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Bankers Life seeks to grow business by offering a new Web portal as a single point of information access to its captive agent sales force.

Bankers Life seeks to grow business by offering a new Web portal as a single point of information access to its captive agent sales force.

For any insurance carrier, growing the business requires significant resources. For Chicago-based Bankers Life and Casualty Co., which had $6.9 billion in total assets in 2003, growing its business means not wasting resources - specifically the time, talent and energy offered by its career sales force.

When the company began pursuing what it calls a Distribution Growth Strategy (DGS) - designed to grow revenue by aggressively and efficiently boosting Bankers' captive sales force - in the fourth quarter of 2003, Paula Smith, vice president of business solutions and sales technology at Bankers, was charged with ensuring the efficiency of the project, which aimed to open 25 new branches and add 750 new agents to the Bankers team. The obvious - but not always easy - solution was data automation, according to Smith.

"As we are onboarding new managers and field agents, we needed a single point of access to information from the numerous departments within the home office," relates Smith. "We began work on an access portal that would centralize and streamline all of those touch points."

Prior to the DGS initiative, Bankers relied on a proprietary server system that was more than six years old; though it could be accessed by field agents, it consistently provided outdated information and inspired only 15 percent of the field force to use laptops. To improve operations, the insurer set out to create a system that would support the field throughout the entire sales life cycle, including commissions, application status, policy, claims and product information. In December 2003, with the support of two technology vendors that Smith declines to name, Bankers began developing a proprietary Web-based portal, known as Bankers Sales Productivity Network (BSPN).

Partners in the Field

As the project got under way, so did the direct involvement of Bankers' sales force. "We partnered with the field every step of the way," says Smith. "My motto is, 'For the field, by the field,' so we get them involved directly."

Smith's IT department includes a release management team, which is dedicated solely to the successful rollout of technology to the field force. The team - which consists of a manager and five staffers to support metrics measurement, communications and training - conducted monthly steering committee meetings, visited more than 30 branch offices and conducted virtual classroom training sessions.

With such detailed oversight, what could go wrong? "Our budget was cut by 40 percent in the detail-requirements phase - the second month of the project," relates Smith. To mitigate the losses, Smith's revised strategy included partnering with parent company Conseco (Carmel, Ind.; more than $4 billion in annual revenue) on the technology investment, which meant switching technology vendors.

In December 2002, Conseco had adopted portal technology from Cambridge, Mass.-based ATG (Art Technology Group). Accordingly, Bankers' new portal would be based on the same technology. Additionally, Smith scaled the project to reduce reliance on vendor development and increase training for existing employees rather than add new staff. And, finally, she negotiated a fixed-fee contract with ATG.

"ATG was a new skill set, but project management and development was still done in-house," explains Smith. IT training included ATG-sponsored and on-the-job training, as well as targeted sessions that called on ATG to solve specific issues. "Overall, we wanted this to be an enterprisewide solution," Smith continues, "so partnering with Conseco on portal technology enhanced that segment of the initiative."

The BSPN portal is built on a J2EE platform, which includes ATG Portal & Relationship Manager running on IBM (Palo Alto, Calif.) WebSphere application servers, operating on HP's (Palo Alto, Calif.) Unix operating system and hardware. The portal is served up from an IBM IHS Web farm operating on Microsoft (Redmond, Wash.) Windows servers and utilizes Oracle (Redwood Shores, Calif.) 9i databases.

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