Lately, there's been a renewed interest among carriers in moving self-service functionality out to customers and partners. Companies are looking to extend a range of services online, from rate quotes to online applications to automatic contracts.

Not that online portals, which have been around for more than a decade, haven't been tried before. "A few years ago, insurers were implementing screen-scraper-type portals," says Karen Pauli, analyst with TowerGroup, Needham, Mass. "You have to have good back-end functionality before you plop on a portal." Many carriers did not address "their back-end capabilities, did not aggressively use things like predictive analytics for straight-through processing, were not sophisticated about integrating external data, and have got lots of siloed applications."

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