As the insurance sector expands, the need for individual companies to be more accessible and responsive, both to clients and internally, has magnified. How can technology help insurers continue to meet the growing requirements of their clients? And how can a business with disparate technology platforms provide a seamless face to the outside world?

In an increasingly aggressive marketplace, the ability to respond to messages promptly can mean the difference between success and failure. The growth of fixed and mobile telephones, fax, pager, email and instant messaging as accepted business practices should, in theory, have solved all possible contactability issues. However, in reality, technical innovation has complicated accessibility by providing users with multiple points of contact.

Different formats
Each messaging format has its own advantages. Email is a quick and effective way to deliver information, to document messages and to communicate to multiple people simultaneously. Fax conveys written communication and has the flexibility of supporting hand-written comments and pictures. Voice messaging gives you the power of speech, adding emphasis to the words you use in the mind of the reader.

But email is no good if you are nowhere near a networked computer; confidential faxes can get mislaid before they reach the recipient; and there is no convenient place to store voice messages. Handling these separate platforms is not only inconvenient, but also inefficient.

Today, companies such as Avaya, Nortel and Mitel sell unified messaging applications that bring together all of the user's messages, regardless of their format, into one mailbox – a mailbox that people can access via a telephone, PC or the internet. Advanced features – such as the ability to add voice to email messages or to forward email or faxes with a voice introduction – improve communication.

Whether you are using a hotel telephone system, a wireless phone, a laptop computer with a modem, or a desktop PC, employees finally have an efficient way to retrieve and act upon voice, fax, and email messages.

The tangible benefits to insurers include:

  • A single point of administration

    A unified messaging application typically manages voice calls, faxes and emails via a single mailbox on the user's PC. Daily moves and changes made on the central server automatically replicate to other system directories. Only having to make changes once decreases the cost of administration and support.

  • No special training or new equipment for end users

    Most employees are already familiar with using email and telephone handsets on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, additional training is minimal.

  • Users can reply in a choice of media

    Irrespective of which form the message was originally created in, the user has the flexibility of replying to a message without having to switch to a different application. On receipt of a voice mail, which requires a response with key details attached, the user can reply in email format, attaching documentation if necessary. Phone numbers and email addresses of regular correspondents can be linked, meaning less effort is needed to respond to a voice mail with an email.

  • No need for users to be office-based

    Access to each user's messages can be gained through the telephone or PC. At their desk, users can play voice mails through their PC's speakers. Out of the office and away from their PC, they can retrieve messages via a telephone. This is achieved through the conversion of email text to speech: the system will read their messages out loud to their mobile or other phone. This remote access to messages through one interface lifts geographical constraints on where we work. Offices apart – perhaps at opposite ends of the country – can work together and share information in a seamless manner, without their clients knowing any different.

  • Organisation and archiving

    Arranging emails and voice mails in client-specific files can be done through the inbox. This is nothing new for email users, but the ability to archive voice mails with emails now means that conversations can easily be referred to.

  • Increased efficiency and productivity

    With one central mailbox, the end user can streamline their workflow and increase the productivity of their communications.

  • Proven financial return

    Unified messaging offers a lower cost of ownership, compared to companies operating on separate messaging systems. It saves users approximately 30 minutes per day in time spent managing messages. Annual IT, administrative and support costs are reduced by 70%, representing a saving of more than £400

    per user per year. Typically, a 200-user organisation would save enough money to reclaim the initial investment in less than four months (based on an independent survey by the Radicati Group in 1999 for “Unified Messenger for Microsoft Exchange” users).

    Greater freedom
    Even in its infancy, unified messaging is enabling location-independent, 24-hour working. It gives users the freedom to receive, access and store all their messages, regardless of format, and regardless of which communications tools they have to hand. The result is improved productivity and efficiency with lower administration costs. Combined, these factors ensure a transparent and immediate return on investment, with the potential to change the way the insurance arena operates.

  • Rob Magee is business development consultant at Touchbase. Unified messaging will be addressed at Touchbase's “Messaging and Mobility in the Insurance Sector” briefing in London on Tuesday July 24. For more information, call 020 7878 7125.