Similar to many insurance providers, Omaha, Neb.-based Jefferson Pilot Benefit Partners knows that field sales representatives were assigned their title for a reason. The emphasis on "field" provides them license to network away from the home office as often as possible.The problem: The home office is where the heavy lifting is performed from a data processing standpoint. When field reps conduct business outside the office, they often devote an equal amount of time-or more-at headquarters to ensure data they collected in the field was properly captured and processed.

"Corporations have adopted the Web as the panacea for information sharing," says Jerry Goedicke, president and CEO of Mobitor Corp., a San Ramon, Calif.-based mobile solutions provider. "Yet, the very nature of the Internet has tethered sales professionals to their field offices and prevented them from closing business at the point of sale. The reliance on constant connectivity to corporate information systems has reduced direct interaction with the customer."

In fact, insurance field reps typically spend an average of three out of five days in the office instead of interacting with customers, according to Goedicke. This has produced a conundrum for a good number of insurers over the years-how to best optimize the efficiencies of their so-called foot soldiers.

Mobile computing may provide some answers. Using both non-wireless and wireless technology, carriers can now furnish their field people with what many industry observers believe is the best of both worlds-maximization of networking capabilities in the field combined with effective data exchange capabilities back home.

Benefit Partners Benefits

Jefferson Pilot Benefits Partners, a division of Greensboro, N.C.-based Jefferson Pilot Financial, equipped its 74 sales and management associates with BlackBerry Wireless hand-held devices in February for mobile access to corporate data and e-mail communications. Investing about $450 to $500 per unit (plus another $50 per month per account to establish individual wireless accounts), Benefit Partners will realize a return on its investment in less than one year. Furthermore, the carrier estimates that using wireless devices enables its field reps to save at least 30 minutes a day eliminating extraneous tasks from their schedules.

This reduction enables the reps to conduct more meaningful business with brokers who sell group benefits packages to Benefit Partners' employer customers. Blackberry Wireless is an integrated, end-to-end package, which includes the hand-held wireless device and built-in software. The technology was developed by Waterloo, Ontario-based Research in Motion Ltd.

"The wireless access gives our field force mobile communication capabilities with employee benefit brokers, group administrators and home office personnel," says Len Cavallaro, senior vice president sales and marketing for Benefit Partners. "The freedom provided by this technology equips them with an unprecedented level of responsiveness to our 20,000 brokers and customers by taking the productivity tools-which are traditionally found in an office environment-out on the road."

By activating the hand-held device, Benefit Partners sales professionals can initiate, receive and respond to e-mail, schedule meetings and access up-to-date corporate reports while in the field. "By putting a BlackBerry into the hands of these reps, they will be better positioned to leverage the technological advantages we have developed in our home office," Cavallaro says.

Luxury Or Necessity?

This past year, a slowing economy has forced carriers to hunker down and re-evaluate their IT priorities, says Kimberly Harris, senior research analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

"Carriers are making lists and ranking their spending priorities," she says. "They're asking, 'What do we need to survive IT-wise?' Wireless is not necessary to survive, and I'm afraid this trend isn't going to change soon."

Over the last few years, insurance carriers active in the wireless space have identified two core applications in leveraging the platform-internal activation for producers and other business affiliates, and external offerings for policyholders and consumers.

In the latter instance, a customer is able to activate a wireless cell phone to switch funds within a 401(k) account, receive an insurance quote or even check the status of a claim.

But consumer-driven wireless initiatives in the insurance industry-ones that put the devices in the hands of consumers-are few and far between. The initiatives that have gained the most traction are those that equip people within the enterprise, such as agents, brokers and field representatives.

When meeting with a policyholder, agents, for example, can use wireless devices such as a PDA (personal digital assistant) to unobtrusively pull up account data. "If an agent meets a client for lunch, wireless technology such as a PDA can be an invaluable tool," says Larry Hartge, who oversees the ViLink wireless program for El Segundo, Calif.-based Computer Sciences Corp. ViLink is CSC's Web-enabled platform for the life insurance industry, which enables carriers to disseminate critical information securely to agents, third parties and consumers via a wireless PDA or Web-enabled digital telephone.

"Using a PDA is a nice lead-in for cross-selling or upselling products," Hartge says. "An agent can use a PDA to pull up account data for the client and then make on-the-spot recommendations about other investment products."

"A PDA enables an agent to click away and store data and it's much less intrusive than if he were storing the data in a meeting with a customer using a laptop," says Jim Luscombe, an analyst in the insurance-industry practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"Most sales people don't like a keyboard and screen separating them from the customer," Mobitor's Goedicke adds. "Plus, they feel uncomfortable typing in front of the customer."

A 'berry' Good Investment

It's for these reasons that carriers are discovering that hand-held devices serve as the perfect middle-ground investment tool, providing more overall potential than wireless laptops and Web-enabled cell phones.

In performing due diligence on its investment, Jefferson Pilot Benefit Partners determined that hand-held devices would provide the best and most practical application for its needs. "A field force has limited time and interest in learning to use a stylus that's required with a PDA. The intuitive nature of the miniature keyboard on a hand-held was very important in optimizing the efficiencies for our people" says Rick Bender, vice president, sales development for Benefit Partners.

Benefit Partners, which sells life insurance, short- and long-term disability and dental to mid-size employer groups (those with 50 to 1,000 employees), realized that a well-to-do wireless program starts at home-the home office.

Prior to adopting a wireless program, the company integrated its data processing systems, then pushed the integration out to its hand-held network. Now, when data is entered, it's entered once and automatically fed through all the systems.

"When employer and employee data is entered into the administration system, it is simultaneously fed to the claims system," Bender says. "When systems communicate in this manner, information is available to brokers, employers and employees in real time."

Prior to the BlackBerry investment, a rep would have to do a significant amount of uploading and downloading of data when meeting with a broker. "A rep often would be sent in various directions in search of key information regarding a particular account," Bender explains. "With BlackBerry, the field reporting is conducted in real time, and data is captured in our mainframe system and servers without any manual re-keying and without any confusion."

Confusion could occur through miscommunication between a field rep's request for data and the home office's interpretation of that request. But with BlackBerry Wireless devices integrated directly into the company's back-office databases, that confusion is averted.

While accessing real-time data is critical for Benefit Partners, Bender says that simple functionality, such as accessing e-mail with a BlackBerry Wireless device, is equally important. "The system is a seamless extension of our corporate e-mail system," he says. "BlackBerry's 'Push' technology enables e-mail to arrive at a rep's hand-held as it arrives at his or her desktop. There's no dialing in, no initiating connections, no effort required."

Bender says the solution also is "IT-friendly." BlackBerry supplies powerful server software that integrates with a company's existing e-mail system, he says. "It offers our IT team the benefits of centralized administration and support and keeps our company's information systems running smoothly."

Much Hand-Holding

With a significant number of factors to contend with, carriers need as much counsel as possible to establish a viable wireless or non-wireless blueprint for mobile computing.

Choosing the appropriate wireless device and who should receive one must be well thought out, because one misstep could significantly affect the payback schedule. "It's extremely difficult to quantify the cost savings of adopting a wireless presence," says Brad Adrian, senior analyst for Gartner Inc. "Investments can achieve a quicker ROI if they are focused on the enterprise side of the business rather than the consumer side. And wireless leveraged toward the claims side of the business rather than the acquisition side also has greater potential to reap quicker ROI."

Too many carriers have been trapped into believing wireless technology is successful only if implemented on a large scale, Adrian adds. "The mistake carriers make with wireless is taking the approach that they have to hit the 'home run' on a program implementation," Adrian explains. "A wireless program can have more low-tech benefits, such as e-mail, messaging and alerts. These advantages are often overlooked."

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