Magazine Article | December 1, 2002

Fire Up Your Content Supply Chain

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By making materials and documents available online, Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. eliminated warehouse overstocking and enhanced its customer service.

Integrated Solutions, December 2002

So, you're going to have to wait one more quarter before you can roll out that slick CRM (customer relationship management) package you just purchased. While you wait, there's no need to be completely in the dark about what your customers want and need. Just ask them. That's what property and casualty insurance provider Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. (FFIC) did. The tricks that this 139-year-old dog learned about customer service led to the rollout of highly sophisticated portal technology. "In an attempt to validate our approaches to customer service, we held several focus group sessions with independent agents and with our customers," says Dennis Bosman, product director for FFIC. "They told us they wanted better access to forms and information. They told us they wanted access through Web portals. And, they told us what capabilities they wanted built into the portals."

As a result of these meetings, FFIC now maintains six customer-facing portals, each designed for a specific vertical industry: retail, restaurant, real estate, hotel, manufacturing, and wholesale. (Seventy percent of FFIC's business is in the commercial arena.) Using the portals, customers can download claim forms, check industry-specific news feeds, and order educational videotapes. They can also view PDF files containing brochures and reports on insurance-related topics such as facility maintenance, loss prevention, and employee health and safety.

Even though it was the focus group sessions that triggered the portal deployment, FFIC had known for some time it needed to improve customer service. In fact, the decision to assemble focus groups reflected problems that had been occurring in places far removed, in terms of technology, from the sheen of customer portals. They festered in such mundane places as closets in employees' and agents' offices, trunks of their vehicles, and shelves in FFIC's warehouse. In those spots, materials intended for customers had been piling up - overproduced and underused.

Get Rid Of Warehouse Waste
The impetus for addressing the problems came primarily from FFIC's loss control department. Loss control is responsible for doing safety inspections of potential insurees and for informing current customers about loss prevention and safety. By providing educational materials such as tips, studies, and training videos, loss control hopes to reduce the number and frequency of customer claims. The logic is simple: Safer work environments and procedures mean fewer accidents and losses.

Until early 2000, FFIC had no system in place for monitoring either the distribution of those materials or the demand for them. Independent insurance agents, as well as FFIC employees in regional offices, simply ordered materials from the warehouse, which shipped them out to the field offices. Employees and agents would, in turn, mail or hand-deliver the materials to customers, whether or not the customers had specifically requested them.

The distribution process was fraught with costly inefficiencies. Because customers couldn't directly order materials, FFIC frequently incurred the expense of shipping the materials twice - first from the warehouse to a remote office, then from that office to a customer. Because the catalog of available materials was maintained in a stand-alone database, FFIC had no way of tracking distribution to determine how much it was spending on servicing particular customers with materials.

Moreover, FFIC suspected it was replenishing inventory that, in reality, existed in abundance - just not in the warehouse. It existed in what might best be described as "inventory sprawl." Field employees and independent agents, attempting to sidestep the reordering process, commonly stockpiled materials. "We would go into an expensive reprinting process when only 10% of the depleted inventory may have actually been sent on to customers," Bosman admits. In addition to prompting costly warehouse restocking, the habitual stockpiling created delays in getting materials out to customers. So much for keeping customers on the road to loss prevention.

When FFIC installed interlinkONE's ilinkOPERATIONS, an online order fulfillment application that could manage and track shipments to customers, it quickly discovered the extent to which educational materials had been languishing in a state of disuse. "Once we implemented the system, regional offices started shipping pallets of products back to the warehouse," Bosman says. "That's when we realized that we were paying not only for redundant freight charges but also for redundant inventory and wasted office space."

Build Secure Web Portals
Over a period of approximately 18 months, FFIC made a new online library of loss prevention materials available to all stakeholders - first to employees and agents, then to customers. Along the way, it worked with interlinkONE to integrate FFIC business rules into the vendor's various modules for warehouse management, order fulfillment, and Web portal design and delivery. A key initial step in corralling employees' and agents' ordering practices involved building checks and balances into the system. New custom-coded system logic prevented employees and agents from placing orders without identifying the specific customer/recipient. "It was a big change for people to have to indicate which customers were going to receive the products," says Bosman.

When FFIC opened the online library of products, it secured access by establishing user authorization levels. "We can lock down certain products so that only certain individuals or departments can order them," Bosman explains. "For each item in the online library, we can determine whether ordering privileges should be extended to employees, independent agents, or customers." To take advantage of the self-service channel, customers and agents must first receive from FFIC an access-initiating CD-ROM. Each CD-ROM is encrypted with a key, which authenticates the user during the initial registration session for a particular portal.

In addition to controlling access, the system can also monitor site usage. To view PDF files on loss prevention and safety, for example, customers must click on hyperlinks. Each click-through can be tagged and tallied - a significant functional leap for a company that formerly had no idea whether or not customers were receiving, let alone actually reviewing, materials. "At this point, approximately 40% of the documents are being accessed," Bosman reports. "It makes you wonder what was happening to all of those hard copies that used to get produced and sent out. A lot of them probably just sat on a shelf or got buried in a pile on someone's desk."

Track Online Order Fulfillment
The online availability of most forms and documents has cleared shelves not only in customers' offices but also in the warehouse. In fact, FFIC now outsources the distribution of CD-ROMs, training videos, and the occasional hard copy through a third party warehouse. Even though FFIC no longer stores and ships its products, it still coordinates order fulfillment by doing file transfers between the interlinkONE system and the warehouse. "The connection of our system to their warehouse was a challenge," Bosman admits. "We had to shut off the systems they had in place for doing e-mail confirmations, shipping confirmations, and order tracking."

As it does with portal access and online ordering, FFIC maintains strict authorization practices when it comes to managing warehouse inventory. For each product, FFIC gives only one business unit the authority to approve reprints or reorders. It set up the interlinkONE fulfillment tools so that, when a particular product reaches its reorder threshold, the system sends an alert to the designated business unit. Says Bosman, "We don't give the outsourced facility the authority to approve reprints or restocks. We want approval to come only from the internal business unit that will incur the expense."

Analyze Payback From Service
With its inventory management and order fulfillment processes under control, FFIC can now move to using the system to undertake advanced customer analysis. One FFIC business unit, for example, is responsible for studying the safety records of companies that file similar kinds of claims. Information about customer activity on the Web portals will help that unit determine whether or not companies that actively seek information on loss prevention do, in fact, file fewer claims. And, for FFIC, fewer claims are the ultimate payback for its investments in customer service.