Some of the country's top insurers have launched online operations in both B2B and B2C markets. New York-based MetLife ($421.4 billion in assets) has introduced online bill payment for B2B customers through MetLink, the carrier's online benefits Web site for employers. Travelers (Hartford, CT, $167.1 billion in assets) announced that since enrollment began in June, nearly 3,000 agents have signed-up for Issue Express Net, its Web-based quote rate and issuance system for small business insurance. Also, New York-based New York Life ($131 billion assets) re-launched its B2C Virtual Service Center to offer direct online service to qualified policyholders.
These moves are part of a two-pronged strategic approach, according to David Holtzman, partner, insurance business consulting practice, Arthur Andersen.
"What carriers have been trying to do in B2C terms is bridge the gap: trying to get closer to their customers and understand them better," Holtzman says. "Once customers start interacting, carriers will be able to begin to collect crucial information that they really need to data mine," to embark on CRM-based up-selling and cross-selling initiatives.
B2C efforts are just one front in the battle for success. "How do you get directly to the customer and at the same time get tools to the agent?" Holtzman asks. "Both approaches make them more successful and better able to penetrate their customer."
Travelers is aiming to modernize its agent channel. "The fact that so many agents have signed up for this system speaks volumes to our agents' interest in using the Internet," according to Patrick Kinney, vice president of sales and marketing for select accounts.
Effectively exploiting that channel is as important as ever, Holtzman says. "A lot of the companies that are starting to go public are beginning to see that market cap is tied directly to the agency sales force. The analysts are asking 'How productive are your agents? How is your retention?' That's a whole new world for someone like MetLife."
The B2B bill presentment and payment capability just launched by MetLife represents not an emphasis on B2B, but rather an ordering of customer-driven priorities in preparation for direct B2C efforts, according to Shailendra Ghorpade, senior vice president, marketing and e-business, MetLife. "There are not separate B2B and B2C strategies. The platform is the same. The only difference is the staging of functionality, depending on the consumer segment we're reaching." MetLife already has online services for its New England Financial operations and is expanding to provide it to other franchises, Ghorpade says. "Over the next six to 12 months information on contracts, policies and self-service capabilities on certain transactions will go online," he says.
New York Life's enhancement of its Virtual Service Center for fixed life and annuity productsin operation since May 1998is part of an overall strategy to defend and enhance its competitive position, says Ken Hittel, corporate vice president, at New York Life. The virtual service centersupports fixed life and annuity products, which represent 80 percent of New York Life's business.
The enhancement consists of moving from a batch e-mail system to a realtime, interactive system between the hours of 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. It enables 2.5 million policyholders to initiate a variety of customer service content and transaction functions, such as policy value inquiries, address changes and consultation requests, according to Hittel.