Independent agencies boast a long history and culture of being highly effective at sales. However, that competency isn't always matched in their marketing efforts or the agency-technology decisions that are made.
To remain competitive, agencies must now do two things. One, they need to leverage the data they are already collecting via their agency management systems and turn them into new opportunities by using the right marketing software; and two, they need to take a hard look at the technology they’re using—including their agency portal, the hardware (and software) producers use, and the tools that streamline the agency's processes.
Is your agency website a few years old? If so, it's probably time for an upgrade. Do you have a mobile app? If so, what does it offer? And are you using e-signatures? What is your marketing strategy? These often-uncomfortable questions are among those that must be asked by agencies of varying size. The marketing-strategy question, in particular, is one that can no longer be ignored.
“For decades, we’ve relied on the inherent characteristics of the independent channel to add value to the customer experience. Customers are less convinced,” says Michael Jans, CEO of Agency Revolution, a Bend, Ore.-based firm that specializes in marketing platforms for insurance agencies. “Agents can't simply rely on the carrier segment to create value. They have to vigorously find ways to add value at the agency level.”
With the independent agent channel's struggles with market share and rivals entering the marketplace, a written marketing plan is vital, adds Jans: “This is urgent. There are serious competitors gunning for business. The complacency that the independent-agent channel enjoyed in the past is dangerous in this environment.”
In most agencies, he explains, marketing is haphazard and chaotic. In order for marketing to be effective, it must be systematic, “and the only way you can systematize communications that deliver the right message to the right people—thousands of customers and prospects—at the right time is through technology.”
“What I hear from our customers is that they like to be with an agent and an agency that is spending the money to be relevant to them,” says Stanley G. Logan Jr., an agency principal at Logan Lavelle Hunt Insurance Agency LLC in Louisville, Ky., and a member of the PIA National board of directors, representing PIA of Kentucky. Logan's firm is in an ongoing “aggressive growth phase”; he’ll tell you he doesn't know any other way to characterize his business. But he echoes a sentiment familiar to many an agent.
“When I talk to my insurance company partners, they are interested in sales. That's still the No. 1 game in town, and they want more and more from us,” he says. Having the right tools to do that job is the edge that forward-looking agencies can enjoy, if they’re willing to do the homework.
Keith Savino, a principal with the insurance agency Warwick Resource Group LLC in Warwick, N.Y., is another big believer in putting the right solutions in agency hands. “Our industry needs to embrace these tools to buoy itself in a changing market,” he says.
Savino's agency received the 2014 Excellence in Social Media Award from the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents. He sits on numerous industry boards engaged in technology, such as ACORD and NetVU, and has long been ahead of the curve when it comes to experimenting with new solutions. Warwick is on its third customer portal in the last 13 years, with a new one slated to roll out in a few months.
“I have to provide for someone the experience they’re used to in retail or professional services,” says Savino. “I want to make sure that what we can do in a brick-and-mortar world we can extend to other forms of media.” That includes providing e-signature capability on all documents; an agency portal through which customers can, among other things, sign in and view all of their policies across multiple carriers; a mobile-enabled site and/or app for smartphone and tablet users; advanced CRM systems for client nurturing; and videophone VoIP technology for use by its staffers at locations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and its West Coast offices.
Yet, for Savino, the word “tech” is almost anathema. He draws parallels to the “ice box generation” of his grandparents, who once saw the refrigerator as a technological advancement; today, it's an appliance to which no one gives any thought. “These are just communications tools. I don't see them as ‘technology,’” he explains. “Some people don't even view smartphones as ‘tech’ anymore. I see it as a required part of business; I don't think of it as an advantage as much as a requirement. I challenge people to think differently about that.” Think it's too late to change? Think again. This philosophy is from a firm celebrating 150 years.
“The big challenge is communicating your value to your clients,” he continues. “The minute you stop offering a service because you will not implement new business tools, you’re intentionally putting up a roadblock to a good customer experience.”
However, no agency can simply build a new system and then assume the game is won. “If you don't continue to invest money on your infrastructure every day, it's going to get outdated really quickly,” Savino adds. “If you never did any maintenance on your house for 30 years, never reset the pavers, never cleaned out the gutters, what do you think is going to happen? Technology wears out much faster than your roof.”
Those using old agency management systems definitely need to upgrade, says Brian S. Cohen, an operating partner with Altamont Capital Partners in Palo Alto, Calif., and the former head of sales and distribution and chief marketing officer at Farmers Insurance Group. The “if it works don't fix it” strategy, he says, fails in today's insurance-distribution market.
“There are many cloud-based systems that allow agencies to do more with less—and most importantly, serve their customers the way they expect to be served in the digital age,” says Cohen. “Agencies that have made the transition need to start aligning with insurance carriers that will fully support a modern agency-management system.” If a carrier still requires faxes or other paper-based processing, he adds, agents should demand they upgrade—or look for other markets.
The one essential conversation that needs to be had at an agency is the status of its web portal. How effective is it in serving customers, and how can it be used to reduce the number of hours spent on serving client requests that, if empowered by the site, they can easily handle themselves?
“Almost all agency web portals today are predominantly marketing sites that don't allow people to interact with the agency. They are one-dimensional,” says Cohen. “They don't give an existing client or a potential customer a reason to stay on or navigate through the site.”
The most important elements of functionality, he says, must be tools that provide value to visitors. For existing clients, Cohen explains, functionality should exist to enable self-service such as policy changes, claims assistance, or obtaining certificates of insurance. “Done right, the web portal acts as the 24/7 agency CSR and today people want to be able to interact with a business whenever and wherever.”
For potential customers, the web portal must provide resources that will enable people to discover the agency when they are faced with an insurance issue. These include things like weather alerts and a checklist of “what to do” to protect your property before a storm. “In other words, agencies need to adopt a strategy that attracts or ‘pulls’ people to their website,” says Cohen.
Jans notes that a constant stream of fresh and relevant content is critical for search engine optimization—the process by which the owner of a website improves its ranking on search sites like Google. Ideally, an agency should add new content weekly: “That means that the power to upload new content must be under the control of the agency,” he adds. “You can't afford to put ‘change requests’ into a webmaster's queue and wait weeks for those changes to happen. You should be able to click in, make changes, and click out and have them saved.
“If you have multiple niches, you must have pages that speak directly to each niche,” says Jans. “That way, prospects are more likely to find you on Google. Then, when they discover you, they’ll trust you.”
For any audience, the key element for a web portal today is mobile capability. Today, it's all about the smartphone, and every site needs to be able to provide a mobile experience.
“More and more people are using smartphones than computers or even tablets” in their interactions with insurers, says Logan. “They’re so used to people going to their phones for the answers.”
Logan Lavelle Hunt started using its own branded smartphone app, designed by goinsuranceagent.com, six months ago. A customer can log in through the app and, in the event of an accident, for example, pull up his or her carrier's claims department and upload claims information and even photos. Through the app a customer also can access links to their carriers, make billing inquiries and even access adjustors.
Jans agrees that the number of mobile visitors goes up every month. It's no longer a question of whether your site should be optimized for mobile, but rather, when this can be achieved.
“Almost everyone knows how frustrating it is to view a traditional desktop site on their smartphone,” he says. “If that's what your customers see, you’re delivering a negative experience. If that's what your prospects see, they’ll delete it and find someone else.”
An effective portal also cuts down on the amount of hours your customer-service reps spend servicing clients. Every agency knows that the many hours spent servicing clients is time that would be much better spent selling.
Logan's agency breakdown is 25% personal lines, 50% commercial P&C, and 25% benefits, handled by 60 employees in all: 15 are in sales (other than the five principals), and 45 are service reps. On a daily basis, half of the CSR's day is spent solving billing inquiries.
“It's astronomical how much we spend on billing issues,” says Logan. Trying to connect them right to the carrier, and not be the go-between, is his continued goal. “We’re doing a multitude of things [in order] to spend more time on account rounding and review. Right now, 70% of my revenue goes to service, 30% to sales. I’d like to reverse that in the next five to 10 years.”
MARKETING-AUTOMATION SOFTWARE 101
Marketing-automation software provides the “human touch” for an entire agency's book of in-force business and its prospects.
“Every mature agency has a sophisticated system that manages its customer data: its agency management system,” says Jans. Serious marketers will use marketing automation technologies to unlock the information that's in that system and turn it into thousands of marketing opportunities. “That's the shortest path to money,” he notes. “Marketing automation is the fastest-growing category of business software in the world. The agent who integrates it with his management system will have an advantage.”
Marketing automation software helps an independent agency attract new clients; convert prospects into customers; cross sell; and boost retention. Those results, he says, are why this new type of software is the fastest-growing category of software in the business world.
It works this way: Marketing automation software “reads” the mass of data that's locked inside an agency management system and turns that information into marketing communications. It helps agencies communicate with prospects and customers in ways that matter to the customer, not just to the agency.
The “human touch” is that communications are set up by the agency decision-makers, and are automatically delivered based on certain criteria. For example, an agency can set up communications to people who request quotes; customers whose policies are expiring in 90 days; customers who have a birthday or policy anniversary; and/or policyholders who have Auto but not Homeowners coverage, and so on.
Marketing automation can integrate with an agency management system, so data can flow back and forth from the system to the marketing automation portal (for example, an interface on the desktop).
Constant outreach that doesn't have to be completely initiated by agency employees is critical, says Logan. The customer has to know the agency remembers who they are.
“They appreciate being asked, even if a sale doesn't happen,” he adds. “You often hear agents who say, ‘The best customer is the one I don't hear from.’ And then they wonder why they lose that person.”
The Digital ‘John Hancock’
The future of document delivery is going to be through customer portals and e-doc delivery, says Keith Savino, a principal with Warwick Resource Group LLC in Warwick N.Y., and a huge proponent of e-sign. The solutions he is implementing are for both internal and external business needs, and not always for insurance documentation.
Savino says most agencies hesitate to implement electronic signatures into their agency workflows because they either don't understand what an e-signature is or because certain carriers have pushed back or are bullish with the ones that they do use, and push them on agencies.
Using this mechanism has several practical advantages, however. It provides quick turnaround and digital confirmation that the customer really did receive a document, and that the client signed off on it.
As his agency has done for years, Warwick shares its experience with other agencies looking to try new tools. “Folks that told me two years ago that they would never use e-sign, now they’re asking about it.”
The value, Savino explains, is in the productive hours that are saved: “When someone spends 20 minutes on completing documentation or chasing a client, that's not productive time. Productive time is time spent interacting with the client. The more we get rid of the minutiae administrative tasks, the more time agency professionals can spend with clients. That's our goal: To increase the percentage of purely productive time.”