature – about a 15-25 year-long policy. Which means a person has to apply himself or herself before making a decision. And third, it’s a product that is not standardized when it comes to features.

With the additional requirement of medical tests, the entire value chain has several breakpoints throughout the journey.

So, any company needs to support its sales guys, coaching them to go after the leads that have the best likelihood of closing faster and converting faster. It could be simple tips or complex guidance, but people need to be coached so that their conversion funnel looks better.

It could be simple tips or complex guidance, but people need to be coached so that their conversion funnel looks better.

From the insurance standpoint (life and health insurance), there is a huge utility to use nudges to great advantage.

A: How do you think firms can and are already employing technology to boost the productivity of their sales employees?

N: Over the last four years or so, everything has moved to digital. In-person morning huddles have started getting replaced with digital formats, and today, there is just no physical contact. Most of the sales happen through a sales app. Even the sale of a product where the customer is paying a premium of Rs.100,000 every year for the next 10-15 years is being closed over a Zoom call or a WhatsApp call.

From that standpoint, having the nudges coach me as to which prospect should I pursue becomes very essential.

The other aspect, and this is true not just sales employees but also non-sales employees – since everybody is working remotely from their respective homes, the role of the supervisor is getting challenged. Earlier, when a person would work from an office, there would be a supervisor supervising his or her work. Now there is no scope for supervision, in the traditional sense of the word. Whatever supervision and thereby nudging needs to happen, can happen through data, through my behavior, through my work patterns. So, the question is, “Can a digital identity become my manager, coaching me, guiding me, nudging me so I can do my work effectively?” That’s how I’m future-gazing it.

“Can a digital identity become my manager, coaching me, guiding me, nudging me so I can do my work effectively?” 

However, the role of coaching and mentoring isn’t going anywhere. So perhaps the traditional role of supervising and managing will give way to a hybrid model at some stage.

A: That’s a very provocative statement! But, yes, we will start seeing a lot of reinvention around the role – so a manager is less of an aggregator but actually adds value to the team.

N: Yes absolutely. Everyone needs to add value rather than just playing an aggregator role. And a corollary of that is a lot of inefficiencies will also automatically surface because of the entire boiling process. Earlier a person sitting at a desk in front of a computer is presumed to be working. But now you can clearly see how many emails have been sent out, if you’re using Microsoft teams, how much time have you really spent on it, how many times have you accessed your core applications, core systems etc. Everything is out there and it’s translated into data. There isn’t a place to hide. So, there is a challenge to the role of a supervisor but at the same time, there is also a challenge to every role as an individual contributor. Everything is up for scrutiny.

A: What role does behavioral design play for sales reps in insurance?

N: Behavior has the power to influence sales and non-sales employees, cutting across BFSI and other sectors as much.

When you talk about behavioral design, we are also directing, in a very subtle manner, the choices that people make. And that’s the beauty of these models and the work that you do.

For example, the placement of foods in a cafeteria determines what choices we make. Placing healthy food at eye-level racks often nudges us towards healthier choices without being apparent.

In the same way, we can also nudge behaviors of a variety of employees in the real business world by encouraging better choices but not making it apparent.

So, yes, for employees, sales and non-sales, across sectors, there is a huge power to shape behavior by the way we model nudges.

There is a huge power to shape behavior by the way we model nudges.

A: These days the focus is on the customer – the customer connect. Is behavior design relevant to the different teams that are in touch with customers at different touchpoints throughout the lifecycle?

N: From a customer-standpoint, of course, it has tremendous value in the way we can model the nudges. For example, in the insurance world, say you’re doing motor insurance (or a renewal) for a car that costs 25 lakh rupees. The cost of the car tells us about the economic and social profile of that consumer. Knowing if the car is a sedan or an SUV gives us an insight into the customer’s demographic, say the family size. Insurers can use that information tremendously to go back and sell or position other products.

So, from motor insurance, one can very easily go to a health insurance product or property insurance. It has the power to be a conversation starter for so many other things, just by putting a nudge when the customer is being serviced or browsing through different web apps or browsing through the application etc.

Indian consumers are usually uninsured or underinsured in a variety of areas. So, there’s always an opportunity to upsell, cross-sell, and not because I am a sales guy, but more to address a certain latent need in a consumer to protect him or her from unforeseen contingencies.

A: Everyone talks about it but do you see an increasing number of instances of teams and organizations actually incorporating nudges into their business?

N: At the thought level everybody accepts it. I think once people start seeing the tangible successes of this, they will take it up in any industry, not just BFSI. What has been the improvement over the last few years? You need to have sharp answers to questions like that too confidently say that productivity moved from X to Y. That is what gives a lot of confidence to the critical mass of followers to take a cue from innovators and early adopters.

A: This is very valid – the simplest of metrics are the ones that are the hardest to articulate. Do you see the entire space on behavior being a fad? Or do you think it has more legs? 

N: I hope it’s not a fad. The way I see it, the entire nudge aspect addresses innate human behavior. And human behavior at its root hasn’t really changed. If we accept that as a bedrock then all that you are doing is moving from a physical world to a digital world, from physical nudges to digital nudges.

The entire nudge aspect addresses innate human behavior.

Digital nudges are much sharper because technology can see data and perceive patterns that a human eye cannot catch. I see a real value attached to it.

At the same time, having badly designed nudges or a bad recommendation engine is worse than having no engine at all. Someone needs to balance that aspect as well.

A: Do you see behavioral units beginning to emerge in the industry? Do you see the role of a Chief Behavior Officer coming up in organizations?

N: There is a demand for behavior economics and research as a skill especially in customer journey mapping teams doing UI/UX and design thinking. Whether it develops into a full-fledged team or a specialized role like a chief behavior officer remains to be seen.

As for behavior being a fad, in my opinion, it seems like a real opportunity. I do feel this idea has legs. I hope businesses take this up and build on it further to better their own future and the customer experience.

Photo by Claudia Mañas on Unsplash