Getting the picture

These days, receiving a piece of e-mail is not normally a revolutionary, business-changing act. Except at Allstate Insurance Company of Canada, where it is turning out to be just that.

Allstate, in Markham, Ont., is currently overseeing a project which will streamline the submission of insurance claim information for auto body shops and construction contractors who do repair work on Allstate’s’ behalf. Using the new technology, Allstate partners simply launch an e-mail program and send a file containing the repair estimate document, complete with a scanned photo of the damage, to the insurance company for claim approval.

While that seems a simple enough idea, it is different from the typical procedure in the insurance industry today. Terry Bradimore, owner of C. K. Autobody Ltd. in Scarborough, Ont., is accustomed to insurance companies insisting he use complex proprietary systems that come complete with high monthly maintenance fees.

“It is time to recoup some of our profits. Insurance companies and software companies don’t usually help us. This is the first time that they are,” Bradimore said.

He said his business spends $1,500 a month on maintenance fees alone for one company’s proprietary communication system, and that is money that he would rather see go into his pocket.

To that end, Bradimore became one of the early adopters of the Allstate e-mail initiative, which has seen Allstate team with Etobicoke, Ont.-based Polaroid Canada Inc. to develop a simple to use digital imaging system that will meet the needs of the insurance company, the body shop owners and the contractors, and not cost a small fortune.

Allstate had been looking at imaging solutions for about four or five years, according to Ontario regional claims manager Bob Rogers, and had even adopted an earlier generation Polaroid solution.

“We were looking for a way to work better with the body shops and contractors, to utilize imaging to facilitate the repair process, but imaging was still in its infancy,” Rogers said. He added that Allstate felt the need to turn to a new system even though the older system “did a lot of things for us. We just outstripped what that system was capable of doing.”

Edward A. Brown, claims imaging manager at Allstate, explained there were a number of requirements for the new system. Allstate wanted the transmissions to be done in real time, it wanted the system to be simple to use and support, and most of all, it wanted the solution to be e-mail based.

“We were waiting for the big e-mail solution. The solutions we were looking at were all closed systems.”

Photo-eMail, the Canadian-developed solution proposed by Polaroid, met all of Allstate’s criteria.

Polaroid Canada took an American-developed piece of software called DirectPhoto, which compresses scanned photographs at a ratio of 20:1 and formats them so they open without the need for a viewer on the receiving computer, and packaged it with an instant camera, a MacAfee virus protection package, Pretty Good Privacy (PCP) encryption software and a 36-bit Artec flatbed scanner. Polaroid then configured the Photo-eMail package to work with Bell’s Sympatico Internet service and to perform what is essentially a one-button scanning operation. (The solution can also work with other ISPs.)

Polaroid also developed a half-day training program, complete with a step-by-step, screen-by-screen 43-page instruction manual that the users take home as a reference guide.

“I’m really proud of the training guide,” said Ward Allen, Polaroid Canada’s digital imaging marketing support manager, commercial division. “The fact that it shows what happens page-by-page is really important. As well there is a [customer support] phone number on every page.”

Steps such as a clear guide were key to getting small business owners on-side.

“As a result of this program,” Rogers said, “all of the companies we are doing business with have become very astute dealing with their own PCs. One of the things we didn’t realize was that amongst small businesses, there is not a lot of comprehension about computers.”

Brown said users will save money by learninig to use this technology.

“We predict that the body shops will recoup money and that they will be $360 to $400 to the good after the end of the first year, and that is a very conservative number. That doesn’t include having to put in dedicated phone lines [for the proprietary systems] or the long distances fees for the housing contractors who fax in their estimates.”

As well as the cost savings, Brown, Rogers and Bradimore all envision a time in the not so distant future when much more of the automotive industry is on-line and able to communicate through electronic images.

“I’m very excited about the possibilities,” Bradimore said. “It would make it easier to order used parts and share data with a wrecker. It also makes the whole repair process much more professional. You can say to the customer, ‘If you’ve got e-mail I can send the estimate to your house and include pictures of other damage [that might not be easily visible].'”

Bradimore’s biggest complaint about the new system is that it doesn’t go fast enough. To that end, he is planning on installing a cable connection.

Along with happily testing and adopting the technology, Bradimore is also working with Allstate to espouse the virtues of Photo-eMail to his fellow shop owners.

By May 1, 115 businesses will have joined Bradimore in his use of Photo-eMail, because that is the date Allstate is shutting down the old communications system. At the time of the interview 30 of Allstate’s Ontario-based pre-screened and guaranteed repair facilities were already running Photo-eMail and another 43 had been trained.

For Allstate that means there will be 115 less companies causing a confusing paper trail for Allstate claims adjusters who spend a great deal of time matching electronic reports with faxed photographs.

It also means, according to Rogers, more satisfied Allstate customers.

“The administrators can do more consultative work on the repair process, and that means you get a much happier customer at the end of the day because you get a repair that is a much more reliable, quality repair.”