Network performance vital to insurer's success

In a viciously competitive industry, company uses AJAX and network monitoring tools to keep its technological edge

In the pressure-cooker global economy, U.S. regional insurance companies face particularly heavy pressure. Operating in the shadow of giants like The Prudential, Aetna and Allstate, they survive by the rule "grow or die" in constant fear of a shakeout that could see them gobbled up by their larger competitors. And because most sell through independent agents, who represent multiple competing insurers, they are in direct competition for every sale.

"Our mantra is 'We provide Ease of Doing Business,'" says Michael Fergang, vice president and CIO of Grange Mutual Casualty Co., a US$1 billion, Ohio-based regional property and casualty insurer operating through 1,800 independent insurance agencies in 12 states. "When an agent has a customer in his office, we need to be sure that he can connect to the information he needs on our portal easily and quickly. Every agent, every time."

Typically, an agent arranges new policies with customers either on the phone or sitting in an office. The agent is focused on the customer, not on navigating the Internet, and he needs things to happen before the customer gets impatient or has second thoughts and, perhaps, walks out the door, never to return. Such distractions breed impatience with poorly designed, hard-to-navigate portals and network delays. A too-slow response can quickly send the agent -- and the sale -- to a competitor. If slow response becomes habitual, the agent may stop trying and send all his new business to that competitor.

"The agent doesn't know or care where the problem lies -- in his connection, on the Internet or on our end," Fergang says. "All they know is they cannot complete the business they desire, and the customer is waiting for a response, and they always have the opportunity to take their business elsewhere."

The "Ease of Doing Business" strategy drives IT at Grange. The company uses business intelligence to analyze its rate structure and plan new product features, always seeking advantage in a highly competitive market. It has designed its portal for personalization and ease of use so agents can reach exactly the service, information, plan or form they need without taking their attention off their customer. "We even have tools that let us track the hops an individual agent's connection makes through the Internet. We can identify where a connection may hit a bottleneck on the public network and reroute it if necessary."

Grange's IT environment is anything but static. Grange is a high-growth organization. It doubled its size from US$500 million to US$1 billion and extended its geographical reach from six to 12 states in the past seven years and is poised to enter a 13th state, Pennsylvania, this fall. An affiliation agreement with Integrity Insurance in 2001, a relationship partly based on Grange's significant technological advantage, provided access to Integrity's network of agents in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa at a stroke.

Its IT shop is constantly developing new services/applications for agents, often using advanced technologies. "We need to be at least equal and in most cases, better than our competitors so than it is easy for the agents to choose Grange all the time," Fergang says. Asynchronous JavaScript and XML (AJAX) is its preferred development environment for Web 2.0 applications, such as those that handle large document images.

In recent years, Grange has deployed Web 2.0 applications incorporating AJAX and .Net. For example, some newer applications include comprehensive personalization to allow agents to customize their experience on the Grange portal to fit their individual needs. Others feature progressive downloads of flash video. "I am comfortable being one or two releases behind on support software, but our aim is to lead the industry in what we provide our independent agents," Fergang says.

"We know we are writing applications that will impact network performance. It's not enough for us to know when network performance degrades below our thresholds, and we certainly cannot wait to get calls from users. We need to know about bottlenecks before users are conscious of them." For Grange, proactive means fixing problems before they happen. "High performance and availability are a cost of doing business."

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