After several years' experience with customer relationship management (CRM) implementations, insurers are a lot smarter about what the term means and how to achieve it, according to industry experts.Perhaps one of the most important lessons learned is to pay closer attention to the people who are responsible for the "R" in CRM, according to Darren Peterson, vice president, marketing at E-Z Data Inc., a Pasadena, Calif.-based firm that provides agent CRM systems. "The people I'm talking about are the ones that focus on . . . the relationship with the customer," he says. "And (for insurers) that has to be your field force."

Genworth Financial Inc., Richmond, Va., recently deployed E-Z Data CRM to its career agency force, but the Richmond, Va.-based firm also distributes its products through banks, securities brokerage firms and brokerage general agencies.

The company's multi-channel history has enabled it to understand the nuances of each channel, according to Scott McKay, CIO and senior vice president of operations and quality and Genworth. "We've had the luxury of being exposed to multiple distribution models," he says. "And that has helped us over the years to understand what is common and what is differentiated among them. It has kept us from falling into the trap of assuming that putting in a (generic CRM solution) is going to work. It drove us in the direction of the more tailored solution."

Indeed, insurers have learned to be clearer about who the customer is and the importance of their agents in the CRM equation, according to Kimberly Harris, vice president and research director at Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based research and advisory firm. "Insurers began to see the (end) customer is important, but they often have a middleman sitting between the company and that customer," she says. "Therefore, many insurance companies are changing some of their CRM projects to be more tailored (to agents)."

As they do so, however, they're also confronted with technology challenges. The number of career agents who use insurance company systems is shrinking, while the industry is moving toward straight-through processing (STP), notes E-Z Data's Peterson.

This confluence of events is pushing the industry toward standards, according to sources. "Let's say I'm a producer using an E-Z Data CRM system," says Peterson. "How can that producer's primary manufacturer accomplish STP if that producer's system is different than the distributor's system, such as a brokerage general agency, and the third system is the one the home office is using?"

The answer is clearly standards, he says. "If you look to what will alleviate this pain, ACORD will play a role. ACORD is creating a common language that the software providers need to be able to speak in order for STP to happen."

"The insurance industry is looking closely at open standards, so various technologies can communicate with each other," Gartner's Harris concurs. Some companies purchased best-of-breed CRM software for better functionality, while others selected suites to avoid integration hassles, she says. "But even if they took the suite approach, they typically have multiple suites-so they haven't avoided the integration issue at all."

Insurers realize CRM isn't an island unto itself, she says. "There are integration issues that need to be addressed-how CRM fits with policy systems, claims systems, and agent systems, for instance. How all these systems communicate is more of a priority than in the past."

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