Filed Under:Markets, Commercial Lines

Power Play: Empowering Agents With the Latest Tech Tools

Consumers’ mobile reliance drives how and when they transact business with independent agents. But today more than ever, agents and brokers can turn to their carriers and vendors for empowering tech solutions.

No, it's not a reference to a vacation or a competition, but rather, to today's consumer and how they wish—no, demand—that business be transacted.

“The shorthand term is ‘multichannel engagement,’” says Michael Howe, senior vice president of product management for Applied Systems. “Customers want to work with the agency on their terms. It's no longer sufficient to say, ‘I have office hours from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.’”

This method has been in place in other industries for years. In banking, think back to when ATMs first arrived on the scene; now recall the first instances of online banking and mobile deposits, which take advantage of a smartphone's optical character recognition software. Yet the insurance industry can be slow to adapt to emerging tech trends.

“I was recently sitting with an agent who is close to retirement age,” recalls Chip Bacciocco, CEO of (formerly Project CAP). “He said, ‘I don't want to have a client who won't have a coffee with me.’ And there's nothing wrong with that—but if you limit yourself to customers who only want to have coffee with you, you can't build an agency on that. That's not how people shop today.”

Technology has changed, but not agents’ core values and missions toward their customers. They are still trusted advisors who provide expertise and maintain ongoing relationships with insureds. But their delivery of such knowledge has shifted, and the ubiquity of smartphones drives much of that.

Now, customers are demanding mobility—both when shopping for prospective agencies and for their own self-service. “Consumers are judging potential agencies based on whether their websites are mobile-enhanced,” says Ron Berg, executive director for the Agents Council for Technology (ACT). “They use their current experiences and expectations with other industries, and are demanding the same from the independent agent.”

More than half of the web traffic for Paradiso Insurance in Stafford Springs, Conn., comes from its mobile-optimized site, says owner Chris Paradiso. And when his agency brings in between $15 and $16 million in premium volume each year (of which 40% is personal lines), those traffic visits translate to policies bound and dollars earned.

Inaction can lead to paralysis, Berg cautions. ACT has information online regarding how agencies can optimize their websites for display on mobile devices. Agents should consider responsive design—where the website automatically resizes, regardless of the device on which it's viewed. ACT stresses simplicity: Hone in on the most critical information, which includes the agency's location, hours and quoting.

For agents on the go, both Vertafore and Applied Systems offer mobile versions of their agency-management tools. Applied's MobileProducer provides a direct connection to its Applied Epic and Applied TAM agency management software to deliver account and policy details. The vendor's CSR24 and PerformanceManagement are both mobile-optimized for smartphone and tablet.

Vertafore's Producer Advantage app, for both Android and Apple iOS, connects with Pipeline Manager, AMS360 and ReferenceConnect to enhance client servicing. It also integrates with Vertafore Single Sign-On to access all Vertafore Producer Advantage capabilities and data.

Agents also can download the ACORD One app for quick access to forms and certificates while out in the field. Ideal for Android or iOS tablets, the app allows for finger-as-a-stylus signature and uses the cloud to sync data and forms.

e-sign here, please

What's driving agency technology is the consumer experience, says Steve Anderson, president of The Anderson Network, a consultancy specializing in agency technology. “Insureds didn't want to put up with opening a PDF, printing it, signing it, scanning it and sending it back.”

Docusign, the official Big “I” e-signature partner, announced earlier this year a joint venture with Vertafore's Agency Platform and AMS360 Online software. “E-signature allows us to design workflows differently and keep the producers out with customers instead of having to interact by phone,” says Alex Lintner, Vertafore's CEO.

E-signatures come in a variety of forms, from finger-signing on tablets or click-to-sign functionality. Besides the time savings, e-signatures ensure that all documents are signed, sealed and delivered in good working order. No sections or initials are ever missed, as the software alerts the applicant to any fields left blank.

Agencies have a responsibility to ensure signature authentication, as forgery is greater for online transactions; electronic records are generally easier to alter than paper records. An audit trail that includes tamper seals mitigates that risk.

Demand more: Sign On Once

E-signatures are one of the best examples of agents asking for and receiving tools from their carriers and vendors that enhance the customer experience. Anderson stresses that agents and brokers have more clout with carriers and vendors than they realize, especially when they join industry coalitions such as ACT.

“Agencies need to reinforce the problems and security risks that multiple IDs and passwords cause,” says Brian Bartosh, principal at Top O’Michigan Insurance in Alpena, Mich. and Applied Client Network representative for the ID Federation, an industry coalition that promotes information security and identity management. “Agencies need to be vocal. Carriers don't see the number of passwords we use.”

According to the ID Federation, agencies and carriers consistently rank password management as the No. 1 pain point in daily operations.

“The average person at our agency has between 40 and 50 usernames and passwords,” says Bartosh. “And that is a huge stumbling block—keeping track of them, resetting them, revoking privileges when someone leaves.”

Not to mention downtime and lost productivity: The ID Federation estimates that as many as 75% of help desk calls are from employees who forgot or need to reset a password.

To simplify the process, the ID Federation has created an identity management standard that securely accesses multiple carrier platforms through the agency's management system. Launched in May, SignOn Once is available now for carrier implementation. It provides users with a unique username, which is certified for authenticity and used to access participating carriers’ and vendors’ websites.

After becoming members of the ID Federation, interested carriers and vendors agree to a Trust Framework—a set of rules that govern business, legal and technology use. “It's an agreement where the insurance carriers trust the validation of the user,” says Bartosh.

The success of this standard lies in its implementation. The ID Federation currently receives about half a dozen carrier and vendor inquiries a week. As of press time, BB&T Insurance, The Hartford, Hanover Insurance Group, EMC Insurance, Liberty Mutual, Progressive, Applied Systems and Vertafore are members, but have yet to launch SignOn Once for agency use.

To encourage more carrier and broker participation, agents and brokers must speak up, says Berg: “We need to get to a critical mass of vendors that provide this solution, and get the buy-in from a significant amount of national, regional and super regional carriers.”

Power to the Agent

Agency management systems are much more robust and dynamic than in years past. And in today's competitive landscape, it's no longer acceptable for vendors to roll out software solutions every 24 months, Howe says. When agencies chose to lease these agency management platforms through the cloud, instead of paying for a software license, updates can be made on an ongoing basis.

This gives agencies more bargaining power with their carriers, says Brian Cohen, consultant for Altamont Capital Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.: “Agency management systems are now able to do data mining and lead generation. The challenge is to the carriers. Most of them are operating on legacy systems that are still paper-based.”

In his former position as CEO of Menlo Park, Calif.-based carrier Pacific Specialty, Cohen saw that independent agents were choosing not to do business with carriers who have antiquated IT systems. “There is a movement where agents [are realizing they] don't have to be tech savvy themselves, but they can transact business more efficiently because of the capabilities of their agency management systems,” he says.

When factoring in technological capabilities during carrier selection, Cohen suggests that agents first consider their agency management system. “Look at the best case: How can I use my AMS that will speed up the process, make it less cumbersome and more efficient for the client and for the agency?” he asks.

Then determine whether the carrier allows you to use those functionalities. Can you write a policy electronically with the insured, but the carrier requires a faxed form? If the carrier's IT systems can't handle that, consider moving your business to a more efficient carrier.

“For independent agents, the leverage they have is the threat to leave,” Cohen adds.

All work and…play

Fantasy football may cost employers more than $13 billion in lost productivity, according to the Chicago-based consultancy group Challenger, Gray & Christmas, as millions of Americans use company time to review player stats and manage rosters. But what if there was a way to harness fantasy football enthusiasm and know-how into more insurance sales?

Enter Adam Hollander, founder and CEO of FantasySalesTeam, an Austin, Texas-based software startup. A few years ago, when working in sales management, Hollander noticed that typical sales contests were failing to motivate his reps. “I was starting to question the validity of these contests,” he says.

Hollander uncovered two flaws in his analysis. First, his superstar performers generally won most of the contests, “but I wasn't looking to motivate those folks,” he says. Second, the enthusiasm faded quickly. “After a couple of days, some reps would fall behind a leader or a goal, and then they fell out of contention [for prizes] and would disengage.”

To make a sales contest successful, Hollander would have to change the model. “I have to motivate a larger portion of the team for as long as possible,” he says.

Noticing that many of his reps play fantasy football, Hollander wondered if he could bring that type of culture into the work environment: For instance, create a game that rewards employees for every phone call, every closed deal and every policy add-on.

After spending nights and weekends creating the FantasySalesTeam software in 2013, Hollander launched the beta version with three medium-sized companies. And now, more than 75 companies play this game, including Allstate, Esurance and brokerages GuideOne Insurance and Primera Insurance. This growth has led FantasySalesTeam to expand to 20 employees.

The game exists in five formats, for baseball, basketball, football, racing and soccer. It is offered as an individual-based game, a fixed-team mode where sales managers build teams, and an option where sales reps can draft themselves. Agencies and brokerages can customize the game to work toward certain goals, including for example, if the company wants to build auto premium numbers in a specific month.

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