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Feature

Data Central

MetLife's new system improves customer service by putting all data in one place
Justin Lafayette, founder and chairman of software company DWL Inc., was in New York's LaGuardia Airport waiting for his flight back to Canada when his cell phone rang. He answered the call while rushing through the terminal to his gate. The voice on the other end was Anthony Candito, senior VP and CIO of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.'s individual business unit. "Quickly tell me what your software does," Candito said. "If you have what you say you have, we'd be interested in it." LaFayette immediately employed the tactics he acquired during his stint as a minor-league hockey player: He was determined, quick, and direct.

When Candito placed that call in September 2000, DWL was a 4-year-old company that had just secured its second round of venture funding for $24 million. DWL Customer, a real-time transactional application that consolidates customer data, is the technology that piqued Candito's interest when a friend and industry colleague told him about it after learning of MetLife's new customer strategy.

It took about six months for LaFayette to convince Candito that MetLife should pursue a relationship with DWL. "We laid out our product road map and got to specific levels of what we were going to do, and MetLife told us what they wanted within specified time frames," LaFayette says. "The risk for us was that a big company like MetLife could hijack our company and product direction, and then the product becomes something that only works for MetLife." So far, LaFayette says, that hasn't been the case; the companies have worked side-by-side on product development.

MetLife's reworked customer strategy has been long in development. When Robert Benmosche became chairman and CEO in 1997, MetLife's focus was on going public. Once that was completed in April 2000, Benmosche set his sights squarely on his customer base of more than 9 million. He gave the company a new directive: Create a way to take better care of existing customers, track their data, and grow MetLife's customer base to 100 million by 2010. Since then, MetLife has broken ground on technology that tracks and stores customer data in one location. It hasn't been easy, given that all that data is stored in 30 systems across MetLife's various businesses, and federal privacy regulations dictate how MetLife can use it.

MetLife has expanded beyond the insurance industry in part due to the November 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which lets banks merge with securities and insurance companies. The company has $1.7 trillion in active life-insurance policies and provides group insurance and retirement-savings products and services to about 64,000 companies and institutions. MetLife also offers pension plans, mutual funds, and other securities.

Stephen Kessler and Anthony Candito (left). Photo by Magnum Lanje

DWL's software provided the flexibility MetLife needed, says Kessler (left, with Candito).
Under Benmosche's direction, Candito assembled a small team of executives to discuss an enterprisewide strategy that will inevitably change the corporate culture for all 46,000 MetLife employees. Defining a new customer-relationship management strategy was a challenge. "You can talk to eight people and get 12 different definitions" of a corporate CRM strategy, says assistant VP Stephen Kessler, a member of Candito's team. What quickly became clear was that MetLife needed to view all customer interactions and understand each customer's relationship with the company. "We needed to break down the silos and have one golden place to go for customer information," Kessler says. "We needed a flexible environment to do that."

That environment took the form of an application based on DWL Customer that will serve as the system of record for customer information. The system, called the Client Information File, is being tested and houses all data on every MetLife customer. It acts as a Web service for MetLife's contract and product-administration systems, which pull information from the DWL application. The drawbacks to the project-large up-front costs and a major integration effort-have been worth the effort, Kessler says. Candito expects the application to help MetLife cross-sell new products, more rapidly integrate acquired-company systems, and greatly improve service for all MetLife's customers.

Creating a system of record that centrally stores all customer data inevitably will change the way MetLife's employees do their jobs. Sales and service representatives, for example, will be expected to deal with all aspects of their customers, not just the one or two product lines they've traditionally handled. MetLife has also had to ensure that its efforts to improve the quality and quantity of customer data don't interfere with the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act's privacy-protection clause, which regulates how businesses can use the data they collect. Leading that effort is chief privacy officer Ira Freidman, a 29-year MetLife veteran (see, "Protecting Customer Privacy").

The new system, once it's rolled out to employees in two to three years, will let service representatives view MetLife's entire relationship with each customer. MetLife customers also will have access to their information online. "We've been customer-centric for a while, but what customer-centric was 10 years ago is much different from today," Kessler says. "Customer-centric was enabling customer-service agents to translate the silos of information to your customers effectively. Moving forward, it's about getting your customers directly connected to your processes."

Candito says customer service is imperative not only to MetLife's ability to grow, but also to its ability to survive. "Product is a key differentiator in the market, but products come and go," he says. "The key is to connect with customers in a way that provides intrinsic value. Products won't be the thing that makes or breaks you."

The Client Information File will contain information on all parties associated with MetLife, including those insured, beneficiaries, third parties, policyholders and their dependents, and annuity holders. There will be a single occurrence for information regardless of the number of roles a party has within the products. All information will be stored in one file, helping MetLife better manage customer relationships and keep up-to-date information on every customer; this, in turn, will lower costs by reducing misinformation and errors.

Every Wednesday, Candito and his IT team meet to discuss the project. Every month, Candito gives a report directly to Benmosche. It's imperative that everyone in the company buys into the Client Information File system, because it's going to change the way employees interact with each other and with MetLife customers. That's why Candito has appointed evangelists to travel to MetLife offices across the country to promote the new system, even though it's not implemented yet. "I honestly don't believe that five years ago we would've thought about doing that," Candito says. "But we've talked about this culture change so much that we're able to make it work."