Provident Mutual rewarded its top producers this year in an unexpected way. At its annual incentive meeting in Hawaii for 250 of the Berwyn, Pa.-based company's highest-volume agents, Mehran Assadi, the company's CIO and executive vice president, unveiled a new Internet site designed exclusively for Provident Mutual's agents.Called MyProv.com, the site is a personalized portal that can give producers real-time access to their account information. Agents can call up clients' contract information, conduct trades on an electronic trading platform, check the status of transactions and access all of the company's product and marketing materials. Perhaps most important to producers, they can check on the status of their commissions.

Provident Mutual designed Myprov.com in response to agents' input but did not inform them about what it was planning. Instead, the company worked quietly on the project internally for almost a year. The announcement of the site and its delivery occurred simultaneously at the meeting on May 15.

"We didn't make any empty promises, Assadi says. "The reaction was very positive."

Like most major carriers, Provident Mutual wants to bring its agents into the Internet loop and has put significant amounts of time and money into the effort. Now, middle-market carriers are thinking about it.

"We have seen very strong demand all of a sudden in this area," says James Luscombe, a consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York.

Previously, these carriers were investigating ways to reach consumers directly via the Web. Now, he says, they are looking for ways to help their agents do a better job.

Many insurers have been building, or at least planning to build, producer sites over the past year. "Insurers that don't have a strategy at this point are destined to be followers," notes Dick Roby, a consultant with TowerGroup, Needham, Mass.

Listening to producers

Provident Mutual, which has $9.2 billion in consolidated assets, examined its own Internet strategy about a year ago. Executives determined that the company wanted to serve three primary client bases on the Internet: customers, employees and producers.

Although the Web provided an "ocean of information," getting the necessary information in a timely way was a big challenge for each group, Assadi says. Therefore, the company decided to create three separate Internet portals, one for each client base.

The company established ProvConnect for its customers in August 1999, which can be accessed through the company's home page, www.ProvidentMutual.com. After receiving a user name and password from the company, clients can view the performance of their contracts and the status of their policies.

Around the same time, the company also created a site called Provlink for its own employees at the home office in Pennsylvania.

What remained was to design the third site, MyProv.com, for Provident Mutual's agents, also known as producers. The company's producers include: the registered representatives with the company's broker-dealer, 1717 Capital Management; Provident's career producers who sell primarily Provident Mutual products, called the Professional Consulting Group; and independent brokers.

During the process of designing MyProv.com, Provident Mutual made a determined effort to incorporate producers' suggestions. "Our producers were looking for something that is easy to use, helps them conduct business, offers security and is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Assadi notes. "And they wanted something that was intuitive."

Ease of use

Provident Mutual's staff also gleaned that many agents were intimidated by technology, so the company made a conscious effort to help them overcome those fears.

"We wanted to create a sense of ownership on the part of producers and also ensure that, in a short time and in a simple way, they would understand how to use the Internet at Provident Mutual," Assadi adds.

To that end, the company decided to offer free Internet access to producers who are registered representatives with 1717 Capital Management. "There is no cost for (these) producers to be online," Assadi explains.

Once they've logged on, producers can call up information related to their accounts.

They can view the values of their client contracts at the most recent market close, as well as the status of pending transactions. They can trade stocks and mutual funds via 1717 Capital's electronic trading platform, and they can access Provident Mutual's online training center.

To give the site the "stickiness" that will prompt producers to return, the company also provides access to updated commission information, Assadi says. Agents can get the current status of their own commissions, including split commissions, without calling the home office. "It gives producers control over their financial situation," he notes.

In addition, MyProv.com provides all of the company's approved sales and marketing information from brochures to letters to forms. "This is a key enabler from our point of view," Assadi says. If a producer wants to run a sales campaign, he can use the materials on the site.

Provident Mutual worked hard to ensure that the online marketing material is more than "brochureware." Instead of simply reproducing its existing print material online, the company changed and adapted its material for the Internet, making use of the Internet's unique strengths.

Product highlights, for example, were condensed to fit on one printed page so that they could be easily referenced and accessed. "On the Web, we can present that, too, but we can also offer producers the chance to drill down and get more information on each point," notes Chuck Hall, marketing director at Provident Mutual.

The process of moving the material online, already underway when work on MyProv.com began, lasted about 18 months. "It's a big cultural shift," Assadi says. "You need to think differently as you present information online."

For producers who still want to create their own material, Provident Mutual is testing a new program that will enable them to submit their proposed sales literature electronically and follow it through the review process at the company. "We're automating that whole process," Assadi explains.

Future capabilities

Provident Mutual executives understand that MyProv.com will not be a static project. For example, an online illustration capability is scheduled to be launched within 12 months.

Currently, producers provide illustrations to clients with CDs. Soon, agents will be able to create illustrations through the Internet anytime, anywhere.

The most significant online capability in the works is integrating the site with the company's back-office administration systems. Producers currently can access forms online but they have to fax or e-mail them to Provident Mutual. In 2001, producers will be able to submit forms via MyProv.com, Assadi says.

The company plans to roll out online business capability to selected field offices by linking its contract administrative systems to the site, most likely during the second half of 2001, he predicts. And once the system has been fine-tuned to its satisfaction, Provident Mutual will roll it out more broadly, allowing for online sales of its main products-life insurance and annuities.

Submitting contract information directly into the company's systems will be an important development. Few, if any, carriers have yet built this capability for their agents, although a growing number of carriers enable consumers to fill out and submit a policy application online.

"The big problem with most carriers is that there are lots of chances for error because there are so many steps in the process," says TowerGroup's Roby.

Currently, Roby estimates 30% of the data collected on accounts may be inaccurate, in part because the information is manually entered several times during the process. For example, when a producer submits a form through e-mail now, an employee at Provident Mutual must still input that information into the system by hand. By giving producers direct access to its systems, Provident Mutual could cut down significantly on simple, but costly, human errors.

Home grown

MyProv.com was designed and developed exclusively by Provident Mutual's information technology group, an effort that incorporated the broker-dealer platform at 1717 Capital Management.

Next year, in addition to linking the site to the company's contract management systems, Provident Mutual anticipates linking its pension administrative systems to the site.

The development of MyProv.com involved more than just the IT department. Managers from five different areas of the company-e-commerce, sales, application development, advertising and communication and broker-dealer technology-spearheaded the project.

The team's passion for the project-what Assadi calls "evangelism"-pushed it through in the end. "If you want something meaningful and significant to be done, there has to be passion about it," he says.

Beyond passion, the project relied on capital. Assadi won't say how much Provident Mutual spent on MyProv.com, but because the company went beyond "brochureware" and tied some of its back-end systems into the site, the sum was probably significant, consultants say. For a top-20 carrier with many products, the cost could be more than $10 million, Roby estimates.

In addition to building consumer and producer sites, many carriers plan-at the same time-to build an enterprise platform across different silos to link the entire organization. In that case, the cost will run into the tens of millions of dollars, according to Roby. Banks have spent upwards of $80 million on such projects, he says.

The strong economy has prompted many insurance companies to begin making the investment in technology, adds Luscombe of PricewaterhouseCoopers. With Y2K concerns behind them, many are diving into their new technology projects this year, and high on the list is the producer Web site.

"One of the reasons that insurance companies were slow to get into the Internet was that they took a while to decide whether agents would be a part of it," Luscombe notes. "Now, they've made that decision."

Jeanne Burke is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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