While one of Ireland's largest insurers is harnessing mobile text messaging to sell a novel auto insurance program, a small U.S. insurance company in the cornfields of Ohio is using enterprise instant messaging to help it compete with the big guys."Instant messaging lets us do some things that our large competitors haven't done yet," says Rob Shoenfelt, CIO, at Celina Insurance Group, a $66 million mutual property/casualty insurer based in Celina, Ohio. "They don't have instant chat on their Web site, and we do. Can they put it in? Sure they can. But it was one technology we were able to implement before they did."

Celina Insurance is using IBM's Lotus Instant Messaging (previously called Sametime) both internally and externally. Employees use it to replace many e-mail exchanges among themselves, and agents use it when they visit Celina's extranet.

"When agents log on to our Web site and get authenticated, they are logged in to Lotus Instant Messaging at the same time," Shoenfelt says. Then, when they look up a customer's policy, the underwriter's name appears.

"It will display, 'Marla Overland,' for example," Shoenfelt says. "And there's a little green box, and the agents can double-click on the underwriter's name and instantly have an online chat with her. They don't have to find her number. They don't have to pick up the phone. They don't have to do anything. And they really like that."

In addition to using instant messaging to provide online chats between its agents and underwriters, Celina Insurance also uses the technology to help its agents when they run into computer problems.

"The help desk can run the agent's machine from here," Shoenfelt says. "We'll set up a Sametime chat with the agent, take them into an online meeting, and take control of their computer to fix it," he says. "For a little company in the cornfields of Ohio, that's quite impressive."

Because Celina had already developed its agent extranet, adding the Lotus Instant Messaging capability three years ago took only a few weeks, Shoenfelt says. "It's a fast way to communicate, and it builds community."

It also enables Celina to look bigger than it is, he says. "We're a small company that competes with some pretty large players out there. How do we differentiate ourselves? We try to build the relationship, and instant messaging helps us do that. It does not replace the human relationship. It does not replace the phone call. It augments it. It's just another way for agents to contact us-to work with us. And it's another way for our people to work together."

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