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Customer service flourishes in insurance

Sometimes, software products billed as "business solutions" really end up being part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Steep learning curves for complex software, along with changes in process, can generate resistance in the very workers who are supposed to benefit from the solutions. Well-focused software products, however, really do solve business problems and are welcomed by users. In the insurance industry, that translates into better customer service.

At Kuhl & Company Insurance, workers needed more rapid access to policies, correspondence and other records in order to provide timely response to inquiries from customers and partners. The company, founded 25 years ago, is a multiline, independent insurance agency specializing in commercial and industrial accounts. Its rapid growth in the mid-1990s prompted the president, Phil Kuhl, to consider a document imaging system to improve customer service. However, his initial searches led to products that were either too large for his company of 27 specialists or not powerful enough for its needs.

Kuhl found what he believed was a good match after a colleague showed him a system using Alchemy Gold from Information Management Research (IMR). Phil Witzig, systems administrator at Kuhl & Company, also checked out the system and was impressed. However, the system they saw required re-keying of client codes and other information. Kuhl wanted a seamless integration with The Agency Manager, a product from Applied Systems that handles the company's marketing, invoicing and reporting activities.

With the assistance of an Alchemy VAR, Kuhl & Company developed a system that integrated with The Agency Manager. Initially implemented in one department, the system met with strong acceptance, despite employees' prior concerns about the change. When employees in another department saw how the system worked, they did not want to wait the scheduled three months for theirs. In just three weeks it was rolled out in that department, and subsequently, throughout the company.

"Our staff and our customers are really happy," says Witzig, "because we can answer questions so quickly. For example, if a bank needs a certificate of insurance, we can send it out while the caller is still on the phone." Employees liked the fact that the new system did not disrupt existing procedures, but made them easier to carry out. Kuhl & Company is handling a larger volume of business without having had to add staff. The company no longer has to maintain file cabinets for its documents, which are now stored and backed up electronically.

"Excellent customer service depends on having all the files at your fingertips along with information from customer databases," points out Dan Lucarini, IMR's VP of marketing. Customer relationship management (CRM) products designed for mid-market companies typically have only rudimentary capabilities for attaching documents. When integrated with CRM products such as Pivotal, Alchemy captures, classifies and stores the documents, and a customer ID is stored in Pivotal so users can locate documents from within the CRM application. Alchemy also provides the version control, workflow, archive management, records management and retention schedules that are key elements of fixed content management (FCM). FCM, a subset of enterprise content management, focuses on life cycle management of documents that are accessed regularly but are not changing dynamically. Images, computer reports, e-mails, PDFs and CAD files are prime examples of fixed content.

Subtle application

Infinity Property & Casualty Corporation is the country's second largest writer of non-standard automobile insurance through independent agents. It generates 4 million pages per month for its customers and agents, and its call center handles about 10,000 inquiries per day. Infinity had successfully used ESP+, an imaging solution from INSCI , within the company for about 10 years. However, benefits realized within the customer service group at Infinity did not extend to agents, who were looking for self-service, real-time access to their customer's documents and correspondence. Infinity also wanted to migrate from its client/server system to a Web-based architecture, and to integrate document imaging with its homegrown inquiry system, which contains client information.

"We had moved to a Web-based inquiry system," says Bob Kennedy, CIO of Infinity, "so the new Web-based version of ESP+ seemed like the right step for us." The company's IT architecture allowed seamless integration of the two applications.

The upgrade was very subtle from the user perspective, according to Kennedy. "The inquiry interface has a series of tabs across the top, and we just added one labeled ‘Documents.' The users did not have to go into another application as they had previously," he explains. "In fact, they were not aware there was another application running, and we did not have to spend any time or money on training, because the system is so easy to use." Documents are displayed in PDF format through Adobe.

A significant improvement in response time to customer and agent inquiries had been achieved with the initial implementation of INSCI's ESP+ when Infinity first moved from paper to electronic imaging. The upgrade saved additional time because users did not need to switch from one application to another. In addition, many calls from agents were eliminated because they could view the documents themselves. The agents, in turn, can now be more responsive to customers.

"Anything companies can do to make it easier for their sales channels and business partners to do business with them is a win-win situation," maintains Susan Worthy, VP of marketing at INSCI. "When companies do not have direct control over the users, making a system easy to use and effective is imperative." Large computer companies, for example, which rely heavily on VARs, have an incentive to facilitate their partners' business processes. Worthy cautions, however, that when access is extended outside the enterprise, the system must be able to respond to high-volume usage, and must offer easy customization and localization of user interfaces—capabilities she points to as INSCI strengths.

Service resolution

In some cases, responding to customer problems requires more than a document lookup. Multiple steps may be needed for resolution; for example, a CSR might follow an interview script, access a set of frequently asked questions (FAQs) and collaborate with an expert. Kanisa offers a suite of products dedicated to service resolution management.

"With respect to customer support, call centers ‘own' the routing process and CRM products own the customer case management function," says Ben Kaplan, VP of marketing and products at Kanisa. "But service resolution has tended to be supported by a mix of technologies that do not combine well to meet the user's needs."

Kanisa offers two products for self-service: Site Search and the more powerful Support Site. Kanisa combines search functionality with business process support, such as the ability to use short scripts or "resolution flows" that take the user through steps in a resolution process. The result is a procedure that is flexible and changes dynamically with the context and content that is accessed through searching. Rather than using a decision tree model in which the choices and outcomes are wired into the system and must be maintained, Kanisa's solutions allow for new information and conclusions. The scripts can be generated by users as they discover good solutions to customer problems.

Nationwide uses a Web self-service solution from Kanisa to support its network of agencies. The Ask Nationwide Self-Service Portal has successfully increased agency effectiveness and reduced help desk support costs.

"Kanisa's products work in tandem with CRM products," comments Kaplan. "For example, when users click on ‘Resolve,' relevant information from a CRM product like Siebel or Clarify (acquired by Amdocs, amdocs.com) would be pulled into Kanisa Support Center and made available to the CSRs." Once the Kanisa product is in place, the customer service environment is not isolated from the corporate knowledgebase, but is in a unified environment.

Site Search and Support Site can be used across many types of customer support environments, such as technical assistance. In a case where a user received an error code from a printer, but did not record the code number, the system would ask questions about the context in which the error occurred. An error code wizard could then be launched to isolate the cause of the problem. "Without a connection to business process," concludes Kaplan, "searching for the keyword ‘error' would bring up every document containing that word, which is not a helpful response."

Risky business A good decision on whether or not to write a policy can mean the difference between a profitable year and red ink for insurance companies. For many years, insurance companies showed profits, even though claim payouts and other expenses exceeded income from premiums, because income from investments made up the difference. In today's volatile investment climate, however, insurance companies must focus more on risk management to reduce the likelihood of loss.

Valen Technologies has developed a product called Risk Manager that assesses risk for individual policies. Typically, only a few factors have been used in risk assessment, including class of business, loss history and geography. Risk Manager uses a sophisticated mathematical model with a very large number of factors as input, including external data sources such as Bureau of Labor Statistics and data from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

To prove the concept for each customer, Valen uses data from prior years to develop a model and then tests it against the most recently completed year for which data is available. Payouts that would have occurred based on Risk Manager's recommendation are then compared to actual payouts.

"We often can reduce the loss ratio by 10 points or more," says Dax Craig, co-founder and president of Valen. "In a $1 billion company, that amounts to $100 million." Although Valen is presently focused on the insurance industry, Risk Manager is applicable to many other environments that entail risk, such as mortgage underwriting.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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