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On the Move

Insurers increasingly are turning to mobile technologies to improve the productivity of their field forces, and they're improving their bottom lines along the way.

Insurance companies have always been "mobile" - salespeople, agents, brokers and adjusters travel to call on accounts, build relationships and service their customers. Over time, however, changing technology, growing territories, new products and expanding business have led to increased competition and a more urgent need for results. Today, insurance workforces need to be more than mobile - they need to be fast, reactive, intelligent, creative and organized.

Companies are realizing that they need to outfit their mobile employees with technology that can do more than move with them. Insurers want technologies that can help their field representatives stay one step ahead of themselves, as if to say: "Don't bother calling headquarters. I already compiled a list of your contacts for today, tomorrow and the rest of the week, including directions, phone numbers, account details and the name of each customer's pet - I'll let you know if anything changes." When it comes to mobile initiatives, increased productivity is the new ROI.

Fortunately, software providers and mobile technology vendors are teaming to meet the challenge. "From an application perspective, vertical financial industries such as insurance are driving a sub-industry on mobile players," describes Stephen Drake, program director, mobile software, IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based information technology market intelligence and advisory firm. "Mobile players are either partnering with software applications players or are OEM-ing the software to begin mobilizing business solutions."

If You Build It, ROI Will Come

Taking advantage of a coordination between Pyxis' (Waltham, Mass.) mWholesaler wireless application, the BlackBerry wireless platform from Research In Motion (Waterloo, Ontario) and an enterprisewide customer relationship management system from Siebel (San Mateo, Calif.), Boston-based John Hancock Insurance and Financial Services, the U.S. operations of Manulife Financial (Toronto; $347.7 billion in funds under management), is helping its variable annuities and annuities groups' sales forces increase productivity. The mWholesaler application extends the enterprise CRM system onto a Blackberry wireless device, giving the sales force access to the same information as call center reps in a format that is easier to handle.

"When we piloted this technology in the first quarter of 2004, I asked our field reps, 'Is the information you are getting valuable?' and 'Does it help you do your job better?' The answers were, 'yes,' and 'yes,'" explains Ted Wheatley, vice president of IT operations for John Hancock. "Something like a BlackBerry is just an update on needed technology; it doesn't need a business case or a high ROI," continues Wheatley, who recently began tracking both the number of meetings his field reps conduct per year and the number of calls reps have to make to the home office. Shortly after the technology was deployed, Wheatley notes, calls to the home office by field reps were eliminated almost completely.

Certainly, John Hancock is not the first insurance carrier to realize that implementing technology for productivity's sake will inevitably help the business. Starting in 1997, Foremost Insurance (Caledonia, Mich.; $1.25 billion in funds under management) transitioned from paper files for its sales force to laptops equipped with iAnywhere Solution's (Dublin, Calif.) SQL Anywhere Studio to provide the sales staff with local databases on their laptops. "In 1996 and the 40 years prior, if our sales staff wanted to switch territories, the conversation went something like, 'Where can I meet you? - because the back of my trunk is full of files,'" relates Kammi McDermott, director of Foremost Insurance's agency sales division.

The iAnywhere technology has proved so successful - "Over the first four years we had about a $2 million return," relates McDermott - that Foremost has expanded its use. In February 2003, Foremost parent company Farmers Insurance Group (Los Angeles) rolled out the technology to 40 members of its sales force, and the management department for the combined forces was renamed FAMe, for Foremost/Farmers Account Management, etc. Leveraging the SQL Anywhere Studio, FAMe outfitted the additional salespeople with local databases and trained them in just two days, at a national sales meeting, relates McDermott.

According to IDC's Drake, it is more important than ever for companies to recognize that returns on performance will result in returns on the bottom line. "Companies need to use technology that will immediately affect their business and are expecting and understanding that ROI will come," he explains. "Softer benefits like productivity, organizational efficiency and customer satisfaction are very significant and are becoming higher in priority due to mobility being something companies need to enable anyway, whether for competitive or strategic reasons."

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