For insurance companies, finding an effective solution to enhance relationships with multiple distribution partners across all lines of business can be a complex challenge. Catherine H. Smith, COO of Atlanta-based ING U.S. Financial Services ( billion in total assets) discusses with I&T Associate Editor Maria Woehr how technology supports all lines of business by providing convenience to ING's 200,000 points of distributionincluding insurance agents, brokerage firms and third-party administratorsas well as 10,000 independently registered representatives.
I&T: What challenges does ING face in maximizing distribution channels?
Smith: It is a challenge just to make sure we are keeping up with the demands of our distribution partners. We deal with a lot of different channels, and finding solutions that work across all channels is difficult, especially when some customer bases are not yet at a certain technology standard. Our distributors tell us regularly what they want, and there seems to be one overarching theme: convenience. Our distributors want a one-stop shop to get information. So ultimately, we've been working to make sure they have the information to be effective promoters of the ING product. Also, we have been investing in our technology to provide those tools geared toward individual channels as well as serving the aggregate needs of all channels.
I&T: In what technology initiatives have you invested recently that serve all points of distribution?
Smith: We are in the final stages of building a portal for our Virtual Financial Center. This Web-based portal is a replacement for our existing agent portal to which all our distributors have access. The upgraded portal is easier to navigate, making it easier for distributors to find what they need. It is built off of IBM [Armonk, N.Y.] WebSphere. The portal will go live in February and will be a personalized source of information for our distributors to help them manage their relationship across the ING business lines.
I&T: How is ING meeting the needs of specific channels?
Smith: Because our distribution partners in annuities tend to be large broker-dealers and wirehouses, we have spent a lot of effort with those partners building straight-through-processing capabilities. Last year, we partnered with AnnuityNet [Herndon, Va.] and Blue Frog [Pompano Beach, Fla.] to build the pipelines. With these pipelines in place, brokers' applications can be processed instantly within our core operating platforms. Our technology also allows broker-dealers to look at the relationship they have with us on a tiered basis so they can see the different brokers in their firm we work with and understand their relationships to us.
Our life insurance line is a bit behind the annuity line because the industry is more fragmented. We are making some investments this year that will give us more straight-through capabilities, including additional imaging and Web-based options, to encourage seamless, easy application processing.
I&T: How does ING manage all of the relationships with its distribution partners?
Smith: One way is by investing in the right tools for the right people. For example, ING provides a tool for our own advisers' network called SmartWorks, which allows them to view and organize their entire client list. This gives the representative a complete picture of his/her relationship with the client base as well as access to industry and market data in real time. Another tool we offer to distributors is the Good Morning Report, which is an e-mail-based tool that reports any activity their customers have directly with ING. We also are working on providing more business management through wireless for our own sales forcewe use [Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM's] BlackBerry devices so contact management is available to them at all times.
Catherine H. Smith, Chief Operating Officer, ING U.S. Financial Services