Insuring Agent Access through Middleware
Corporations that create intranets for business partners can quickly find themselves positioned as technology experts. This is especially true when the intranet is driven by the corporation and its partners’ expertise lies outside of IT.
For Central Insurance Companies (www.central-insurance.com), a provider of commercial insurance products, implementing an intranet that its 600 agents could use to connect to the company’s host systems was a challenge on several levels.
Agents nationwide wanted the advantage of being able to quote a prospective customer a rate for insurance within moments of submitting a request for coverage. Yet few of Central Insurance’s agents had significant computer experience: Only 35 had Internet access.
Commercial insurance companies had rarely offered this kind of database access, and this environment prevented the company from building on existing experience. Two years ago, when Central Insurance first began investigating the available middleware technology that could connect its legacy databases to agents’ computers, few vendors had proven products.
"Our business plan was to offer a connection between independent agents representing Central and our IBM host systems. The Internet provided network availability that we needed to make the connection with our agencies. But we needed middleware to connect the browser and host system. The market was limited," explains Gary Corcoran, assistant vice president at Central Insurance.
The company chose Amazon, a legacy-to-Web integration middleware product from Intelligent Environments Inc. (www.ieinc.com). Running on NT servers, Amazon provides a transparent connection to the company’s 3270-based forms.
Developers at Central Insurance spent three months creating Amazon-enabled applications that allowed agents to log onto the insurance company’s Web site. The first application enabled agents to complete a dynamic quote application form.
Amazon uses a 3270 emulator to interpret and extract data from the completed form. It then collects information from the host system and assembles a rating and a premium for the prospective customer.
With the old paper-based system, a quote forwarded to Central Insurance was typically returned to the customer in five to seven working days. The new system returns a quote in about five minutes. It also faxes the agent a copy of the information and sends updated quotes and premiums when a policy is due for renewal.
The most difficult part of the implementation was supporting the technology needs of the agents. An Internet services group traveled to agencies nationwide to train agents on how to use the system, helping them get connected to the Internet and to the display forms, explains Larry Streets, senior programmer analyst at the company's Internet/intranet group. "As soon as they displayed the first form, we backed away from the PC" to watch how they used it and where they had difficulty.
In retrospect, Streets says the developers could have saved time by soliciting additional input from internal users and agents. Requests for changes to the form caused the developers to revise it several times. With the new form, "the training time for agents is zip," Streets says.
Currently, more than 100 agents have Internet-based access to the host system, a number the company expects to grow. Also expanding is the number of applications run on the middleware-based system. The company recently implemented an application that accepts first notice of loss for automotive policies and is working on applications to modify quotations and provide access to billing records.