Colonial Life needed a flexible, easy-to-use application to provide a rich, engaging experience for its agents, brokers, and potential policyholders. Previously, the company was supporting two distinct software applications to facilitate its insurance enrollment process—one for offline operation and another for online usage. Not only were application maintenance and data management efforts splintered, but also the enrollment procedures and user experience for the company’s agents and policyholders were inconsistent. To standardize and streamline the enrollment process, Colonial Life used several Windows®-based development tools to create a single application that agents can use to serve customers, with or without an active Internet connection. The new application, which feeds into a central data repository, is expected to improve enrollment efficiency and enhance data management efforts.
In serving 49 states and the District of Columbia, South Carolina–based Colonial Life strives to be the provider of choice for voluntary benefits programs offered through the workplace. According to company executives, being a leader in the voluntary insurance industry requires dedication to, and close interaction with, policyholders.
“The one-on-one interaction between our agents and customers is key to our success,” says Chip James, Assistant Vice President of IT Enrollment Systems at Colonial Life, “and we are constantly striving to streamline the enrollment process.”
Voluntary benefits complement an employer’s core benefits program, allowing companies to offer an expanded benefits package at little or no direct cost because employees typically pay for these products themselves. Colonial Life’s 6,500 independent agents spend their time visiting employer sites, educating current and potential policyholders about core benefits plans (major medical, vision, and dental) and voluntary plans (disability, accident, life, specified disease, hospital confinement, and so forth), and facilitating enrollment and reenrollment procedures.
As one of the first companies to use technology to aid the voluntary benefits enrollment and underwriting process, Colonial Life established a sales automation application in the early 1990s. Agents would load the sales automation tool onto their laptop and use it to collect enrollment information from policyholders. At the end of each enrollment period, the agents would compile, synchronize, and standardize the collected data sets before uploading them to the company’s mainframe system. While this was cutting-edge technology when it was created, the sales automation tool had become outdated, inflexible, and difficult to manage in recent years. Also, it provided only limited capabilities for marketing the company’s insurance products.
“From a user’s standpoint, the interface was too complex to use without training, the tool didn’t support online enrollment, and agents were forced to spend a lot of time manipulating, synchronizing, and uploading their enrollment information,” says James. “From a technical standpoint, we felt newer technologies were available to provide rapid product customization and implementation. Also, we saw a huge opportunity to develop a platform that would consolidate data to a single store from a variety of enrollment methods, including agent-assisted online and offline, call center, self-enroll, and co-browse.”
In 2004, Colonial Life created Harmony Online, a Web-based application that was the initial step in replacing the aging sales automation solution. Now Colonial Life is resuming that replacement process.
“Harmony Online is great, but it’s limited to Web usage,” says James. “If an agent is in an employer’s warehouse or other location without an Internet connection, he or she is out of luck. We needed a solution that works offline and is tightly integrated with the online system from a data perspective.”
Colonial Life did not want to continue maintaining and updating two distinct enrollment applications, one for offline operations and the other dedicated to online usage. During the interim period when Harmony Online and the offline sales automation application co-existed in the field, Colonial Life had experienced data integration and management challenges. Also, the enrollment process for agents and customers was too complicated, and having two solutions made it difficult for agents to clearly and consistently present the benefits options.
“Policyholders were viewing our products with an agent through the offline sales automation tool,” says James, “and then seeing something completely different when they went online to do some additional research.”
Colonial Life needed to complete the vision of a single enrollment platform that supported online as well as offline enrollment. In addition, the company wanted complete data integration while enabling new enrollment methods to boost sales.
Because Harmony Online was originally built using Microsoft® .NET Framework 1.1 and later updated with .NET Framework version 2.0, Colonial Life’s IT leaders recognized an opportunity to use Harmony Online as the basis for a new, expanded enrollment application.
||We can now see enrollment information in real time, which will lead to improved analytics and business agility.
Assistant Vice President of IT Enrollment Systems, Colonial Life
“Save for offline functionality and the associated data integration, Harmony Online provides everything we need for enrollment purposes,” says Kim Seals, Enrollment Systems Consultant at Colonial Life. “Instead of creating a new enrollment tool from scratch, we decided to update and extend the Harmony application with this remaining functionality using .NET technology and other Microsoft development tools.”
With the strategic and practical assistance of InterKnowlogy—a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner and 2008 Microsoft Partner of the Year for Custom Smart Client Development—Colonial Life developed a flexible software application that supports a multitude of enrollment methods, both online and offline. The application was created using Microsoft Visual Studio® Team System 2005 and .NET Framework version 3.0.
“We used Windows® Presentation Foundation to build the user interface for the offline component of the new application, which mirrors the interface of Harmony Online,” explains Emilie Hersh, Chief Operating Officer of InterKnowlogy. “Windows Communication Foundation is being used to facilitate data synchronization between the offline and online portions of the application.”
Colonial Life is using Microsoft SQL Server® 2005 and SQL Server 2005 Express database software as a centralized data repository for its new enrollment application. As online and offline application data is automatically synchronized, it is available for immediate use by agents and business executives.
Instead of managing two disconnected enrollment tools and their associated data sets, Colonial Life now has a single Harmony enrollment application. The new application is flexible and easy to use, supports both online and offline operation, and integrates with a common data repository. As a result, Colonial Life expects to boost enrollment efficiency, enable new enrollment methods, expedite application development efforts, and data management.
“Voluntary benefits can be very complex to administer because of different plan variations, the sheer volume of transactions, and individual underwriting and state regulations,” says James. “Harmony handles a lot of the behind-the-scenes work in such a way that the experience of purchasing voluntary benefits seems seamless and hassle-free for our benefits representatives and our customers.”
The new solution will be used to annually enroll more than 50,000 accounts that cover more than 2 million employees. As a result, more than U.S.$350 million in premiums for Colonial Life products and $5 billion in premiums for core benefits will flow through the Harmony system.
Improved Enrollment Efficiency for Agents and Policyholders
Because the new application supports offline usage, Colonial Life agents are no longer forced to use the antiquated sales automation tool when an Internet connection isn’t available. They also don’t have to spend time manually compiling, synchronizing, and uploading enrollment data to back-end servers, because these tasks are now automated.
“Agents and administrative staff previously had to merge disconnected data sets and make sure they were uploaded correctly to our back-end systems,” says Tim Parsons, Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Technologies at Colonial Life. “With the new application, our agents don’t have to think about data. They can spend their time educating customers and facilitating the enrollment process.”
The new solution also offers a consistent and easy-to-use interface regardless of whether it is being used online or offline. Agents and potential policyholders can easily and intuitively find information, explore voluntary benefits options, and perform enrollment procedures for a wider range of benefits scenarios.
“The application interface makes the agent’s job easier,” says Parsons. “Instead of a one-way tool that only allows data insertion, it’s a two-way application that also delivers up-to-date policyholder, benefits, and underwriting information. Armed with this information at the point of enrollment, our agents can determine coverage eligibility, effectively tailor benefits plans to meet customers’ unique needs, and close more business.”
The common interface also creates a seamless experience for current and potential policyholders, who interact with the application both in the presence of an agent and on their own.
“Regardless of whether a policy-holder is online or offline, with an agent or alone at home, they now have a consistent experience,” says James. “And Windows Presentation Foundation enables us to clearly and graphically display robust information about an individual’s benefits.”
Flexibility to Expand Enrollment Options
The flexibility of Colonial Life’s new application has expanded the enrollment options for current and future policyholders. Previously, customers could enroll only with the help of an agent. In addition to agent-assisted enrollments, the new application offers online self-enrollment. It even supports co-browsing, where customers view benefits packages online in tandem with a call center support specialist or agent in the field.
“The more enrollment options we provide, the more business we stand to gain,” says James. “Because it is based on Windows and .NET technology, our new enrollment application is extremely flexible, and there are a number of possibilities for extending its reach.”
The company now provides the application as a plug-in module for integration into existing benefits administration systems. “Many employers have their own benefits solution in place and don’t need our full system,” Parsons explains. “With our enrollment application available as a plug-in module that seamlessly integrates with existing benefits systems, we can attract new employers and significantly broaden our market reach.”
In addition to agent-assisted enrollments, Colonial Life now offers a stand-alone kiosk version of the application that can be left at an employer’s site to fuel self-enrollments.
Faster Application Development and Fine-Tuning
Because the new enrollment application is based on a common foundation of Windows and .NET software, it will be easy to modify over time. In addition to supporting new enrollment methods, Colonial Life plans to continually augment the application to further enhance the marketing of its voluntary benefits products.
“Everything is consistent across the application and data layers,” says Seals. “Once we develop code, messaging policies, data validation logic, application features, and the like, we can easily reuse them elsewhere, whether it is a kiosk or plug-in module. Instead of constantly recoding, we’re able to focus on innovation and product marketing.”
Improved Data Management and Visibility
The new application is also integrated with Colonial Life’s back-end systems, which has led to better data synchronization, visibility, and administration. And because enrollment information is no longer stored exclusively on agents’ laptops for long stretches of time, data security is also improved.
“Establishing a centralized data repository using SQL Server has significantly improved our data management and security capabilities,” Seals says. “It facilitates offline data validation and synchronization, which reduces errors and data conflicts and improves the stability of our enrollment system.”
Colonial Life also has better visibility of its enrollment data.
“The legacy enrollment application didn’t provide sales information until the end of each enrollment period,” says James. “We can now see enrollment information in real time, which will lead to improved analytics and business agility. We’re able to provide immediate feedback to our agents and accounts, evaluate the efficiency of our enrollment and benefit communication processes, and make informed adjustments in a timely manner.”
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