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Road Map to Connectivity

Mobile technology improves both agent and assessor productivity. But, with tighter IT budgets, insurers must distinguish between 'need-to-have' and 'nice-to-have' applications.

There's no denying that, when successfully executed, initiatives aimed at technologically enabling field forceefficiency on the road can lead to higher sales, greater efficiencies and improved customer satisfaction. And, with 3G (third-generation) cellular connectivity not too far off, insurance CIOs are realizing that pen and paper alone just aren't going to cut it anymore.

But before reaping the benefits of tech-mobility initiatives, CIOs must first consider the user-friendliness of devices and the adoption rates of these tools. IT leaders who neglect to learn from the lessons of failed laptop initiatives, due to agent abandonment, run the serious risk of leading their forces to a dead end. CIOs also must grapple with questions about the reliability of wireless and whether dependency upon it is wise. Additionally, end-user job functions must be considered.

Leap of Faith

There are strong business cases to be made for providing mobile technology tools to both agents and claims adjustors/assessors. But it takes a bigger leap of faith to invest in mobile technology for agents, since the ROIs are much harder to quantify. For this reason, the expert consensus today is that tech-mobility is a "need to have" for assessors, while it remains just a "nice to have" for agents. Given that the current economy is leaving no room for niceties, experts suggest that carriers focus initially on assessor-related pilots that--when budget resources permit--can subsequently be rolled out to agents.

Efficiencies gained through assessor initiatives, unlike those for agents, are easily measured. If executed effectively they can produce a 10 percent increase in efficiency, according to Jack Morgan, vice president of technology,, a New York-based consultancy. This is because, if adjustors and assessors can be reached throughout the day, additional appointments can be made on the fly. Customer information and location can then be transmitted to an assessor's mobile device. Additionally, if online access is granted through a wireless component, directions to the site can be gained through a resource such as MapQuest. Such connectivity not only affects the ease with which an assessor handles daily workloads, it starts a domino effect of efficiency throughout the organization.

Expediting the claims process translates into a direct bottom-line hit to the "amazing amount of calls" that customer service representatives have to take," according to Morgan. He reasons that, if the claim is handled more quickly, the customer will call less frequently with inquiries about its status. Additionally, with tools such as e-mail and short message service (SMS) communications, a customer can be updated on claim status in real time.

Another benefit of enabling claims assessors to enter information in real time is that, not only is the arduous task of data entry from paper (and the rekeying mistakes that go along with it) eliminated, but carriers become equipped with a very robust database of information, updated in real time. More accurate fraud detection also is enabled. And, although this benefit is hard to quantify, it's clear that the quicker a check is cut, the happier policyholders will be.

Travelers Property Casualty Corp. (Hartford, $57.8 billion in assets) has experienced such returns by wirelessly enabling its catastrophe response teams and claims assessors. With the goal of speeding its claims processes in order to control costs, the early wireless adopter began to equip its catastrophe response and claims teams wirelessly beginning in 1999.

Travelers' catastrophe response unit is made up of 60 professionals dedicated to the task of providing the quickest response to catastrophic events, according to Peter McMurtrie, vice president of claim product development for property and auto, Travelers. The carrier equipped its team with four refurbished Winnebagos in which catastrophe response activities can function, even in the event of power loss. The vans act as claims offices on wheels and are equipped with Sprint PCS (Kansas City) wireless phones that are capable of both voice and data transmission. They allow users to connect with the company's claims systems and access claims and policy information, enabling the issuance of debit cards on site. The vans are also equipped with satellite capability in case dial-up is not available, which in many instances is the case, says McMurtrie. "Wireless technology allows us to transmit data and access all of the systems necessary to process a claim so that we can respond to policyholders in a timely manner, even if land lines are not available."

Travelers has wirelessly equipped its captive claims assessors with laptops, cell phones, pagers and digital cameras. Those who operate in areas with spotty wireless coverage--about 25 percent of the appraisers--are equipped with wireless modem cards for their laptops. Other appraisers receive a wireless connection through their cellular phones. The initiative has expedited the claims process. "The technology enables our auto appraisers to process more of the information necessary for a damage estimate right on site," says McMurtrie. Efficiency is additionally maximized because "it also streamlines the process of communicating new work assignments to adjustors."

Which Device?

While there are clear advantages to having a mobile-enabled adjustor force, what do CIOs need to know about the different types of devices available? Carriers are taking advantage of devices that have wireless capabilities but aren't necessarily used wirelessly, according to's Morgan. Among them are PDAs and data-enabled cell phones. Also, insurers like Travelers continue to equip mobile workers with laptops. And although Travelers' assessors have been using laptops wirelessly, an survey of carriers and their solutions for assessors revealed that only a few carriers are in the preliminary stages of wirelessly enabling laptops. Those that have taken the plunge are doing this with tools such as wireless PC cards.

Both P&C and life firms are looking into solutions that run on Microsoft's (Redmond, WA) Pocket PC-an operating environment for handheld computers based on the Windows CE operating system. Many current users simply access applications that reside on the hardware. Data is then transferred to carrier systems once the mobile worker is back at the office.

The Pocket PC allows for greater mobility and increased customer face time, according to Jerry Goedicke, president and CEO, Mobitor (San Ramon, CA), which has developed insurance applications that run in the Pocket PC environment. Mobitor's applications provide customer and product information, as well as policy application forms. The devices are equipped with handwriting recognition functionality, Goedicke notes, which allows for words scribbled on the device's screen with a stylus pen to be turned into text. Devices utilizing Pocket PC also have speech-recording capabilities.

Another viable solution for insurers is a device that runs on Microsoft's Tablet PC, a Windows XP operating system. According to Jeff Schneider, CEO, Momentum Software (Austin, TX), a vendor of e-business and wireless solutions, the devices running Tablet PC technology have advantages for insurers over cell phones and PDAs. "In all likelihood, a carrier would end up having to write software for those types of hardware," says Schneider. "With a device running Tablet PC any application that runs on a Microsoft Windows machine can be used."

For the carrier that is unwilling to invest in a new multi-functional device, the functionality of the variety of devices that an individual field force member currently uses can be maximized through a personal area network (PAN). Bluetooth is an open standard for short-range transmission of digital voice and data among mobile devices that operates on a PAN. Bluetooth can be used to connect a field force member's laptop to a cell phone, enabling wireless dial-up, reports Dave Curl, a representative of London-based TDK Systems. Typically, the short-range transmission can be used between 30 and 100 feet, says Curl.

As part of the realization that there are a number of devices currently on the market, and in anticipation of the inevitable change in the winds of wireless, The Guardian Life Insurance Co. (New York, $32 billion in assets) has adopted a browser and device-agnostic philosophy towards the technological enablement of its 2,700 independent financial representatives, who operate out of 100 agencies nationwide. The development of the pervasive computing platform was part of an enterprise component-based build-up. Guardian's strategy required the development of a single application with the capacity to go out to browsers and wireless devices.

The strategy enables independent financial reps (who are responsible for purchasing their own devices) to access information on the device of their choice. The carrier's strategy is "because the market is so fertile and it changes so quickly," explains Philip Felice, vice president and CTO, Guardian. "If we chain ourselves down to a particular device it will be obsolete before we even write the code for it."

In order to facilitate agent device adoption, Guardian has partnered with several mobile device vendors (which Felice declined to identify) so the hardware can be purchased by agents at a discount. "Our wireless platform gives agents the ability to provide face-to-face interaction with their clients so they can originate a transaction at the device." Currently, the majority of Guardian's agents are using wireless connections to access e-mail. Most, reports Felice, utilize RIM (Research in Motion, Waterloo, ON) Blackberry and Compaq (Houston) I-Paq Pocket PC devices. At this time, however, the use of wireless for other types of transactions is not as popular.

Although Guardian has solved the problem of user acceptance by leaving the choice of device up to the agent, such a philosophy may not be as practical for carriers enabling captive forces. When deciding on a mobile device, the CIO who doesn't take user acceptance into serious consideration runs the risk of failure.

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