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Insurers are moving from simply providing a good standard of customer service to delivering a highly consistent, personalized experience better described as customer intimacy.

If your'e an insurance executive and a fellow airline passenger begins to talk to you about his or her coverage, you're generally better off not mentioning your vocation. That bit of common sense was likely on the mind of a vice president of Humana when the elderly woman next to her broached the subject of her health insurer. Somewhat to the VP's surprise, however, the retired schoolteacher began to extol Humana's SmartSummary benefits statement, producing a copy of the personalized document that she had received from the carrier. "When she saw that the conversation had taken a positive turn, I think she was willing to raise her hand and say, 'Guess where I work?'" remarks Chris Nicholson, Humana's director, integrated customer experience.

According to Nicholson, the fellow passenger went on to explain that even though she hadn't heard of Louisville, Ky.-based Humana before she signed on to the plan, she was going to stick with the company because of the quality of information it provided. She also mentioned that she carried the SmartSummary Rx prescription drug benefits summary document with her at all times because it detailed the medications she was taking -- which potentially could save her life in an emergency.

Humana ($21.4 billion in 2006 consolidated revenue) produces both SmartSummary and SmartSummary Rx statements to provide members with highly personalized information in an easy-to-understand graphic presentation and language. SmartSummary is a giant leap forward for the explanation of benefits (EOB) form, transforming a dry, technically oriented and content-sparse document into a readily intelligible, comprehensive record of members' medical services and contacts with their carrier, and how their financial accounts are impacted by healthcare decisions. The documents begin with a table of contents and include personalized messaging about potential cost savings, drug information, relevant articles on medical topics, coupons and, in the case of SmartSummary Rx, vital information about regular prescriptions, including full-color illustrations of pills and refill schedules.

The airborne testimony heard by the Humana executive would have represented a triumph if it had merely expressed a favorable opinion of the insurer. It was all the more impressive as an endorsement of the quality of Humana's customer service -- particularly in an era when service is measured not only against other insurers but also against cross-industry standards of excellence.

Compared to other consumer-focused industries, insurance companies are challenged to meet customer expectations of consistency and personalization. Merger-and-acquisition activity and line-of-business orientation make developing a unified view of a customer relationship difficult, especially if the customer holds multiple policies. The complexity of products also presents challenges in being able to marshal the right information to present to the customer when needed. For an industry that generally still is transitioning from a policy-centric to a customer-centric world, "It comes down to having enterprise data in a form [in which] it can be accessed and analyzed," says Matthew Josefowicz, the New York-based manager of Celent's insurance group.

The one advantage that insurers have is the information they own about their existing customers, in terms of both quality and quantity. Unfortunately, carriers continue to struggle to leverage that information, often leading to substandard interaction with their customers. That is particularly the case with multiline carriers, according to Josefowicz. "People expect to have one relationship with the company," he says. "They don't want to be handed around to various organizations that don't know what the others are doing."

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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