Under the scheme, Friends Provident will resell Nextra's IT services as a way of offering independent agents access to its back end systems and online tools.
In 1999, Friends Provident developed a chain of Appointed Representatives (AR) - a sales channel consisting of 200 independent UK businesses exclusively selling Friends Provident products.
As part of its channel strategy Friends Provident has signed a deal with Nextra, who will provide the ARs with a managed desktop or laptop PC capable of running Friend Provident in-house financial applications over a dial-up Internet connection.
From June, Friends Provident will use the Nextra infrastructure to automate parts of its sales process through its computer assisted sales process enhances results (CASPER) initiative.
This system is designed to replace the largely paper-based approach to handling customers. ARs will be offered tools that work out future pension needs of customers and then auto-complete electronic forms based on customer information provided.
The ARs pay for the Nextra service through a leasing contract with Friends Provident.
Alan Dorey, manager of business operations and director of the AR technologies project at Friends Provident told CW360.com the company needed a way to standardise IT infrastructure if it was to support its ARs effectively.
"Every one had different IT," said Dorey. Some ARs had older PCs and word processors; others used paper-based filing. This made it quite difficult for Friends Provident to update its quotation systems, which ARs used during customer consultations.
Another issue facing Friends Provident was that the ARs were, in effect, unsupported remote workers. "Most ARs had not considered IT support, maintenance and anti-virus [updates]," said Dorey.
Dorey's deal with Nextra will see the ARs provided with IBM Thinkpad T22 notebook PCs, IBM 6792 NetVista desktop PCs, a mix of laser, ink and bubblejet printers, Windows 2000 Professional, Microsoft Office 2000 and Norton anti-virus software.
The PCs are backed up on CD-R discs each time the user shuts-down the system. Nextra also provides a restore disk, allowing ARs to restore their PC to its initial configuration.
While Nextra provides the managed infrastructure Doley's Friends Provident team will support and train the ARs in the use of Friends Provident's in-house applications. This approach, he said will help develop business relationships with the sales channel.
Friends Provident's decision to offer a managed IT service for its independent sales channel is part of a growing trend, according to Forrester analyst, David Metcalfe.
When businesses operate within a fragmented market resellers often do not know enough about your products," Metcalfe said. Many, he added, do not have the resources to put in place sophisticated IT.
By offering both products and the services to support their sale, organisations can gain competitive advantage.