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Portals Grow Up

Insurers have taken the "lessons learned" from the first round of Internet portals and are applying the knowledge to the next generation of offerings—and have the results to show.

This Month's Experts

Andrea Anania

EVP & CIO, CIGNA, Philadelphia

Gail McGiffin

Associate Partner, Accenture, New York

Chuck Cornelio

EVP & CIO, Jefferson Pilot Financial, Greensboro, NC

Andrew Jackson

CMO & General Manager, eXterity, InSystems, Markham, ON

Diane Muller

VP Operations, Woodmen of the World, Littleton, CO

Larry Hazzard

Assistant VP, MassMutual, Springfield, MA

James Watson

President, Doculabs, Chicago

Q: Why haven't most portal strategies been successful? What are some of the "lessons learned" from the first generation of portals?

A: Andrea Anania, CIGNA: Before launching our employee benefitsportal——this year, we conducted 18 months of research on this question. What we found was a disconnect between employers, who said they offered great online tools for their benefits plans, and employees who said they did not use them. The source of the disconnect was that employers want to provide online tools to help their employees be more engaged in managing their health and retirement benefits plans, but the tools lacked the personalization, integration and ease of access.

Thus our strategy for launching myCIGNA included elements of both B2B and B2C strategies. For employees, we provide a benefits portal that engages, educates and empowers. For employers we optimize the benefits experience for employees, thus fostering deeper, stronger, smarter and more productive relationships for the employer with their employees.

A: Gail McGiffin, Accenture: The big lesson learned is that B2B is generally considered more successful than B2C, as it preserved the intermediary role and was embraced by the current distribution system more readily.

A: Chuck Cornelio, Jefferson Pilot: Jefferson Pilot Financial's portal has always had a B2B focus because our field partners are our customers. Our portal actually has been successful and part of this success can be attributed to the fact that we spent a lot of time planning. We keep focus by continuing to involve our partners in our planning process, which ensures that we're building maximum value into the site.

A: Andrew Jackson, InSystems: Many early-generation customer- and agent-facing portals have been unsuccessful for three reasons. First, there is limited scope of functionality. Most of the early insurance portals have been focused on content rather than transactions. Second, adoption has been slow because early portals lacked functionality most valuable to most insurance client users. Finally, first-generation portals were very costly.

A: Diane Muller, Woodmen of the World: From our perspective, you can't take the individual interaction out of the life insurance sale. In most situations, you need an agent. We really didn't jump into it a few years ago and we only had a Web site that was informational. So when we began developing our portal, we thought we could get a big strategic advantage by servicing agents. Agents can do reporting, get commission status in advance, pull up their client information to get information including coverages, paid to date and cash value. That is helping us because it eliminates time and cuts costs on mailing and overhead. The more we can move to the Web, the more it will decrease the administration costs.

Q: What is the value of a portal in today's market? And where will successful portals focus? Where are the opportunities for insurers?

A: Anania, Cigna: Our myCIGNA employee benefits portal is really driving use by employees to our online self-service and benefits communications and education tools. In doing so we're taking work and administrative hassle off the desks of our employer customers and enabling them to offer a benefits program that is more visible and valuable to their employees. For insurance companies, the opportunity lies in developing portals and portal applications that are personalized to help our consumers improve their health and potential financial outcomes, that are designed for them.

A: McGiffin, Accenture: Portals provide value by enriching interactions between carriers and agents to help differentiate agents' services to customers. B2B will prevail over B2C models in the near future as the insurance transaction continues to be complex, necessitating the agent's role. Proprietary portals will dominate over aggregators and exchanges, but will be just one of many channels and will be complemented by traditional face-to-face interaction, call center support, etc.

A: Cornelio, Jefferson Pilot: The value of a portal lies in what it can give the customer: Can they find what they're looking for? Our new portal, due in early 2003, will provide a single, unified point of entry and access for all of Jefferson Pilot Financial's representatives.

A: Jackson, InSystems: Portals are no longer simply "nice-to-have" for insurance carriers. Successful portals, (B2B or B2C), have three characteristics: advanced functionality that integrates disparate back-end systems; an incremental development strategy allowing important new functionality to be added based on user feedback; and a low-cost development, deployment, and maintenance approach.

A: James Watson, Doculabs: For insurance firms, the value of a portal strategy varies by industry participant, whether carrier, broker, or agent. Therefore, the treatment of the underlying opportunities needs to be considered at a more granular level. To say "portals are great for insurance" would be too generic. For agents, it would be a cardinal sin to give up face-to-face interaction, yet for commercial lines, minimizing interaction through automation might be of great benefit.

Q: What can insurers do to leverage previous portal IT investments in order to achieve success with newer portal initiatives?

A: Cornelio, Jefferson Pilot: If you're leveraging previous portal IT investments, you want to learn from your failures and build on your successes. It stems from good planning: A portal project takes years to develop, so a company needs to keep an eye on the big picture. You must implement a strategy in which add-ons will contribute to the overall value long-term. Proper planning, focus and buy-in from senior-level management is critical, whether you're starting from the beginning or building on an existing investment.

A: Larry Hazzard, MassMutual: We were able to leverage the employer functionality that we developed for other portions of our Web offerings. Also, several calculators that were originally developed for the online application tool are available as well on the new portal.

A: Watson, Doculabs: Leveraging investments in portal technologies begins with trimming the number of platforms currently being supported down to a few internal standards. Too many of our clients, in a race to get online, grabbed at different solutions without a cohesive approach. While there might not be a single solution that meets the diverse needs of an entire enterprise, certainly two or three will handle 95 percent of a firm's requirements (as opposed to 10 or 15 solutions, which isn't uncommon to find within a large insurance carrier).

Q: What are some of the technology considerations that insurance companies must address before they begin a portal strategy?

A: Anania, CIGNA: For CIGNA, scalability and security are key considerations. CIGNA has 14 million health and retirement plan participants, and virtually all may access their individual myCIGNA portal. That's a lot of people accessing our systems, seeking very personal and private information pertaining to their health and nest egg.

A: Muller, Woodmen: Really all we had to do was address where we wanted to try to do the development, and decide whether it was better to host it in house or outsource it. That is the biggest decision that you have to make. We decided to outsource because we do not have the expertise for Web hosting and development. It was easier and more economical for us to use PDMA (Indianapolis). We use PDMA's administration system and they know what files to go after to get information on the Web. It made sense for us to go with them. We would not be live today if we hadn't.

A: Hazzard, MassMutual: We had to struggle with how familiar we were with the technology. We had to move up the learning curve quickly and we had to understand best practices on a Web site. Users get accustomed to a certain type of functionality from the mainstream sites, like Those sites set the expectations.

Greg MacSweeney is editorial director of InformationWeek Financial Services, whose brands include Wall Street & Technology, Bank Systems & Technology, Advanced Trading, and Insurance & Technology. View Full Bio

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