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How insurers can adapt to meet French customers’ changing needs

As customer priorities evolve due to the pandemic, new opportunities are arising for French insurers.

In brief

  • French insurance customers’ behaviors and priorities are evolving as a result of the pandemic.
  • Insurers must adapt their products and distribution methods to remain relevant.
  • Insurers have a unique opportunity to support and provide value to all those impacted.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has financially impacted some parts of business and society more than others, financial anxiety is widespread among insurance consumers and small business owners alike. What have we learned about how insurers can support customers during this difficult time?

To assess this question, EY Insurance conducted a survey of insurance consumers and small business owners across five global markets (France, Italy, UK, US and Canada) to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their lives and insurance needs, including personal lines and life and retirement products.

The survey revealed that 77% of French consumers are concerned about their financial well-being, and 51% of small business owners are concerned about their business’s ability to survive and remain open.

The insurance sector has a clear opportunity to help customers navigate this new environment and restore their financial security. The insurers’ role entails developing solutions that meet evolving needs, supporting customers by providing a “cushion” to protect against future financial risk, as well as harnessing the trend toward digital channels. Insurers also need to better educate customers about their products and the value they provide in order to remain relevant.

Emerging concerns and needs of French consumers

As expected, overall concern about the effects of the pandemic is high, with a majority of French consumers worried about their financial well-being and losing a loved one. Respondents in France indicated higher levels of concern about additional costs from hospitalization and fear of becoming disabled, compared to other countries involved in the survey (except for the US, where health care is very different).

Changes brought about because of the pandemic are also causing concern. This includes the fear of cybercrime due to increased time spent online, concerns about paying insurance for a vehicle that is being driven less and concerns about paying for home-based accidents. While concerns vary slightly between the most and least financially impacted consumer segments (see methodology), there is a clear opportunity for insurers to innovate around their new needs.

A significant proportion of all consumers surveyed claimed they would place a greater emphasis on planning for the future, especially those most financially impacted.

  • 58% of the most impacted plan to save more, versus 33% of the least impacted.
  • 20% of the most impacted plan to pay off debts, compared to 6% of the least impacted.
  • 56% of the most impacted intend to consult with a financial advisor for retirement planning, versus 29% of the least impacted.

Most importantly, the majority (73%) claimed they did not fully understand the extent of the coverage they had through their existing policies. This admission suggests an opportunity for insurers to engage with their customers and develop closer relationships during this period of uncertainty.

Who’s who: the most and least financially impacted consumers

Most impacted consumers were typically younger (72% are under the age of 45) and less affluent (65% have an annual household income of less than US$48,100). The majority have experienced some form of financial impact, having either lost income from reduced working hours or lost regular work.

As a result, eight in ten of those most impacted had to withdraw from their savings to meet expenses, and just over half have had to cash in investments to replace lost income. Around five in ten have missed at least one bill payment and almost one-half have had to set up a payment holiday on either loan or mortgage repayment. The considerable impact on these insurance customers is integral to the sector’s response to supporting its customers.

Consumers’ product appetite 

When asked about future intentions, only one in ten claimed they would be looking to purchase new forms of insurance. However, the survey indicates a clear appetite for insurance products that protect against new and existing risks. This demand is greatest among those most financially impacted, indicating a need for underinsured consumers to review their financial risks and take action.

Future appetite for insurance products can be divided into three different categories:

  1. Loss of income – This includes insurance policies related to loss of salary and coverage of existing financial commitments, such as credit card bills or mortgage payments.
  2. Usage based insurance – This can take the form of lower vehicle usage (a policy in which a subscription fee is paid, plus a premium based on number of miles driven) or increased time at home (products that offer home protection services, such as smart thermostats)
  3. Lower cost products – With the focus for many on financial well-being and a global recession, there are also opportunities for insurers to bring down the cost of insurance, with offers to exchange personal data for lower premiums or provide a discount in exchange for installing smart sensors in homes and sharing real time data.
Consumers’ communication and contact preferences

An interesting statistic following the first wave of COVID-19 (April – May 2020) was the growth of e-commerce among consumers. In France, use of online channels to make purchases from supermarkets increased by 60% following the lockdown in April 2020, according to Statistica.com.

Insurers need to be aware of this significant shift in behaviors and include a digital strategy in future innovation. Although acquisition of general insurance using digital channels was well established prior to the pandemic, there is a transition to online purchase of insurance among other groups, such as the elderly.

When asked how they would prefer to interact with an insurance agent in the future, the majority of respondents said they would like to make contact online, followed by phone. This reveals a growing preference for remote interaction with insurers and is a trend worthy of further exploration.

Understanding the evolving concerns and needs of small business owners

Small businesses in France have faced unprecedented and unanticipated risks as a result of COVID-19, with the pandemic acting as a stress test to their financial resilience. Some of the hardest hit businesses are those that are customer facing, including the hospitality, travel and retail sectors.

The most financially impacted small businesses are small, owner-run enterprises with one or no employees. A significant portion have annual turnovers of less than US$48,100. Half (52%) of the most impacted businesses said they experienced a dip of up to 60% in revenues and nearly three in ten are concerned about a permanent closure due to the pandemic.

Most impacted businesses are first and foremost concerned with survival, expressed as both being able to stay open, as well as coping with the loss of revenue they have experienced. While anxiety about the future is high even among the least impacted, their focus is less on survival and more on the cost and challenges of adapting. This includes how they flex their business in response to the pandemic, the cost of complying with new safety requirements (e.g., the cost of PPE and adapting to their working environment), as well as the risk of employee liability claims.

Small business owners’ interest in insurance solutions

When asked about their immediate post-pandemic priorities, responses were similar to consumers surveyed, with the majority saying they are likely to plan to create a cushion against future crises through opening a savings plan or paying off debts.

However just one-fifth of respondents said they plan to speak with a financial adviser and one in ten claimed they would purchase new insurance products to protect against future risks. This suggests the time is right for proactive communication from insurers to help customers understand the benefit and value of their products.

When shown potential insurance options, there was interest in policies that protect against the priority concerns already articulated, for example, paying three months of fixed business expenses in the event of a pandemic (especially among those most impacted).

Although direct financial cover was also important to least impacted respondents, they were more interested in policies that covered them against additional expenses or liabilities that arose as a result of a pandemic.

Small businesses were mindful of the increased risk in e-commerce activities and demonstrated interest in insurance to cover the risk of phishing and cyber fraud.

As with insurance consumers, a significant number of small business owners do not understand the cover they have through existing policies (77% of most impacted and 52% of least impacted). This suggests more can be done by insurers to help customers understand how existing policies can support their businesses.

The way forward for insurers

The pandemic environment presents critical opportunities for insurers to reengage with customers and support them in a time of need. The challenge for insurers is to provide truly customer-centric products and solutions that are tailored to evolving customer needs and budgets. Products must also be delivered through channels that reflect the switch to digital.

The needs of customers are changing significantly in the context of this pandemic and are unlikely to return to pre-pandemic marketplace demands. This is a critical time for insurers to develop innovative products that help to protect against future uncertainty, while restoring customers’ financial well-being. Insurers also need to help customers understand their policies and educate them on the benefits and value of insurance.

The pandemic speaks to the very purpose of insurance: protecting individuals, families, businesses and communities against disasters and unforeseen events. Insurers must be bold and dynamic in living their purpose and demonstrating tangible value from their products and solutions. We believe those insurers who commit to strategic change during and after a crisis will emerge as winners.

Special thanks to the following EY Financial Services practitioners who authored this article: Sylvain Canu, EY France Partner and Technology Consulting Leader; Marianne Tanguy, EY France Consulting Associate Partner; and Benoît Raclet and Quentin Baumie, EY France Consulting Directors.


In late 2020, EY Insurance and EY QUEST surveyed more than 2,700 consumers and 1,200 small business owners throughout North America and Europe. The objective was to gather insights about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their lives and insurance needs.

To better understand their concerns and preferences, we grouped our population of survey respondents into three segments based on the degree to which they were financially impacted: upper third (most financially impacted), middle third and lowest third (least financially impacted).

Financial impact was measured by a composite scaled score made from seven sub-questions about matters related to financial security, lost wages and reduced employment hours. There is a sizeable difference between the mean amount of impact reported between the most and least impacted groups.


The EY Insurance Consumer and Small Business Survey suggests French insurers will need to consider developing innovative products and solutions for consumers and small businesses. Insurers have a unique opportunity to form new relationships and support customers throughout the economic recovery.

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16 Feb 2021 Fayaz Jaffer + 1