Despite the hype, enterprise mobile applications still are rarely used among insurers, according to studies like “Benchmarking the New Normal: 50 Advanced Capabilities for P&C Insurers,” a report from the insurance technology analyst firm Novarica.

Only 8 percent of P&C insurers have widely deployed mobile apps or mobile-optimized Websites to provide access to their books of business or sales manuals for producers, while another 23 percent plan to do so in the next year. For customers, apps to view relationship details, balances and key documents are widely deployed by just 18 percent of P&C insurers, with another 29 percent planning to do so during the course of 2015.

From the consumers’ perspective, mobile technology has matured to the point that smartphones are replacing desktop and laptop computers for many users. “The insureds, particularly the younger ones, don't even want to have to get on a computer. They want to pull the phone out of their pocket, hit a couple of buttons, and do their transaction,” says Joe Friend, SVP of sales and marketing for insurance technology firm IDP. “Whether you're an agent or a policyholder, your toolkit is on your phone or tablet. It's not on your laptop. That's back in your office.”

As difficult as it has been for large insurers to roll out enterprise level mobile applications, it has been even harder for midsize and smaller insurers. That's why IDP recently launched InsuraSphere Mobile, a mobile app specifically intended for smaller insurers, which typically have fewer resources and more budgetary constraints than larger companies.

[See also: Making Strides in Enterprise Mobile]

“If you are a tier one insurance company, you've got the money to spend,” explains Ben Chandler, IDP’s CIO, who oversees product development, professional services and implementation, as well as database and infrastructure. “But if you're a small to midsized company, you don't have the capital to invest in a new toy. They take their time, but that makes it harder for them to compete.”

InsuraSphere Mobile integrates with IDP's InsuraSphere, but is vendor-agnostic and compatible with any policy administration, claims or billing system, Chandler says. It includes critical functionality, such as the ability to access policies, billing and claim information, and offers self-service functionality, including the ability to print policy documents and check claims status, all of which can help smaller insurers to punch above their weight in the battle to improve customer experience.

The technology is delivered via a managed private cloud, which is intended to facilitate rollout, and simplify maintenance, upgrades and security. The ability to submit a first notice of loss and attach pictures soon will be included.

[See also: Swiss Re Revamps Mobile Management, Adds BYOD]

“Those are the major things people are asking for,” says Friend. “They're providing services and allowing the insureds to interact with the insurance company without having to talk to anybody. What we're hearing from the users within the insurance company is that they absolutely have to have this in order to stay competitive.”

In order to succeed with mobile, Chandler says insurers of all sizes need to clear three hurdles: Cost, technology and culture.

For insurers to go it alone and build their own mobile apps requires considerable expense and expertise due to the variety of mobile devices, operating systems and versions. “You've got Android, iOS and then tablets. All of these need to be addressed individually. You can do it in a browser, but that's not like a modern mobile application," he explains.

Security and its cost is another concern, which IDP attempts to mitigate by delivering the software as a service from a private cloud. “We host in a secure data center with redundacy and backup,” Friend says. “That's an important thing for insurance because they have to certify that to the insurance departments every year.” 

But despite advancements in the technology, reduction in costs, and consumers’ acceptance of mobile technology, insurers’ internal culture is still frequently the sticking point, Chandler says. Carriers must close the gap between the ways they willing to do business, and customers’ and agents’ rapidly evolving expectations. For example, he says, many insureds are willing to offer only phone numbers and email addresses via their websites, adamant that only employees will be able to change policy records.

“Other carriers will offer an actual form, let customers fill them out, but then employees will make the changes,” Chandler says. “The more progressive ones are saying, ‘Let them make the change.’ They don't need to have the level of staffing to answer telephones and look up simple answers for people. They don't process checks: Customers pay directly, and the money shows up in the bank account. It's more and more self-service, and insurers have pushed it out in two levels: to the agents and the policyholders.”

As account maintenance capabilities become more prevalent for smaller insurers, Chandler says first notice of loss likely will be the next opportunity for insurers to differentiate themselves and generate cost savings via mobile technologies.

Previously, FNOL was little more than a form -- but that's going to change, Chandler says: "In the past, you had to scramble to find that insurance card. Now that's right on your phone; it's part of the application. You needed a piece of paper to write down all the information about the person you ran into. Now you're going to take a picture of the tag on their car, the damage, the intersection, and their license. And all that's going to be uploaded with that first notice of loss. You reduce time, you reduce cycles, you reduce cost. Insurance carriers want to make claims processing as quick as possible, not because they like to write checks, but because that's how they keep growing their clients.”

Because insurers will be able to rely on photographs and videos, adjustors will no longer need to go out into the field as often as they currently do, with will help cut claims costs. And the opportunities extend to other lines of business, Chandler continues. “On homes, you may start putting an inventory of what’s in your house into the insurance application. And, if you have a claim, you can reference that instead of running around to find the appraisal for that ring that got stolen.”

Even the slowest adopters eventually will need to get on board with mobile applications, Friend says. As the technology continues to mature, mobile will create and accelerate internal efficiencies and enable the reallocation of staff, which can help insurers look for more opportunities grow and expand as the economy improves without adding headcount or being challenged by competing priorities.

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