From the October-05, 2009 issue of National Underwriter Property & Casualty • Subscribe!

24x7 Demand Driving Self-Service Need

Consumers today--especially those buying personal auto insurance, for example--expect to purchase new policies, pay bills or change coverage parameters at any time, day or night, via the Web.

Insurance companies not offering self-service capabilities to customers on a 24x7x365 basis could be losing business.

Obviously, there are hurdles to creating successful self-service portals, or every insurance company would be doing it.

However, state-of-the-art Web 2.0 technologies utilized in conjunction with a service-oriented architecture-based policy administration system make building secure, custom direct-to-consumer portals practical for insurance companies of all sizes.

That said, it's no secret that automating critical business processes--including policy administration, underwriting and billing--can help property and casualty insurers achieve and maintain a distinct competitive advantage. Self-service can certainly be seen as a microcosm of an insurance company's technology strategy, with some extra demands thrown in as well.

As always, there is information to be acted on automatically, thereby lowering costs, and exceptions can be routed elsewhere.

Fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on your perspective--self-service is typically delivered via the Web, and the Web requires everything to happen instantly. (Keep in mind, "everything" includes not only what your company requires, but also what the customer wants. It's a win-win situation.)

The tight integration of an SOA-based core system is almost a necessity for implementing company-specific rules and leveraging both the valuable data within your system and data via Web Services in real-time.

Once an insurance company decides self-service capabilities are necessary for customer satisfaction, it's time to ask: "Which kinds of functionality are key to building successful self-service portals?"

Keep in mind, the goal should be to fully automate online quoting, online sales and consumer self-service.

Today, the most powerful self-service portals utilize data analytics and sophisticated statistical analysis to enable insurance companies to more accurately view books of business, thereby empowering more informed marketing and product development decisions.

Further, if insurance companies also want to consider building specific portals for individual market segments, such as affinity groups, Web Services such as geo-coding can be utilized so consumers can select a local agent.

Insurance companies can also lower costs and increase customer satisfaction by offering self-service options that provide online, printable documents, including declaration pages, policies and insurance cards for customers.

Providing online help during the quoting process through live-chat technology can be an option as well. No matter what is included, however, it is vital to offer a customer-friendly graphical user interface that is also easy for the company's business and IT personnel to customize.

Also keep in mind that security is critical. With Internet security breaches common, customers want to know that their private information is protected from loss or theft. Insurance companies must also guard against incidents that could damage the company's credibility and reputation.

Thus, all traffic to systems should pass through a secure sockets layer (SSL) and be encrypted, and that fact should be communicated to customers clearly and often. Further, user access to policies should depend on a strict owner verification process involving the provision of multiple artifacts detailing personal and policy information.

Making self-service work requires insurers to employ a sophisticated rules engine to manage the full range of portal user capabilities.

If all rules are satisfied and there are no red flags requiring underwriting review, customers should be able to navigate completely through to policy issuance with no underwriter intervention.

Of course, company-specific business rules may require that an individual entry be reviewed and approved by underwriting. In that case, the self-service system must automatically alert the underwriter and provide the information for the proper review.

Here again, SOA systems shine since it is easy to reconfigure such systems for new rules and in providing the data the rules act upon.

What integration issues may arise when implementing self-service portals? Connection through SSL combining content from multiple sources is not easy.

The trickiest part is creating screens and workflow that meet business needs and are equally easy to understand for the average consumer. Self-service systems should be built with very flexible technology, ideally SOA--with its clear universal definitions throughout the core systems, which allows for integration of this sort.

With customers more aware than ever of the value they receive for insurance dollars, there is a clear need in the industry for new types of customer-facing technologies matching those offered by other industries.

By implementing self-service capabilities is an immediate way--with a quickly measured return on investment--insurance companies can use technology to build deeper customer relationships, increase both retention and new business, appeal to a younger demographic, and gain a competitive advantage.

Andy Scurto is president of San Jose, California-based ISCS Inc., a provider of P&C policy administration systems. He can be reached at andy.scurto@iscs.com.

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