For years, there’s been more talk than action when it comes to getting agents to do business with carriers in real time, but that’s changing thanks to the Real Time/Download Campaign launched in late April, a number of industry players have observed–although organizers know there is a lot more work to be done to gain widespread implementation.

“Each segment of the independent agency system is stepping up to learn about the benefits of real time and download, and how new workflows can enhance customer-service capabilities,” said Cal Durland, ACORD-User Groups Information Exchange facilitator and a campaign leader.

The campaign defines “real time” as “the ability to click on a button from a client file in an agency management system or comparative rater for immediate access to carrier information on that client. The transaction may be a quote, billing inquiry, claim inquiry/loss run, policy view, endorsement, or a request for information. This approach provides a single workflow for servicing or quoting.”

With some agents complaining that not enough carriers are providing the capability for real-time transactions, one campaign focus is on an initiative that informs insurers about the number of agents using real-time technology and the fact that usage is increasing, Ms. Durland noted. “The carriers confirm that this [growth] is happening, and we can demonstrate the savings” to convince those not offering the option to do so.

“It’s going to take us some time and a lot of hand holding,” she said, “but it’s making an impact.”

The campaign’s Web site––has been the key resource for industry parties to obtain information and to learn how to apply real-time workflows, said Jeff Yates, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.-based Agents’ Council for Technology, and a campaign leader.

“These Web traffic results demonstrate that our target audiences are gathering the information they need to make informed decisions about implementing these new tools in their agencies and companies,” he said. “Our goal is to double the number of real-time transactions in a year’s time.”

In addition to the Web traffic, the number of insurer, automation vendor, association and user group real-time links on the site has grown considerably over the past two months, noted Mr. Yates, who said ACT’s efforts include education sessions and demos from vendors of real time delivered via agency management systems, as well as comparative raters.

“Agents are talking about the savings in time and money. Carriers talk about why they have decided to implement real time and how important it is for the distribution system,” he added.

ACT is also home to several work groups that are striving to continue to refine real time, said Mr. Yates. “Real time now is only 10- or 15 percent of what it will ultimately be. We’re basically working on enhancing real time in the endorsement area. Agents with real time can do transactions in half the time of logging onto the insurer Web site.”

Mr. Yates added that a number of carriers are moving toward doing real time using ACORD XML standards, rather than scripting, because XML is faster and yields fewer errors. (Scripting, he said, involves agents reading data off the carrier Web site, rather than obtaining it via a Web service.)

He also noted that smaller, regional companies are beginning to get on board with real time. “We need to get the message out that it has been effective at that level. It will be our workflow going to the future. Real time helps [agents] deal with multiple carrier Web sites,” he said.

The campaign will begin tracking aggregate real-time service and sales transactions quarter by quarter, beginning with the first two quarters of 2007, noted Mr. Yates, with the numbers provided by participating carriers.

The campaign also will track aggregate active agencies for real-time service and sales transactions, with numbers contributed by participating agency management system and comparative rating vendors, he added.

Agency management system user groups are also active in promoting real time. “We’ve been working on real time forever, it seems like,” said Linn J. Wheeling, CEO of Applied Systems Client Network, “and we are starting to see results. There has been a coordinated effort to deliver information on real time throughout the ASCnet membership community.”

Ms. Wheeling said ASCnet hopes to be able to demonstrate the results of its call to action for its agents “sometime next year, within the first or second quarter. We’re starting to see where gaps are so that we know what we are doing is effective.”

She added that real time is “tied directly to ASCnet’s strategic vision. Real time makes agencies more profitable, valuable and more attractive to talent.”

“The ball is in the agents’ court to use real time so the carriers will continue to develop agent transactions,” said Lisa Parry Becker, chair of ASCnet’s Interface Committee, who noted that at its national conference this week, ASCnet will feature sessions with carriers doing real time.

Ms. Becker said real-time technology allows agents to “stay in our management system and obtain quotes, and we never have to go to the insurer Web site. That’s the model we’re trying to get [everyone] to. As an independent agent, you need to present different pricing and product offerings to clients, but somehow it has to get easier.”

Ms. Becker said ASCnet also maintains a liaison dedicated to real time at each of the user group’s approximately 75 chapters.

At her own agency–William B. Parry & Son, in Langhorne, Pa.–Ms. Becker said personnel have been using real-time technology in the form of “Transformation Station” from University Park, Ill.-based Applied Systems for about five years, noting the technology provides all players–agents, carriers and vendors–with a single communication infrastructure.

Asked about time savings, Ms. Becker said billing inquiry typically required minutes when done via phone and the Web site. “Using XML, the information is returned in 20 seconds, and rating time has been cut in half–from 80 minutes to 40 minutes on new-business quoting.”

“We have real time with four carriers that represent 80 percent of our business,” noted Ed Higgins, principal of Thousand Islands Agency in Clayton, N.Y. “There’s a tremendous time savings, but it’s not just about that. There’s improved customer service, because the customer gets an answer on the first call. [Real time] is a superior technology application that every agency should embrace and pursue.”

Mr. Higgins said real time also “gives the independent agency distribution channel the ability to compete against direct writers. There’s a single, consistent workflow with an independent agent–the friendly local person [customers] like to deal with. People want a trusted adviser, and when you add the benefits of real time in, you have cemented the benefits of an independent agent.”

“It’s not about the technology,” he said. “It’s about the business case and the customer relationship.”

“We use “TransactNOW” as much as possible,” said Mike Foy of Foy Insurance Group in Exeter, N.H., citing the product from AMS Services in Bothell, Wash., that enables agents to process carrier interface transactions from within the AMS agency management system.

Mr. Foy said “TransactNOW” works particularly well in delivering real-time transactions where there is a single inquiry. “If you need to make multiple inquiries, it is not as fast, or if you have to look up multiple clients,” he noted. “I don’t think the industry has solved multiple inquiries yet. There is an authentication process for each call, and that does slow the process down.”

Still, he noted, the average time-saving over all transactions is between 45 seconds and one minute. “You can do some transactions that technically save 10-to-15 minutes,” he added.

Mr. Foy said that when it comes to rating, his firm uses the AMS “SETWrite” product. “We went from three hours to 20 minutes to get a set of quotes,” he noted.

Overall, Mr. Foy said his agency is bullish on real time. “We’ve told our carriers that by 2010 you must at least be able to process endorsements online, including giving revised premium and providing necessary ID cards,” he said. “We’re telling our carriers what we are going to demand of them in technology. If they don’t have that, we probably won’t do business with them.”

Jerry Fox, vice president of James M. King and Associates in Bloomington, Minn., is another satisfied TransactNOW user. “There’s no way you could take it away from anyone in my office,” he said. “You don’t have to get up from your desk if a client is calling. You just do the changes.”

“It never ceases to amaze me,” he said. “It’s mind-boggling that more people aren’t using a real-time tool that is free to the agent from AMS. I can prove all day long that there’s a time-savings on every customer touch, yet some agents aren’t doing it.”

He added, “You can get a policy and paper anywhere, but the independent agent’s job is to service the customer. When you can do it online, in real time, what is that worth? It’s a one-touch deal.”

Doug Johnston, vice president of partner relations and product innovations for Applied Systems, noted that his company has seen a “pretty good increase” in real-time transactions–a 30 percent hike since the first of the year. “We just hit our 10-millionth real-time transaction, and most of it has been in the last two years,” he noted.

Mr. Johnston said Applied is continuing to do research and development on new real-time transactions. “These days, our focus is on connectivity and security,” he said.