AON takes its name seriously. Gaelic for ‘oneness,’ the insurance brokerage and risk management consulting firm recently completed a global initiative that consolidates sales and marketing efforts onto one platform. With a multi-country footprint and a multi-lingual, multi-currency culture peppered with acquisitions, Chicago-based Aon Corp. knew its executive team needed to study the benefits associated with consolidating 30 disparate sales systems.

“There was no common sales process,” recalls Joe Demmler, Aon’s U.S. VP of marketing operations and its European director. “Each country had its own system. None were connected, and the systems had nothing in common. We wanted a common sales and marketing process to drive activity.”

Making sense of the sales process’ labyrinth of disparate systems resulted in the firm taking deliberate action to create a singular model. And time was of the essence.

“When Greg Case joined Aon [as CEO] in Spring 2005, Aon made other changes in executive management, bringing a new COO and a new CIO on board and, coincidentally, the technology organization within Aon became very busy driving costs out of the business.”

Reducing costs meant choosing a model that, for insurers, has grown in popularity in recent years, especially among U.S. companies: software as a service (SaaS). Not the ASP flash-in-the-pan of the past, SaaS is heating up, and is being hailed by some industry experts as having the potential to change the software landscape.

In fact, the worldwide the SaaS market is expected to grow $19.3 billion by year-end 2011, according to research consultancy Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn. The insurance SaaS market in Europe is 13 million euros this year and will grow at a solid rate over the next five years to reach 53 million euros, according to Celent LLC, a Boston-based research firm recently acquired by Oliver Wyman.

SLOW BUT ACCELERATING

“The uptake of SaaS by insurers has been slow but is accelerating,” notes Celent senior analyst Catherine Stagg-Macey from the firm’s London office. “There are a number of reasons why SaaS can make commercial sense to the buyer, including lower costs and reduced downtime.”

Demmler admits that both those issues were deal-breakers for the brokerage as it evaluated vendors in the CRM space that could provide a system that would run on this global platform. “We needed a sales tool that could be customized, and we needed rapid deployment.”

Aon ultimately chose Salesforce.com, San Francisco, as its partner. With 38,100 customers worldwide across all vertical markets, Salesforce recently celebrated its millionth subscriber using its on-demand model.

“At the foundation of our offering is the concept of multi-tenancy,” points out Bruce Francis, Salesforce’s VP of corporate strategy. The analogy Francis offers is the typical office building, where the lights, elevator and heat are shared by various companies, yet where their employees have secure, discreet offices in which to execute their business plans.

“Now apply this to large customers such as Aon, which can use the same code base, same database and the same service as a small 50-person agency. We feel that multi-tenancy allows democratization.”

QUICK DEPLOYMENT

The multi-tenancy approach was tested within the Aon Consulting Worldwide and Aon Risk Services’ U.S. organizations in the Fall of 2005.

“This was not a throwaway pilot—this was an operational pilot with 60 people in the production environment we were going to go live in, and included everything from requirements definitions to deployment and training. We accomplished this in 12 weeks.”

In January 2006, Aon rolled 1,100 Aon Consulting users onto the system. “We moved very quickly after that,” recalls Demmler, “We started with Aon Risk Services (ARS-US) and by mid-summer were ready to go to the UK, which was up and running by the end of the summer.”

The Salesforce CRM system was deployed on 5,500 seats in 70 countries over a period of 20 months. “We are now pushing Salesforce to 6,500 sales, marketing, and support users globally on this platform,” confirms Demmler, “and with minimal involvement from IT.”

Salesforce’s SaaS platform lends itself to this, and resulted in a reduced role for Aon’s IT organization: occasional application maintenance and the build-out of three interfaces to some upcoming sales system deployments.

“They were instrumental in their acquisition of the data extracts from our legacy systems so it could be cleansed and put on the Salesforce platform,” notes Demmler. Afterward, IT was left to sunset the existing systems.

“We consider those IT folks unshackled, because this kind of situation leaves IT open to innovate,” opines Francis. “Ask any CEO and most will tell you that eight out of 10 dollars is spent on patching, tuning, fixing etc. At the end of the day, the IT organization ends up carrying a bucket and mop for [Microsoft CEO] Steve Ballmer. It’s cleaning up the mess that traditional software has left.”

DRIVING THE BUSINESS

In Aon’s case, it was a matter of freeing IT to continue its focus on reducing costs, Demmler says, and freeing the sales and marketing organization to focus on driving business.

“Salesforce is interesting in how it expands within an organization,” Demmler says. “It grows as one-offs, and frees the business sponsors to say ‘let’s do our own Salesforce thing because we can configure it ourselves.’”

The fact that Salesforce is easy to use and customizable is also a double-edged sword, adds Demmler. “Anyone could configure the system, so we put in place some governance on our distributed support network, and a person in each country takes the lead and administers the apps.”

During the 20-month implementation surge, the organization began evaluating interactive marketing tools. Demmler says the company searched Salesforce’s on-demand application sharing service, AppExchange, and chose Eloqua, a Toronto-based application service provider that offers pay-as-you-go marketing tools.

“We immediately bolted that onto Salesforce,” says Demmler. “It was pre-integrated, and we customized it a bit. What we have now is a CRM with Salesforce as the platform for all clients and prospects, and Eloqua as the marketing automation vehicle both of which are integrated with Aon’s Web site.”

Aon is using the system to facilitate management of interactive call campaigns to clients and prospects. For example, the contact information culled from prospects seeking information on Aon’s Web site is placed in a Salesforce “elite” repository. From there, the rules-based system associates the contact with a campaign, which is assigned to a salesperson associated with the campaign, associated with a client or associated with an applicable geography. Eloqua sends an e-mail to the Aon representative for follow-up.

INSIGHT INTO THE PIPELINE

Demmler admits that Eloqua’s ability to track whether the salesperson opened the e-mail, clicked through to the micro site associated with the campaign, and downloaded it “seems a little bit like Big Brother,” but holds that the end justifies the means.

“The initiative started off simply as a pipeline tool,” he says. “But as we went along, we wanted better insight to our pipeline. By adding the interactive marketing capabilities and beginning to run these interactive campaigns, we’ve given the sales organization a platform by which they can track their information.”

Industry experts maintain that a customized system is the best way to drive user adoption in a CRM/SaaS environment, but that much of the software on the market today helps automate processes, but doesn’t necessarily provide incremental value back to the user. Instead, say experts, adoption of such a system often wanes, because it’s viewed by some as an administrative burden, and the user feels it does nothing more than prove to management that the salesperson is doing their job.

“We were very aware that we needed to address the ‘what’s in it for me as a salesperson?’ issue,” Demmler says. “What they get is warm leads. A lead is a response to a campaign, which isn’t a cold call. You’ve got a real client with a real interest about a product or service we offer.”

When the salesperson logs on to the Salesforce platform, they see customized boxes containing “new leads, neglected leads, past due opportunities.”

Demmler explains that Aon has a common definition for its four sales stages, and those stage definitions are the same around the world. For a lead to be qualified, it has to meet similar criteria.

“This is essentially selling benefits to salespeople,” Demmler points out. “Initially we could not do that ... now we are doing it by making it a marketing platform.”

Next, Aon factored a business intelligence (BI) tool into the CRM that would facilitate advanced reporting.

TRANSPARENCY, ACCOUNTABILITY

“This was upper management’s plan,” Demmler says. “Everything right now is about forecast accuracy, so people tend to focus on system utilization, etc. We don’t think that’s necessarily a good indicator of program success, because at the end of the day you can use the system, but unless you are getting the objective of forecast accuracy and pipeline and driving sales and marketing activities, utilization doesn’t mean anything.”

Accountability has been pushed down to the individual, and in most parts of the world, there are a few exceptions because of data privacy issues not relevant in the United States.

“It’s difficult to track individual performance, but we are monitoring pipeline progress toward goal,” says Demmler.

In what he describes as a very simple, split-bar chart, the bottom bar denotes what has been sold toward goal. The top bar denotes the activities in the pipeline toward goal.

“And we prominently display names of those with nothing ... meaning full transparency,” Demmler says. “Talk about changing behavior — it’s proven to be very effective.”

Salesforce’s Francis says he’s not surprised that once Aon got a “one-world view,” they would broaden their reach and ask what else they can do with the system. “They are realizing that the platform has the ability to transform their business,” he says.

One area of transformation takes the “think local, act global” approach. Moving beyond the sales pipeline measurement and management, Aon is now into local market planning.

“We now know the clients we know, but do we know the entire market? Salesforce has become a hub for our entire local market anywhere in the world,” says Demmler, “and it’s being used to drive a market share calculation. We can track whether we are increasing or decreasing by product, industry or segment.”

CLOSED LOOP

In broader terms, Aon’s ability to track the program’s performance has an element of closed-loop marketing, which leverages data and information to improve the planning, execution, analysis and adjustment of all marketing activities to better understand campaign and marketing performance.

“We now have the closed loop,” Demmler says.

The success of the Salesforce CRM and SaaS implementation was spun last year into a net promoter score pilot, which, in simple terms, evaluates the percentage of promoters minus the percentage of detractors to provide the single most reliable indicator of Aon’s ability to grow.

If return on investment is one of the growth indicators, Aon is on its way. Demmler reports that the average Aon marketing campaign is seeing a range of return on marketing investment/spend from 6% to 8% north to 50%.

“That’s just pure return on marketing spend,” confirms Demmler. “Greg Case has a common saying: Everything we do should help our clients or help our colleagues help our clients. It’s about being client-focused, growing organically; it’s about continuing to drive sales and marketing activity. We’ll continue to get more and better data out of this process and we’ll continue to refine the sales and marketing machine.”

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