Citing better claims service and improved sales, insurers are using mobile computing to link with their agents and customers.Mobile computing is bringing insurance company employees who are working outside the company back to the home office.

A proliferation of mobile equipment-from laptop computers and hand-held devices such as personal desk assistants, to smart phones, messaging devices and digital cameras-is enabling insurance agents and claims personnel to link with carriers' legacy systems and communicate with home-office personnel more effectively. The result is faster and more efficient sales for agents, better handling of claims and more satisfied customers.

"Almost all insurers with their own agents have some type of automated system," says Chuck Lownie, director of product management for Ianywhere Solutions, Waterloo, Ontario, a subsidiary of Sybase Inc.

In most cases, insurance company agents and claims personnel are starting with laptop computers and then graduating to devices, such as pagers or hand-held computers to augment their use of laptops, Lownie says. "It doesn't have to be wireless, but you can take the device with you."

While most evidence of mobile computer usage by insurers is anecdotal, it's clear that among more general commercial users, mobile technology is growing rapidly.

Spending on mobile computing in the North America will total almost $30 billion by 2001, according to MobileInfo, a Web site dedicated to information on mobile computing and wireless networking.

Insurers, with their reliance on field agents and claims adjusters, figure to be a big part of this market. Some carriers, such as Progressive Insurance Corp., Mayfield Village, Ohio, Prudential Insurance Co., Newark, N.J., and New York Life Insurance Co., New York, have agents who not only are well-established users of laptops, they moving on to wireless devices.

Instant information

The ability to provide instant information to their agents or financial advisers that sell policies and investment products to customers is among the chief reasons why insurers are adopting mobile computing technology.

Maritime Life Assuance Co., for example, uses mobile technology from software provider Sybase Inc., Emeryville, Calif., to link with Maritime financial services agents selling financial products in the field.

The Halifax, Nova Scotia-based insurer uses Sybase's InfoDirect, a sales and customer service application that places all Maritime Life customer and policy information in the hands of its agent. The application provides a single, consolidated record of all the insurers' customer and policy data, information that's extracted daily from Maritime Life's host systems and then automatically loaded into a consolidated database engine.

Maritime Life was able to take customer and policy information from its legacy systems, put it in a data store, keep track of the information and provide a series of views of the data for its financial service agents, says Joe Malek, vice president of retail systems for Maritime Life.

Agent availability

While the information is available to those using a personal computer, Maritime Life also wanted to make sure the information was available to agents in the field, Malek says.

To accomplish that, Maritime Life is using Sybase SQL Anywhere Studio, with which the insurer's agents can connect to Maritime Life over the Internet, traverse Maritime Life's firewall and access a server. Agents can then retrieve information such as electronic forms, underwriting guidelines, commission schedules and other information.

The result has been a big improvement in turnaround time for servicing inquiries from agents and customers, Malek says. Previously, a customer might ask an agent for the value of his investment. The agent would then have to contact Maritime Life by phone for a response. The information would then need to be collected from different legacy systems at the insurer, which could evolve into a lengthy wait.

"It would not be unusual for it to take several days to answer an inquiry," he adds. "Today, it can literally be done in seconds." Moreover, Maritime Life is not only seeing improved customer service but also reduced costs enabling some of the insurance company's employees to spend time on tasks that would otherwise be spent responding to queries.

Another direct benefit from the technology is that customer service representatives at Maritime Life are receiving fewer inquiries from agents and it has freed up some of their time to spend on other tasks such as processing customer statements.

Maritime Life has rolled out the application to approximately 1,000 of its financial service advisers. To access the system, the advisers are required to enter a user ID and password to access the system. Advisers only have access to information involving their own clients. Putting the entire system in place took time-and a lot of money. How much? "It's in the millions," Malek says.

Improving the process

Although insurance companies are more often equipping their agents with mobile technology to increase sales, they are also using the technology to service claims more quickly.

One such example is that by putting digital cameras in adjusters' hands, adjusters, claims personnel and underwriters can share photographs through an application service provider-third-parties that manage and distribute software-based services and solutions for customers across a wide area network from a central data center. Atlantic Mutual Cos., Madison, N.J., for example, uses digital cameras and works with, a service provided by Scene Genesis Inc., Pittsford, N.Y. captures, organizes, stores and provides global access to digital pictures and reports from property claims and inspections. Using the camera and software, adjusters can take as many pictures as they need of disaster scenes, accidents and other incidents of property damage.

They can then organize the pictures by claim number on their laptop computers, add comments or notes to the photos and transmit them electronically as one file.

Previously, it could take a week to receive photographs of claims sites because adjusters would have to take the pictures to a local Fotomat to get them developed before sending them in, says David Lawton, project manager for Atlantic Mutual.

Now, adjusters can view claim sites, take pictures with a digital camera, go home and upload the pictures using a code and claim numbers and send it to the Scene Genesis Web site where they are stored.

Although Atlantic Mutual can't yet quantify the benefits that digital cameras and has brought to the insurer, including their impact on how quickly claims get settled, Lawton is confident that will be the end result. "We will see a big improvement in closing claims faster," he predicts.

Power in the palm

Carriers that were pioneers in pushing the power of desktop computing are now learning that some agents prefer using smaller, hand-held computers.

For the past several years, New York Life has provided its agents with a "fairly rich" suite of tools to do presentations at the point of sale, says Tom Shea, vice president, agency, for the insurer. These devices can provide contact management systems for sales illustrations, and tools to discuss investments, retirement planning, and the functions that help agents walk the customer through the sales process.

Agents already have access to a suite of software wrapped in what New York Life calls its Agent's Desktop. Agents with laptops, for example, can use the tools as they sit with the client. The agent can log on to the system, pull down such information on clients as in-force policies or illustrations.

But not everyone is comfortable bringing a laptop to a client's office. As a result, some agents have asked New York Life to provide them with contact system and client management systems they can load onto a Palm Pilot, says Shea. "An increasing number of agents are asking to get data from their laptops to smaller devices."

New York Life has created a conduit for agents to transfer information from their laptops to the Palm Pilot and for those who also want to get updates on policy information. Agents can synchronize using a cradle information in contact management with the palm pilot device that transfers the information.

They can also access that information using a Palm 7 or new Omni Sky Device, a two-way pager, Shea says. All that's required is that the agent type information into the device. That information is routed to the insurer's back-end system, and the requested data is sent back to the pager.

The number of agents requesting such information is still small but is growing, Shea adds. "It's a very, very small percentage of population. "We expect over time that number will grow."

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