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North Carolina Farm Bureau Embraces Self-Service Web Portals

North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance Group provides self-service functionality to customers and distribution partners via web portals built by IBM Interactive and powered by Fiserv.

With customer requests for online self-service functionality skyrocketing by 66 percent from 2006 to 2009, North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance Group prepared to replace its outdated web portal, recalls Linda Squires, senior executive of operations for the Raleigh, N.C.-based multiline insurer. "We wanted to give our customers the same experience on our site as with their phone, utility and cable providers," she adds.

[For more on how successful insurers are making the move from paper to digital self-service, check out I&T's on-demand webcast, "From Paper to Digital -- The Insurance Digital Self-Service Imperative."]

Additionally, NCFB ($1 billion in total assets) wanted a B2B portal to provide partners with similar self-service tools and, consequently, streamline operations. In March 2009 the insurer began surveying the market for appropriate website developers that could accomplish both goals. After identifying 25 candidates, NCFB first narrowed the field to six and subsequently invited two to create prototypes. From those, NCFB chose IBM Interactive (Armonk, N.Y.) in July 2009.

"IBM offered considerable market analysis on what was successful in our space," explains Squires. "Plus, we could leverage IBM's expertise with modern web technologies until we could build our own in-house."

For the customer billing and payment module, Squires says, NCFB consulted with its existing vendor, Fiserv (Brookfield, Wis.). Having supplied NCFB's legacy single-payment module, Fiserv now offered a solution, Biller Direct Hosted Version, that included recurring payments, e-lockbox capabilities and other functionality, Squires notes. But before NCFB committed to Biller Direct, she adds, IBM Interactive and Fiserv held joint meetings in late summer to demonstrate that the solutions were compatible.

Concurrently, Squires reports, NCFB began addressing hardware requirements by modifying existing systems, ranging from creating a logical partition on its IBM mainframe to utilizing Oracle's (Redwood Shores, Calif.) WebCenter Portal for content management and Information Builders' (New York, N.Y.) ETL software for IBM DB2 datamart management. New acquisitions included Windows and IBM WebSphere servers -- two each, for redundancy -- a Cisco (San Jose, Calif.) ACE Application Control Engine Module for load balancing and Ricoh's (Tokyo, Japan) InfoPrint Transformation Manager for converting existing IBM Advanced Function Printing (AFP) documents to the Adobe PDF fomrat.

Parallel Processing

IBM Interactive's site development kicked off in September 2009, with a parallel Fiserv effort starting in October. Both used agile methodology, according to Squires. The customer portal -- sans billing and payments functionality -- went live to internal users in January 2010. By May, the billing and payments module was sufficiently ready for NCFB to soft-launch the customer portal via a link on its legacy site, Squires explains, noting that thousands of customers registered for the online service during the balance of 2010.

Testing, load balancing and other refinements to both portals occurred during the second half of 2010. According to Squires, this included giving agencies the option to establish their own branded sub-sites, complete with unique URLs, that are kept fresh by NCFB. "Since agencies can post community activities, it's not only become a differentiator for our agents but also, in some counties, made them an information hub," observes Squires.

After the customer portal's hard launch in January 2011, benefits quickly piled up. "Of the customers registering in 2011, 34 percent also enrolled in e-billing," reports Anthony Neff, NCFB's operations division manager. "Also, almost 8,000 self-service phone and nearly 1,400 address changes were made, significantly improving information available to our agents." To date, nearly 78,000 policies are registered on the site.

For the B2B portal, the first partner was added in late February 2011, with the process ramping up over the summer and fall, according to Neff, who says partners then completed about16,000 self-service verify-coverage inquiries and nearly 3,000 loan number updates for the year. "Compared to the same period in 2009 [before the launch of the new portal functionality], calls to the home office decreased by 6 percent while policy growth for the same period increased by 6 percent," he points out.

The addition of more partners will continue throughout 2012. "We added over 500 new portal users in January 2012, alone," Neff says, adding, "which means we anticipate even better results this year."

Snapshot
Company: North Carolina Farm Bureau Insurance Group (Raleigh, N.C.; $1 billion in total assets).
Lines of Business: Health, life and P&C.
Vendor/Technology: Fiserv (Brookfield, Wis.) Biller Direct Hosted Version online billing/payments platform and IBM Interactive (Armonk, N.Y.) Interactive Online Solution Development.
Challenge: Address customer demands for robust online self-service functionality and establish a similar portal for business partners.

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 Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio

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