While many insurers turn to vendors for help creating mobile applications, Celina Insurance Group, a mutual P&C carrier, is keeping mobile development in-house for the benefit of its agents.

The company, which has sold through independent agents for its entire century-long existence, wants to make sure those professionals have the tools they need to succeed in the 21st-century insurance marketplace, explains Rob Shoenfelt, CIO. Celina hosts a yearly meeting with its agents -- not agency principals -- to discuss how the Celina technology is working and what the insurer can do to make it easier to sell Celina products. The partnership has led to the insurers' IT staff creating mobile applications and online underwriting capabilities geared to agents' specific needs.

“We're like order-takers," Shoenfelt says. For example, with agents concerned about disintermediation in the claims process -- and as many insurers have worked on mobile apps that allow customers to report and manage claims themselves, Celina's claims app is geared toward the agent. 

Celina’s mobile app offers a subset of the functionality available on the company’s portal, and streamlines access to inherent functions of mobile phones, such as offering directions to policy owners’ homes, and ‘click-to-call’ access to underwriters and insureds.Shoenfelt says the app took months to create and was built internally, "like we build almost everything,” he says.

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In addition, Celina has made underwriters available to agents in real time, via text, for more than a decade, and created all of its systems to use plain English rather than codes. “If the underwriter’s name is Jane Doe, it appears as ‘Jane Doe.’ It shows whether she’s available for chat; if it’s in green, she’s available. If it’s in yellow, she’s away from her desk and they can leave a message. But it’s her name, not a code. All the billing codes are spelled out. Whatever it is, it’s all spelled out.”

Celina takes all of its applications online through its proprietary portal, which features business rules and eliminates the need for rekeying of information. “There is one rating engine, and we are accessing it real time for ordering insurance scores and MVRs,” Shoenfelt says. “That’s all done on the back end. They enter it on the front end, it passes across and orders the background and brings it back to the agent.

“Rating is the same way. We have one rating engine, but it goes to the underwriting matrix," he continues. "Some will kick out to the underwriters, some to the assistant, and some go out the door. We’re trying to push the ones the underwriters need to see under their noses, as opposed to all of them."

The mobile app streamlines other processes as well. Celina has been collecting digital photographs for underwriting purposes for about 15 years, Shoenfelt says: “We’ve always asked for pictures: front of the home, back of the home, and any unique items, swimming pools, boats, or whatever.” But from the agents’ perspective, though, it was a cumbersome process in which photos were created with a digital camera, transferred to a hard drive and then uploaded to an underwriting system.

“When the smartphone comes along, they don’t want to do that anymore,” Shoenfelt explains. Agents wanted to text or e-mail photos, but then someone else would have to add them to the electronic underwriting file, which would have created more work, handoffs and opportunities for error. Instead, they added the functionality to the mobile app.

The app has a work list that gets filled in as agents send information. "In one place, it says, ‘here are all the things we need.’ As they take the pictures, it reduces their work list," Shoenfelt says. "It helped the agent, because when they emailed it, they had to type in the policy number and description. Now it’s all organized. They see a policy number or a name, and a list of what they need done and it’s just click, click, click.” 

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Celina’s do-it-yourself ethos is unusual for smaller insurers, and further complicated due to geography. Celina is located in Celina, Ohio, which is hours away from larger cities, such as Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus. But the company also takes a DIY approach to developing and retaining talent.

With the exception of a handful of telecommuters, Shoenfelt says almost all of the insurer’s IT and other staff are local. “We started an intern program in the late ‘90s, and five or six of our staff used to be interns. They started in high school and stayed on through college,” Shoenfelt says.”It’s a great place to raise a family, but there are not a lot of professional jobs. If we can identify those people, they can become lifers. That’s how we find and build the talent.” Only occasionally does he look outside for consultants, and then mostly for exposure and training purposes.

“The goal is always to get rid of the consultants and do it ourselves,” he says. “With some of our web stuff –  we made some leaps in terms of look and feel and passing data – we got some help from the outside, but then our staff then learned it. They would do the first one, and my staff would do the rest.”

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