Twenty years ago, the Internet, then popularly known as the "information superhighway," was something of a novelty, and creating and reproducing high-resolution graphics in digital formats was a job for commercial artists and printers. For most business transactional documents, professional-quality typographical fonts were mapped on the mainframe because they had to be mapped to the printers.

Although desktop publishing solutions were available, they were best suited to create camera-ready prototype documents with static content that were printed in volume for newsletters or marketing collateral. Desktop publishing was non-functional for transactional documents such as invoices, policies and explanations of benefits (EOBs), or any document that contained variable data. In fact, designing any customer-facing document was a project that meant recruiting a programmer, because the documents would eventually be batch processed on the mainframe computer. Then the finished pieces, including invoices, policies and EOBs, were all delivered through the mail.

In 2000, we began to see a convergence in the development of hardware, software and the Internet, as well as desktop publishing applications, such as Advanced Function Presentation streaming, which was developed for enterprise users. Customer communications management (CCM) platforms were entering the marketplace, but as Steve Jobs said, "Sometimes the market doesn't know what it wants" — or even what's possible, I would add. Insurers and other large enterprises were just beginning to discover the range of benefits CCM could offer.

Over the past decade, CCM applications have brought a new level of flexibility and efficiency to customer communications. For example, when transactional documents were developed on the mainframe, every change meant a change on the mainframe, with an associated charge-back to the business unit for IT time, which added costs and time to the production cycle. CCM makes it possible for marketing or customer service employees to work on their desktop PCs, make changes, add personalized information, color and graphics, without IT support, until the documents are in production. This lowered costs while significantly streamlining procedures.

Predictably, change brings new concerns and issues. The ability to redesign and personalize documents on the desktop pushed open the door for the evolution of transactional documents. Previously, their sole purpose was to convey billing or product and services information from the insurer to the insured, including whole paragraphs of unreadable, and sometimes unintelligible, fine print for regulatory compliance. As it became possible to add targeted marketing and other messaging to regular monthly or quarterly communications, the focus of these documents shifted from the requirements of the enterprise to the personal interests of the customer. This has resulted in a clearer presentation of information that helps to strengthen ties with customers.

Another critical piece in the evolution of customer communications is CCM's ability to deliver communications through conventional mail or electronically to a customer's laptop, smartphone, tablet or other device. CCM solutions make it possible to create documents that are visually identical in terms of layout, color and graphics, no matter what delivery channel is used. Customers can specify how they want to receive information and be assured the documents will reach them wherever they may be. Migrating to electronic delivery channels also reduces print and postage costs for insurers and speeds the billing and payment cycle.

The newest innovation in customer communications is dynamic communications, an alternative to static PDFs. Dynamic communications include all of CCM's features and functionality, but most importantly, they are interactive and enable the insured even more control of the information they want to receive. For example, if a statement includes a bar chart or pie chart, the customer can click on the chart and drill down for details, such as the dates of various charges on their account or specific policy coverage. Additionally, customers can re-sort the information as they wish, such as by topic rather than date.

The steady development and expansion of both hardware and software over the past 20 years has entirely changed the look, feel and even the function of virtually every type of customer communication. These innovations have brought about a revolution in the management of customer communications, giving insurance companies the flexible, effective tools they need to better serve customers. It is hard to predict what the next 20 years will bring. The only thing we know for sure is staying on pace with change must be part of every successful insurer's business plan.

Michael Charest is VP of insurance, financial services & healthcare for GMC Software Technology, North America.

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