When you're a Fortune 500 insurance company with 40 million customers across the globe it's absolutely critical that your field force has access to real-time business information whenever or wherever they may need it so they can serve customers and potential policy holders faster and more efficiently. Just ask Aflac CIO Gerald Shields.
That's why Aflac developed and deployed a handful of offerings that can access that information remotely via a variety of mobile devices including notebook computers, PDAs and smartphones like BlackBerrys and Palm Treos. And the company's had so much success with the initial offerings that it's already working on expanding the portfolio.
"Our overall goal is really to empower the field force, to make them more successful," Shields says. That's not only to help customers; he also sees these applications as part of a recruiting strategy.
"We have three priorities for our mobile apps," Shields adds. "We want to make our agents more effective, more efficient, and more attractive. And I don't mean give them a haircut and a shave. I mean we want to make our jobs the most attractive to [other] agents because we help them more than any other insurance company."
AflacAnywhere and Mobile.Aflac: Pushing Notifications and Data to Agents
AflacAnywhere is a subscription-based Web portal that lets agents sign up for alerts and notifications like fax submission and receipt status, payroll account changes, policy modifications, and pending business alerts that may require action on their part, according to Shields.
Such alerts can be delivered to their notebook PCs or smartphones via e-mail, portal notification, automated voice alerts or SMS text messages. And agents can customize the alerts to streamline communications in the ways that best suit them. About 4,000 Aflac field agents currently use AflacAnywhere, which was first launched last year, Shields says. On average, Aflac agents use five or the dozen available notifications.
And in January, the company announced the launch of a smartphone-specific application that part of its Mobile.Aflac initiative. The application, which was developed in-house by the company's software research center in Atlanta, provides information on things like policy servicing questions, the status of claims payment, and information on customers' existing or past policies.
To gather specs for the applications Shields sent a number of his IT staffers out to the field to work with agents. The team also analyzed call center and agent support line reports to determine what issues were troubling them most often.
"We prioritized the issues to find what we could provide [agents with] on their BlackBerrys or mobile devices to keep them from having to make a call to get that information," Shields says.
Then they piloted the new app with a number of groups of agents throughout different geographical regions, and it didn't take long to see it was a success.
"The feedback was phenomenal," Shields says. "One associate told me 'I saved an account because of it,' Shields said.
A customer had asked the agent a question about an account, and instead of having to make a phone call or head back to the office, the answer to the inquiry was available instantly via Mobile.Aflac.
"[He] so impressed with the availability of information and how much information he could access [via the mobile application] that it saved the account," Shields says.
Mobile.Aflac was made available to the company's entire field force on January 6, and there are already thousands of Aflac associates using it. Shields also says the company is currently working on seven or eight additional Mobile.Aflac applications related to policy claims and enrollment, though he won't go into specifics.
Lessons Learned from Aflac's Implementation
The process of mobilizing services and applications paid off for Aflac, but it wasn't simple.
One challenge Aflac faced in developing the Mobile.Aflac project, which it did all in-house, was users' desire for device independence.
To overcome the issue of having to write the application multiple times for a variety of devices, Aflac built the app specifically for BlackBerrys. But even though the Mobile.Aflac applications are written for the BlackBerry Browser, most of the functionality is available to users of other Windows Mobile, Palm or Symbian devices, Shields says.
"It is impossible to be totally device independent," according to Shields. "Some folks want to use the Treos they've had for years" he says. "Aflac doesn't tell them they can't," only that the applications are written for BlackBerrys, and that the company will only guarantee complete functionality on RIM devices.
And the applications are also accessible by notebook computer, so users can take advantage of the extra screen real estate if they've got a laptop handy.
Which leads to another challenge: How do you present the necessary critical information on such tiny mobile device screens? Aflac used the information gleaned from IT's visits to field agents to determine which information was essential and made sure that information was easily available and easily accessible from home or menu screens, sacrificing or burying less essential data.
Shields also saw some resistance to the shift from human interaction between agents and call centers or headquarters to using technology to retrieve and send necessary information themselves. So Aflac decided to let its agents take their time in switching over to the smartphone applications and even to let them make their own decision on whether to do so at all.
Shields he has enough confidence that resistant users will eventually see the vast potential of Mobile.Aflac and get over reservations on their own. And the overwhelming positive feedback the company has received so far can't help either, Shields says.
"There's nothing like having your peers tout something, rather than the IT department," he says.