Could he help you feed your paper notes into your computer?

Can computers continue to make getting — and keeping — life and health insurance customers easier?

Just a century ago, the insurance industry overcame a major document management and customer relationship management problem – fire – by replacing wooden “pigeon hole” cabinets with steel file cabinets.

The industry moved from the era of steel cabinets and cardboard boxes full of customer contact cards to an era of contact centers, and computers that feed relevant information to contact center reps.

John Rowe, a regional sales consultant at TriNet, a professional employer organization, said he is happy with his Salesforce.com CRM installation, his Chatter text communication software, his tablet, his cell phone, and the many other tools now at his disposal. These days, most of the time, he can even see a prospect’s LinkedIn profile.

“You really have an excellent snapshot,” Rowe said. “I think it’s infinitely better than it used to be.” Better, yes. More options? You bet. GetApp, a software review site, lists 63 different insurance apps.

Companies with products that can help agents and brokers with CRM-related document management include Microsoft, Oracle and other software giants; Genesys and other telecommunication companies; Web-based services, such as Salesforce.com and Dropbox; sellers of more traditional CRM platforms, such as Saleslogix; SugarCRM, Zoho, Zurmo and other open-source CRM software specialists; and AgencyBloc, AgentRun, iPipeline and other companies that focus specifically on the insurance niche.

Some of the most sophisticated users of CRM-document management integration are life and health insurers. Life & Specialty Ventures, a joint company created by four Blue Cross and Blue Shield Carriers, wanted to get 12,000 dentists into its new dental network as quickly as possible. The venture used a Salesforce.com-SpringCM CRM-document management hybrid to enter the dental insurance market in less than six months.

Like the carriers, life and health producers need efficient CRM operations so consumers can continue to work with live human intermediaries, rather than filling insurance needs through the Web.

In addition to the usual financial data concerns, life and health agents face the need to comply with health privacy rules, to help consumers with complicated planning and insurance policy questions, to research and help with claim problems, and to manage interactions with Rube Goldberg commission systems.

Challenges remain

In 2003, analysts at Gartner estimated that sales organizations had blown $2 billion on CRM software that no one had ever used. Today, a typical successful life or health producer may be using Salesforce.com or a similar system, along with Microsoft Outlook, Twitter, a Facebook page, and whatever phone game app has taken the place of Angry Birds.

But even enthusiastic CRM users still take written notes.

“I’ll never give up the pen and paper,” Rowe said. One of the major functions of an agent’s desktop computer may be to display a large collection of Post-It notes. For every nine Post-It notes about a need to pick up the dry cleaning, there may be a tenth with a customer’s new phone number.

Few producers have much cash to blow on CRM and document management systems. The economy is squeezing agencies’ customers, the Federal Reserve Board is squeezing life and annuity issuers, and the Obama administration is squeezing the health insurers. Traditionally, developers of software aimed at small businesses have focused on serving companies like retail stores and restaurants, which are outside the financial services sector, and stockbrokers and financial planners, which are inside the sector. Agents sometimes go on public message boards to complain about the difficulty of finding good, affordable systems that can help them see relevant customer documents when they are talking to customers on the phone.

Mark Stanley, a senior principal consultant at Genesys Telecommunications, a contact center technology company, said insurers and producers might have to go through a complicated process just to decide which entity handles which customer contacts, and which entity has access to what customer documents.

Technology continues to advance

In New York, for example, Google has a showroom it uses to help introduce beta users to its Google Glass wearable computer system. In other parts of the country, Google and competitors are building robots.

In the face of the financial obstacles, can life and health agents’ CRMs make their own leap forward?

Genesys thinks of itself as already being forward. It offers small and midsize businesses subscriptions to a family of Cloud-based CRM and document management services. Stanley said center systems can make sure that the people who are talking to consumers get the right information at the right time.

A modern contact center can retrieve extensive information about a caller by simply searching for information connected with the caller’s telephone number. The CRM system may start to retrieve records based on the assumption that a caller who’s recently bought a policy is calling with questions about the new policy, or that a caller who has moved is calling with questions about the change of address.

The information on the screen can reduce the rep’s need to ask basic questions and may immediately give the rep an idea of what kind of help the caller needs, Stanley said.

Can CRM technology advance any further? Stanley said one principle to keep in mind is that, for the most part, a call center is a call center.

“We all say, ‘We’re unique,’” Stanley said. “’We’re special.’” In the end, Stanley said, the people who call or e-mail a contact center have similar motives. “You want to talk to a person,” he said. “You’ve done all the stuff you can do yourself, and now you need someone’s help.”

The following are some ideas about how systems that link CRM and document management could evolve over the next 10 to 30 years.

1) Robots could help find and digitize the paper lurking in agency offices.

The robots could also go through rat’s nests of raw text, pictures and other information stored in the wrong place on producers’ phones, computers and cloud accounts.

Ben Kiker, chief marketing officer at SpringCM, a cloudbased document management company, said simply getting information out of employees’ file cabinets, wallets and Post-It notes and putting it in a structured digital format, in the right place in the cloud, can make a big difference. Feeding paper documents and disorganized jumbles of computer files into structured databases in the Cloud can be a way for an insurance agency to mine proposals, contracts, disclosure agreements, PowerPoint presentations and other documents for helpful information, Kiker said.

“CRM systems are all about handling structured data,” he added. Hiring vendors to digitize paper documents is much cheaper than it used to be, but the reality is that people who like pens and paper can still accumulate boxes full of paper notes before they gather up the energy to go through the boxes or get them to a digitizing service. Robots could do the job without needing to check their stocks, answer their e-mail and drink two cans of Red Bull.

2) The CRM could structure unstructured data.

Rowe said one of his CRM dreams would be to paste text directly from websites into Salesforce.com and have the CRM worry about what to do with the information. Today, a state-of-the-art CRM might be able to do a pretty good job of identifying and tagging some types of information, such as names and addresses.

And in the future, a CRM might be able to structure information more reliably, and it might be able to analyze letters, insurance policies or other documents and come up with field labels of its own. Maybe a CRM could go through a pile of letters, realize that many come from policyholders who need to pay premiums late because of disruption related to a hurricane, and create a new “affected by hurricane” data field.

3) The CRM could draw on documents to act as a sales and relationship management coach.

Today, Commun.it, a Twitter marketing app, already does that for Twitter users. Within the simple, structured confines of Twitter, Commun.it can see whether users are ignoring friends they ought to stroke or losing out on opportunities to go after big shots.

Maybe the CRM of the future could holler at agents who are doing too little to reach a new market or spending too much time on the types of prospects who rarely buy insurance.

4) A CRM could feed data into a producer’s Google Glass system or other wearable computer.

Today, one reason producers tend to work out of their offices instead of going to consumers’ kitchen tables is that their computers and files are in their offices.

In a few years, producers may be able to know something about just about everyone they meet, and “remember” everything they need to know about their customers and prospects, by using wearable computers.

If a producer is starting to feel as if the real office is a cell phone today, that process might accelerate as powerful wearable computers make getting data easier and more discreet.

5) A CRM could turn every producer into a black-belt champion at defusing anger.

One of the time-consuming, draining relationship management tasks is calming angry customers. A CRM with Wii-like feedback features could guide a producer through the process of dealing with difficult people.

6) A CRM could take over the job of waiting on hold for telephone access to live humans at insurers and government agencies.

Think of how happy health agents would have been this past October if they could have had their CRMs handle to the job of connecting with HealthCare.gov call center reps.

7) A CRM could find and show a baby picture of every caller.

Even in the new, higher tech world, the core of any personal business relationship will be the same as the core of any other personal relationship: the effort to get past all of the barriers and make a connection.

Maybe glancing at a contact’s baby picture would be a simple way for producers to remember that we’re all just people, trying to get through the day. 

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