Rise Above

All insurance agencies should have business goals that are well thought out. Your agency goals for this year should include:

  • Maximizing market opportunities;
  • Driving increased sales;
  • Reducing customer service costs;
  • Streamlining operations; and
  • Boosting the bottom line.

Some of the greatest benefits to updated technology are time savings; greater customer satisfaction and loyalty; and increased margins, perpetuation, valuation and employee morale, explains Jason Walker, managing partner at Smart Harbor.

“Investing in tech demonstrates that you value the customer experience and understand the demands of future insurance consumers,” he says. “Insurance can’t get a hall pass when it comes to serving customers online, including availability, ease of use and instant gratification.”

Most of the new tools aim to help agency owners by lowering operating expense, explains Michael Clifton, global insurance leader at Cognizant Insurance Practice. “If you embrace tech to offset expensive processes – which allows you to realign staff toward more productive advisory work – you create a culture that values your employees and your customer base.”

Tech adoption also sets agencies apart from the competition, because many are slow to implement new solutions. “Tech isn’t the end game; it’s a catalyst to ensure success in a digital world,” Clifton says.

Automation helps agents do their jobs more accurately and frees them to focus on their clients on a personal level – two factors critical for ongoing success, notes Frank Neugebauer, insurance partner at Capco.

One of the greatest benefits of new technology is making it faster and easier for customers to do business with your agency, says Ron Berg, executive director for the Agents Council for Technology. “Today’s customers expect to get service when they want, through platforms they can access via their mobile devices. They pay bills, get re-quotes, look at their policies, and download proof of insurance.”

Quite simply, investing in the right technologies drives agency profitability, says Kitty Ambers, chief growth officer at AVYST. “However, it’s critical to make sure the technology tool will solve the perceived issue,” she stresses.

Tools of the Trade

Tech-savvy agencies are making use of myriad tools, beginning with agency management software systems (AMS). “Agencies have a longstanding reliance on their agency management systems as the policy transaction tool,” Neugebauer says. “These systems serve as the go-between for their insurance carrier partners and their clients.”

Agencies’ adoption of “mainstay” technologies such as AMS, websites and raters range from full integration into the agency’s workflow as a required step in prospecting to one-off use of certain capabilities, says Walker. “We’re also seeing more adoption of lead-nurturing systems, CRM systems, chat platforms, smart forms, online payment portals, e-signature, email marketing, and even net promoter score (NPS) dashboards to maintain a pulse on customer satisfaction.”

When it comes to apps, opinions vary. Walker speaks with the majority of 36,000-plus independent agencies annually and asks them about their adoption rates of systems, apps, social and other solutions. He says, “The overwhelming majority of agents don’t list apps as part of their repertoire.”

Apps provided by AMS providers and carriers for claims are referenced most often. Some agents have invested in a custom mobile application, Walker adds, but the published information is a mix of linking to carrier portals and “a regurgitation of website content.”

Neugebauer says, “Google Maps may be the most frequently used mobile app for agents.” He finds that agents also leverage social media apps such as Facebook and Twitter. “These are particularly useful because clients are already there, and there’s zero cost to the agency to use them.”

Rather than embracing apps per se, agents prefer mobile-responsive solutions that adapt to the device, whether smartphone, watch, tablet or desktop, according to Walker. These keep costs down while providing customers with a seamless experience.

“We have also seen agents getting benefits from interactive smart forms that take a mobile-first approach to elicit lead data from consumers and may deliver rates,” Walker says.

Finally, as content and conversation drive customers and referrals, agents are adopting social media aggregation, reviews and chat apps to monitor and respond to customer feedback. These tools give agents connection to clients in real time and allow them to be part of the conversation at all times. “Mobile is used for everything from sales quoting to service,” Berg notes.

“Agents are accessing policy and claims information via mobile as well as performing risk analyses and plumbing the depths of data management systems.” This allows agents to get more insight on coverage assessments and additional data about their insureds’ homes, lifestyles and businesses.

Getting Agent Buy-In

It’s easy for agents to become confused by the many “next best thing” messages touted at insurance industry tech events. It’s only after implementation that agents see the reality of the solutions they’ve bought. Although this can be a positive experience, it’s all too often a negative realization that the technology is not the perfect fit they had expected, Walker warns.

One reason is the overwhelming number of solutions. “When it’s not clear how those solutions can work together, communicate and share data, it becomes an even bigger challenge for agencies,” Walker says. “As vendors, it’s important that we articulate clearly where we fit into the agent’s workflow, how we integrate (through an application programming interface (API) or full integration), and how we simplify the insured’s journey.”

To help prevent this frustration – not to mention the waste of time and money – it’s vital for agents to be educated around the “start/stop” of tech solutions and their value in the larger agent/customer journey, Walker stresses. “Without knowledge of how the tech fits into the greater ecosystem, agents are going to give up,” he says.

There also is the issue of agents who are so constrained that they don’t take the time to try new tools. Focusing on how new tech solutions will help agents do their jobs more efficiently and serve their customers more effectively can encourage them to buy in.

“Before anything else happens, somebody has to sell something,” Ambers says. “Today, the amount of data needed to quote and sell something correctly is monumental. Tools that help producers consistently gather data systematically are critical.”

Often the challenge is getting buy-in from senior management, observes Berg. “Many agencies have younger agents who are pushing the use of tech at work. The challenge is to get the support of senior leadership, and the best way to do this is to explain to them the value and return on investment of tools such as mobile e-signatures and social media.”

Instead of traditional lead-buying platforms, agents are shifting their attention to referral programs, social media marketing tools, smart forms with niche marketing and advertising campaigns, and more personalized tech platforms that have a higher propensity to generate the right buyer.

“As a result, we have seen sophisticated lead-buying platforms invest in appending tech that validates and boosts the quality profile of the lead as well as consolidation of the lead-buying market,” Walker says.

Buy it or Build it?

The question of whether to buy or build agency tech tools depends on the agency, notes Clifton. “If they have a bundle of business insurance, such as small business or commercial packages, they tend to use their carriers’ tools to quote and get a professional binder to present to the client.”

Clifton finds that most companies use tools to drive a mobile offering as an adjunct to the online capabilities. In the claims or servicing business, however, they’re embracing core platform technologies to create efficient workflows, claims adjuster assignments and data collection. “If they’re building mobile apps, they’re doing it from scratch,” he says.

Walker notes that agencies are both buying and building tech tools. Agency owners are standardizing CRM best practices for their producers and customer service representatives (CSRs). They’re also building automated workflows and data analysis for prospecting, retaining and communicating with clients. As a result, agencies have been able to quickly add new lines of business that would have been unheard of even a year ago.

We’ve also worked with managing general agents (MGAs) that are using technology platforms to simplify and expedite the rate/quote/bind process as ways to stand out,” Walker says. There are well-known, sizable, commercial call-center agencies that digitally advertise and then lead business prospects through a catered, automated smart-form experience that leads to rate and bind.

According to Berg, most agencies are small to medium-sized, and don’t have the bandwidth to develop their own tools. AMS vendors are providing them with periphery tools such as texting, call-monitoring software, or the ability to connect with e-signature software on a mobile platform.

Some agencies are obtaining tech tools from their carrier partners, but there is a limit. Neugebauer observes that carrier-specific tech tools are coming either from the AMS vendor or from the carriers, but there are fewer tools provided by carriers. “For independent agents with few carrier partners, this is impossible; they’d have to learn each carrier’s tools, which could take all their time. One notable exception is the comparative rater; the carriers connect to the raters and agents use them. This tool, which is more like a service, is coming to the agent indirectly from the carrier.”

In the past, many carriers focused on building and managing proprietary policy administration systems. Now, says Walker, “policy management systems like Guidewire, Duck Creek and Insurity are driving new capabilities and standardization.”

“Carriers seem to wish to position their agent web access as unique, but it actually creates duplicate scenarios for their agents. As an agent, if I have to go to different websites to enter the same information or some variation of the same information, it is a waste of time and talent,” Ambers says. It’s much more efficient for agents to enter client information in one place and have it propagate other similar fields.

Agencies are typically driven by the carriers they support, so having a multi-carrier environment may lead to agents using many different desktop plug-ins or configurations that conflict, Clifton acknowledges. This is a challenge for smaller agencies that lack a dedicated IT staff. “The largest carriers have IT support to create a single carrier portal that allows producers and CSRs to use one system.”

By opening up the opportunity for third-party providers to partner at the enterprise level, carriers are looking to do the same in the agency distribution channel, Walker notes. “Carriers serve as educators and advisors for all things marketing, sales and operations. With a plethora of agency providers, carriers assist by vetting and approving tech vendors and even subsidize certain solutions for certain agencies depending on the level of partnership.”

The bottom line is that new technology is an absolute must for agencies that wish to survive, thrive and grow in a fiercely competitive marketplace. This reality should get the attention of any decision-maker or end user tho is balking at implementing new tech solutions.

Article By: Joyce Anne Grabel

Source: Property Casualty 360