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UC applications make SMBs competitive with heavy hitters

UC applications are making it easier for SMBs to compete with enterprise organizations. Ohio-based Celina Insurance's UC implementation of IM and collaboration tools has more than made up for its smaller size.

Celina Insurance, a small mutual property and casualty insurance company based in Celina, Ohio, is ranked highly among insurance heavyweights -- an honor Celina's CIO Rob Shoenfelt attributes to the company's embrace of unified communications (UC).

Founded in 1914, Celina Insurance did business entirely on paper until Shoenfelt joined the company in 1998. He brought with him the conviction that technological innovation would make Celina competitive with larger and better-known insurance providers in the Midwest.

Shoenfelt started by deploying an email system in 1998. Rolling out email enabled Celina to dispose of 75 former dump terminals that had been used to house their garbage, mainly paper. Two years later, instant messaging (IM) was added.

Increasing employee productivity with IM

Although confident in his decision to deploy IM, Shoenfelt was concerned that the company's employees would resist the new technology, which would require them to learn an unfamiliar process. "Initially the employees' fear was that IM would interrupt their daily routine," Shoenfelt explained. Those fears were assuaged when the majority of the employees recognized how the application improved their productivity.

For example, when an underwriter receives a message from one of Celina's outside independent agents, he can click on a link that takes him directly to the same page as the outside agent, allowing instantaneous response and collaboration. Insurance is a time-critical business, and IM allows both underwriters and agents to get their work done quickly and accurately.

UC applications drive competitive advantage

Following the success of email and IM, Shoenfelt knew that Celina could use technology to its advantage. "We were competing against these huge entities and knew we needed to provide enhanced collaborative features to our underwriters and agents," he said.

Based on these needs, Celina Insurance rolled out an extranet based on IBM's collaborative applications, including Lotus Notes, Domino, Sametime and IBM DB2 software -- all running on an IBM AS/400 server. The ability to embed instant chat into business processes leveraged presence awareness technology to improve customer service, as agents and underwriters were now able to get timely answers to their questions. The ease of doing business with Celina has led to what Shoenfelt describes as "electronic loyalty" with independent agents who appreciate the UC system's simple, time-saving attributes.

These UC applications, Shoenfelt added, make Celina look (and act) bigger than it really is. The company can now host webinars for employees, saving conference space and in-room equipment. The ability to e-train remote employees using videoconferencing and Web conferencing has been instrumental in developing increased learning initiatives. The lengthy, wasteful paper manuals of yesteryear have been replaced with online webinars that lower costs and increase employee productivity.

Everyone within the insurance industry (and beyond) is moving to a paperless system of doing business, and in an industry where sharing of resources is commonplace, it is tough to get and maintain a solid technological advantage. "If you want to succeed," Shoenfelt said, "you must make it easy for agents to do business with you."

Celina has earned a reputation for its innovative approach to doing business, as evidenced by a call from another insurance company -- some 20 times larger than Celina -- that wanted to know how Celina deployed its instant messaging system.

Although small in size, Celina's willingness to embrace new technologies puts it ahead of much larger companies whose innovation process lags behind the smaller competitor.

Turnaround time accelerates, costs plummet

Celina has, in fact, become smaller since implementing the IBM suite of UC applications. In five years, its headcount has decreased by 40%, allowing the company to enjoy its highest profits to date. Shoenfelt attributes this success to UC. Celina can write the same amount of business with about half as many people.

Another of Celina's expenses has decreased -- phone calls. Phone usage eats up not only employee time but company money. Because phone calls are now largely unnecessary, thanks to IM and other communication applications, phone usage has decreased by 50%. Turnaround time on policy inquiries and other transactions has been reduced from weeks to days, allowing both underwriters and agents to do more, faster.

New corporate culture allows growth, stability

Celina Insurance is not a company that measures success solely on data and numbers, however. For employees to be effective, they need to feel that they are an integral part of the team. Celina wants everyone to be on a level playing field. With their old system in place, many employees felt disconnected from higher-ranking executives whose offices were far from the call center.

"This technology has broken down the previous barriers of a top-down mentality within the company," Shoenfelt said. "You do not see anyone's titles, you just communicate with people." From the CEO and CFO to the call center representative, from seasoned underwriters to recent college graduates, collaborative and presence technologies are all-inclusive.

This change in corporate culture has also allowed the company to attract new talent nationwide -- a previously daunting task because Celina is located in a small town, with major cities at least an hour away. With the increasingly difficult task of not only attracting but retaining top talent, Shoenfelt says that Celina's expanding technological presence and open corporate culture is more likely to entice tech-savvy employees.

When asked about any potential downsides to Celina's UC implementation, Shoenfelt said that he sees none. Celina has a more relaxed corporate culture and increased profits, and the company can provide employees the option to telecommute. Why move to UC applications? "Why wouldn't you?" Shoenfelt replied.

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