Midwestern regional insurance company Celina Insurance didn't even have e-mail in 1998, but by 2001 it had presence-based Web chat via IBM Lotus Sametime for independent insurance agents to communicate with Celina's underwriters. Celina is on the leading edge in exposing internal communications tools to partners while still taking a feature-by-feature approach to adopting UC.
Today, Celina gives its independent agents not just a company directory, but also a presence capability showing which underwriters or other Celina representatives are working. For a small insurance company with about 500 agents, it's a differentiator from competitors, which mostly have automated phone systems for agents. "Agents hate that," says Celina CTO Rob Schoenfelt. "Press a button, press a button, press a button. With us, you see who's there and you get a human being. Agents say, 'Well, that's Ken, and I can see Ken, and call him.'"
Schoenfelt's philosophy: reach a human, not push a button
Celina's experience also shows the power of presence and chat to cut down on voice calls. The company put $300 VoIP phones on each desk and installed a Mitel 3300 IP PBX mostly to cut its long-distance bill, but its installation of Sametime instant messaging reduced phone call volume by 40% on its own. "I can't even remember the last time I've received internal voice mail," says Schoenfelt.
Celina plans to add click-to-call to its Sametime deployment sometime soon, so agents and employees with IP phones will no longer have to even dial numbers to reach one another. Even so, Schoenfelt expects people will continue to send instant messages before they make calls. Chat has become second nature at Celina.
Presence has, however, led to some odd behavior on occasion, as employees learn some new social norms. Schoenfelt says he has received messages that say so and so isn't at his desk, and it's 8:30 a.m., and he was supposed to be here by 8. Presence's encroachment on privacy can be unnerving, but it's manageable. Schoenfelt discusses it with a sense of mildly bemused annoyance.
As with any new technology, keeping employees in the loop about how to use UC is critical. Global Crossing set up training sessions, sent tips to employees, and created a chat called "Ask Amanda" with a dedicated IT support employee.