Insurers' growth strategies largely are based on their ability to sell more policies; competitive pricing, quicker time to market, effective marketing and new product development are common tactics to achieve that goal.For carriers like Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. that rely on a network of independent agencies, there's the added dimension of improving agent loyalty: Agents are known to steer their business to insurers that are easiest to work with. That's why the Novato, Calif.-based carrier in 2004 implemented a multi-year plan, dubbed Enterprise Partner Integration Program, which is the centerpiece of Fireman's desire to align its IT infrastructure to support more than 3,000 agents working at 59 offices in 26 states.

As a first step, Fireman's Fund established agent "model offices" to gain a better understanding of the flow of information between agency management systems and the carrier's back-office systems, and identify rough spots in agents' workflow.

"The program's focus from an IT perspective is developing the interfaces to support real-time agency transactions to gain efficiencies for agents and for us," says Roger Cottman, a senior director at Fireman's Fund, "and it's built around our emphasis on improving agents' ease of doing business with us."

SOA backbone

It also is being built on a backbone of service-oriented architecture (SOA), which enables the carrier to avoid a massive-and costly-legacy rip and replacement project.

"We don't have a nice suite of services that we can purpose to agents," Cottman explains.

"Service-oriented architecture represents a means to develop and deliver services, and our Partner Integration strategy will identify, catalog, manage and deliver services cohesively, both internally and externally."

Fireman's Fund is managing its Partner Integration project in stages because the scope is so far-reaching. Last fall, the carrier announced that it was implementing the Accenture Underwriting Components Solution to streamline underwriting and make it consistent across all lines of business.

"We want to make sure that agents can submit information quickly and consistently, and that we can process it and rate it quickly," says Fred Matteson, Fireman's CIO.

More recently, Fireman's Fund announced that it was working with Austin, Texas-based Webify Solutions to enable agents to send and receive policyholder billing information directly through their agency management system. To accomplish this, Fireman's needed the infrastructure to accept a real-time Web service transaction in ACORD format, pull data together from multiple billing systems, package the information and send it back to agents.

On Demand apps

Fireman's selected Webify's Insurance On Demand Applications, a suite of service-oriented business applications that provide agents with on-demand access to carrier rating, quoting, policy administration and claims management processes. IBM Corp.'s Websphere Interchange Server and Websphere Business Integration software serve as the underpinnings of the on-demand solution.

Webify's design provides a good match for the carrier's broader adoption of service-oriented architecture, Cottman says.

"Webify brings more than just the connection capability; the underpinnings of Webify and IBM leverage our service-oriented architecture backbone," he explains. "There are many other agency integration products out there, but we felt Webify was uniquely positioned with its architecture."

The solution will provide "machine-to-machine" and browser-based connections in the form of Web services between the carrier's billing systems and agency management software from Applied System and AMS to process billing inquiry transaction through IVANS.

An agent will enter the billing inquiry directly into the Applied or AMS system, which then produces an ACORD message that is sent to Fireman's Fund. The Webify solution intercepts the message, which can either be a single request or a batch request, and then routes the request to the proper billing system (Fireman's has multiple billing systems). The information is pulled together and sent back as a Web service to the agent's system in seconds.

"We eliminate what we refer to as 'swivel-chair automation,' where an agent has to leave an agency management system and use the telephone or a browser to get the information from the carrier," says Manoj Saxena, Webify's CEO. Automating agent transactions such as billing inquiry will help Fireman's build agent loyalty, he adds. "If an independent agent does business with 10 to 20 carriers, the top two that are the easiest to work with will account for the bulk of gross written premium."

Webify's multi-modal solution enables agents to send the request directly through their agency management system or through a Web portal, a key feature that contributes to Fireman's goal of making it easier for agents to do business with the carrier.

ACORD standards

Another objective that has been achieved is to use ACORD standards to lower operating costs through straight-through processing.

Fireman's began rolling out the functionality in December to agents using Applied's agency management system for personal lines' policies and intends to incorporate support for AMS' TransactNow in the near future. Support for Fireman's other lines of business will be rolled out in phases, Fireman's Cottman says.

"Agents have been pleased at the level of tighter integration," he says. "The level of enthusiasm from agents surprised us."

Fireman's intends to implement additional service-oriented business applications supported by Webify, but Cottman declined to name the applications or provide a timeframe for when the Webify project will be completed.

"We're looking to implement other inquiry-type transactions for both personal and commercial lines, although the commercial lines' transactions are very complicated."

However, a source with knowledge of the project who declined to be identified says Fireman's Fund intends to implement Webify's policy and quoting applications incrementally over 2005 and 2006. And, while Fireman's is hesitant to specify its plans, the intentions of its Enterprise Partner Integration Program are quite clear: "As our CEO (Charles Kavitsky) has often stated, our agents are in many ways our most important immediate customer," Cottman says.

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