With a continuing soft market and very competitive conditions creating profitability pressures, it is more important than ever for carriers to optimize their relationships with independent agents. Carriers are focusing on growth strategies, expense reduction, and improving underwriting results. They are expanding channels and appointing new agents. And they are looking for innovative ways to optimize and motivate their current distribution model to drive more revenue.
Strong relationships with agents are generally correlated with high production from agents. Beyond encouraging a solid personal relationship with an underwriter, which often depends on chemistry, what can a carrier do to systematically build a stronger connection with an agent and thereby obtain additional premium production?
While an underwriter relationship may make the difference in whether a carrier is number one or not for an agent, other factors can overcome a less-than-perfect relationship. Each of these items is heavily impacted by technology.
Although it is tempting to think a producer/underwriter relationship is purely about the personal chemistry between the producer and the underwriter, just as important is an underwriter’s ability to quickly respond to requests and find creative ways to meet the agents’ needs.
These less ‘touchy-feely’ aspects can be supported by technology. Business rules create consistency. Automated workflow allows for faster response. And scoring mechanisms help underwriters identify those accounts that are worth going to the wall on. While technology cannot replace chemistry, it can certainly create a process that is convenient and fast—thereby strengthening the overall relationship with the producer.
To deliver these capabilities, carriers commonly use agent portals, which continue to grow in usage. Over the last 10 years, the Internet has become the primary channel that insurers use to communicate with their agents, and portal projects continue to be a top priority for carrier CIOs.
Agent portals typically provide a secure channel for agents to communicate and collaborate with underwriters; view policy, claims, and billing information; service existing policies; and submit new business. Real-time capabilities such as policy inquiry, billing inquiry, and claim inquiry are typical features. But more important to agents are real-time quote capabilities, which many carriers still struggle to offer.
The primary goal for the portals is to improve ease of business in order to drive revenue. Secondarily, carriers are interested in operational efficiencies through single entry and improved data quality.
Carriers typically express a desire to continue to expand functionality: “The only issue we have with the portal is that we always need more functionality,” or “These are in a continuous cycle of improvement and enhancement.”
Quick quote, full quote, and app submission are critical functions for portals. Although these features may be costly to build, they make the difference between a carrier ranking as a top carrier or not.
Some of the packaged solutions available in the marketplace also include underwriter workbench elements, providing an environment for underwriters to interact with submitted applications, or rating engines, which generate rates. Other agent portals are designed to front-end existing underwriting and/or rating systems. Many include optional underwriting and rating components, so the insurer has the choice of maintaining its current internal environment. Some also provide customer portal elements, providing quote capabilities to the consumer from the same platform as the agent portal.
Make it robust. Agents adopt and use agent portals with robust, easy-to-use features. Include data pre-fill, address validation, and automated calls to credit, property valuation, geo services, VIN verification, and other data services. Bare-bones portals can hurt your reputation with technology-savvy agents. Provide quick quote capability for as many lines of business as possible.
Research has shown that this is a top-priority function for agents and, as long as it is robust, it will drive business to your site. Provide short and clear underwriting feedback early in the process. Include underwriting feedback as early as possible in the data-entry process and minimize the entry required to get to that point.
Leverage back-end data services to improve the quality of the underwriting decision, and let agents know the result as soon as possible. Post underwriting guidelines on your portal, as well as automating underwriting, to allow the agent to research, learn, and internalize underwriting guidelines.
Invest in straight-through processing (STP). Not only do agents want to know that their transactions are once and done, but business sponsors will appreciate the resulting operational savings.
Automating policy transactions end-to-end can require significant investment, but it will typically pay for itself if it is targeted to the right transactions and lines of business. Metrics for operational savings are also easy to obtain, promote, and advertise across an organization.
Support multiple agent workflows. Some agents prefer to upload new business from their agency management systems and comparative raters, while others enter new business directly into a carrier’s portal and have AMS updates downloaded nightly.
Plan for consumer quoting and channel preservation. As larger personal lines direct carriers enter local markets and consumers continue to move their purchasing online, consumer portals will become increasingly important. Small- to midsize PL carriers that distribute through independent agents often hesitate to implement online consumer quoting because they fear they will alienate their agents. We believe that most PL carriers will find it necessary to implement a consumer-facing new-business quote in the next few years to retain or improve their competitive position. Plan for the consumer by considering the impact on the agent portal, workflow, and technology now:
Consider a strategy for consumer-to-agent bridging. Channel-preservation strategies include assigning policies that were quoted through the consumer Website to agents at the point of pre-issuance and/or post-issuance. Include this functionality in your agent portal, or design your portal with this type of functionality in mind.
Select technologies and solutions that will allow shared components across your consumer and agent portals. Maximize re-use of screens, product definitions, and integration with web services and core systems. Use common functional components, such as the rating engine, document creation, and document management, to simplify your environment and minimize maintenance and enhancement efforts.
Conduct a cost-benefit analysis at the LOB or transaction level. This is a good way to maximize the impact of a limited budget. Some lines, sublines, or transactions may not be worth the investment.
Clearly define portal governance. Agent portals have multiple business stakeholders: marketing, underwriting, claims, and others. Define a governance approach and communicate it clearly. Many carriers have marketing govern the portal; some have a virtual steering committee with representatives from each business unit, while others have formal e-business units to define, manage, and govern the portal.
Limit the content of your first release. Reduce risk by limiting first-release content as much as possible. However, bundle lines or transactions that are processed together or completed through the same workflow.
Involve the agents. Convene agent councils to get agents’ honest feedback. Communicate proactively by email, phone, and survey and provide updates. Under-stand the workflow, limitations, and goals of your agents and understand what the competition offers and doesn’t offer.
Reward adoption. Incent adoption of the portal by rewarding those that use it. Research shows that CSRs respond to incentives and once they use a given site, they are likely to come back. Gift cards and other personal items can be an effective complement to a well-designed, robust site. Please note that principals typically must approve CSR participation in incentive programs.
Train all agent-facing resources on portal usage. Before implementing an agent portal, create a well-defined support plan and communicate it broadly to the enterprise. All agent-facing employees should be trained on portal use and know the portal in enough detail to answer basic questions. Agents will not limit their questions to your designated support team.
Plan for feedback. Define a process to track and manage agent feedback before implementation. Informal feedback mechanisms can cause inaccurate information to spread, inappropriate escalation, and general organizational swirl. Define a process and designate an accountable person to manage the feedback process. Clearly communicate the feedback process to all agent-facing staff. And remember, you can’t make everyone happy.
Use performance-monitoring tools and services. There are a lot of moving parts in connectivity between agencies and carriers, and there are lots of potential bottlenecks.
Agent portals need to be closely monitored for degradation of external performance. When an agent reports a performance issue, it is invaluable to have metrics to pinpoint or eliminate the cause within the carrier environment.
About the Authors:
Karlyn Carnahan is a principal in Novarica’s insurance practice, focused on claims, distribution, and IT planning. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Martina Conlon is a principal in Novarica’s insurance practice focused on the P&C and healthcare markets. She can be reached directly at email@example.com.