When Sachin Shah began working at MetLife in 1999, the carrier was using a DOS-based system to support online benefits administration. Five years later, Shah and the MetLife Inc.'s IT team have built an award-winning benefits administration portal that has been adopted by more than 17,000 corporate customers, brokers and third-party payers.

The three-year project didn't come without a big price tag: Shaw declined to reveal the actual cost, but says the investment was "multiple millions of dollars, between $5 million and $15 million." However, the investment was necessary for a carrier the size of MetLife to remain at the top of the field in the highly competitive benefits administration arena.

"If we didn't create an effective way for employers to do business with us online, the next carrier that has these types of capabilities will look very attractive to them," says Shah, MetLife's vice president, e-business enrollment and worksite marketing.

"This capability is necessary to attract small-business customers. I am being modest when I say this, but I believe that what we have developed is on par or better than our competitors."

Humble beginnings

That certainly wasn't the case five years ago, when Shah came on board and created MetLife's e-business group. At the time, the carrier was using a proprietary DOS-based product that supported employee Web-self service capabilities for group life, dental, 401(k) plans, disability products and other employer benefits.

"E-business strategies should be focused on employee self-service, because that is the best way to increase the value of your product," Shah states. In July 2000, after researching user needs, MetLife launched its "My Benefits" portal, an employee self-service site, which provided online education, enrollment, and claims status.

The response from MetLife's customers overwhelmed the platform. "Our customers became very interested in the self-service aspects of MetLink and wanted to use the platform, but it wasn't scalable," Shah says. "We saw a growing increase in utilization of MetLink and we needed to replace the PowerBuilder technology because the vendor was migrating to more current technology standards."

Benefits administrators were being bogged down by such mundane tasks as answering phone calls about adding beneficiaries or tracking down enrollment forms. "Benefits administrators want to analyze information on who is calling them and what are they calling about, and without a self-service capability, you can't get your hands on that type of data," he explains.

"They want to become more strategic: who is enrolled, who is using the benefits, what is our claims experience, and what are the demographics of our plan. MetLink enables them to use technology to become more efficient at what they do and become more strategic for their organization."

In 2001, MetLife launched the initial version of MetLink, which was built of Java-based technology and is supported by multiple data centers. "We have full redundancy and our availability is 99.9%," Shah asserts.

The N-tier architecture and simple user interface provides quick response time for users. "Our goal is a five-second response time on a 28.8k dial-up line, because we understood that many small-business customers at that time did not have broad-band connections," he says. "On the Internet, slow response time is death; we knew they wouldn't come back if it took a long time for pages to load, so speed was a big issue for us."

Two years later, MetLife redesigned the MetLink portal by providing quicker and easier site navigation for human resource executives. A new "Quick Links" feature enables benefits managers to quickly view their most frequently used options, such as employee benefits enrollment, claims status or report generation. The upgrade also included an enhanced search capability, a simplified registration process, and new features to improve the efficiency and functionality of disability claims tracking.

Web services

MetLink also offers employers self-billing, access to enrollment and eligibility records, and the ability to check on the status of certain dental and disability claims.

Shah is particularly enthused about MetLink's inclusion of Web services architecture. "This allows us to do some exciting things for some of our more sophisticated customers, such as taking the claims inquiry functionality and connecting the Web service into the customer's portal, which gives them this functionality without actually logging into MetLink," he explains. "We spent a fair amount of time looking at the architectures of the future, and we were only interested in technologies that were going to be sustainable for three to five years."

MetLink supported more than six million transactions in 2004, more than doubling the portal's utilization in 2003. Between 50% and 70% of corporate customers activate their accounts at least once a month, with enrollment and billing topping the list of transactions.

MetLink enables benefits administrators to view their monthly bills 72 hours before MetLife mails the statement. "This feature enables them to make sure the bill is accurate before we send it out," Shah explains. In 2005, MetLink will introduce electronic bill pay, so that after benefits administrators confirm the billing information, they can click and pay the bill.

"Having the check match the amount of the bill is a huge opportunity for us to eliminate expenses," Shah maintains. "And, eliminating the faxes for claims and enrollment enables us to reduce internal costs."

MetLink's success has not gone unnoticed. The portal received the Web Marketing Association's 2004 Standard of Excellence Web Award. The award compares corporate Web sites against an overall standard of excellence related to design, innovation, content, technology, interactivity, navigation and ease of use. MetLink also received the 2004 E-Fusion award for Customer Service and Benefits Management from AM Best.

But most rewarding for MetLife executives is the fact that the portal earned a 96% satisfaction rating among corporate users.

"There is no real trick in what we do," Shah says. "We just make sure that we do the basics well. Our model isn't to replace people but to get benefits administrators and others involved in customer issues that matter."

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