Insurance & Technology is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


12:45 PM
Connect Directly

Self-Service with Online "vRep"

Interactive Web bot created in CEO's image gives personalized answers to health insurer's brokers, providers, and corporate and individual clients.

Building all the information your customers need into your Web site is a worthwhile objective. Personalizing it to the customer takes service to the next level—and can be more cost-effective.

Taunton, UK-based Western Provident Association (WPA), a not-for-profit health insurer, planned to give its brokers, providers, individual customers and corporate clients access to the content needed to self-service accounts online. But it wanted to deliver this content with an intuitive, user-friendly interface. It also wanted a solution that would integrate with previously chosen content management and personalization systems, particularly San Francisco-based Macromedia's (formerly Allaire) Spectra.

"When WPA first introduced itself to the Internet in late 1998 it followed the usual route of putting up brochureware," says Adrian Hodgkinson, director of e-commerce, WPA. Customer feedback quickly made it apparent that more functionality was needed, but the problem was making it easy for the firm's diverse range of customers to access relevant content. The solution came out of a search to find an effective way of answering questions. "We contemplated just putting up a FAQ, but the problem was that everybody asks questions in a different way," Hodgkinson says. "And because we have a variety of products and different types of customers, the same question could have a different answer, depending on who asks it."

Dialogue in Natural Language

Hodgkinson hit on the solution when he recalled seeing NativeMinds' (San Francisco) NeuroServer, which enables the creation of a "virtual customer service representative," or vRep, capable of maintaining a dialogue with customers in plain-or "natural"-language. After evaluating similar products, Hodgkinson says he stuck with NeuroServer for its ease of use. "We wanted something easy to deploy that we could maintain ourselves," he says. Based on name and password, the vRep tailors replies to the type and individual identity of customer. "We, the IT people, maintain the program, but the people who understand what the customers require are able to maintain the content," he says.

Having chosen NeuroServer, the task remained to decide on the image of WPA's vRep. Visitors to NativeMinds' own site ( can talk to the lovely, but businesslike, "Nicole," represented by a series of photographs. But WPA chose instead to model and name its "Web bot" after its own CEO, Julian Stainton. The virtual Julian presents a different facial expression with each reply. "Stainton believes that service is paramount and will actually take customers' e-mails and phone calls," Hodgkinson explains. "If you want to talk to the real Julian, you can; the virtual Julian is an extension of that."

According to Hodgkinson, NativeMinds' open architecture facilitated integrating NeuroServer with WPA's existing systems. Plug-in modules enabled interfacing with Spectra, in order to draw on customer profiles for personalized conversations and data delivery. WPA runs the NativeMinds solution on a Microsoft (Redmond, WA) Windows NT platform.

NeuroServer handles natural-language questions through key-word identification and pattern matching, which identifies question type, context and subject and applies algorithms to deliver the pre-programmed answers that fit a given customer's question best, Hodgkinson says. "Julian" is currently capable of providing about 300 answers corresponding to a multiplicity of questions.

Call Center Load Is Reduced

"Julian" currently answers approximately 350 customer inquiries daily, 50 percent of which pertain directly to policy coverage issues. "For many of the questions they ask, they would previously have called us," Hodgkinson says, costing the firm approximately $35 dollars per inquiry. In addition to surveying customers, WPA monitors the vRep's effectiveness through NeuroServer's reporting tools.

In the future the vRep will become more central to the site and will also be oriented to sales, Hodgkinson says. "We will make the vRep the central guide for the delivery of personalized content based on a customer's expressed interests, as opposed to what we think their interests will be," Hodgkinson says.


Case Study Closeup

Western Provident Association, Taunton, UK (WPA, $170 million in assets).

Health & dental insurance, medical cash plans.

NativeMinds' (San Francisco) NeuroServer.

Provide a personalized self-service solution for administering policies online.

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

Register for Insurance & Technology Newsletters