The customer relationship-it's a touchy subject. How do you make sure you're doing the right thing for each and every customer? How do you know if your follow-up on a lead wasn't duplicated by a coworker?Cottingham & Butler Insurance Inc., a privately held Dubuque, Iowa, insurance company, encounters those dilemmas daily. It's part of the job for a firm that offers employee benefits and risk management services, including property & casualty insurance, casualty claims administration, employee benefit brokerage and consulting, benefit claims administration, medical management services, wellness and disease management, and personal insurance services.

In the past, Cottingham & Butler sales reps tried to sidestep inefficiencies by using Excel lists of leads. The lists were never cross-referenced, so clients appeared on multiple lists throughout the company. "We weren't approaching prospects as one company," says Nicole Pfeiffer, who was Cottingham & Bulter's director of marketing at the time and has since been named vice president of human resources. "We were going as many individuals."

Cottingham & Butler researched customer relationship management (CRM) systems and, because of the ability to customize, decided to implement AppExchange Professional Edition from Salesforce.com Inc. Little did they know they would soon upgrade to an Enterprise Edition to allow other groups in the company to use the technology.

THE NEW SYSTEM

Cottingham & Butler went live with the CRM system in June 2004, after taking about six months to understand it, get it ready and test it. "We consolidated information from various systems we have here," says Lori Steger, CRM/database project specialist at Cottingham & Butler. "We compiled comprehensive lists of all our accounts and used [AppExchange] to control the number of leads so we would only have one person touching [customers] at a time."

Compiling the lists and cleaning up the data took a lot of time and work, according to Pfeiffer. "There was a lot of duplication in a lot of different systems both in the prospecting side and then pulling clients out of multiple databases as well. So we had to go through a lot of de-duplication software," she says. "We had to have meetings with the [sales reps] to determine who was going to be the true owner of duplicated or owned prospects."

The Cottingham & Butler sales representatives were used to their old tracking processes, which involved a piece of paper and Excel, says Pfeiffer. "They didn't even track how the phone call went or know when they should call that person back."

So, some employees resisted CRM, but Pfeiffer forged ahead with training sessions. "We started [training] with the launch in June-we had a kick-off meeting and then we had another meeting a month later to see how things were going," she says. "We continued to have another training [session] once every month for the first four months and then we backed off to every two or three months the first year."

After that first year Pfeiffer started seeing the sales reps' attitudes change. She remembers reps expressing their pleasure at knowing when a client renews, thus giving them a chance to get their business. The system also contains records of what is said in conversations with a client. Now the sales rep knows what his or her barriers are with certain clients.

EXPANDED VERSION

Cottingham & Butler found itself researching CRM systems again in January 2005. This time it was for software to help benefits managers, who are part of the employee benefits group. They are the front line to the customer once the relationship is established; they go on calls with reps, handle incoming customer issues and prepare reports for renewals. The ability to customize convinced the company to use AppExchange again, this time picking Enterprise Edition. Once again, customization was a big factor.

"We were using a system that was created internally for our service people to manage our clients," says Pfeiffer. "And there were just so many unique fields that we had built in our own system that we needed in our bigger system."

Cottingham & Butler used the Enterprise Edition to create 22 custom objects to track plan coverage, partners, insurance carriers and policy details, and none of that was possible with the Professional Edition.

"Salesforce.com enables our sales and [benefits] service people to use the system, and either one of them can go into a particular account and see what the other has done," says Pfeiffer. "So if a customer called in, the benefits manager may handle the customer service issue and log it, and the [rep] can now go into that account and see a holistic view of what's going on with that customer and know the status of the account without having to call the benefits manager."

The benefits services area uses the system to make good on promises to clients. Every time Cottingham & Butler renews an account it provides a written service timeline, which outlines touch points-meetings and updates-with the client. The first touch point is added manually to the system, and the workflow rules automatically add the other touch points. That enables the sales manager or sales rep to see the event on his or her calendar ahead of time and know what's planned for that customer and know what action to take to deliver upon the promises.

The touch points also appear in the account so sales and benefits can see the status. "If they're out on the road and a customer asks about a report, he can log onto the Internet and look via Salesforce.com to see the status," says Steger. "And they're also able to systematically track these tasks to make sure they're being done in a timely manner."

REGULATION

Pfeiffer points to internal management accountability as another benefit the CRM system provides. Internal meetings to discuss client status used to take a lot of time, but now managers have the pertinent information at their fingertips: calls made last week, appointments people went on last week, appointments coming up in the next 30 days and current projects, says Pfeiffer.

The advantages don't end there. Take the example of a Cottingham & Butler sales representative who was in a car accident and unable to work for a year. Before Salesforce came along, someone would have needed to sift through his paper folders, e-mail messages, appointment books and other materials to piece together what had been done and what needed to be done with his accounts, says Steger. "In this case, everything was in Salesforce," she says, "so we were able to pick up the ball with no disruption for the client because of the unfortunate accident. Regardless of the person doing it, the follow-through was there with very minimal transition."

Using Salesforce.com enables Cottingham & Butler to provide clients with monthly reports that offer a snapshot of the renewal period going back about a year. The reports include the status of medical, dental and prescription claims, what the clients are spending vs. what they expected to spend, how many people are on their plan, employee contributions and employer contributions.

Cottingham & Butler designed a program that links Excel with Salesforce data to create those reports. One of the tools behind the combination is Bluewolf, an enterprise integration product built specifically for Salesforce.com that enables organizations to integrate third-party applications and other Web services to Salesforce.com. The product, from New York-based Bluewolf Group, takes the Salesforce information from ASP.NET (Microsoft) and puts it on Cottingham & Butler's local server.

"We created an Excel template to enter a group or group range and a date range-and based on that the report goes out and runs," says Steger. "It may take a couple minutes but it comes back with all this information summarized."

Benefit managers used to spend up to six hours working on one of those reports before automation, says Pfeiffer. "Now it just takes about three minutes for them to put in a client ID number and date range they want, and they get back their reports," she says.

Cottingham & Butler clients appreciate the reports, says Steger. "We've had clients look at the schematics, which are typically used for a one-year snapshot, and ask if they can go back another year," she says. "And we've had them go back as far as our data would allow us to go. It's allowing them to analyze some of their decisions."

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