By MITCH BETTS
(April 15, 2002) For many years, the concept of "business intelligence" for Foremost Insurance sales agents meant getting 1,000-page monthly reports from headquarters -- and stuffing them into the trunks of their cars.
Folks at headquarters were printing those batch reports and sending them overnight to the sales representatives in the field. "And [the sales reps] had to spend hours sorting through the paperwork just to figure out which accounts to go call on," recalls Kammi McDermott, a director in the insurance company's agency sales division.
But in 1997, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Foremost Insurance Co. replaced that flurry of paperwork with laptops and a mobile database so sales reps could keep track of their accounts in a paperless fashion.
The laptops run a customer relationship management (CRM) application from OnContact Software Corp. in Cedarburg, Wis. That software is built on top of a mobile database and synchronization product from Sybase Inc. subsidiary iAnywhere Solutions. This enables salespeople in the field to synchronize their data with Foremost's corporate database each night.
The CRM system is now running on 60 laptops in the field, plus it's used by 50 or more internal users. The system has saved $2 million by eliminating the paperwork blizzard, McDermott says.
Replacing the paper files in the trunks with laptops has been very popular with the sales force. "Now we couldn't pry the computer out of their hands -- it's their lifeline," McDermott says.
The mobile database allows the salespeople to enter information on their customer contacts, and it helps upper management keep tabs on how many sales calls they're making.
The system also identifies which potential customers are using a competitor's product. If that competitor withdraws from a particular market -- which sometimes happens in the insurance business -- then Foremost sales agents can swoop in to get the business, McDermott says.
Frequent data synchronization is especially important because it means that data about sales calls in the field is available at headquarters for analysis, and it prevents multiple salespeople from calling the same customer.
McDermott says the CRM database can be mined to identify the biggest customers, the least profitable customers and the most productive salespeople, for example.
In the future, Foremost is likely to deploy the CRM system to most of the company's 1,300 employees -- so they can exploit the CRM data -- and eventually put the application on the Web.