by Alice Dragoon

Jan Franklin’s Business Education at Farmer’s Insurance

Oct 01, 200311 mins
IT Leadership

Jan Franklin was 17 when she landed her first job at Farmers Insurance as a keypunch operator

on the 4 p.m. to midnight shift. Within two years, the driven college student got herself promoted to a programming job, launching her steady ascent up the IT ranks. Fast-forward to 2001, and Franklin had become vice president of IT applications and development, overseeing a $300 million budget as IT chief operating officer. At that point, she knew pretty much everything there was to know about IT at Farmers, having done most of it herself.

But Franklin had the good sense to know what she lacked: direct business experience. So she ventured outside the realm of IT to ask then Executive Vice President of Property and Casualty Stephen Leaman to be her mentor. When he suggested a tour of duty on the front lines of the business to round out her experience, she readily agreed. So Leaman put a bug in CEO Martin Feinstein’s ear. Having served as CIO himself in the early ’90s, Feinstein understood that letting Franklin broaden her horizons would make her a more valuable employee—and knew that IT would benefit from having a scout on the business side. Franklin would be able to identify opportunities to apply IT strategically and get a chance to view IT from a user’s viewpoint. When the business-side position of executive director of the Los Angeles Service Center (LASC) became available in September 2001, Leaman called Franklin in London, where she was celebrating her 10th wedding anniversary. Was she interested? Absolutely. Three weeks later, she found herself heading up one of Farmers’ largest service centers—leading a staff of 550 who do underwriting and provide administrative support for up to 5,000 agents who sell Farmers insurance.

The lessons Franklin would learn in the trenches not only made her a more savvy businesswoman but also gave her an appreciation for how customers of IT really use technology. Those lessons serve her well today because, as fate would have it, the CIO spot did open up in March 2003, when Cecilia Claudio left to head up IT for Europe, Asia and Africa for Farmers’ parent company, Zurich Financial Services. And when Franklin got tapped to fill it, she was more than ready. Here she shares four lessons that she learned on the other side of the fence.

Lesson 1 Take the Time to Walk the Floor and Listen

Franklin was always known As a no-nonsense, bottom-line manager with little patience for office politics or excuses—and often little patience for listening. She had so much experience that she could act quickly and decisively. Markus Nordlin, vice president of IT strategic projects, recalls that after a short time of listening to a problem, she’d say, “You guys are idiots. This is the way it’s going to be.” While she always did this with her tongue planted firmly in cheek, says Nordlin, her good-natured conversation-stopping technique did have the desired effect of, well, stopping conversations.

But when Franklin got to LASC, she had no choice but to learn. She was charged with supporting the agents, with whom she had not worked directly and over whom she had minimal control since they weren’t on the payroll. In Franklin’s second week on the job, she realized she had to get herself up to speed, so she set aside every Friday to meet with at least two district managers and as many agents as she could. “I was right in front of agents to hear what they thought of our systems, of the products we produce, and what their issues and concerns were.” And soon, the listening paid off: Agents started calling to let her know that certain processes were not working properly or to ask her to do something about a form, for example, that had been typed in 1972 and was still being photocopied and sent to clients with handwritten annotations. Talking directly to agents “helped me in running the service center,” she says. “It also helped me understand how building these relationships was something I should continue to do wherever I was.”

Franklin learned so much on her Friday road trips that she suddenly understood the value of talking to the people on the front lines. “It was a shock to me how much [my job at LASC] was relationship-building as opposed to just fixing bugs,” she says. Now that she’s CIO, Franklin schedules time to walk the floor because she realizes it’s the best way to connect with employees.

Getting the IT staffers in the habit of regularly listening to their business counterparts is also a new priority for Franklin. Instead of focusing just on IT’s two primary customers (the heads of personal and commercial lines), Franklin and her IT team created a relationship manager program. She assigned one of her staff to most of IT’s 30 key business partners and brought in trainers to build their consulting skills. Relationship managers meet monthly with their business partners to discuss business issues and opportunities to apply IT. With this program in place, the business managers now have an easy way of communicating with IT and getting what they need.

Franklin and her team also developed a solution provider program, whereby IT staffers with advanced skills are assigned to help business units address specific needs. If a relationship manager sees an opportunity to use IT strategically (say, to streamline accounting reports), a solution provider team is called in to help. Team members work on the project on their own time but get an opportunity to develop their skill sets. And IT benefits by building a more experienced staff (and by not having to shell out money for outside consultants).

Lesson 2 IT Metrics Can Help the Business Too

As an I.T. veteran, Franklin thinks in terms of metrics, process, discipline. But at LASC, she found “less rigor, not a lot of metrics or process documentation. It was all in people’s heads. It was a culture shock.” In fact, when she first walked into the Simi Valley service center, she might have been stepping back in time. A vast sea of decades-old Steelcase desks awash in paper stretched out over four floors, each the size of a football field, and green-screen terminals topped most of the desks. Most processes were paper-based and hadn’t changed in 20 years; hardly anyone used e-mail. Franklin quickly realized she had a rare opportunity to cut costs and improve efficiency dramatically by eliminating or automating non-value-added tasks. She simply needed to introduce the rigor and metrics of IT along with some basic, low-cost technology.

A math major in college and a self-professed metrics manic, Franklin worked with the LASC staff to figure out what to measure. While the concept of measuring took some getting used to for some employees, they came up with specific goals, such as to answer 80 percent of calls within 20 seconds and get 90 percent of the work out in seven days. “It took us six months to get relatively accurate with it,” she says. “But even just by starting to measure, there were improvements.” Under Franklin’s watch, service levels improved more than 20 percent. “It was just rigor,” she says. “Me taking what we typically do in IT—process, metrics, discipline, rigor—and applying exactly the same things.”

For an IT pro like Franklin, automating the LASC was a bit like Tiger Woods playing a round of miniature golf. Franklin managed to reduce costs by more than 10 percent overall by implementing an electronic fax management system, loading paper commission reports into Excel, imaging paper files, investing in PCs and sending e-mail bulletins instead of paper flyers to the agents. Factoring in savings by consolidating accounting and commercial-loss-control staff for all of California into LASC, she saved a total of $3.3 million during her tenure.

Lesson 3 Metrics Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story

While metrics yielded impressive results at LASC, Franklin also realized that they don’t always tell the whole story. Her tenure on the business side gave her an opportunity to feel the pain of a system hiccup in real life. “When you sit here in IT and an error occurs, you say, well, that error affected 5,000 out of the million or so transactions we processed yesterday. Big deal. It’s less than half a percent,” she says. “In the service center, you see the impact of the error, how they have to deal with customers and do rework to fix it. That was the big ’aha.’” But because some mistakes are inevitable, she’s instituted clean-up processes to mitigate the impact to the service centers. This fact hasn’t escaped the CEO’s notice. “Jan is much more sensitive when something goes bump in the night than she might have been previously because she had to experience the other end of it,” says Feinstein. “She knows what it does to the business.”

Franklin’s firsthand experience also gives her a better sense of how agents will respond to the eAgent portal that IT recently rolled out—and helps her put the systems’ metrics in context for her staff. Whereas she might once have overestimated the importance of a metric, such as average transaction time, to gauge a system’s success, she now knows to delve deeper. “You guys don’t get it,” she’ll say to her staff. “Average transactions aren’t what agents are feeling. I was in an agent’s office, and it took over a minute for that transaction to complete. It’s just too slow out there, and they’re not going to use it.” If agents revert to their green-screen terminals instead of using the portal, they won’t get real-time alerts when customers are about to cancel or haven’t made their payments. And all the work that IT put into developing the system won’t matter.

Lesson 4 Coaches Get Better Results Than Drill Sergeants

Franklin’s command-and-control management style had always served her well in IT. And when she got to LASC, she soon had reason to apply it. Within a month of her arrival, Franklin was hearing repeated complaints from agents about one of her functional areas. Calls weren’t being answered promptly, documents weren’t getting out on time, forms were lost, and claims were mispaid. Franklin attacked the problem with her tried-and-true militaristic approach. “I sat down with staff members and said we would have it fixed by this date, come hell or high water,” she recalls. Within three months, they’d addressed many of the service problems, but a staff survey also revealed that morale was horrible. Franklin realized that to sustain the improvements and to make further progress, she’d need to shift to a participative management style. So she gathered the troops and explained why she handled the problem the way she did: She’d wanted to turn the organization around quickly. The staff then told her it would have been easier to take if she’d explained what she was doing up front. Franklin got the message and switched into collaborative gear, putting the ball in their court to suggest and sustain further improvements. Employee morale improved, says Franklin, and in a survey of agents some six months later, this functional area was rated one of the better groups at LASC.

These days, Franklin rarely calls on her command-and-control tactics. Her reports say that her style is collaborative, and she’s more likely to coach than dictate. They also say she’s a better listener. “Before, she’d just cut you off, saying, ’You don’t get what I mean.’ Now she’ll listen to you go through your little diatribe of why things are the way they are,” says James Fridenberg, vice president of IT applications and development.

Recalling Franklin’s pre-LASC days, Nordlin says, “when a situation would arise, Jan would listen real quick to understand it, make a decision, and off she’d go. She was comfortable doing that and generally was right.” But given the same circumstance today, “she is much more likely to call in the various parties, hear various sides of the story, and consider individuals’ input before making a decision.”

From Feinstein’s point of view, Franklin’s stint on the front lines allows her to bring more value to the table as a senior executive at Farmers. “Jan can now provide greater insight and advice as to where we should focus our attention,” he says. “She has the ability to step back and say, ’Let me share with you where you’re going to get the advantage.’ I think that’s something she’s been able to learn as a result of being on both sides.”

Now that she’s on the IT side of the fence, it’s a standing joke with her staff that she’s no longer allowed to say, “When I was in the service center….” But, of course, Franklin does regularly draw on those experiences, and she’s a better CIO for it.