Illustration: Eric Frommelt
By Jennifer Alsever
October 31, 2013

Fortune 500 rank: 40
Headquarters: New York City
Employees: 64,000
Revenue: $68 billion
Category: Life and health insurance (stock)

As a result of acquisitions, new products, and software rollouts over the years, MetLife (MET) had grown into a $68 billion company with 70 software systems and databases that could no longer talk to each other. Unfortunately, the tech mishmash was also making it hard for MetLife to talk to policyholders, many of whom call the insurer during times of crisis. Customer service reps couldn’t always tell if an auto-insurance client also had a disability plan, for example.

Earlier this year, MetLife rolled out The Wall, a Facebook-like application that provides service and sales reps in call centers with an overview of customers. No longer are policyholders viewed as ID numbers scattered among different annuity and insurance products, says Gary Hoberman, one of MetLife’s three CIOs and a senior vice president. The Wall pulls together dozens of streams of customer data to let reps see customers’ history, their conversations with the company, any claims filed and paid, and their various policies — all on a simple timeline. Reps can get to it with one click instead of 40 clicks, and they can settle issues faster and assess how a customer feels about the company. “It could have a huge impact on customer satisfaction,” Hoberman says.

It took 90 days to build the app, a feat that even a couple of years ago might have taken a year or more. “It’s definitely impressive,” says Dwight Merriman, co-founder of MongoDB, the open-source database that MetLife used for the project. Only in the past few years has new database technology allowed big companies to cull huge amounts of digital information for real-time decision-making.

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The Wall is just the start of a larger tech transformation at the company. As part of a bigger effort to trim $1 billion in costs by 2016, MetLife will hire 1,000 technologists this year and pour $300 million annually into technology projects to better understand and retain customers. New apps are being developed to address customer needs in India, China, Greece, and Japan. Other apps predict U.S. users’ behavior. Some were built in a matter of days.

To ensure that employees keep moving fast, MetLife is trying to change its culture. A program called Rise to the Top encourages technologists to come up with revenue-generating ideas and, if the projects are funded, lets employees run their own companies within MetLife. In September a panel of 40 data scientists descended on New York to share new software ideas with top executives. “We’re a 145-year-old company that’s acting like a startup,” Hoberman says. “Technology is not just an enabler. It’s the fabric of the company — and the future.” That may just be the best insurance policy MetLife can buy.

This story is from the November 18, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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