A malfunctioning Web site is a money drain in terms of lost revenue and business opportunities, not to mention the time it takes technicians to locate and fix the problem. Indeed, the IT team at Central Mutual Insurance Co. spent hours-to no avail-trying to determine why information sometimes was missing when agents, customers or employees visited the company Web site.But 10 minutes after installing Web optimization software, Central Mutual's IT team traced the problem to its source and fixed it.

That experience alone was enough to convince the Van Wert, Ohio-based insurer to keep using IntegriTea software from a San Francisco company called TeaLeaf Technology. IntegriTea monitors Web transactions and records everything that happens, says Gary Corcoran, the carrier's assistant vice president of information systems.

The software also helps analyze trends in the Web site's workings and alerts the IT team members when a problem is brewing so they can intervene quickly.

When IT staffers are investigating a problem on the site, they no longer have to give users the third degree to find out what page they were on, what information they entered, what error message they saw or what button they clicked. Instead, the staffers check the archives and find out what was happening when the error occurred.

The software replaces programs that check for errors by simulating the behavior of people who use the site, says Tim Smith, TeaLeaf director of marketing. There's no need to imitate the users because IntegtriTea is recording what's actually occurring, he says. Companies can usually solve problems 50% to 90% faster with the help of the software, Smith says, and companies that give the software a try usually discover problems they didn't know they had, he adds.

High priority

Central Mutual officially began using the program in October 2002, after four or five months of testing, says Larry Streets, a senior Internet programmer for Central Mutual. The usual evaluation period lasts 30 days, but Central Mutual needed longer because the team was busy with other projects.

But IntegriTea soon became a top priority, Streets says. "We saw great potential from a Webcast they put on," he says. The test, Central Mutual's programmers say, consisted of putting the software on the company servers and using it to monitor internal and external activity-not much different from simply using the product.

Before installing the software, the insurer's IT team had been stumped in its efforts to find out why data that Web users typed in sometimes got lost. The problem didn't occur all of the time, making it more difficult to root out.

Once the software was in place, the IT people called up the record of the session marred by the error. "In 10 minutes we had the answer," says Streets. The team soon fixed the problem, he adds.

Independent agents who represent Central Insurance use the company's Web site to transact business and to inform the company when applications are slow, when errors occur or when they can't get access, Corcoran says.

Responding quickly

Maintaining a smooth-running Web site gives the right impression to independent agents who are free to sell policies offered by competitors, Corcoran says.

"From a relationship standpoint," he notes, "being able to respond quickly to any sort of problem encountered and make changes so it doesn't recur is important to building confidence and trust in the system. It adds value to the organization. It's a tool that can improve our relationship with the user."

It also influences the opinions of policyholders, Corcoran says. "People believe they're using the local agent's site rather than the company's site," he says, "and we don't want to adversely affect the reputation of an agent or make him lose a client."

Users who called to report problems with the site before the IntergriTea software was in place might get a 10-minute grilling from someone at headquarters who wanted to know about every click of the mouse to help locate the error, says Andy Luksic, a Central Insurance programmer.

Now, a user provides a name and policy number and the person answering the phone at headquarters probably can fix the problem in minutes, Luksic says, adding that "that's what the customer wants to hear."

The software also records how long users wait for a page to load. Those roundtrip figures can prove useful, says Street, for tasks like showing an agent the wisdom of switching to a cable Internet connection or explaining that everyone in a certain geographic area is experiencing slow Web access.

IT staffers also can use the independent agency's ID to examine everything the agents have experienced on their visits to the Web. The team can use that knowledge when they talk to agents about difficulties and thus have a head start in making the system work better.

IntegriTea captures every request agents make and every response they receive, giving the IT team the ability to "search, sort and parse" the workings of the Web site to study recurring errors, rather than having to rely on users to report problems, Luksic explains.

"Another component of IntegriTea that's very valuable is the reporting function," says Streets. When the software detects an error, a message appears on the user's screen in a numerical code. That code also is sent by e-mail to administrators so they can respond quickly to the problem. "That's huge," Streets says of the early warnings.

"We could be running out of space and have to get on it immediately before we start turning screens red all over the place," Streets says of the errors. Instead of having 500 applications fail in the next five minutes, the IT people could fix the problem after only a couple hundred users experienced problems.

Central Mutual receives the alerts by e-mail, but notification can also be made by pager or phone, says Smith.

The software comes with 40 to 50 events that it reports to administrators. Companies can set the system to notify them of other events, Smith says, noting that TeaLeaf provides a three-step approach to creating parameters for unique error messages. "Most customize over time," he says, "but 40 or 50 takes a company a long way. As they get used to the product, they may choose to customize."

Assessing the value

Central Insurance hasn't attached a dollar value to the time it has saved because of the software, or to the business they've held onto because the software has made good impressions on agents and customers, says Corcoran. For him, the software's become a necessary part of doing business. "We're finding problems in five minutes that used to take three people five hours to find," Streets says. "There's no way to put a hard dollar figure on it, but it's big."

Central Insurance has sometimes created its own problems on the Web site and a call to the TeaLeaf support people remedied the gaffe in 15 to 20 minutesm, Corcoran notes.

"It's truly unique to have a support person give you his phone number and they do that," he says.

IntegriTea, which takes an average of three days to install, came on the market in February 2002, says Tealeaf's Smith, and a new feature called Session to Scripts that automates some processes was announced in April.

The software costs $10,000 per CPU and $5,000 for each user seat, according to TeaLeaf. Central Mutual's executives say the product "quickly paid for itself 10 times over."

But it's about more than money, Smith explains. "Typically, a person using our product is in the firefighting mode," he says. "We help them turn their attention to other things."

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