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Although the potential benefits of achieving the proverbial "single customer view" are numerous, the business factors driving insurers to pursue this strategy are quite varied.

Although the potential benefits of achieving the proverbial "single customer view" are numerous—including reducing costs, improved cross-selling opportunities, and closer relationship with the customer—the business factors driving insurers to pursue this strategy are quite varied. That was the message from Irene Heege, senior vice president, IT, ING US Financial Services (Atlanta), and Gary Scholten, CIO, Principal Financial Group (Des Moines), who addressed "Achieving the Single Customer View: A Reality Check," at Insurance & Technology's Customer Service Leadership Forum last week.

ING's 2000 acquisition of ReliaStar and Aetna Financial Services gave the Amsterdam-based company a significant US presence, with 14 million customers and the third-largest broker/dealer network in the US, according to Heege. That meant many opportunities to cross-sell, but taking advantage of that opportunity required finding a way to identify customers and their wants. "On the IT side we had tremendous redundancy," Heege explained. The technology environment contained more than 2,500 applications on 35 major platforms. "We had multiple help desks, multiple data centers—a very disparate technology environment," she added. "We had data everywhere, but information nowhere—we were a knowledge-starved company trying to bring all this together."

Accordingly, ING US implemented what it calls the Integrated Americas Adaptive Architecture because, noted Heege, "we really needed a road map and a framework that was going to tell us how to bring this diverse technology environment together. And we had to develop a strategy about how we were going to bring all these diverse Web sites and customer contact center systems and solutions together."

Through 2001 and 2002 the carrier pursued a strategy to "consolidate, integrate and optimize (CIO)", or, as Heege said it was known colloquially, "to move and improve." In that period 14 contact centers were consolidated down to six, and four data centers were reduced to one. "If you're going to move to a single customer view it's indispensable that you put an information architecture together," Heege related. "We've been working on a pretty sophisticated enterprise information architecture and we're moving data into what we call the ING Americas Shared Exchange, which can then be accessed by our Web site and our call centers."

Principal Financial Group's approach to a single customer view—a term CIO Scholten equates with CRM—was driven by different kinds of considerations. Having faced no acquisition challenges on the scale of ING's American initiative, Principal's CRM moves were shaped by a business strategy dedicated to a continuing focus on the small- to medium business market, and a move to customer-centricity, whereby "the customer—whether employer or employee—would be incented to see value in having multiple relationships," Scholten explained.

Principal is the country's leading 401(k) provider, having relationships with about 50,000 employers and their more than 2.5 million employees. The carrier's life and health business involves relationships with almost 77,000 group customers and their approximately 5 million members, as well as about 750,000 individual customers, according to Scholten. "If we can create the right value proposition for those customers to have more than one relationship with us, we feel that's a real growth opportunity that our CRM strategy can support," he said.

Among the key technologies Principal identifies as essential for its CRM strategy are an affiliate file, contact center/sales desk, affiliate data warehouse and data marts, sales force automation applications, campaign management and customer analytics, according to Scholten. Describing CRM as essentially a "revenue play," Scholten added that Principal aims to foster sales by leveraging information gleaned through customer contact and empowering the sales force to pursue the leads it generates. "Subject to ethical and regulatory restraints, if we can use that information to the customer's advantage, we think that's the value they would see to having multiple relationships with us," Scholten said.

There are potential pitfalls in the pursuit of CRM, Scholten noted, such as losing focus on the business drivers, failing to bear in mind the role of the intermediary, forgetting the individual business units, harboring unrealistic data expectations, and giving overly ambitious scope to projects.

Perhaps the most fundamental error, however, is focusing on the technology first. Beginning and ending with a cautionary slide reading "What is Your CRM Technology?" Scholten remarked that he regards the question as fatuous. "If you have to ask, you just don't get it," he commented. "If you focus on technology first, you're going to contribute to the high failure rate of CRM implementations."

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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