During the 2013 annual meeting of the Million Dollar Round Table, held in Philadelphia, June 8-12, National Underwriter Life & Health Senior Editor Warren S. Hersch met with MDRT members to explore how they're using smartphones, tablets and other mobile solutions; the benefits they've enjoyed from mobile technologies; and lessons they've learned that might benefit other insurance and financial service professionals.
The roundtable participants included MDRT Past President Phillip Harriman; Steven A. Plewes, a principal of Advisors Financial Group, Gaithersburg, MD; J. Leland "Lee" Davis, a principal of J.L. Davis, Financial Corp., Greenwood Village, Colo.; John F. Nichols, president of Disability Resource Group, Chicago; and Ryan Pinney, vice president of Brokerage Sales at Pinney Insurance. Following are excerpts from the discussion:
Hersch: How are you currently using tablets, smartphones and other mobile devices in your practice? What software applications do you access through these devices?
Harriman: Mobile solutions have enabled us to be high-touch with our clients — to meet and exceed our clients' expectations anywhere, anytime. Our smartphones, tablets and laptops connect to the cloud, allowing us to connect with all of our office apps. These include Microsoft Outlook for calendaring, tasks and contacts; Microsoft OneNote, which simplifies the composing, organizing and sharing of notes; and Expense Tracker, which can capture, categorize, file and e-mail expenses. I also use Paper Karma, which scans and removes junk mail from our in-boxes.
Plewes: I've gone so far as to eliminate my brick-and-mortar office; my business is now completely paperless and on the cloud. When necessary, I rent office space from Regis Office Center, which offers services a la carte. I also use Ring Central for phone services and Cabinet for online document storage. Some of our office apps are not quite as robust on an iPad as on a desktop desktop or laptop — they lack some of the full-featured functionality — but they are accessible and provide most of the information we need in client meetings.
Davis: My son and I — we're in partnership together — use Sony's Vio Duo 11 tablet because we needed access to Microsoft-based databases that don't lend themselves as well to an iPad or other mobile devices. We also use voice-over-IP for phone service, which lets client calls to my office be rerouted seamlessly in Denver, where I work six-months out of the year; and in Scottsdale, Ariz., where I'm based for the balance of the year. We also use a tablet to conduct client meetings with GotoMeeting and Skype. A VPN gives us access to all of our office databases.
In respect to sales automation tools, our primary financial planning software is MoneyGuide Pro, a Web-based app that provides comprehensive wealth management.
Nichols: We also have a VPN, VoIP, GotoMeeting and Skype. Due to my travels, I have no office and am completely paperless. All of our mobile apps are Web-based; we don't have any native apps on the devices.
Hersch: What additional capabilities do you gain through mobile solutions that were not available to you previously? How has this additional functionality changed the way you run your practices?
Harriman: Mobile solutions have revolutionized my business. I'm now able to get any document or vital piece of information anywhere I want and at any time through a smartphone or tablet.
Davis: The technology has revolutionized my free time. Now, we can have three or four meetings daily by early afternoon. That allows me more time to do what I like to do: play golf, hike or ride my motorcycle. In the old days, if you have four meetings per day, you were buried from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Nichols: These technologies also create more free time for clients. We have a client VPN that lets them view documents and before meetings. They don't have to get in the car to come to my office.
Plewes: Mobile solutions also let you build deeper relationships with clients. We have more time to spend with them and give them that high touch. The technologies have also yielded efficiencies when working with carriers. We use an app, SignEasy, to sign and transmit electronic signatures needed for carrier forms. We also use Dropbox to expedite large files and images via the cloud.
Pinney: We process most policy applications electronically now. Until recently, most medical providers wouldn't accept electronically signed forms. Even Kaiser, which resisted the technology the past, now permits e-signature.
Hersch: Has the adoption of mobile solutions in your practice entailed certain trade-offs? Or have these solutions only been advantageous for your business
Harriman: There are trade-offs, in that we now have to manage client expectations. Whereas the technology itself can provide immediate gratification, what we do can be complicated. Not everything clients want can be communicated instantaneously or in 140 characters.
Nichols: The technology provides one less buffer because clients now also communicate with us in multiple ways. We have to tell them that, if they wish to discuss business, don't do it on Facebook.
Davis: Agreed. Also, if something takes more than five sentences to explain, then it doesn't need to be discussed via e-mail; it should be handled in-person or via phone.
Pinney: Anyone of us can give you a good answer on most topics. But the best answer for anyone usually requires running the numbers on three or four possible scenarios to see what makes the most sense. If we're forced to give an immediate answer, we'll give you a very good answer, but there is only a one-in-three or one-in-four chance that it's the best answer.
Davis: The other trade-off is the increased cost involved in staying up-to-date on technology. But we can't afford to do otherwise.
Hersch: How have you profited from mobile solutions in terms of increased sales, efficiency, productivity or return on investment? Can you illustrate with specific examples?
Davis: Last year, our gross revenue was up by about 68 percent. This is a direct result of being able to deliver high-quality client meetings, regardless of where we happen to be.
Pinney: We've saved substantially — probably $50,000 annually — just in terms of reduced paper and mailing costs as result of using scanning and e-signature technologies in place of hard copy.
Plewes: In my first year in business, my overhead was over $100,000. I've been able to cut out much of this cost, as I no longer pay for a permanent office, an employee whose work we've outsourced or things like copier maintenance. I'm more efficient, my income is significantly higher, and I'm in much better control of my time.
Harriman: The technology has also made us more efficient. I've been able to take on more opportunities with an incrementally smaller growth in overhead expenses.
Hersch: When researching mobile solutions, what are some do's and don'ts that other advisors need to consider? What common mistakes should they avoid?
Davis: My tip would be to find someone in whom you have every confidence has the technology figured out. If you're still in the middle of the technology shift, don't waste time trying to do it yourself.
Pinney: Over the years, we've gotten smarter. We rely on technology specialists when necessary, particularly to help us navigate issues or options we've haven't previously considered. The most important thing is this: Before you adopt any new solution, determine what the desired outcome is. If you know that, you can eliminate a lot of options.
Hersch: Can technology vendors and distribution partners do a better job availing you of mobile solutions that are best suited to your practice management needs?
Plewes: Some vendors, in their rush to go to market with a native app for a smartphone or tablet, haven't fully developed capabilities that you otherwise have working through a browser.
Pinney: One problem today is that there are no industry-wide standards for accepting virtual payments processing across carriers. There may be a common software interface, but the method of payment is customized to the carrier's needs.
Nichols: Applications and the processing of forms also varies by carrier. We have one process for carrier X; and a second process for carrier Y. We don't have a universal language. You'd think that an industry organization would take ownership of this issue.
Hersch: Are your sales cycles now entirely automated and mobile?
Pinney: Most advisors in the U.S. still do their work the old-fashioned way: on paper. In our office, 85 percent of our business is electronic, as our business is heavily technology based. But we still have clients and agents who prefer to send us business in a paper format. You can't say "no." You have to take their business however you can get it.