The U.S. Postal Service might have seen this coming. Western National Insurance Group, a Minnesota-based property/casualty insurer, is joining several other companies from a host of vertical markets in delivering the majority of its customer communications via digital postal mail.

Through an agreement between DST Output, a print and digital customer communications provider, and Zumbox (pronounced zoom-box), the insurer will enable its customers to access all their bills, policies and other important documents digitally via digital postal mailbox.

Digital postal mail is an exact digital facsimile of the paper mail sent to consumers, delivered in a secure, central online environment. For insurance firms, in addition to providing cost savings from paper suppression, Zumbox directs customers to lowest cost payment and customer support options and can provide other relevant messages via an interactive panel below the statements for strengthened customer education on policies and claims.

Zumbox says that Western National, which consists of eight regional property/casualty companies that together have a combined direct written premium in excess of $280 million and total assets of over $650 million, represents the first insurance firm to address consumer demand for a digital alternative to traditional postal mail. The carrier plans to introduce the opportunity to its more than 100,000 policyholders at various touch points, including renewal, through customer service communications, billing, claims services and more. Its 500-plus agents will also be encouraged to participate.

Western National may be the first to choose a formalized digital alternative to traditional postal mail, but not the only insurance company to consider digital customer service communication strategies. Research from competitive intelligence firm Mintel Comperemedia recently revealed that the insurance industry’s direct mail volume to consumers was down 11 percent year-over-year in Q3 2011, and that it was the third consecutive quarter to show a decline.

For Western National, the commitment to a formalized digital postal service alternative is part of a pilot program that includes a one-time implementation fee and ongoing per-document fees that cover digital transfer of information (which begin to apply when the policyholder suppresses their paper versions).

“Traditionally, insurance firms were put off by electronic mail delivery because they assumed efforts to digitize communications would be met with a lot of red tape. Our work with Western National Insurance is a great proof point to dispel that misconception," said John Payne, CEO of Zumbox. “Western National Insurance is truly an innovator in its industry, leading the evolution in how insurance providers communicate with their customers. We're pleased that another DST Output client has joined the digital postal mail movement.”

For Western National, the key is delivering flexibility, Steve Norman, director of communications at Western National, told Insurance Networking News. “We’ve partnered with DST for two years and they first proposed the idea to us. We conducted research and found some of our customers are using the service already.”

In August 2010, DST Output began integrating Zumbox’s delivery system as an additional electronic channel for its clients. As a result, Western National Insurance Group, through several of its affiliates (including Pioneer Specialty, Umialik, Western Home, Western National Assurance and Western National Mutual), can deliver mail digitally to its customers across 11 states. By delivering digital postal mail and assuming a 10 percent increase in paper suppression, Western National Insurance hopes to realize significant mailing cost savings. But the bigger picture is the insurer’s goal to enhance customer service.

“We anticipate that the Zumbox launch will help us save more paper, which will further our green initiatives,” Norman says, “and we're anticipating a real positive return in ease-of-doing-business for our policyholders, who will have anytime access to their Western National documents in one central location alongside their other digital postal mail.”

For its billing services, however, the insurer plans to continue to offer its “My Account” bill payment and viewing option to policyholders.

“We’ve monitored the growing consumer demand for digital alternatives to traditional mail, and our decision to offer our customers the option of delivery via digital postal mail powered by Zumbox was in direct response to that demand,” said Jeff Couchman, VP of Marketing and Business Development at Western National Insurance. “This allows us to provide a superior communications channel that can deliver a significant volume of letters, statements, claims and policies. As a result we can increase our paper suppression rates, streamline operations and further our green initiatives, all while providing a quality digital alternative for our policyholders.”

The insurer plans to continue to work with DST and Zumbox to monitor on a month-to-month basis its progress in the pilot program.

“We’ll print for those who still want to receive print, but realistically we see it being a nice alternative for people who want to consolidate the number of websites they visit to transact business,” says Norman.

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