From quill pens to manual typewriters to networked computer systems, the drive toward newer, faster, better office machines has been unrelenting. Today's agency managers, charged with keeping their offices up-to-date and on budget, have increasingly difficult jobs. They know that their agencies cannot survive without good, solid technology implementation, and so they invest time, money, and reputations on the promise of what technology can deliver. But once obtained, they struggle with the implementation and integration of these systems, fighting budget restraints, legacy systems, ingrained work habits, and often generation gaps in acceptance.
However, as office technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, the human factor remains grounded in fundamental business principles -- with a 21st century upgrade. With each new advance in computers and electronic media, the relationship between agency management and technology becomes evermore complicated and interdependent. Today's agency management system is not just about the tools. It is also about how people use those tools and how supervisors manage their staffs and hold them accountable to the standards the agency defines.
To effectively utilize new technologies and processes, agency managers must take traditional job descriptions to the next level. The roles at the heart of an agency's staff -- sales and service -- must be clearly defined by task. For example, most job descriptions for a traditional CSR say that the person "is responsible for all aspects of service to the client." But the role of the CSR is actually much more specific, structured around daily tasks and agency service standards.
The agency also may have a senior account manager and a technical assistant, a marketing representative and an account executive, all serving clients' needs. These people may have overlapping roles, often not clearly defined. Without a clear sense of job purpose, staff members cannot effectively use the varying components of an agency management system to meet their goals. Therefore, step one in bridging the gap between agency management and technology is to define the sales and service roles. A detailed workflow chart (such as the example on page 10) can help clarify responsibilities and timelines.
Once staff roles have been defined, agencies can set service level benchmarks. With those parameters outlined, technology can be reviewed and purchased to help deliver on those goals.
On initial purchases, agency managers usually exercise significant due diligence, basing purchases on the technology's ability to deliver return on investment. Likewise, training on new technology is considered a high priority by management. However, familiarity can breed, if not contempt, at least disinterest. The longer an agency has been with a vendor, the less sustained the training efforts become. The result is that staff often is not sufficiently schooled on new features; improvements are not integrated into the agency workflow with the same enthusiasm as the original implementation. This lack of feature integration degrades the initial ROI.
An example: Real-time processing coupled with integrated e-mail and activity tracking can streamline the endorsement process. But many CSRs treat these three actions as separate events. First, a request for change is made via e-mail or a phone from the client. The CSR receives the request and takes some notes (either on paper or in activity) making sure she has all the information needed to process the request. Later, as a completely different step, the CSR enters the transaction via real-time and creates an activity in the management system summarizing the transactions. If the request was e-mailed, a third step is added even later, at the end of the day or week, when the CSR attaches the e-mail request into the management system summarization.
In an integrated, streamlined environment, the e-mail request is opened and the endorsement is requested via the real-time option. If it is a phone request, the CSR processes the request while on the phone with the client; the e-mail is attached to the activity as part of the real-time workflow. Only a brief description of the transaction is entered in the management system activity because the attached e-mail contains all the required information. It sounds simple, but most agencies are still treating these as separate events, rather than what it is -- one event.
Here are the some clues that an agency management system implementation is focused on features instead of streamlined workflows:
- There are e-mails waiting to be attached that have already been handled
- There are scanned documents or e-mail attachments stored on the network drive instead of as attachments on the management system
- CL submissions are tracked manually or in a spreadsheet or other system outside the management system
- Paper copies of documents are still provided to clients or third parties (certificate copies, binder copies, and the like)
- One event is recorded in multiple places (remarks, activity, attachment)
Streamlining workflows in a manner that integrates technology is not for the faint of heart. It requires a total attitude shift for everyone. The old way of working -- where staff touches a transaction multiple times -- is over. The new way of "one and done" is critical to successful agency management. The goal is to create workflows that maximize the capabilities of technology first. If it can be done on the computer, do it there -- once. A transaction does not need to be duplicated two and three time "just in case" or "because we've always done it this way."
Agency management systems are rife with under-utilized and under-appreciated features, such as:
- Activity Tracking. Using too many codes makes it impossible to track transactions from beginning to end. In any department, 12 codes should be sufficient. Many agencies get by with 10: proof of insurance, endorsement, cancellation, audit, new business, renewal, marketing/quoting, binding, coverage inquiry, underwriting.
- Submission Tracking. Most management systems have the ability to expand the activity feature to provide tracking for submissions by carrier. Some systems even allow the sender to attach documents such as quotes or declinations. These tracking systems provide valuable information with little or no additional effort.
- Sales and Marketing. Agencies perform account reviews at renewal in the name of customer service with the goal of increasing revenue and eliminating E&O exposures. An incredible amount of time is spent reviewing accounts at renewal looking for gaps in coverage or rounding accounts. This can be accomplished with target marketing campaigns that search the agency database of clients that meet the criteria.
- Direct Bill Commission Download. Technology can take over the process of manually billing direct bill policies. Software can generate commission statements and eliminate most direct bill invoicing.
- Electronic Filing Features. In today's agency offices, there is no need for a traditional client file. While a truly paperless office remains an unrealized dream in most agencies, scanning paperwork and storing it electronically is gaining proponents. All electronic transactions should be stored electronically.
Monitoring activity for a 90-day period can provide valuable information on how effectively a system is being utilized. The test should provide answers in four basic areas:
- Is the data meaningful? Can you determine the number of endorsement transactions recorded, the number of certificates issued? If not, there may be a problem with the activity codes.
- Can you segregate out the marketing/submission/quoting activity codes by carrier? If not, submission tracking may not be implemented.
- Are there CSRs with too few activities? Are CSRs able to do their work without recording the transaction in an activity? If not, this usually means they are working from paper files and not utilizing the timesaving functions available in the system.
- Is the workload evenly distributed among the staff? If not, it may be time to be more creative in distributing work and developing the process role. Once fully developed, tasks handled by the process role can be delegated to a carrier service center (really a carrier processing center) or outsourced.
These are just a few clues to help you assess your current technology implementation. A free comprehensive assessment document, Best Practices Guides for Agency Business Processes and Information Management, is available at www.IIABA.net.
Agency managers who are serious about integrating technology, workflow, and people, reap significant rewards: Capacity is increased as inefficient manual processes are eliminated and replaced with automated efficient workflows; service improves because the right people are doing the right work all the time, resulting in higher retention; E&O exposure is reduced as redundancy is eliminated and automated reviews are put in place; workloads are evenly distributed and monitored, ensuring staffing goals are met; revenue per employee increases as new business production increases without adding additional staff.
The key for agency management is to be actively involved the workflow process. Educate yourself, educate your agency staff, and set the bar high. Technology implementation is a process, not a project. You are never done. Each step moves you a little farther along in the process, and just may put you ahead of your competition. G
Laura Nettles is the founder of Nettles Consulting Network in Atlanta. The firm specializes in workflows and agency management system implementation. She may be contacted at LNettles@NettlesConsulting.com, 404-325-0023; www.NettlesConsulting.com.