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I decided several years ago to improve our agency’s efficiency and profitability by embracing technology. During that time we’ve been able to decrease our staff by more than half (fortunately, through natural attrition) yet still grow the business. With a little commitment to the process, you can do the same thing.As I talk with other agents about automating their businesses, I hear plenty of excuses for why they aren’t paperless, aren’t downloading, aren’t using real time or why they don’t even have an agency management system. From this mountain of alleged obstacles I’ve yet to hear a single good, honest reason–and that’s because there isn’t one. I know, because I tried them all, too.I understand the reluctance. Looking at what needs to be done to automate even a small agency can be intimidating, and you’ll never run out of reasons to avoid it. It seems like a ton of hard work. Well, what worthwhile thing doesn’t seem like a ton of hard work? (And once you get going, it’s not all that hard, anyway.) The key is finally deciding to get started, and then consistently chipping away at the project, one day at a time. You don’t have to do it Monday morning by 9; you just have to do it.We are now getting automatedOur agency got started with automation in 1987, when we began using the Pioneer batch accounting system from AMS. In 1997 we purchased the Instar system, and moved from Instar to Applied TAMOnline in 2006. Our automation process began while we were still with Instar, and then fully developed with Applied.In 2000, Tilley Insurance Agency had a staff of six with about $1.8 million in written premium. Our business was and is about 60 percent personal lines. Today, staff is 2.5 employees, including myself, and we’re up to $2.1 million in a soft market. I spent up to a year researching automation be As I talk with other agents about automating their businesses, I hear plenty of excuses for why they aren’t paperless, aren’t downloading, aren’t using real time or why they don’t even have an agency management system. From this mountain of alleged obstacles I’ve yet to hear a single good, honest reason–and that’s because there isn’t one. I know, because I tried them all, too.I understand the reluctance. Looking at what needs to be done to automate even a small agency can be intimidating, and you’ll never run out of reasons to avoid it. It seems like a ton of hard work. Well, what worthwhile thing doesn’t seem like a ton of hard work? (And once you get going, it’s not all that hard, anyway.) The key is finally deciding to get started, and then consistently chipping away at the project, one day at a time. You don’t have to do it Monday morning by 9; you just have to do it.We are now getting automatedOur agency got started with automation in 1987, when we began using the Pioneer batch accounting system from AMS. In 1997 we purchased the Instar system, and moved from Instar to Applied TAMOnline in 2006. Our automation process began while we were still with Instar, and then fully developed with Applied.In 2000, Tilley Insurance Agency had a staff of six with about $1.8 million in written premium. Our business was and is about 60 percent personal lines. Today, staff is 2.5 employees, including myself, and we’re up to $2.1 million in a soft market. I spent up to a year researching automation before we officially made the move. Once we did, it took about two months to get comfortable with the process and refine our new workflows. When technology changes, we’ll change with it.We started by questioning every workflow we had, and determining where technology could help us. The only answer I wouldn’t accept was “because that’s how we’ve always done it.” Every workflow in a business exists because someone once said, “Hey, let’s do it this way.” Today it’s time to ask, “Why are we doing it this way?”The primary piece of the automation puzzle is becoming paperless. As an experiment, ask your staff to provide the pros and cons of going paperless. Take notes. You’ll hear a long list of excuses about why you can’t, but you’ll also hear an underlying theme: We could do our jobs more efficiently if we didn’t spend so much time handling paper. In other words, they’ll probably be afraid of the process, yet they know it’s the right thing to do.This is your stepping-off point, where you make the definite move from “we really should get automated someday” to “we are now getting automated.” Once you have this commitment from staff–and this must be a group effort throughout–you can begin devising your road map for getting it done.Depending on the size of your agency, your planning sessions may range from two people brainstorming to a full-blown task force. I recommend a small group, involving personnel from each area of your agency. An excellent tool at this stage is “The Power of Change” program from ACORD, designed to help ease agencies’ pain as they streamline their workflows.It may be possible to become paperless without an agency management system, but why would you want to? Yes, a management system is expensive, but when fully utilized, it will be the most reliable and cost-effective “employee” you’ll ever have. The choice of systems is an entirely different topic; for our purposes it’s simply imperative that you have one. Effective use of your system is the foundation for successfully automating your agency.Yes, we scan!Let’s examine a few of the decisions you’ll need to make. First, what hardware do you have and what hardware will you need? Many agents think that automation requires them to spend like crazy and do everything at once, but that simply isn’t true. (It’s the soft costs that can get you; more on that below.) All you need is a computer, printer and scanner, and they don’t have to be the biggest, best or newest. I recently visited an agency that had just spent a small fortune on a Goliath-type network printer/fax/scanner/copier/coffee maker that was so complicated I felt it actually slowed down the workflow. Indeed, many of these machines may even hamper your ability to properly interface with your management system.Of course, you’ll have to spend some money on your automation, but you can phase it in at your own pace. Once you have your road map, establish a budget and make automating part of your annual business plan. Installing dual monitors (about $250 each) on every desktop may be the smartest money you’ll ever spend. (For proof, see what happens when you try to take them away from someone who has them!) The same goes for desktop faxing; there’s no reason not to use it. A scanner that can handle a small to midsize office shouldn’t cost more than $800. Rather than waiting until you’re forced to upgrade all your equipment at once, set up a three- or four-year replacement rotation and then replace 25 to 33 percent each year.One huge hardware advantage can be using ASPs, or application service providers. This is also its own topic, but it means that your management system vendor hosts all of your data on their file servers. This can be an extremely secure and affordable solution, since it also provides a safety net for backup and disaster planning. Check into ASPs before making any new hardware or IT investments.What will your workflow be? Will you front-end scan? (Front-end is scanning all mail and documents before electronically distributing them to your staff.) Or will back-end scanning work better for you? (Think of back-end scanning as similar to paper files, except that when you complete your work you save it electronically.) What will you scan? Will one person scan everything, or will each employee do their own? How much of the historical data from your active files will you scan? Will you do it all in-house, or hire a consultant? Have you examined all the resources your management system users group has to offer? These are just some of the matters you’ll need to address with your staff.Personally, my experience is with back-end scanning using a shared scanner that cost less than $600. This won’t be the way to go for every agency, but it fit our agency’s needs. As noted, we use TAMOnline from Applied Systems, and we utilize their bar code scanning. This allows us to handle paper throughout the day, before commanding the system to scan the barcoded documents at our convenience. Scanning is really glorified copying that can be handled by anyone in your agency, including your lowest-paid employee.No way to put it politelyAmong your scanning decisions will be what to scan and what to shred. This will be very individualized for each agency, but it need not be complicated. This is where downloading comes in. There’s no way to put this politely, so I’ll just say it: If you’re not downloading the bulk of your personal lines by now, I don’t understand how you’re still in business. You’ll never have an expense greater than personnel. Should your most valuable assets be spending their time processing auto renewals?I always hear the excuse that “not all of my companies download.” Well, neither do all of mine. But almost all do, and when it comes time to decide who gets the bulk of our business, guess who wins. Whenever I meet with a marketing representative or company official from a carrier that doesn’t download, rest assured this is a topic we visit. And don’t think that the carriers who are downloading get off easy if they aren’t giving us real-time capabilities yet!Our workflow with downloading carriers consists of scanning the original applications, signed change forms, loss information and anything else we deem important. Did you notice that declaration pages, renewals and billing notices were left off the list? We’ve shut off this paper wherever possible. If we still get them, they go straight to the shredder. If the information is downloaded, we don’t need to duplicate it. For companies that don’t download, we’ll either update just the billing information or the application, depending on the carrier. These carriers most likely have your data on their Web sites. Just be sure you have a process to keep your management system data current.We handle commercial accounts largely the same as our personal lines. We’re more likely to scan a larger volume, but the workflow is the same. Yes, commercial CSRs and account managers–that’s all there is to it!The most potentially troublesome decision you’ll face is what to do with the historical files. When I think of people struggling to say goodbye to paper files, I’m reminded of Linus and his security blanket. Rather than ripping that blanket away like a Band-Aid, pick a date to “go paperless” and worry about everything from then on. Most of your files can be caught up over the next 12 months as you work renewals. If your work level allows, start entering files one at a time to supplement this process. Remember you’re legally required to keep old files, usually five to seven years.What you scan of this historical data is up to you, although I encourage erring on the side of ruthlessness. I doubt that declarations will ever be important, and in the rare case they would be, you can check with carriers about availability. You may need to get all your data in quickly, such as a captive agent I recently worked with who was about to go independent and would shortly lose his company’s Web access. In such cases, while you should strive to have staff do as much as possible, your customers still need service and you still have to sell insurance. College or high school kids can be a great source for temporary data entry labor. Anybody in your office have kids?Once we got the last old file scanned, we only had to go back to them a few times, usually because a page didn’t scan well. Watch your staff to see why some revert to paper. You may have a problem with your procedure, but more likely you have an employee with a paper security blanket! Once we met our state’s data retention requirements, it was great to see the shredder truck pick up more than 40 file cabinets of paper. And no, we’ve never missed them.Transitioning to full automation is where you prove your worth as a manager. The hard costs aren’t high, but getting from A to Z is fraught with pitfalls. The soft costs of wasting time and effort can really eat your agency up. It’s crucial to gain your staff’s commitment and cooperation, give them a voice in the process and keep on top of things as new procedures develop. You don’t need to do everything at once. Develop your implementation plan, and stick to it for as long as you need to.We’re in a unique industry, where we can be friendly with our competition. You won’t have to go far to find help overcoming automation excuses. Use your state professional association’s committees and resources. Tap into your management system users group, both nationally and locally. Ask your marketing reps to recommend some folks who might be willing and able to lend you a hand.But just as “nothing happens until someone sells something,” automation doesn’t happen until you make it happen. In other words: Just do it.

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