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Mobile Sales Force Automation Growing In Demand

Having already realized the benefits of mobile technology within their claims operations, many insurers are looking to bring mobility to their sales forces, as younger agents and consumers demand more functionality via their handheld devices.

Ask most insurance carrier CIOs about their organizations' mobile technology capabilities and they're likely to tell you about their claims operations. Within that area, mobile technology has reached a critical mass. High-speed wireless Internet access, recent improvements in devices such as tablet PCs and PDAs, and an industrywide shift in focus toward customer satisfaction have all but forced insurers to develop mobile claims capabilities.

In response, insurers large and small have equipped their claims adjusters with mobile capabilities around everything from estimating to catastrophe response to cutting checks. And yet, while mobile technology in claims has become a must-have, it's still largely uncharted waters in many other areas of the insurance enterprise -- most significantly, sales.

"Insurance companies tend to deploy new technologies to reduce costs first, and the biggest reduction area they have is claims," explains Bill Hartnett, general manager of Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft's insurance solutions group. "If they cut down on claims and claims settlement expenses, they can really make a big impact on the bottom line."

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Attracting the Next Generation of Agents

However, now that insurers have seen the value mobility can bring to their claims teams -- and now that mobile technology in that area has become, as Hartnett describes it, "standard operating procedure" -- many carriers have turned their focus elsewhere in the organization when it comes to leveraging mobility for competitive advantage. "You're starting to see a shift in focus toward the distribution and sales force automation side," Hartnett says. "[Insurance sales] people carry around mobile phones all the time now, and they're starting to get used to using them on their own. They're putting pressure on carriers to try to accept new applications and new business processes that involve mobile devices."

A continuing shift in the demographics of both end consumers and salespeople will drive mobile sales technology initiatives, experts say. A large number of older workers are reaching retirement age, and while many from that group were hesitant to adopt mobile technology, the younger workers set to replace them are not. Having grown up with cell phones and BlackBerrys in their pockets, recent college graduates expect their employers to equip them accordingly.

"The generation of today is a connected generation," says Greg Driscoll, VP of technology architecture and services for Horsham, Pa.-based Penn Mutual ($14.1 billion in total assets). "They are going to walk into the work environment expecting certain things."

Penn Mutual began its mobile sales force automation pilot program three years ago, according to Driscoll. The pilot consisted of E-mail, calendar and contact management capabilities, as well as synchronization of E-Z Data's (Pasadena, Calif.) client data systems solution, delivered to the carrier's independent agents via Palm (Sunnyvale, Calif.) Treo mobile devices. Driscoll says agent recruitment and retention were major drivers behind the initiative.

Keith Brannen, second VP of IT - advanced technology group for Aflac ($14.6 billion in annual revenue), also points to agent recruitment and retention as a motivating factor behind deploying mobile sales technology. While many in the Columbus, Ga.-based insurer's sales force exclusively sell Aflac products, he notes, the company's agents all are independent.

"When you talk about mobile technology being a competitive advantage, I think that it's not so much in the feature set as it is in helping us grow our sales force," Brannen explains. "If we have a capability, for example, that empowers the sales people to help them be more efficient and get their business started quicker and with less risk, that might be an advantage over someone who does not have those capabilities -- from a growing-the-sales-force perspective."

Of course, the bulk of carriers' future sales forces will come from the younger generations. As such, it is increasingly important for insurers to offer the mobile capabilities that young insurance agents have grown accustomed to in their personal lives.

"Businesses are now anchoring technology, and the consumer is driving it," observes Penn Mutual's Driscoll. "There's a paradigm shift there." And as that shift continues, Driscoll predicts, mobile sales technology likely will become a higher priority for insurers in the near future.

"I would say it's less than five years," Driscoll continues. "What you're looking at is the consumerization of technology. If you went back 10 or 15 years, business drove more of technology adoption. Now the consumer drives technology adoption."

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