Five years ago, when Los Angeles-based Farmers Insurance Group introduced its first agent portal, the carrier believed it was on to something. As a communication vehicle, the portal pushed one-way information in "wallpaper" fashion to its captive and independent agents in 41 states.By 2003, the nation's third-largest provider of personal lines property and casualty insurance provided its agents with simple transactional capabilities by hooking its mainframe to IBM Websphere's "e-agent platform" front end.

Farmers' employee portal was designed likewise, giving 9,000 employees access to auto, fire, life and commercial systems' data.

This year, with $2.7 billion in revenue across all lines and 48 million transactions per day, Farmers was charged with finding a cost-effective way to better manage information being shared by all stakeholders-now and into the future.

The features Farmers identified as important to accelerate improvement of data sharing-as well as employee and agent productivity-represented a tall order. The carrier needed a system that would integrate with the familiar Farmers' agent portal environment yet provide customized navigation to suit each user's requirements.

Total Content Management

In addition, Farmers' employees, 15,000 captive and 1,700 independent agents, needed to be able to tailor their ability to view reports on screen in the same format as the printed version, and save reports in any format, including spreadsheets, for easy analysis.

Finally, the carrier needed its users to have powerful search facilities to access two-year's worth of account data, making research and problem resolution fast and efficient. The idea, says Riko Metzroth, Farmers' vice president of e-business, was to accomplish all of this without having to replace the carrier's legacy systems.

"Because our business is increasing, our level of data is increasing, so we looked at what we could do to integrate at the content level," he says. "We wanted to optimize our existing technology with something that would allow us to share content between applications."

After a lengthy review process, Farmers chose ViewDirect Total Content Management (TCM) from Mobius Management Systems Inc., Rye, N.Y.

ViewDirect integrates content across disparate repositories and provides content-enabled applications that automate business processes.

"One of our most important goals is to leverage the Web and get information out more quickly," says Metzroth.

Customized for Each Agent

Equally important, adds Metzroth, is to give the user control over their electronic workspace. LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol)-an Internet protocol that e-mail and other programs use to look up information from a server-at the front end sets user IDs and passwords to determine what Farmers' employees, agents and agent employees see.

Neil Weiss, director of insurance solutions at Mobius, maintains that a TCM system is based on the premise that organizations over time have stored the content needed for day-to-day operations in multiple disparate content repositories on any number of software platforms.

"The system must enable the organization to leverage these investments by providing access through a single interface to all content in any repository," he says.

Farmers' initiated the system for the employees first, then followed with captives, then independents, says Metzroth.

In fact, the agent portal is customized for each and every agent. "Again, LDAP maintains security for agent codes, but it's left open-ended for policy applications," says Metzroth. "They can send as many apps in as they want."

Back at Farmers, a profile for each agent houses location, primary product sets, and a database and archive of the agent's customers.

"Based on a query of that database, the Web pages accommodate the agent's profile," says Metzroth. "Captives may have different needs for information than do producers."

The ViewDirect system routes sales, loss, accounting and billing information and associated reports to Farmers' agents via the Farmers' Agency Dashboard.

Farmers confirms it has reduced reporting delays. Reports that used to take two to eight weeks to forward are now available almost immediately, enabling employees to react to problems much more quickly.

"We also can now provide loss ratio and sales results in real time, because the sooner you provide sales results the sooner an agent can act on it," says Metzroth.

Weiss asserts that, because the typical scenario involves storing policies and declarations in different places, ViewDirect's archiving feature helps drive Farmers' cost savings.

"Some people have moved away from the idea of archiving, because it's often thought of as dead documents and outdated storage," he says. "A lot of insurance companies store the data specifically for claims purposes, but large carriers create nightly batch jobs from their legacy policy administration systems, which spit out 1,000 declaration pages at a time. Those batch jobs are directed toward large production printers, where they are printed, posted and mailed. Using archive technology, the batch job is also stored in a ViewDirect repository."

A Series Of Events

Data captured in the repository triggers a series of events. It kicks off an e-mail to the agent, informing them that there are new documents or declaration pages to review. That e-mail includes a hyperlink back to the portal, where the agent can post a confirmation.

Based on customization agreements between Farmers, its agent and the policyholder that are set in advance, a similar e-mail, with the agent's logo, name and contact information, is also sent to the policyholder.

"It's a matter of connecting the dots," says Weiss.

The push technology that was the hallmark of Farmers' initial agent portal still has a place in the new system. Communications, published by Farmers as an e-bulletin and often personalized by location and other information-such as a new auto policy made available in California-appear daily or twice daily on the agent's dashboard.

"The goal is to make us more responsive to customers and more nimble in making decisions," says Farmer's Metzroth.

In Farmers' case, empowering users to obtain and work with real-time data takes equal billing with reducing the costs associated with paper and printing.

"We took a look at 3,000 monthly and quarterly reports that had been printed and distributed, along with associated people power, postage, ink, and presses, and the costs added up to $600,000," says Metzroth.

"The solution became obvious: Get rid of the paper and find a way to leverage our existing mainframe and Web systems with something that would capture, integrate, transform and Web-enable content in multiple formats from multiple sources."

Data from downstream mainframe applications previously routed to a print application is now rerouted into ViewDirect, obviating the need for paper reports.

"Agents relied on hard copies that arrived three weeks after results were available," says Metzroth.

Opportunity To Clean House

The process of reviewing the claims, accounting and sales management reports that should remain available via paper-versus those that should be electronic-provided the team with the opportunity to clean house.

"We started out reviewing 2,500 reports and found out many were duplicates, many provided data in a different format, and many were obsolete," says Metzroth.

"We whittled that down to just over 500 that we decided to keep. In essence, we have ceased printing any management reports."

Working with Mobius representatives, Farmers put its due diligence plan in place. "We took something away from agents (printed policy), so we communicated fully to them in advance what the plan was," Metzroth adds. "Many are small business people, so we made part of our portal Farmer's University, with training, videos and tutorials."

The ViewDirect system is currently averaging approximately 80,000 accesses per day with 150,000 accesses per day projected by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Farmers is leveraging other systems to work in tandem with ViewDirect to enable the carrier to better communicate with its agents.

The company, which contracted with USA.net to provide all agents with e-mail addresses, is building a homegrown customer relationship management system that will use USA.net's calendar tool to link back to Farmers.

"Now agents can contact customers, make appointments and send out a follow-up e-mail-all linked through Farmers' Lotus Notes system," says Metzroth.

At press time, Farmers planned to introduce what is calls e-CMS (electronic customer management system), in which all policy data and customer contact information will be housed at Farmers-and, with proper security in place, integrated with e-mail and calendar systems.

Agents will use the system to group customers and send batch e-mails and letters, which Farmers prints and distributes, based on sales opportunities.

"Eventually we'll get into Wi-Fi and downloading to agents' PDAs," says Metzroth. "Who knows what the future holds?"

It's a Control Issue

For the typical IT executive concerned about regulatory compliance, hearing that a total content management system (TCM) will enable you to leverage your content, share it across all applications and provide access to a host of internal and external users in real time might be a bit disconcerting.

Neil Weiss, director of insurance solutions at Mobius Management Systems Inc., Rye, N.Y. maintains that one element that gives IT administrators pause is the idea that TCM users can access documents that reside on a number of different databases from different software vendors.

But carriers needn't worry. It's more of a control issue, he says.

"Compliance didn't just show up last year," says Weiss. "Compliance aside, simply running your business means you must know where your information is and be able to access it quickly."

Since compliance is a top issue for carriers, Weiss admits that when choosing a TCM system, one must look for auditability. "Insurance carriers should look for a system that offers full tracking and audit capabilities," he says. "The IT administrator must be able to track where the data is, how it's compiled (into which documents) and who is viewing it," he says.

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