Technology is certain to continue changing the way insurance firms operate, communicate and relate to their customers and each other.  Over the coming months, watch for these five trends to make a particular impact on the U.S. insurance industry:

1. Mobility - Sales and Service in Motion

Insurers are setting strategies to take advantage of the proliferation of mobile communications-delivering relevant and useful information and services via mobile devices.  GEICO announced the launch of a new Windows Phone 7 app called GEICO GloveBox that enables customers to pay bills, access insurance policy information and even call for help when they get stuck on the road.  For further details on GEICO's plans to connect with customers via Windows Phone 7 smartphones, check out this video.

2. Data, Data, Data - Business Insights for the Masses

The lifeblood of the Insurance industry is data.  The increased emphasis on data visualization is an opportunity for insurers to extend BI and analytics from a small group of quantitative analysts to a broad employee base.  To help ensure consistent data collection and analysis, Zurich Financial Services built the Global Risk Engineering Workstation (GREW), with the assistance of Wipro Technologies, based on the xRM application development framework in Microsoft Dynamics CRM. The Risk Engineering team now adds greater value to the overall organization, especially by helping the policy-underwriting group and customers better understand risk exposure and identify potential solutions.

3. Multi-Channel Experience - Advisory Services for Growth

Over the past decade, insurers invested in single-channel approaches, such as direct, online self-service, and agent portals-a strategy that worked well one channel at a time.  Today's opportunity exists in bringing these strategies together and investing in agency-related technologies to improve how an insurer conducts business with its agents.  Insphere Insurance Solutions serves the middle-income individual and small-business markets in the United States by offering insurance from multiple carriers.  In this case study, the company details how the Microsoft Dynamics CRM in integration with VUE Software sales performance management solutions makes the agent experience as productive and streamlined as possible.  This foundation will help Insphere double its field sales force over the next few years.

4. Social Media - Digital Marketing to Build Brand and Presence

The potential business value for insurers in such social media outlets as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, is growing for sales, brand development and staffing.  While having a presence in key social networks is increasingly important, a fresh, polished and interactive website is still fundamental to any online sources.  Financial services company Northwestern Mutual, with the help of Infosys Technologies, upgraded its online brand and content management with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to provide a more engaging experience through a more polished online presence, enhanced search and improved content management.  The Northwestern Mutual case study is found here.

5. Simplification - Operations System Integration/Consolidation

Modernization of core systems using a phased approach to consolidate and retire redundant ones is a priority for insurers of all sizes.  While modernization is no small undertaking, the numerous options today in packaged solutions and application development can reduce the cost, time and difficulty for getting it done.  Axa Seguros, part of the Axa Group, had a claims management system that lacked development flexibility and could not easily be adapted to meet changing business needs. In addition, because the system was obsolete, it required extensive maintenance and support, which was costly.  Read the AXA Seguros case study on how it decided to implement the Windows Azure Platform in a pilot deployment for a new claims-management system.

-- Written by Cindy Saccocia, director of Microsoft's U.S. Financial Services Group, Insurance. A 25-year veteran of the financial services industry, she is responsible for managing Microsoft's U.S. insurance sector and is a frequent speaker at insurance industry conference, as well as a featured contributor to industry publications.