Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Technology

Help Is On the Way for Independent Agents

Many insurance carriers are armed with a multitude of technical expertise and love nothing more than sharing that knowledge with their independent agents. Other carriers may have a great deal of talent, but are less willing to share it with agents who they may or may not look on as partners.

Whatever situation carriers and agents find themselves, the more successful are those that have something to offer on each side of the equation—insurers with technology tools and advice to share and agents who understand what technology can mean for them and how best to use the available tools.

Progressive is one such insurers with an abundance of knowledge and a willingness to teach others. And despite the company’s marketing focus on the direct channel, they remain committed to their  independent agency force.

“The independent agency channel is a vital and growing part of Progressive’s business,” says Jim DeVito, agency experience manager for Progressive.

“We are constantly trying to find ways to help our local agents use technology and innovation to enhance their business,” he says. “We’ve gained a fair amount of notoriety for our Internet presence and our national media campaigns, but the reality is we’ve been helping our local independent agents grow and strengthen their business for over 70 years.”

Ellen Carney, senior analyst with Forrester, believes agents have found varying degrees of success coming to terms with the carrier’s technology.

“A lot of [agents] feel like they are on their own,” she says. “There’s a great desire among agents to help support their customers—by getting access to policy administration systems, or being able to see the notes from claims adjusters to let [policyholders] know the status of their claim.”

Some agents believe they have to handle technology issues on their own, but Carney feels there are carriers that are very proactive.

“You see varying degrees of support, but to be honest, you see varying degrees of adoption on the agents’ side as well,” says Carney.

There is a real distinction among the agents, adds Carney. Some say, ‘This is how we’ve always done it.’ There’s no succession plan on who is going to take over the agency and a fax machine is a technology innovation for them.

“Then you see others that are interested in using technology to better engage with their customers and deliver a better experience,” she says. “They are looking at ways they can use technology to build the best agency.”

Progressive maintains a large resource pool dedicated to the agency channel, according to DeVito.

“We say that technology is part of our DNA in that we’re consistently investing in technology and its deployment, but we are also trying to make it easier for our agents to adopt,” he says.

Progressive’s investments in technology come in two forms, according to DeVito: transactional and relational.

“From a transactional perspective, it’s how do our agents interact with us and how do we both interact with our mutual customers,” he says. “From a relational perspective, how do agents reach out and find new customer, build deeper relationships, and use technology to do that. And similarly, how do we find ways to enhance our relationship with our independent agents.”

Progressive continues to invest in its agent portal, points out DeVito, as well as a variety of real-time interfaces to make agents more efficient as they transact business. On the relational side, Progressive is putting forth effort to deploy some of what the carrier has done on the direct side so the carrier can help its agents effectively reach out to their customers via the Internet.

“We are trying to make [technology] more accessible and easier to adopt,” says DeVito.

Progressive also has partnered with third-party vendors who can help agents develop Web sites and develop Internet search strategies, according to DeVito. The carrier also has a large field representation, but also added an agency blog where agents can interact with the carrier’s senior leaders on topics of interest.

Tom Hammond, a member of the business owners’ liability team for Bolt Insurance Agency in Farmington, Conn., believes all carriers recognize there are different levels of where agents are at in terms of technology. “Some are fairly advanced; they have direct XML connections for us,” he says. “Some are just starting to move in that direction.”

The Bolt Agency is leveraging the SeaPass technology for its connectivity, but understands there are diverse ways technology can connect with carriers.

“It’s not really homogenous,” says Hammond. “Some carriers have made investments in their XML platforms. That connectivity is a lot faster and has a lot more value and advantages in the information—or metadata— you are getting around the transaction versus other carriers that are connected but have taken a different method of doing it through either a reverse proxy or a screen-scrape approach. There are different levels.”

TECH ADVICE

Progressive recently established an agent technology advisory board which allows the carrier to enter into deeper discussions with key independent agents on where the agents feel Progressive should be investing in technology, explains DeVito, who heads the technology advisory board for the carrier.

“So much of these newer technologies are really about communication and relationship building,” he says. “Our agents can do a fantastic job with that. We’re just trying to make the technology more accessible and share our best learning with them.”

Many carriers—including Progressive—have agent advisory councils, but DeVito explains this council is different in that its primary focus is technology.

“The technology advisory board has been specifically established with agents who have been recommended by the local field agents as being tech savvy so they can articulate their unmet [technology] needs, help us focus on where we should be investing our technology dollars, and how we can mutually support each other,” says DeVito.

One member of the technology advisory board is David Whitfield, a principal with Soleyon Insurance Partners in Bellevue, Wash.

“I agreed to participate [on the board]because I really like the point that there are two different sides in technology—a transactional side and a relational side,” he says. “Progressive has been leading us on the transactional side, so I really wanted to get their ideas on the relational side and how to build relationships with the local consumer base, and try to learn from their expertise.”

Soleyon Insurance Partners made a decision in 2010 to be on the front edge of the social media wave among agencies, explains Whitfield. Located near Microsoft and other leading technology companies in the Northwest, Whitfield explains it was important to the agency’s business to communicate with clients and potential clients in less traditional ways.

Whitfield admits it is difficult to determine a return on an agency’s investment in social media.

“It’s hard to figure out how to make money through Facebook or Twitter,” he says. “How many agency resources should we dedicate to social media? It’s important to us to touch our clients in the way they want to be touched, but it’s tough to keep in front of that considering how the landscape keeps moving.”

The Bolt agency has built its small commercial book through ease of doing business with the small business owners it seeks as clients.

“It’s typically a lower premium policy, but in small commercial lines it’s almost the same amount of information as a large account,” says Hammond. “We’ve made large investments in technology platforms to be able to integrate into the carriers’ systems and present a premium online to the small business owner for three or four different carriers with one single input of data. No one wants to rekey data. That’s an action of the past. I hear a lot of talk about a high-tech, high-touch approach and we really are doing that because we’ve spent a lot of time reducing input so we can spend more time on the phone with people.”

THE OTHER HALF

One reason Progressive pulled together the technology advisory board was to gain feedback from a range of its agencies on what they believe can help them move forward with their agencies. DeVito explains Progressive doesn’t want to tell agencies what they have to do.

“I’m not sure I’m in the place to tell agents to go find more people to like their Facebook site, because I don’t know the number of hours [agents] might spend to earn that and how that converts to a sale,” he says. “We tend to be data hounds. We love measuring stuff, so together we’re trying to find ways to measure the effort agents are putting in to these new communication technologies and convert that to meaningful dollars. We still have a bit to learn, but I can say most of these technologies are in place today. We need to look to the future and make it easier for agencies to adopt.”

Whitfield admits he gets frustrated by a trend of the industry that if something new happens with technology agents are told they need to jump on it.

“It’s a great idea to use those tools, but [carriers] don’t always understand the idea of setting up Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and running them in a professional manner,” he says. “You don’t want to set up a Facebook page and write one post a month. You’re not interacting then. It’s almost worse for you than it is a benefit.”

Not all independent agencies have the resources and the manpower to be the front of the wave, points out Whitfield. He feels Progressive’s technology advisory board can help his agency ride beyond the wave and not be the one taking chances with its own investment dollars.

“[The advisory board] can share some ideas with great people,” he says. “I can focus my marketing efforts better. We’ve gone over the entire landscape of using third-party vendors to do this work with social media.  We saw some success, but with any advertising/marketing campaign, it comes down to the investment at the beginning. I’m seeing some success in driving the cost down by shifting my efforts overseas. I outsource a lot of this work to companies in India.”

Offering more help to agents on Facebook and Twitter isn’t going to be enough for most agents, points our Carney.

“Help them be more effective in supporting their mutual customers,” advises Carney. “That’s also going to determine if it’s worth the extra expense to be dealing with a carrier that is easier to work with and more open with their systems. If a customer is asking the agent for a recommendation, that agent’s in the driver’s seat. It may not just be about price, but whether or not you make their life simple.”

THE RIGHT CHANNEL

Progressive’s direct channel is strong in the Soleyon’s Washington base, but Whitfield doesn’t consider that a threat.

“Progressive is learning things to tell us on the agent channel,” he says. “The Internet is amazing to grab clients, but we’re trying to grab the preferred business owners—the top-of-the-scale kinds of clients. Those clients are great for doing research over the Internet.”

The traditional way an agency does business still works for the best clients, particularly when establishing a relationship, points out Whitfield. “Having the technology there to support the message you are giving your clients is important,” he says.

The Internet is more of a research tool than a conversion tool, believes Whitfield.

“You might not be able to say you converted a lead through the Internet, but when the customer did research online that sure helped in converting that lead,” he says.

The Bolt agency has been in business for just over a year, so it’s not saddled with old technology or old ideas.

“We do everything in the cloud for our agency,” says Hammond. “We don’t store any data. The lead management we get from lead aggregators comes into our agency management system via XML. As soon as someone from the lead aggregator inputs their information, we’re putting out a phone call and we can actually generate a quote within three to five minutes of them finishing that input.”

Hammond hopes to make the agency more open for customers that are searching online and looking for small coverages.

“We want to be open, eligible, and ready for them,” he says. “Our platform is in the cloud so we can have work-at-home situations and work at the agency. It was a significant investment but it was focused on expediting the information input, getting the pricing, and focusing an insurance specialist in the conversation of the right coverage for the right price.”

MOBILE TECHNOLOGY

DeVito describes mobile technology as a fantastic example of transformational technology in the consumer space.

“The mobile curve is huge,” he says. “Consumers are expecting all kinds of things on mobile, but one of the challenges is it’s a highly fragmented market across different hardware/software combinations. Addressing it from a technology perspective requires some significant research and investment decisions.”

DeVito points out mobile will be a key topic for discussion at Progressive’s next technology advisory board meeting.

“We’ll be talking about not just what the consumer usage of mobile is, but how can Progressive invest in the right technology to help liberate our agency force to be out doing what they need to do from a mobile perspective,” he says. “Taking advantage of the unique mobile features—not just miniaturizing things—is a key piece we would like to see happen.”

“Different companies come to us and ask about mobile and if they can make a quoting platform that would work on their smartphone,” he says. “That would be good, but I also think you can use your resources someplace else. My phone [screen] is too small to present a whole policy. I’d get a headache. Use the tool, but match it up with the local consumer. I’d love to see us be a part of something like that. Not just start spending money, but go back and see how the consumer is using the smartphone.”

In her conversations with independent agents, Carney reports she was surprised by the number that have smartphones.

“Many agents are embracing mobile,” she says. “You see that expressed by the fact carriers are looking at mobile applications for their agents. How can the two sides better connect and give [agents] access to the policy administration system to help them answer a question for clients when they are out visiting the client.”

Most carriers have made initial investments in mobile for things such as FNOL applications. Carriers don’t see a tremendous adoption rate for mobile among their agents. Carney believes carriers are focused on making the agent channel work and allow the agents to complete tasks quickly.

WHAT'S AHEAD

Better access to systems—such as a carrier’s policy administration system—is what agents are looking for next.

“They want to have access [to the systems] and be able to answer questions immediately,” says Carney. “It’s in the carrier’s best interest. It’s the same for the call center and the claims system. Unfortunately, claims is like the great black hole. Once the first notice is filed the claim goes into some big black hole. It’s a problem they have to look at to break down the borders and boundaries between the agent and carrier.”

“The possibilities with technology are endless,” says Hammond. “But you can engineer yourself into a corner, too if you try to make it too complex. I think what we found is having the focus on the small business owner, the needs of the customer, and connectivity with the carrier have really done well for us.”

Bolt is a national agency, so Hammond reports they want a carrier with a vision, who wants to be in a national platform and understands the small commercial market.

“That’s the first entry point,” says Hammond. “Once you get through that, you are looking to see where they are with their technology investments, whether it’s someone that is trying to bring new products to market and understands technology and have a vision of connecting the distribution network via the technology. They need to make sure the connectivity is there, not only connectivity to make sure the agents are getting their products in a speedy time, but also ease of doing business for CSRs and eventually the small business owners.”

Bolt looks to see where carriers are at from the technology standpoint.

“There are different levels of technology that help people crawl, walk or run through the whole process,” says Hammond.

DeVito believes there is an expectation among consumers that businesses should be responsive to the wherever/whenever needs of their customers through the use of technology. Convincing independent agents to follow that path is never easy.

“We do business with over 30,000 independent agents so we have an array of different adoptions,” says DeVito. “[Whitfield] represents the leading edge. But even on the technology advisory board we have a breadth of representation so we get a good feel of where everybody is. The challenge that we step up to everyday is to try and find ways to help and learn from the leaders and make it more accessible for the folks that are still scratching their heads about technology.”

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