When it comes to forging an instant connection with customers, independent insurance agents who expect their business to grow and thrive know that having the right technology in place is paramount.
“The forward-thinking agent doesn't see [digitization and automation] as a threat,” says Michael Howe, senior vice president of product management at Applied Systems, a University Park, Illinois-based insurance technology-consulting firm that provides insurance agency portals. “They see it as a way to strengthen their relationship with the customer.”
Even longtime agents with ingrained business processes and loyal clients who may presumably not be interested in high-tech bells and whistles now have little choice in the matter of tech-driven innovation. Today's consumers demand speed and control, and those agencies that best manage consumers’ evolving tastes possess the advantage of being attractive to prospective buyers.
Use technology wisely
No longer is the question when or how many tech tools to adopt, but whether the technology an agency currently has in place makes agents’ jobs easier and customers happier, all while producing fresh leads faster.
The reality, according to experts, is that there is no “perfect” tech strategy to meet every agency's needs. Still, there are several best practices when it comes to making the most of technology to grow your business.
Here are five pressing technology challenges facing today's independent agents and some possible solutions:
No. 1: Build a truly useful agency portal
Insurance technology experts characterize the ideal agency portal as one that suits the way business happens in the “real” world. It should be role-based, keyed into the way agents do their jobs, and provide quick customer data and policy information for everyone in the supply chain from customers to claims agents.
Chapin Frazee, senior vice president with Infinity Software Development, Inc., of Tallahassee, Fla., characterizes the perfect agency portal as a “digital expression of the business that agency is trying to be.” Building such a tool requires a thorough understanding of business goals, costs, sales and marketing, customers, constraints and the technology return on investment.
“The ultimate agency portal isn't going to be static,” he says. “It's going to adapt and evolve as rapidly as the agency it represents.”
Tech review tips
Here are some of the questions Frazee suggests should be addressed during an agency's tech review:
Who are our customers?
What devices are they using?
What browsers are they using?
What do we expect the adoption rate to be?
What do they want to do?
What do we want them to do?
How much of the policy production, administration, and claims management process do we want to expose?
How adaptable do we want the customer experience to be?
What carrier requirements do we have to reconcile?
What legacy technology will the portal interact with?
What resources do we have in-house to maintain, update and enhance the portal as our products and business changes?
What's our budget?
“Based on the answers to these questions,” Frazee says, “the ultimate independent agency web portal could vary extremely from one agency to the next. In some cases, an agency might want an insured to be able to print certificates of insurance, or ID cards, or manage claims, or request policy changes. Other agencies might want to require agent involvement in some of these transactions and therefore not make them available to customers in their portal.”
Checklist for ideal agency web portal
When it comes to online functionality, Brent S. Rineck, chief information officer for San Mateo, Calif.-based ABD Insurance & Financial Services Inc., has this checklist for the ideal agency web portal. Customers, he says should be readily able to:
View/print policy information.
Print a summary of the entire package.
Print auto ID cards.
Upload and download documents securely.
Request policy changes.
Add holders to certificates.
View policy renewal status.
View specialty content (cyber risk, occupational health, clinical trials).
Submit renewal applications.
Submit notice of a new claim.
Experts concur that greater collaboration with carriers will be key to enabling independent agents to continue to compete. “Carriers have really, really good portal technology,” says John Sarich, vice president of strategy at VUE Software, based in Coconut Creek, Fla., a firm that specializes in innovating and automating business processes for the insurance industry. “That portal technology has to be opened up to let agents do lots of things. In the future, carriers will become information brokers to their ecosystem, which is made up of agents and claims adjusters and so on. All of those people have a vested interest in growing the business.”
'Focus on the end goal'
Of course, independent agents battle the headaches that come from each insurance company employing different policy tools, and the fact that none of these tools work together. “Carriers need to work together to provide some sort of platform where an agent can get multiple quotes without needing to process three different (on- and off-line) experiences,” says Curt Stevenson, chief digital officer for Duck Creek Technologies, the provider of P&C insurance software and services based in Bolivar, Mo.
In the meantime, “Focus on the end goal, which is finding technology that enables the consumer throughout the entire life cycle of their policy,” says Laird Rixford, president of Insurance Technologies Corporation, Carrollton, Texas, and a longtime tech entrepreneur and consultant. Regardless of the agency technology you embrace, he adds, “If you’re not serving your policyholders and providing great support, you’re not going to survive, because they’re not going to refer you.”
Rixford also encourages independent agencies to pay close attention to their sales-and-marketing structures and consider how technology can better drive those functions: “A support portal should really be secondary to making sure that an agency has perfected its sales and marketing.”
No. 2: Keep customers smiling with multichannel communications
There's one entity that perfectly characterizes the online experience that today's consumers demand: Amazon. “Consumer-izing” your agency, Stevenson says, means employing tools that enable agents to cater to clients who can “pick up their phones and in 10 seconds order paper towels and have them delivered to their house.”
While the independent agent is always the best point of contact for the most up-to-date policy information and services, insurance technology specialists argue that there are those consumers who don't necessarily crave a personal touch.
Those clients prefer the fastest possible path to the information they need, whether that's through a website with online chat or downloadable documents, or a branded mobile app, says Matt Josefowicz, president and CEO of Novarica. He argues that meeting the demands of today's consumers is not just about appeasing millennials.
24/7 customer service and access
“Consumers of all generations these days are doing business at all hours and need quick answers to their questions. They are increasingly likely to try and text or email [agents] while they’re doing other things,” Josefowicz says. Being an independent agent these days, he adds, “means competing with companies providing 24/7 customer service and access. The agents who adopt this approach to customer service, outreach and business development will be more successful.”
Agencies must embrace and strategize around multichannel communications. “Each customer has a preferred method of communication,” says Rineck. “Insurance programs constantly change, so insureds need to stay in contact with their agents/brokers. That contact can be a phone call, email, social media message, letter or online request. Offering these options allows customers to choose the method that suits them best.”
The fatal flaw an agency can make in today's business landscape is failing to recognize the dominance of mobile commerce and communications.
“Ensure all aspects of their websites are mobile-enabled,” says Ron Berg, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Agents Council for Technology. “Offer ease-of-user services via their websites and web portals such as eSignature, web-based quoting, online chat assistance, easy payment options, online applications, video and educational libraries.”
No. 3: Maximize data analytics for strategic sales and marketing
Tech experts agree: Today's successful insurance agencies thrive on data and the insights it provides.
The digital age has ushered in a wealth of information about agency clientele and prospects, but independent agents often lack easy access to the types of data they need most.
“The ultimate goal for any agent is to have a 360-degree view of their customer at all times,” says Lisa Woodley, vice president of customer experience and channels for the financial services division of NTT DATA, an international IT services company based in Woodbridge, N.J. “Sometimes that idea gets translated into every piece of information you could ever have, which becomes noise. Too much information can be as bad as no information.”
Are you getting the info you need most?
The takeaway: Independent agencies need to regularly evaluate whether their agency and customer management systems are delivering the information they need most.
For VUE Software's John Sarich, that key data is what enables agents to differentiate themselves in a competitive field. “The independent agent has an information gap,” he says. “They don't understand how to differentiate themselves, how to use social media, or how to transition from a B2B to B2C business.”
No. 4: Lead by example
Too often independent agencies only look to update their technology when a vendor increases its fees or a new employee pushes for a particular upgrade. It should not require that proverbial kick in the pants before an agency evaluates its systems.
Infinity Software's Frazee says: “Agency leadership should be able to answer: What am I trying to accomplish through an agency portal? Once the answer to that question is clear, they should apply a process to clearly express the requirements that meet the goals and reconcile the constraints of the agency.”
No. 5: Spend wisely
For many agencies, the pressing challenge is a financial one.
“The reality is — and this is what's got to get fixed — the carrier out there has thousands of IT workers and all kinds of technology and they’re really savvy,” says Sarich. “The agent, on the other hand, is your key business partner and provides level-one support, but has absolutely horrible technology.”
The good news? Frequently evaluating an agency's technology can prevent unnecessary spending on tools that don't actually help further the agency's business.
Ask customers what they want
Michael Freilich is well-versed in what those cutting-edge agency technologies look like. A principal with A.T. Kearney in the Financial Institutions Practice in Chicago, Freilich is focused on distribution strategy, front-office transformation and direct sales.
“Having the discussion with the independent agent is not the hard part,” Freilich says. “The hard part is, once the capability has been built, how do you drive adoption and change behaviors so that gross differentiation can be achieved?”
A portal that best serves its customers is one that has the features and functions the customers want, Frazee says. “To determine what they want, ask them. If what they want fits within your constraints, give it to them.”
Taking advantage of the 'buy button'
No discussion of agency technology challenges would be complete without addressing the idea of instituting the Buy Button, which would empower independent agents to take back the binding ability that existed in the years of manual rating, before the era of online quoting. Once upon a time, the customer came into an independent agent's office, completed an application, made a down payment and left the office with a policy number and ID Cards. “ The agent was in control,” says Mike Becker, executive vice president and CEO of the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA). “The sales process began and ended in the agent's system.”
Now, independent agents must exit the agency platform and access multiple carrier platforms. “This takes too much time,” Becker continues. “Different carriers have different questions. Direct comparisons are more difficult. These inefficiencies can prompt the customer to walk and the agent loses the sale.”
In comparison, direct writers operate in one system. They advertise a quick and convenient process, Becker notes: “15 minutes to save 15 percent.” New aggregators such as Lemonade are offering the same process, and agents are at a competitive disadvantage.
Ability to bind coverage online
Becker stresses that the Buy Button is not a campaign about selling insurance online; it is not a product. It is about independent agents regaining the ability to bind coverage online through the filtering of various carriers’ forms and limits, set in advance by the agent. This process would be used in conjunction with a comparative rater. Streamlining the process in this way would empower agents to bind coverage in real time for prospects or clients that call on the phone, walk into the agency, meet, or visit online. This concept will apply to mobile technology for agents to use when meeting with prospects or clients offsite, giving them the same binding ability when they are out of the office.
In order to continue to succeed, independent agents need to go back to the future and be able to bind policies quickly and efficiently, without leaving their agency systems,” Becker said. “Agents must be able to deliver what customers want and have come to expect — right away, not later. Anything less is not enough.”
Customers want to click & buy. But should they?
Consumer tastes are driving businesses of all types, including insurance, to rush to market with a quick-quote, “buy now” online experience.
“On the one hand it's what consumers are asking for, so you want to be able to provide it,” says Curt Stevenson, chief digital officer at Duck Creek Technologies. “On the other hand, it's risky.”
Stevenson characterizes this risk as one that puts consumers in charge of an uncertain destiny. Consider the consumer who buys an online auto policy on the same day as securing a new car, then gets into an accident the next day only to discover that the particular circumstances involved in their crash are not covered by their quick-quote policy.
VUE Software's John Sarich favors the analogy of the home improvement do-it-yourselfer. “What we know about the do-it-yourself insurance buyer, much like the do-it-yourself plumber, is you find out that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.
“A lot of companies are trying to open up new business on the internet,” Sarich continues. “What's lost in all that is that insurance is a financial business based on underwriting and know-how. That know-how is the key reason why you don't want to be writing business over the Internet.”
Balance personalized service with 'on-demand' services
Some say that having a “buy now” that's tied to independent agent services can empower those agents to bind coverage in real time for prospects or clients that call on the phone, walk into the agency, meet, or visit online. It's a way of making sure that mobile technology helps agents keep and secure business.
Others argue that a fully functional agency portal can help well-educated insurance customers get past the desire for big-box-type buying experience.
“The portal allows the agency to balance personalized service with critical ‘on-demand’ services outside of agency response hours,” says Ron Berg, executive director of the Agents Council for Technology, based in Minneapolis, Minn. “This demonstrates to the customers that the agency understands the modern customer's preferences, but continues to be the trusted advisor they need to protect their lives.”