Filed Under:Agent Broker, Agency Technology

Agency Technology Today and Tomorrow

Their tools, your talent. Technology is invading the agency, and productivity is following.

Technology is constantly evolving and innovations are made every day. The latest information on the tools available—in agency management systems; data storage, backup and recovery technologies; and mobile device management software—helps your agency enjoy the best that today’s technology landscape has to offer.

What can technology really do for your agency? Jeff Yates, ACT executive director at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, said his team recently reviewed best practices studies to evaluate the effect of enhanced agency productivity. “The revenue per employee back in 1993 was $83,000 in a best practices agency. It’s now $183,000,” primarily due to advances in technology, he said.

Agency management systems

New innovations in agency management system technology have been so profound that producers may not consider how far they’ve come. “I don’t think we step back and realize what has been accomplished in the past few years, as far as adoption and driving efficiencies into the marketplace,” said Bruce Winterburn, vice president of industry relations at Bothell, Wa.’s Vertafore. With the time savings and workflow improvements supported by today’s management systems, agencies of every size have embraced them. 

Read the sidebar "Back it Up and Bring it Back."

“Another big thing I think is making a difference—it’s part of the real time process and it’s threaded back into the different management systems, including ours—is the inclusion of instantly available real-time information,” he said. With some usage data now available, efficiency improvements are measurable within agencies. Winterburn cites time studies that show estimated average savings of roughly 3 minutes with real-time transactions.

The most efficient agency management systems are “organized to be workflow driven, so it’s easier for the user to get their tasks done as quickly as possible and better service their clients,” said Reid French, CEO of University Park, Ill.-based Applied Systems Inc. Agents can run their entire operations, including billing, creating producer commission reports and helping CSRs support the renewal process. French said agencies use management systems to protect themselves from E&O exposures, and that transaction time stamping offers a detailed record should anything unfortunate happen. After tremendous growth in the user base over the past several years, French said, “we’re really pleased to see where it will go over the next 10 to 15 years.” 

Related: Read the article "What's Driving the Rise in Data Breaches?" by Rick Kam, CIPP and Jeremy Henley, CHPC.

Christopher Cook, owner of Alliance Insurance Services LLC in Winston-Salem, N.C., uses a Jenesis agency management system, a vendor with a heavy footprint in the region. It’s a core resource for Cook’s team, which writes about $4 million in premiums annually, and he saw the need to maximize productivity from the beginning. 

“When I adopted an agency management system, we were a very small agency, but we knew we couldn’t grow without that technology,” he said. Seizing every productivity enhancement, from real-time technology to interface systems that pull in underwriting data, has been critical to Alliance’s success. “Especially as an independent agency, there’s no way to store all of that data efficiently without an agency management system,” Cook said.

Read the sidebar "Handheld Accessibility."

A suite of Vertafore products helps the Dean and Draper Insurance Agency track workflows. The systems have been a great addition, said Kyle Dean, vice president of the Houston-based agency, “because we can run reports, we can see how work is flowing through the office, and we can move work to different desks.” The agency has five locations in Texas, and writes about $120 million in premiums annually between its P&C and benefits businesses. 

Pointing to the continuity provided by the systems his agency uses, Dean said, “Everybody’s on the same page. We all know what we’re doing, and we know what work is on which desk.” His employees also find it simple to transfer work between desks when an employee is out of the office.

Data storage

Each Dean and Draper office logs onto the main servers in Houston, giving the team increased continuity. To ensure that its data is both available and protected, the agency uses both onsite and offsite storage solutions, said George A. Douty II, the agency’s information technology manager. “Some of our data is originated onsite, but then backed up and replicated to offsite locations. Other data is both originated and stored offsite,” he said. The various offices underwent a host of technology upgrades, including computers and Internet speed, to bring everyone current and to make data access and transfer more robust.

Few agencies today store data onsite on a single storage platform. “The market is trending toward, and needs, both a combination of onsite and offsite storage as part of a data protection and disaster recovery solution,” said Brian Findlay, director of global storage at Imation in Oakdale, Minn., a company that specializes in scalable storage and data security solutions. Cloud storage is a great “pay-as-you-go storage medium,” he said, and it doesn’t require large investments in infrastructure. However, one common misconception Findlay corrects is that cloud storage is entirely replacing onsite storage arrays. “People aren’t going to be going just directly to cloud. You need to have that onsite storage for fast recovery.”

Related: Read the article "This is Your Brain on Tech" by Laura Mazzuca Toops.

Producers are all too familiar with the devastation of disaster, and if those calamities affect your own agency, your backed-up data will be a lifeline for your business. Unfortunately, it’s a function that isn’t valued highly enough by many small businesses, Findlay said. “As far as having a managed disaster recovery strategy, SMBs [small and medium businesses] are way under penetrated right now.” Compliance mandates are making it increasingly necessary for agencies to develop solid business continuity plans, but the good news is that many solutions are simple and relatively inexpensive. Tried and true, removable disks continue to be a fast and effective way to get your data back in action, according to Findlay. “A small business owner could just throw it in their briefcase or bring it home.”

Recovering data from offsite storage or the cloud is an increasingly popular option, and one that takes location out of the equation. Dean and Draper uses restore processes within their backup software, allowing greater flexibility to recover data in tiers according to their needs and available resources. “Because 90 percent of our servers are virtual, we can restore multiple levels via this software,” Douty said. The time to restore data from either an offsite storage location or a cloud-based platform can be impacted by the amount of infrastructure an agency has available, and is one factor to consider when developing a backup and recovery plan. “The only drawback is that it requires a lot of bandwidth to complete the offsite replications,” Douty cautioned.

Mobile

Insurance is a highly competitive industry, and an agency’s ability to keep producers efficient and productive directly affects the bottom line. Cook estimated that nearly three-quarters of his agency’s customers have either a smartphone or a tablet, and they’re increasingly becoming a main mode of communication—a trend that transcends age group. “I have customers in their 60s and 70s who don’t pick up the phone anymore,” Cook said. “If I want to communicate with them, I have to send them an email.” His producers, too, rely heavily on mobile devices to  communicate with customers and other agents, navigate to appointments or property inspections and take photographs for underwriters. “Information is constantly flowing at and through our [handhelds],” Cook said, adding that customers now ask questions via text message. “That’s something I didn’t think would ever happen just as short as 8 years ago when I started this agency.”

Managing a flurry of company-issued and personally owned handheld devices has become easier with the proliferation of mobile device management (MDM) platforms. “The better solutions can accommodate hybrid environments, both from a corporate-liable and from an individual-liable policy management perspective,” said Troy Fulton, director of product marketing at MDM provider Tangoe in Orange, Conn. With mixed environments common, agencies no longer need to worry how they’ll support each producer’s device of choice because today’s solutions “provide the flexibility with respect to department, location and employee” to ensure each device is managed properly, Fulton said. Robust MDM platforms can push IT policies to nearly any device, bringing authorized access to email, data storage and even applications under agency control. 

Agency management system vendors, too, are looking at the mobile device landscape as a call to action. Tablet support is being added to some of Vertafore’s products, according to Winterburn, and a team is working now to develop a workable, intuitive user interface. “There’s getting to be a standard look and feel of technology—an almost instant type of recognition of what’s going on on the screen,” he said. Developers are busy making the systems’ UI “more familiar and simple,” which Winterburn said is necessary to truly take advantage of evolving technologies such as tablets. It’s all about “creating more of an intuitive approach to navigation in general,” he said.

Related: See the slideshow "Top 12 Countries for Cloud Computing" by Laura Mazucca Toops.

Making their systems more mobile-friendly also is an initiative at Applied Systems. Some of their newer products “can be accessed through the Internet and so can be used on mobile devices, which is something that newer agents have certainly come to expect,” French said. It’s a fundamental shift that he sees driving the marketplace in the years to come. “Mobile is going to play a huge role in this industry, because the producers, the people out there actually talking with their customer base, are highly mobile individuals.” He said that an independent agent’s opportunity to move into the role of a trusted advisor is likely to depend heavily on their ability to keep pace with clients while still maintaining efficient workflows within the office.

Innovations on the horizon

Today you can more easily gather, store, track and access your data. But how can you make it more meaningful and, ultimately, profitable? Along with greater data availability, Yates said the question becomes, “How do you get good business intelligence both out of your agency management system and third-party sources?” He pointed to emerging data mining technologies that might help producers determine when a customer encountered a life event, which could then prompt a proactive contact to discuss their new insurance needs.

And of course, the industry continues to make strides toward the workflow improvements available with real-time technology. Yates believes that involvement from all parties will be necessary to get where agents want to go. “We need consistency across the carriers to be providing real time,” he said, which will include smaller carriers coming on board with real-time and other carriers offering real-time functions, “so the agency employee knows that real-time is available.” Those efforts are currently going on industry-wide, which Yates said will “continue to enhance real-time transactions to make them faster.”

 

Julie Knudson is a freelance business writer based in Seattle.

 

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