Everyone loves a story about the "little guy" who succeeds. From the children's classic The Little Engine that Could to numerous business books that describe how a couple of college buddies put a couple of bolts together in their garage and invented something that turned them into millionaires, tales of human perseverance and redemption touch a deep chord in the soul.This is one of those stories. It's about a group of four IT people at CUNA Mutual Group who faced what seemed an almost impossible feat. They were charged with custom-building a customer relationship management system in six months with a budget of $1 million.

And they did it. They saved the day-or in this case, they played a huge role in saving CUNA Mutual's struggling members financial services (MFS) product line, which provides financial advice to credit-union customers.

The tale begins in 2003, when Madison, Wis.-based CUNA Mutual executives pulled together a leadership team to redesign the cost structure for the company's MFS division. The business, which is highly sensitive to market fluctuations, had lost millions of dollars when the tech bubble burst. The leadership team had to figure out how to cut the division's expenses in half.

"I was asked to join the team to address the technology component," says Sean Fallon, vice president, solution group technology, at CUNA Mutual, who relates the story to Insurance Networking News. The leadership team also included experts from the marketing, sales and broker/dealer operations.

After assessing his IT budget, Fallon discovered something amazing-a glaringly large expense item. A one-year-old Siebel CRM system, which, if kept in production in the MFS division, would consume 95% of Fallon's 2004 budget in licensing and maintenance costs.

A system that was too big

"I couldn't afford that," he says. "CRM wasn't the only application I had to support. I had to add financial planning, marketing software and a paperless application. I had to provide all that as well as CRM to enable the reps to manage their books of business."

The main problem with the Siebel system was that it was too big for the division's needs, according to Fallon. "You have to understand: When vendors build CRM packages, they are trying to make their product have broad appeal. So they solve everyone's problem, not your problem. The package provided a lot more functionality than we needed for our business to be successful."

In fact, the system was weighing the business down.

For instance, reps had to sift through hundreds of data fields to get to the 50 or so that they actually needed to service their clients. And this lengthened the time spent for appointments.

What's more, because the system's monthly costs were so high, the reps were essentially in a financial hole before they even started selling, says Fallon. "Each rep had to earn $1,100 for us to break even," he says. "We needed to drive that down so they didn't have to cover our monthly costs-and then start making money."

To do this, Fallon presented his business case to management: "Let me get a small team together to build a new system that will do only those things our reps tell us they need. Give me four people and six months to build you a prototype system."

A dedicated team

Management agreed-and six months and $1 million later, Fallon's team delivered the new CRM system, which they built using Microsoft SmartClient technology. The application now provides approximately 1,000 CUNA Mutual MFS reps with a single point of entry for contact management, financial planning and an online application to open an account.

Whenever a group of people are able to attain such a lofty goal, the burning question is: How did they do it?

"They worked a lot of hours. This was a very dedicated team," says Fallon. But they were dedicated because they wanted to redeem themselves-they wanted to fix a system they knew the users didn't like.

"They had received a lot of criticism for the packaged CRM system and some other applications they had rolled out," says Fallon. "So I worked with them and said, 'You guys know the rep better than anyone. What I'd like you to do is build the application you always wanted to build-knowing what you know.' And that got them energized."

They built a system with about 75 data fields (instead of hundreds), which automatically populates client data into a packaged financial planning tool and into a home-grown electronic application tool.

"We focused on obtaining only the information a rep needs to establish and maintain a relationship with the client, as opposed to what information the home office is interested in," says Fallon.

CUNA Mutual, like many other financial services firms, wanted that 360-degree view of its customers.

"When CRM systems were first set up, the theory was: This is corporate data," notes Fallon. "We need to know everything about this person, as opposed to focusing on the person using the system."

But the IT team knew better.

The MFS product line had been swept up in that 360-degree view, and it was carrying the weight of additional demands that didn't serve the business, says Fallon. His team knew the MFS reps needed a system that would enable them to help their clients achieve their financial goals-not sell them a home or auto policy.

"We deliberately focused on those kinds of activities-recording when appointments would happen, when was the last time you touched base with a client, who are your contacts," he says.

As a compromise to the larger corporate CRM goals, Fallon's team agreed to store their data on a Microsoft SQL database for future use by other CUNA Mutual lines of business.

"We didn't lose sight of the fact that we are part of a larger company," he says. "At some point in the future, we will be able to share that information with a corporate CRM system. We just didn't want to be that CRM system."

Because Fallon's team winnowed the data fields down to a manageable number and designed the system to pre-populate data into the financial planning tool and electronic application, the length of appointments with clients has been reduced, enabling reps to meet with them during a lunch hour.

The new system also enables MFS reps to work as a team, which wasn't possible using the Siebel system.

"Most reps work with another rep or with a coordinator who sets up all their calendar appointments, and in the old system, they couldn't share that book of business," says Fallon.

To meet this need, his team designed the system to allow a book of business to be "owned" by a group of people, which provided the flexibility the division needed to maintain high levels of customer service.

A high-turnover business

"This is a high-turnover business," Fallon adds. "We lose a certain percentage of reps every year, and that book of business has to split up among the reps who stay." By building the team concept into the system, the division has dramatically improved its ability to reallocate those books of business quickly, he says.

Perhaps the biggest improvement, however, is the team's ability to respond to user requests for improvements, according to Fallon. On the new platform, they're able to deliver three releases per year. "If a user gives us a good idea, we can get that change into next release, within four months," he says.

He describes an example from the field. "As reps began to realize their books of business were growing, they wanted to segment their client base," he explains. So the IT team implemented color-coding in the next release in response to a user's request.

"The first screen of our CRM system is an alphabetical listing of our clients. The reps can configure their systems to turn every client red whom they haven't had any communication with for more than 180 days. They can turn green the ones they've seen in the last 30 days, and make all the rest yellow. So they get an immediate visual cue of what they need to do," he says.

That kind of responsiveness, with the reps engaged in the development process, has been a significant factor in the success of the new system and of the MFS business, Fallon says.

In fact, in 2004 following implementation, the MFS division broke even. Last year, it earned a profit in the millions of dollars, and this year, the division is expecting a 10% increase in both revenue and profit. "It has been an enormous turnaround," he says.

And, while Fallon admits IT wasn't alone in this happy ending, technology plays an important role in the company's credibility with the reps. "We had suffered in the marketplace; our technology was seen as a negative," he says.

When Fallon first took his business case to the executive team he promised to get the technology to "neutral," instead of "negative," he says. "But the team got us to the point where we are now perceived as leaders. We've exceeded our wildest expectations."

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