Web-based Business Tools Will Provide Competitive Advantages

Like millions of other Americans, my great-grandparents were thrilled when they got their first telephone, even though it was bolted to the wall and they had to crank it to make a call. Cumbersome as it was, it worked and gave them near instant access to family and friends across town.

Years later, I was equally thrilled when I got my first cell phone, which enabled me to do business while strolling into my favorite coffee shop. And now I’ve got a Web-enabled phone, one that lets me get an updated price quote, an agents phone number, and make a call–all with the same handheld device!

Clearly, the business communications landscape is moving swiftly toward another milestone in the tech revolution, one with thrilling implications for our industry. Just over the horizon are Internet-based tools that will enable carriers, agencies, and agents to work seamlessly and more productively than ever before.

Some of these innovations have been talked about for years. So why are they finally so close at hand? For one thing, broadband is becoming more available and more affordable, helping millions of Internet users realize that “www” no longer means “world wide wait.” Customers everywhere are becoming more Internet-savvy and, as a result, are increasingly impatient with companies and agents that continue to do business with snail mail and paper and pen. And, thousands of Web-comfortable agents are entering our industry and bringing with them a thirst for tools that will help automate routine tasks.

Carriers recognize the need to develop business solutions that optimize broadband and make it easier for agents to do business with them. But developing new technical processes and solutions is only part of the equation. If a company creates a timesaving process, but few use it, then what’s been gained?

Leading companies in our industry are working directly with agents and GAs to ensure that their distributors are maximizing the web-enabled initiatives the company has developed. Providing education and on-site assistance in the field is the best, and most direct approach to helping agents integrate a carrier’s e-business solutions with the agent’s existing business platform–making the business solutions a success for both the company and its distribution partners.

Distributors who ride this newest technology wave and maximize these new tools will be able to use the time and money they save to further enhance their business relationships. And anyone who fails to adapt to the new technology will almost surely lose ground in what has become the most competitive environment in our history.

So what are the hottest new tools? When will they appear? And what will be needed, not to just stay in the game, but to win? Here are my predictions:

Paperless Applications. Currently, a handful of carriers offer agents the ability to submit life applications electronically. Electronic submission gives agents a distinct competitive advantage by eliminating paperwork and avoiding processing delays for inaccurate or incomplete information, greatly reducing the number of “not-taken” policies.

Soon agents will be able to electronically create and submit standardized XMLife-format applications that GAs will route to the appropriate carrier, where the application automatically goes into the carrier’s legacy system. This process will be a huge improvement over traditional procedures in which agents must fill out different applications for each carrier, and GAs must verify every application for accuracy.

Vendors are already at work creating the standardized forms, and leading carriers are pushing ahead with efforts to create the necessary electronic gateways. Their combined efforts will represent a strong win for everyone concerned.

Currently, some carriers are extending the paperless effort to include a paperless appointment process. This online appointment process offers GAs the ability to appoint agents electronically, verify their appointment status, and eliminate the need for a paper copy license or appointment.

Web-based PDAs. Soon, smart players at all levels of the industry will have personal digital assistants with Bluetooth(TM) or 802.11b wireless technology to automatically update themselves from carrier websites. Theyll be especially useful for agents, who will be able to travel lighter, respond more quickly to customer inquiries, and be absolutely certain that every quote is in line with the latest business information from the carrier.

Combine this with the fact that these new super-PDAs will also offer real-time access to everything from stock reports to sports scores and you have a tool that will make every insurance professionals life richer, as well as easier.

Standardized Data Exchange. On the horizon, leading carriers will work with vendors to create electronic gateways that provide agency management systems with real-time access to standardized information. This will mean that carriers can instantly exchange real-time data of mutual interest, bypassing traditional time-consuming methods and even eliminating the need for paper itself in some instances.

For an industry that has consumed entire forests, this represents not only a major breakthrough in productivity but a boon to the environment as well.

Ultimately, these new Internet-based tools will make it easier for agents to collect information and for agencies to help the agent write quality business. This new technology will automate routine tasks and enable distributors to do a better job of growing their business while they also meet the service demands of a new generation of Internet-savvy consumers who expect swift, seamless service.

As with every new tech tool–from the phone to the fax, and from Walkmans to MP3 players–some people will be quicker than others to jump on the bandwagon.

Who will be first to employ these new Internet-based tools in our industry? You can bet the most ambitious and innovative players among us are already adjusting their budgets to allow for this third generation technology because they know the advantages these new business tools represent are just too huge to ignore.

My great-grandparents would be thrilled by it all, especially those Web-enabled phones you dont have to crank!

Michael E. Sladek is senior marketing director, E-Commerce for Zurich Life, Schaumburg, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at michael.sladek

@zurichlifeus.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, May 6, 2002. Copyright 2002 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.