The two competing quotation systems in the Irish market are being joined by a third. Meanwhile the insurers are promoting their own quotation and data exchange initiative. Can the new entrant capture market share? And is the insurers' system too cumbersome? Claire Veares reports.

Ireland's reputation for attracting technology companies doesn't seem to have extended to the general insurance market. Until recently, brokers wanting a quotation system had just two companies to choose from - Relay and Misys. The choice has shot up to three now with the delayed entry into the market of Bitco, the company set up by members of the Irish Brokers Association (IBA).

To say Bitco has entered the market is a bit of a misnomer as it will soon be known as Maven Technologies Ireland (MTI). Hit by rising costs and a longer than anticipated development phase, the company recently formed a joint venture with Maven, the South African technology company working on the broking software. Bitco brokers own 35% of the venture.

The original 238 IBA brokers involved in funding Bitco, now down to 226 following mergers, have invested around IR£1.5m in the company. Bitco is reported to have paid Maven a total of IR£680,000, with IR£500,000 being spent on the rights to the Insight software and its tailoring to the Irish market and also for Polaris software to be embedded into the system. Bitco was due to roll out the software in August last year, but it finally become available in March this year.

Ciaran Keogh is chief executive of Bitco and soon to be a director of MTI. He says nine brokers have been trained in the Bitco system and six brokers in Cork, Dublin and Galway have the system up and running. Of the established players, Relay has around 320 users and Misys about 190.

Keogh is bullish about the system saying: "We think we've got quite a decent product. It was designed by brokers themselves." And he is confident about the future of the system as well. "Our books are full for the next 14 weeks." He says this equates to orders from 50 brokers, some of who have multiple sites.

Brokers pay for the software based on the number of computer screens in their office. There is an initial charge for each screen, followed by a smaller annual maintenance fee per screen.

Keogh says there was a need for a new system as the established ones did not integrate with Word or Excel. This meant that to write letters or analyse data brokers had to use a separate system. "The challenge was to develop a new system in Word, so you don't have to go outside the software all day", he says. Relay launched a word version of its system last year but Keogh claims this will only appeal to its existing customers.

While the brokers were busy with Bitco, the insurers had started their own initiative. This initiative - Inse-com - was set up last year to introduce Polaris-based standardisation to insurance products to make them easier to create and bring to market. The original members of Inse-com were Eagle Star, Hibernian, Allianz, Norwich Union, and Royal and Sunalliance. They have since been joined by Axa, and together account for more than 80% of the general insurance market. All other insurers have been invited to join, and negotiations are continuing.

Initially being used for motor insurance, the Inse-com system allows for full data exchange between insurers and brokers. Brokers can issue documents directly to clients without the need for forms and paperwork being physically passed backwards and forwards between themselves and the insurance companies. Mid-term adjustments can also be made through the Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) system as well as renewals and substitutions. Inse-com hopes to ensure the quicker delivery of quotations to customers, together with a more comprehensive range of products.

A spokesman for Inse-com says the timing of the Inse-com and Bitco initiatives were not linked. "There is no special relationship between Inse-com and Bitco," he says. "Inse-com develops standards and deals equally with the software providers." But he adds that an initiative at one end of the market makes an initiative at the other more likely.

Inse-com has not been welcomed from all sides. Not surprisingly the established companies in the market have not been its biggest fans. They have both now agreed deals with Inse-com. Relay says it will be introducing full cycle EDI next year.

Andrew Harding, Relay's business development manager says it was expected to pay for Polaris, but Relay and Misys used their position in the market to resist. "We didn't move and Misys didn't move and we basically have 100% of the market," he says.

Harding says there are compatibility problems with Polaris and the Relay and Misys systems as Polaris uses an expanded question set. For example, with car alarms the traditional systems will simply ask if the car is alarmed whereas Polaris will want to know what type of alarm it is.

Some brokers in the UK have complained that having to ask more questions slows them down. This they say plays into the hands of the direct writers. A spokesman for Inse-com says this hasn't been found to be a problem so far.

In theory, insurers can cut down the number of questions they ask, but this is pointless if only done by one company as the whole question set will still be necessary to obtain quotes from the rest of the panel used by the broker.

Harding also sees difficulties with the delivery of documents to customers and questions how drivers will get a valid insurance disc. "It will be difficult for insurers to make fulfilment. What would they deliver to clients?"

He also raises the question of whether those using Polaris will benefit from higher rates of commission from the insurers in a bid to get brokers to switch to the system. "It's a pretty big carrot," he says. But this is an issue for individual insurers and their brokers and not an Inse-com matter, says the spokesman.

Inse-com and Bitco have shaken up the existing duopoly in the market, but Bitco's delayed entry into the market looks unlikely to be followed by any more providers. Companies in the UK have obviously thought about it, but the Irish market is only about a tenth of the size of the UK market and unable to support such a variety of providers.

Keogh, signalling his company's intent, says there is only room in the Irish market for two software providers. And he claims that both the established providers might not be as focused as they were, leaving the door open for Bitco. "We will get a sizeable amount of the market" he reckons.

Acoustic shock
Ireland's recent popularity as a call centre location may bring with it a sting in the tail in what is being called the industrial injury of the 21st Century.

The condition, known as acoustic shock, happens when sudden loud noises feed through the headphones of call centre staff. The noises can come from a variety of sources such as fax machines and automatic fire alarms.

Victims of acoustic shock complain of headaches, tinnitus, depression, and other health problems.

Around 12,000 people currently work in call centres in Ireland and some forecasts predict that this will rise to as many as 40,000 by the end of this decade.

The UK saw the first acoustic shock cases at its spy centre GCHQ in the 1980s. Further cases were noted in the emergency services at the BBC.

But it is the UK telecoms company BT which has had the most problems with employees being affected by acoustic shock. It has paid out around £250,000 to former employees, with one former member of staff receiving £90,000. More than 80 other BT staff are waiting for their cases to be resolved.

BT says all its call centre headsets comply with agreed standards and that it will continue to carry out research into the causes of acoustic shock.

A London lawyer Adrian Fawden, has led the fight for compensation among workers affected by acoustic shock. He says these cases could be the tip of the iceberg as he has interviewed people from a variety of backgrounds in the UK who have experienced acoustic shock.

Other countries are starting to look at the experience of the UK and to see whether their call centre staff have also been affected.

The Australian Services Union has sought legal advice on compensation for call centre employees suffering from the condition.

The union estimates that as many as 20% of call centre employees may be affected.