October 24, 2011

As one spouse attempts to mitigate the damage from a failed water pipe, the other dives for her smartphone and begins documenting the chaos. According to Rob Koch, assistant VP of property claims for HelpPoint Claim Services by Farmers, the claims arm of Los Angeles-based Farmers Insurance Group, it's a true story, and it illustrates the value of mobile claims capabilities.

"If you look at YouTube or other online sites for what people are already taking pictures or videos of, it's almost becoming a natural reaction," Koch comments. "Although we have a customer-facing claims app, making it faster and more seamless for customers to pull photos or videos into the app -- and for us to utilize what's provided -- that's my vision."

Such a vision already is a reality at commercial truckers' insurer 1st Guard Insurance ($15.6 million in total assets) of Venice, Fla. Since late 2009 1st Guard's Trucker1 iPhone app has permitted insureds to start a claim immediately, if they're capable. Users select the covered vehicle, set the incident location using the device's internal GPS, take pictures of the accident, record an audio statement and hit send.

On Trucker1's back end, "Submitted information is instantly available on the adjuster's desktop dashboard," explains Dan Ribar, 1st Guard's CIO. "If the adjuster needs more pictures, the customer pulls up the open claim with the app and snaps a few more pictures. Regardless, all photos are stamped with a text block containing relevant customer information, date and the reverse-geocoded address of the location where the photo is taken."

Farmers, a subsidiary of Zurich-based Zurich Financial Services (US$375 billion in total assets), isn't far behind 1st Guard. In addition to upgrading its First Notice of Loss iPhone app, which debuted in late 2009, Farmers is in the final phases of deploying a mobile app for its adjusters, the carrier's Koch reports.

The mobile solution -- Accurence's (Westminster, Colo.) SettleAssist -- began as a digital pen and smartform paper solution but is evolving into a smartphone offering that also will be extended to tablets. Koch says it significantly improves consistency and accuracy in wind and hail claim settlements by standardizing and automating the onsite inspection and scoping process.

"As part of a claims-wide project, we're issuing iPhones to all of our adjusters," explains Koch. "Then we'll begin rolling out the SettleAssist smartphone app late this year or early next, with the expectation that everything will be in place for the start of our wind and hail season in March 2012."

So what do the experiences of Farmers, 1st Guard and other early mobile claims leaders teach us thus far? Here are the top 13 best practices gleaned from discussions with insurers and technology experts alike:

#1. Get started now. At a minimum, replace legacy core systems. "The question isn't whether mobile technologies will be adopted, it's when," emphasizes Kimberly Harris-Ferrante, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner (Stamford, Conn.). "In three years, when your board says, 'We want to roll out mobile options now,' you can't say, 'Hey, we don't have the prerequisites we need.'"

From his company's experience working with large carriers, Accurence president Romney Williams agrees. "Jump on the opportunity to evaluate mobile with an open mind," he advises. "Many of your competitors are embracing newly emerging technologies."

#2. Carrier size doesn't matter -- just get in the game. "Let's face it, the price of admission is a consumer-facing first notice of loss mobile app," asserts Ellen Carney, senior analyst with Forrester Research (Cambridge, Mass.). "You gotta have it."

The same holds true on the settlement side, argues Accurence's Williams. "The value proposition of our solution has resonated with carriers of all sizes," he affirms, adding that he foresees solutions appropriate for carriers across all lines within two to three years, if not before.

#3. Use customer-facing apps to improve service. "There aren't many untapped markets in the U.S.," observes Gartner's Harris-Ferrante. "Now it's all around customer satisfaction and retention. In P&C, the biggest trigger is claims. So it's no surprise that the lights are turning on and companies are realizing it's time to do mobile app projects."

While mobile apps aren't a panacea, especially among older demographics, the carriers, technology providers and analysts consulted for this article all agree that robust mobile experiences will play vital claims satisfaction roles within the next two to five years.

#4. Invest in settlement apps. As Forrester's Carney puts it, the smart money is on internal mobile apps. "There are many interesting applications that look at the way adjusters do their jobs," she says. "To find them, you'll need to scan the horizon because many of the most innovative are still somewhat below the radar screen -- so be sure to work your network."

Additionally, look at the functional value beyond the gadget, Accurence's Williams emphasizes. "It's about the direct impact on accuracy, consistency and efficiency, which all can and must be measured," he says. "For example, some mobile tools automate interaction with each data source behind the scenes -- without the adjuster even having to access those other sources."

#5. Move beyond "smartphones versus tablets" because, from a programming perspective, they are essentially the same. "A tablet is a smartphone, just bigger," substantiates Pascal Begin, product manager at Symbility Solutions (Toronto), an electronic-workflow solutions provider and a partner in Farmers' SettleAssist project.

Also, expect dramatic improvements to tablet computers. "In 10 years, the tablet is going to be something you can crinkle up like a piece of paper and shove in your pocket," Forrester's Carney predicts, adding, "I truly believe the tablet will become the next clipboard."

#6. Think multiplatform and multichannel, because no one avenue fits all. "Tablets and smartphones are increasingly becoming our members' channel of choice," says Marcel Aleman, director of auto product management for San Antonio, Texas-based financial services provider USAA ($99.6 billion in total assets). "Our mobile solutions are critical for our military service members, and increasingly for all members, who now expect to get things done on their mobile devices when they want to, where they want to and how they want to."

Additionally, consider all types of devices, advises Accurence's Williams, who says more of his customers and prospects prefer digital pens to smartphones or tablets.

#7. Involve users, whether they are customers or your employees, in development. "That's been the key 'a-ha' for the SettleAssist project," says Farmers' Koch. "Although it's Farmers' culture to involve employees, it's even more critical that users are involved in the design, that they test it and provide input with a mobile app.

"The same thing will be critical as we revise the customer app, because the way things change, if customers don't love the app, there will be another one out there for them to adopt," he adds. "Even if only 10 percent of our customers want to [interact via mobile devices], for that 10 percent we'll be helping them out. But if we design the apps right by seeking out customer input during the process, the percentage could be even higher."

It's a similar story at USAA. "We actively seek feedback from our members and employees," acknowledges Aleman. "By understanding and anticipating the needs of our members, we can continually develop innovative solutions to help meet those needs."

#8. Put quick wins under your belt, rather than going for the kitchen sink. "Start with a basic app that has a few functions," suggests 1st Guard's Ribar. "This will help you get accustomed to the environment with respect to development, deployment, testing, licensing, distribution, etc."

Even with more-involved projects, like the Farmers platform, keep it reasonable. "You can't do everything," comments Farmers' Koch. "You need a panel, committee or project team that can prioritize. And ensure the priorities are communicated so people can see what happens next and know that their input matters."

#9. Grow or acquire IT resources, either conventionally or by exploring new partnering models. For the Farmers SettleAssist project, various enabling technologies are required to feed data into the platform. Instead of the traditional model, in which a single enabling vendor is selected, multiple vendors -- Symbility, Xactware (Orem, Utah) and EagleView Technologies (Bothell, Wash.) -- were asked to partner with Accurence, according to Koch. "We're taking the best of what Vendor A offers and combining it with Vendor B to create a one-of-a-kind product," he explains.

Regardless, it's still critical for your internal IT team to possess the skills to develop solutions and work with vendors. "Passion softens the learning curve," says 1st Guard's Ribar. "So make sure your IT team members are iPhone -- or whatever -- lovers."

#10. Navigate security concerns, in both the short and long terms. Near term, insurers seeking advanced functionality, including Farmers, are turning to iPhones and iPads. But while Apple controls the app environment and the devices can be shut down remotely in the event of a loss, the company's consumer-driven devices, as well as Android devices, are not as secure as Research in Motion's BlackBerry devices. As a result, some carriers, such as iPhone shop 1st Guard, add a security layer. "We have a homegrown connectivity layer that extends data and security out to remote consumers," Ribar says.

Fortunately, trends for the next five years suggest a reduction in security hassles, according to Symbility's Begin. "At a certain point, we'll either have an iPhone that is as secure as a BlackBerry, or a BlackBerry that is as powerful as an iPhone," he says.

#11. Prepare for video. "Video will replace photos as memory gets cheaper and equipment gets smarter," asserts Begin. "Adoption of live streaming video will occur in the near term because you're not saving it; you're just transmitting."

According to Farmers' Koch, "We'll start using the iPhone's live streaming capabilities right away. For example, an adjuster on site and a manger at a remote location will be able to look at a situation together. That's going to be a big benefit to us."

#12. Go all-in. "To successfully pursue mobile, you must embrace it. It's not a stationary train that you can step into; it's a moving train that you must leap on. You either go into mobile, or you don't," Symbility's Begin insists. "And if you do, you need a champion to ensure everyone embraces it, because you need to forget about old ways of doing things."

#13. Adjust to ongoing evolution. "You can't approach mobile the way you've always done, with rigid business cases or wait-and-see strategies," says Forrester's Carney. "Mobile is the Wild West -- it requires intense experimentation and continuous innovation."

Farmers' Koch likens the insurer's settlement project to a game console. "We've built our platform with the intent to continue to evolve and grow," he says. "We want to be the [Microsoft] Xbox of adjusting claims to help our adjusters be more productive and accurate while also making the process easier for customers."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's ...