From the November 14, 2011 issue of National Underwriter Property & Casualty • Subscribe!

Agents Look to the Cloud for Flexibility, Cost Savings

Bowen, Miclette & Britt and Hoffman Brown Co. share benefits, challenges of implementing cloud-based solutions

As insurance companies and agencies search for solutions to address their business problems, looking to the cloud may be among the answers, according to such industry consultants as Bob Hirsch, a director at Deloitte Consulting.

And by delivering technology capability on demand, cloud computing has indeed started to become an attractive option for agencies wishing to reduce the costs of maintaining IT infrastructure. Cloud computing also delivers true mobility, allowing agents to access data and applications anywhere, from an Internet-enabled device.

Agency software vendors, recognizing the increasing appeal of this approach, have continued to configure their solutions for cloud delivery, make investments in cloud infrastructure and create cloud-only offerings (see sidebar on page 16).

“Our agency customers are increasingly aware that they can get access to their applications from anywhere they are,” says Mark Layden, COO at Applied Systems, an insurance-focused cloud-computing vendor. “That’s important, because they need to sell to and service their customers from anywhere.”

The following two case studies offer up-close looks at a pair of agencies that have turned to the cloud—detailing the benefits, and some of the challenges, they are realizing as a result.

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Collaboration in the Cloud: Bowen, Miclette & Britt

Marketing is vital to any agency—and at Bowen, Miclette & Britt (BM&B), marketing sits front and center on a 52-inch plasma screen.

“Once an account hits the marketing ‘checkpoint’ and comes into the department, it shows up on the screen” so BM&B staff knows at all times what accounts are in the marketing pipeline, says Donna Wilson, the agency’s senior vice president. Producers can check who’s working on what, and the board helps build teamwork among marketing staff.

The $47 million brokerage, headquartered in Houston, sought to enhance its marketing efforts with an October 2011 deployment of the cloud-based Engage collaboration system from Vertafore. Engage is offered as a module to Vertafore’s Worksmart document-management and workflow system.

BM&B deployed the base Worksmart platform in October 2010 as a way to enhance workflows around core business processes throughout the agency. The platform tracks tasks—applications, documents, emails, phone calls—to ensure nothing falls through the cracks and that each step in the process is handled consistently among different employees.

“We don’t have to remember to tell people to do certain things, because Worksmart tracks assignments and notifies people automatically,” Wilson says.

Configuring the Worksmart system also helped BM&B identify areas in the workflow that could be streamlined for efficiency. For instance, the agency trimmed the commercial-renewal process by several days by enabling tasks to be generated automatically and handled simultaneously. The system sends notices of pending renewals to producers, who decide whether to renew accounts with the current carrier or to remarket them. Assistants receive renewal work

sheets to send to clients. Marketing gets notification of accounts to be remarketed—and those accounts post to the plasma screen. “We live and breathe renewals, so that [automatic notification] was a big step in efficiency for us,” says Wilson.

BREAKING DOWN WALLS

Adding the cloud-based Engage module also allows the agency to extend workflow capabilities beyond the walls of the firm and facilitate collaboration with carriers and clients. The Engage system is hosted in Vertafore’s data center in Dallas and provides secure online workspaces to share account-related documents in real time.

Wilson says that integration of Worksmart Engage with BM&B’s Sagitta agency-management system (a Vertafore product) means that employees do not need to rekey data to create remarketing documents. Additionally, the agency’s clients can enter updated information on payroll, sales, building valuations or other exposures and complete specialty applications in a secure Engage workspace without having to return documents via snail mail or email, which also reduces the time required of BM&B’s staff.

“Completing and returning renewal worksheets was something everyone dreaded,” says Wilson. “We have already received very positive responses back from clients about completing and updating worksheets online.” In the remarketing process, marketing reps generate an email to underwriters through Engage that contains a link to a secure collaboration workplace. There, underwriters can either retrieve a PDF from which they can extract data to use in their own processing systems—or simply review the submission details from within the Engage environment.

Emailing links, rather than documents, also solves a problem BM&B previously faced with standard email attachments. “We often had to break email submissions up into multiple parts because attachments were too large,” Wilson recalls. “If you are sending an application to six different carriers and have to split it into four separate emails because of size, that’s a headache.

“In the cloud, there is no size limitation,” she adds. “That’s a huge advantage.”

Managing emails through the Engage system avoids the problem of having to manually move messages from an email system to a central repository. This feature also benefits compliance and retention and gives BM&B the ability to serve clients better by providing broader access to correspondence.

No technology except an Internet browser is required on the part of clients or carriers, and Wilson reports external users have had no reluctance to utilize the online workspace. And by being cloud-based and browser-delivered, Engage addresses agents’ mobility needs.

Users, she says, “can basically be anywhere. I can be at home and send out submissions. In insurance, a lot of times the one who wins is the one who gets to the market first, so having that kind of speed is important.”

With the system recently deployed, the agency has not yet had time to assess what features or changes they might like to see in the platform’s future iterations. It has, however, already impacted BM&B’s view on the potential of cloud computing, with Wilson noting that it can solve some of the long-standing mobility and device issues of agencies, as well as the limitations of traditional document exchange and collaboration.

“I didn’t get the big cloud picture before,” she says. “Now, I do.”

Safety in the Cloud: Hoffman Brown Co.

Even though Steven Brown lives in California, the late-October snowstorm that walloped the Northeastern U.S. served as a powerful reminder of how businesses are affected when disasters strike.

“My daughter is in college on the East Coast,” he explains. “Listening to her talk firsthand about how [the storm] impacted her and the businesses in the area confirmed how important it is that we take the right [preparations] in our company in terms of accessibility and disaster recovery.”

Brown is president of the Hoffman Brown Co., headquartered in Sherman Oaks. In early 2010, the agency migrated its legacy agency-management system to Applied Systems’ cloud-based EpicOnline agency-management platform.

“One of my biggest concerns before making the migration was the proximity of our data to our home office,” Brown says. “We had gone through three earthquakes since our agency was founded, and each one had a major impact.”

Today, the agency’s data is housed in Applied’s Denver-based data centers. “Everything in the Los Angeles area is dependent on the freeway and, [following] the earthquake in 1994, many of the freeways were shut down for a protracted period of time. Having a system that requires nothing more than Internet access is an enormous improvement for us,” he says.

Separating the agency from its data by hundreds of miles provided peace of mind—but it did come at a price.

“It was a long, drawn-out process, making a platform change like we did,” Brown explains. “But we were also one of Applied’s more difficult conversions, because our prior system was so old. We both learned a lot from the process.”

The agency has 45 users on EpicOnline. In addition to the technical challenges of conversion, getting those users up to speed on the new system was a major hurdle.

“The [EpicOnline] system is very user-friendly compared to our prior system, which was completely code-based,” he notes. “We can train new users to use it faster than we ever could before. But we had to ‘unlearn’ the way to do things,” he adds. “It still takes constant training to make sure people are using the new system most efficiently.”

UNIVERSAL ACCESS

Having cloud-based technology addresses the agency’s need for mobility. “Before, we had no ability to access our management system remotely,” says Brown. “Today, I can be in the field or at home and access the system and my data in a secure environment.”

Being cloud-based allows EpicOnline to support customer self-service; however, the agency has decided not to make the system available to clients, at least for now.

“We’ve made the cultural decision to continue to want to have our customers talk to us,” Brown says. “We believe that clients make better insurance decisions if we work directly with them.”

But Brown adds that the modern platform has enabled the agency’s staff to improve customer service, thanks to a paperless environment that lets multiple users access documents simultaneously from a central repository; and automated workflows that track and manage tasks. It has also freed the agency from making daily backups of customer data and transporting those backups offsite.

But the advantages of cloud delivery come with some added challenges. “A downside to not controlling everything in-house is that we have to make sure our cyber-liability coverage extends to the provider. That was a cost issue,” Brown says, declining to reveal specific cost figures (see sidebar on page 18).

The agency also incurred the expense of upgraded connectivity, adding a T3 line with a satellite Internet connection as backup. However, Hoffman Brown Co. has been able to realize some savings in servers and personnel.

The bottom line: Brown believes that additional expenses of connectivity are balanced by cost savings of cloud delivery.

“At this point, I don’t believe it has cost us more, and it has added flexibility,” he says. “In the long run, the jury is still out for us in terms of cost. However, we’re a better, safer business today than we were 18 months ago.”

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