Build it and they will come. Such was the faith in location intelligence technology from Church Mutual Insurance Co.'s leaders back in 1999 when the Merrill, Wis.-based provider of insurance for religious institutions began looking for a way to improve its claims operations.Seven years later, the insurance company is using mapping technology from Troy, N.Y.-based MapInfo Corp., in some surprising ways.

The desire to have a spatial view of the potential impact of claims fueled Church Mutual's initial interest in MapInfo. The insurer wanted to convert its policyholder addresses to points on a map and have access to documents with a global positioning system (GPS) location.

"A picture says a thousand words," says Christopher Graham, CIO for Church Mutual. "Information usage, information interpretation and decision-making improved when we were able to see the information plotted spatially on maps."

BEFORE LOCATION TECHNOLOGY

The implementation has helped the carrier streamline operations, increase productivity and save time, says E. Richard Simon, property claims manager for Church Mutual. And the new view of data has helped enable Church Mutual to increase its writings by 80% in the past three years.

Before the advent of location intelligence, Church Mutual, which markets commercial coverage, including property, liability, auto and workers' compensation, faced a quandary: Claims staff processing large losses could scarcely afford to be out of the office; instead they were fortunate if they could plan visits to two locations in a two- or three-day trip.

Furthermore, when Church Mutual was confronted by tornadoes, hailstorms or hurricanes, it plodded along, trying to identify the number of policyholders who might be affected the day after a storm. This entailed running numerous reports that would yield information about the policyholders within a particular ZIP code or post-office location.

"This was, of course, very labor-intensive and didn't really tell us too much because we also had to convert that to the claims documentation to see if, in fact, we could corroborate the size and scope of the storm with the amount of policyholders," says Simon.

Now Church Mutual officials often visit five or even as many as 15 policyholder locations in a very short period of time because the company can view loss locations spatially, enabling them to plan trips more effectively.

Additionally, when a Church Mutual representative travels to meet claimants in, say, Dallas, the firm can use the technology to determine if there are other potential, unaccounted-for claims in the same area. This can save a trip by a representative who might have ended up visiting Dallas the next week to review a new claim.

The insurer also uses the location intelligence technology in an anticipatory capacity. For example, it can identify a tornado path that is a half-mile wide and 14 miles long and immediately determine the number of policyholders in that path. Then Church Mutual can ensure it has teams available in the area to identify claim damage.

To complement its adoption of MapInfo technology, Church Mutual developed a five-person team devoted to mapping projects. Furthermore, it has worked closely with the Property Loss Research Bureau (PLRB), a Downers Grove, Ill., nonprofit organization that supplies the firm with products that aid in identifying storm paths and disasters such as earthquakes.

After first implementing the technology, Church Mutual gradually built additional applications, more staffers began experimenting with it, and its achievements circulated from department to department, creating a domino effect in the organization.

Church Mutual staffers warmed to the technology partly because of its relative simplicity. "It's expandable, and easy to use-the training on it is really quite simple," says Graham. "The product has grown from a single desktop unit to (providing) network-based, Web-based access to maps. So now, we are able to have more people use it, more people access it and more people design."

Simon refers to the technology as Mapping 101. "Once you understand how the technology puts your policyholder on a spatial map and translates information, there is virtually no end to the spreadsheets, graphs and charts that you can develop simply because the technology converts it to a point on a map," he says.

DON'T EXPECT PERFECTION

But that doesn't mean users should expect perfection.

"You can be sent to the wrong side of the city or the wrong end of the country by relying on the GIS (geographical information system) alone," says Simon. However, he adds, the technology gauges the exact address more than 95% of the time, and if employees are familiar with it, they can usually guess there is a problem when they encounter one.

For now, Church Mutual uses paper maps along with location technology, but aims to move to real-time reporting.

Specifically, the company is working with its reinsurance broker to develop real-time analysis tools for marketing segments for storm field identification.

And in coming weeks, Church Mutual will provide the software to its underwriters on their desktops to assist in the individual risk underwriting process.

While it is no longer rare to see insurers using location technology to better grasp losses, Church Mutual has illustrated that it can also be used for sales purposes (see "Insurer Ramps Up Sales," below). And perhaps still greater uses are just around the corner.

"Nationwide, there are lawsuits around Hurricane Katrina for flood damage to properties, and I can see how potentially this technology can help carriers determine where fraud is likely occurring-and if not outright fraud, then where contested claims should be litigated," says Craig Weber, a senior analyst at Celent LLC, a Boston-based research and consulting firm.

But the simple, established applications that enable insurers to better serve their customers will likely remain near and dear.

Simon relates a typical reaction from a policyholder when Church Mutual's representatives arrive in a remote location that they knew has been affected by a natural disaster: "That is really something! You came all the way out here in the bayou and found us. You must be pretty good with the map." But, replies Simon: "It's not really being pretty good with the map; it's being pretty good with the map system."

Insurer Ramps Up Sales Efforts

Church Mutual, a Merrill, Wis.-based provider of insurance for religious institutions, has stumbled upon an innovative way to use its location intelligence technology: ramping up sales efforts.

Using technology from Troy, N.Y.-based MapInfo Corp., Church Mutual can pinpoint any house of worship on public record, sales representatives can determine the exact location of institutions nationwide to more efficiently plan their activities, and the insurer generates new clients and greater revenue.

Division managers trying to understand the individual nuances of their specific sales areas have found the technology particularly useful because it delivers spatial information. "They are able to communicate their goals to their individual reps based on the spatial display of their areas, their customers, the prospects and the possibilities associated with each individual salesperson," says Christopher Graham, CIO for Church Mutual.

Insurers have chiefly used location technology for claims-related services, so the sales play is somewhat novel. "Not many people have gotten to this level of use of location data, and sales is traditionally an old-fashioned activity-a feet on the street activity," says Craig Weber, a senior analyst at the Boston-based Celent LLC. "Leveraging it on the sales side of the business really expands the value of the technology. Anything you can do to make agents more effective, to make their jobs easier, is a powerful lever of control."

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