As agents of Travelers Insurance Co. have discovered, a business can't subsist on high-speed Internet access alone. It requires proper hardware equipment to support the effort.Realizing that they needed to communicate quicker and more efficiently with customers and business affiliates, many agents of Travelers Insurance Co. spent the last year implementing technology to enable high-speed Internet access.

Although the agents had the foresight to recognize the benefits of such technologies as T-1 and digital subscriber lines, one operational shortcoming threatened to undermine their high-speed initiatives. A majority of the agents were not equipped with the proper hardware to fully support the efficiencies of high-speed Internet access.

That dilemma was addressed over the summer when the Hartford, Conn.-based carrier introduced a program to help agents upgrade their computers. In partnership with Round Rock, Texas-based Dell Computer Co., Travelers is now offering agents special, but unspecified, discounts on select Dell computer systems.

Choosing from two of Dell's most popular laptop and desktop units, agents can acquire the equipment by logging onto www.travelers.com, which links them to a customized Web site created and hosted by Dell.

Since the program debuted, Travelers' agents have taken to it as swiftly as a high-speed Internet connection: Agents have placed orders for 450 PCs, with one Pennsylvania-based agency buying 20 desktops alone. Without revealing specific details, Travelers expects agent participation to accelerate by the end of the year and into 2001.

"We found that 50% of our agency force had high-speed Internet access, which was great news because higher connection speeds allow agents greater access to more complex software," says Patrick Gee, vice president for select personal lines business for Travelers Property Casualty.

"We've spent considerable time talking with agents about broadband access and properly equipping PCs in order to get the benefits of speed," Gee continues. "We showed them examples of how the costs for PC equipment had dropped dramatically in the past year, and went to work on developing this program exclusively for them."

PC pinpointing

Travelers' partnership with Dell was an outgrowth of Dell's affiliation with banking giant Citigroup Inc., which merged with Travelers in Nov. 1998. Dell, the leading direct computer systems provider in the United States with annual revenues of about $28 billion, has been one of Citigroup's main suppliers for computer hardware.

In 1999, a large percentage of Travelers' agents were busy investing in IT upgrades as part of Y2K compliance. As a result, spending devoted to computer hardware technology was delayed, Gee says. Earlier this year, Travelers began to explore economical strategies to enable its agents to upgrade their PC inventories, and approached Dell executives on possible solutions.

"There were a number of vendors who participated in the proposal, but Dell was able to provide the pricing, configurations, service and support thwe were seeking," Gee says.

After taking three to four months to work out legal issues and to carve out other program specifications, Travelers approved the partnership by early summer and launched it in mid-July. The carrier notified agents of the program via e-mail, fax and through carrier-sponsored symposiums, says Bruce Fiori, second vice president for select personal lines business for Travelers Property Casualty.

From Dell's perspective, Travelers' agent network had been equipped with technology that ranged from archaic agency management systems to high-end systems. "We spent a lot of time with Travelers' Technology Group to determine the products that would be included in the package," says Tim Lull, global account manager for Dell.

Ultimately, Dell and Travelers determined two specific applications would best suit agents' needs. The first was a desktop model sold within Dell's OptiPlex series. The PCs are developed for customers who require highly reliable systems within networked environments. The desktop systems are noted for having low down-time rates compared with other systems, Lull explains.

The notebook models-belonging to Dell's Latitude series-provide several advantages, one of which is superior battery performance for complex networked environments.

One stipulation written within the agreement is that agents could not trade down and acquire systems that were less than the basic requirement of 64 megabytes of RAM, a 400-megahertz microprocessor and a 17-inch monitor, Fiori says. Conversely, the PC configurations were limited so that agents could not order PCs loaded with elaborate speakers and sound card features-accessories that would not be necessary for an agent to conduct business.

In the end, Dell was able to offer agents deep discounts because the PCs offered in the program were not Dell's top-of-the-line units, but were culled from "a limited platform (desktop and notebook series)," Lull says. "As a result, we were able to keep our own costs low and pass along the savings."

Simplicity in mind

When a Travelers agent decides to explore the products in the Dell line, they start by logging onto www.travelers.com. From the corporate Web site, Travelers has a hyperlink called "Agent Services." Once they input their corporate ID and password, an agent can navigate to the Premier Pages Internet site that Dell created for Travelers.

Agents are ultimately issued a new Dell-specific ID and password separate from the one issued by Travelers.

Once within Premier Pages, agents can build a PC configuration for their office, order hardware and track the delivery. "Premier Pages was created with simplicity in mind," Gee says. "We wanted to make sure the agent would find the site easy to maneuver and find information quickly."

The Travelers/Dell partnership, which Travelers' executives say will be reviewed and most likely be extended to agents on an annual basis, is perceived by some industry observers as a compelling example of how carriers must travel the extra mile to help agents perform their jobs more efficiently.

Moreover, such programs can enable agents to support carrier-led technology initiatives. For example, Travelers in May announced a program that combines Internet technology with its quote, rate and issuance system. Marketed as Issue Express Net, or IENet, the program represents one component of an integrated small business system to help independent agents connect all aspects of sales and service through a complete electronic platform.

Even though the Dell program is mutually exclusive from Issue Express Net, agents who participate in IENet-3,000 have already signed on-may be inclined to opt into the Dell program as the vehicle to enable optimal participation in IENet.

But even if agents elect not to implement IENet, Travelers executives still believe that it's incumbent on agents to stretch their IT initiatives to the point of total efficiency.

"Very simply, time is money," Gee says. "If it takes an agency less time to process their business because they can toggle easily between applications, run multiple software applications at the same time and run them much faster, they have additional time to concentrate on writing more business."

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