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’Touchless Solution’ Links Agents

Mutual of Omaha brings independent force back onto e-mail through Whale eGap reverse proxy system.

Mutual of Omaha wanted its independent agents tied to its e-mail system, but found providing laptops and Lotus Notes client accounts to agents too expensive.

Needing a cost-effective solution, Mutual of Omaha (Omaha, NE) asked its field force to go it alone with personal accounts. That solution proved untenable as regulatory pressures increased, according to Eric Veller, information systems engineer, Mutual of Omaha. Ease-of-business was also a concern, as was the incompatibility of independent agent e-mail accounts with a corporate re-emphasis on brand in 2002.

Built-in Solution

As a Lotus Notes shop, Mutual of Omaha potentially had a partial solution built-in with Lotus' iNotes, which extends Lotus client functionality to the Internet. "The iNotes piece came as an add-on to the product, which we saw as an easy way to give the field agents their e-mail without our having to go out and touch their client," Veller says. Steps still needed to be taken, however, to secure the Web-based access to the Lotus Domino back-end through a proxy server, which prevents unauthorized activity between the internal and external environments, Veller relates.

At an IBM/Lotus forum Veller attended, "Whale Communications' name came up several times," he says. "So I put in a request to move forward with a 30-day test of the Whale eGap Webmail appliance product," in March 2002.

Product features that commended use of the eGap solution included rules-set filtering capabilities that shut out inappropriate URLs or access requests, which cuts down on potential hacks, according to Veller. "That went in very easily because the rules basically came 'canned' for use with iNotes," he says. "Other reverse proxy servers that had the capability required entering the rules yourself."

Veller was impressed by both Whale's product and support. "It was literally a one-day process configuring it to work," he says, After the 30 days, Mutual of Omaha accepted the solution and asked for a second server to be installed for redundancy purposes.

Rollout to the carrier's roughly 1,800 agents began in September, when a link to the new Web-based e-mail was provided on the carrier's Sales Professional Access site, and PDFs explaining how the system worked were sent to agents' personal accounts.

Incrementally bringing agents onto the system went "very smoothly," Veller says, and by the first quarter of 2003, all agents had been phased in. "Their personal accounts were short-lived once we gave them their credentials," he adds.

The low-speed connections used by some agents posed a challenge for the eGap solution. "There's a lot of graphics that come down through i-Notes, and it's quite slow on a 56K connection," Veller says. To solve the problem, Mutual of Omaha bought XCache Technologies' (Bellingham, WA) XCompress compression software. That resulted in the user being able to load pages four times faster. "That wasmonumental to making the agents comply," Veller notes.

Internal Rollout

The XCompress piece solved similar problems for executives traveling abroad, who are serving as an early adoption population for a planned corporate rollout of the eGap solution.

The total cost of the solution was about $160,000, including a third appliance for testing, iNotes licenses and maintenance for the first year. Some industry colleagues have found the figure high, according to Veller. "But for a touchless solution, where we don't have to manage users' workstations, it's a tremendous savings," he asserts. And in addition to the brand-related goal of matching e-mail addresses to Mutual of Omaha-stamped business cards, Veller adds that the carrier is promoting "productivity through accessibility."



COMPANY: Mutual of Omaha, $16 billion in assets.

LINES OF BUSINESS: Life, annuities, health, P&C and long-term care.

VENDOR/TECHNOLOGY: Whale Communications' (Fort Lee, NJ) eGap Webmail solution; IBM's (Armonk, NY) Lotus iNotes; XCache's (Bellingham, WA) XCompress software.

CHALLENGE: Return independent agents to carrier e-mail system.

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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