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The Emerging Wireless World

Wireless may not yet live up to the hype, but many insurers are steadily moving wireless strategies off the drawing board and into the competitive arena.

Road Warriors for Life

In pursuing wireless, P&C companies enjoy advantages that elude life insurers, Celent's Hersch believes, at least when it comes to field-related technologies. Though more life insurance agents who work on the road, whether at a work site or a prospect's home, are equipped with laptops today than ever before, using wireless technology to fill out applications in real time isn't as obvious as it appears. "There are problems with that," Hersch says. "The independent agent model is an absolute killer here."

While it's not a big deal for a carrier to spend $99 per month for unlimited Internet access via a cellular carrier, it doesn't make sense to provide a wireless card for someone who may not be producing business for you. "You don't want the overhead associated with that, and independent agents are certainly not screaming for immediate wireless access at a cost of $1,200 a year if they get it on their own," Hersch comments.

Hersch speculates that things may change as more cities push initiatives to make their entire area into a massive 802.11 wireless hotspot - where anyone with a wireless card can log on. "This is an option because it's extremely cheap to buy an 802.11 card," Hersch explains. The emergence of the 802.16 protocol, currently known as WiMAX - which is transmitted by low-cost towers over a 30-mile radius - will also likely tip the scales for life insurers. In the meantime, there are still opportunities for life industry distributors to make important gains using wireless technology.

Life and annuity carrier Ohio National Financial Services ($18 billion in assets under management) manages thousands of independent producers via 35 regional vice presidents and pension consultants who do most of their work on the road. These vice presidents serve as "liaisons, recruiters and tellers of our story all around the country," says Gates Smith, EVP of agency and group distribution. "They're the 'road warrior' type of guys and ladies."

Taking note of other executives using BlackBerry handheld devices at industry meetings, Smith was inspired to use them to benefit his distribution organization. "We've had a very successful run and we're trying to use technology to continue our growth," he remarks. "It's about communication, responsiveness and accelerating the cycle time of every transaction in the communication process." Smith's 35 regional vice presidents have been armed with BlackBerry 7510 units equipped with phone and e-mail capability, running on the Nextel (Reston, Va.) network, as have about 20 other executives with mobile work demands.

Smith illustrates the utility of the handhelds with a story about a Texas-based regional vice president: "He happened to be in Salt Lake City calling on prospects. That same day a [prospective producer] in Salt Lake happened to call our toll-free number to request information." The carrier sent the information as requested, but also immediately e-mailed its vice president.

"Prior to our BlackBerry introduction, he would have read this e-mail on his laptop, which would have been in the trunk of his car - or worse, could have been left at his home office, meaning he wouldn't have been able to read his e-mail [until] as much as a couple of days later," Smith explains. Instead, he immediately fielded an e-mail with the caller's contact information and made a phone call. The entire process took about 30 minutes. "The guy was dumfounded," Smith recalls. "They made an appointment for that afternoon, and we signed him on as an agent by 5 p.m. In pre-BlackBerry days, that transaction would have taken at least a week."

The benefits enjoyed by companies like Ohio National could be multiplied enormously if the entire distribution force were equipped with handhelds and software solutions tied to back-office systems, argues Chuck Cronin, CEO of Newport, Calif.-based eAgency Systems, which markets NiceOffice Life, a sales automation solution for life insurance that is based on the BlackBerry device (the vendor's P&C solution will go live by year's end). The solution offers the ability to access a virtual calendar, maintain a contact database, view and track leads, browse products, send and receive e-mail, and monitor business activity. Agent users can also download company forms for prospects to sign.

"The state of the business - what items are open, full case histories, what's relevant within a particular underwriting cycle, etc. - is all available on the device," Cronin says. "An agent in the field would normally get that by fax or mail or would have to log on to the carrier's Web site, which might happen every couple of days."

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

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