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What It Takes For Agencies To Thrive In The Information Age

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What It Takes For Agencies To Thrive In The Information Age

Some agencies, to this day, are still deploying antiquated assembly-line approaches from the Industrial Age in todays Information Age.

Considering an ever-competitive industry continuing to move agencies toward being all-products/all-services providers, theyre facing the distinct possibility of not keeping up with, let alone ahead, of the competition.

Many agencies talk about providing customer service. Yet for all the talk about getting and keeping clients, how much has service really improved? Unfortunately, the answer is not much at some agencies.

Customer service isnt about talk. Its about actions that keep clients satisfied. Its about pleasing people. Its about great service replacing lip service. And, along the way, it can lead to clients spreading the good word about an agencys offerings and top-notch service.

Exceptional service results in client loyalty. Once an agency has such loyalty and word-of-mouth advertising, a golden future is virtually assured.

But none of this is going to happen if agencies dont look within. Whats often needed are specific actions that will establish an emotional bond between clients and their agency, boosting customer confidence. While on the surface it might sound simple, theres most definitely an art to pleasing customers and garnering new ones.

In the Industrial Age, the key to success was based upon the ability to control all aspects of work. Problem solving was the sole domain of management.

In todays Information Age, work is accomplished–or should be–through a series of linked processes where client service, flexibility and cost containment have replaced volume as the high watermark for success.

For up-to-date agencies, the tools of e-business and the Internet have dramatically altered how work is viewed and what staff and clients expect.

Last year, at the annual conference of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America in Honolulu, the Agents Council For Technology released a report citing major technological trends that will significantly affect how agents do business.

Among the trends revealed in the report, “A Vision Of The Future For Agency Technology, Including The Essential Next Steps For Independent Agents,” was the importance of:

Prospects and customers being able to do business with agencies electronically.

Real-time interaction.

Single-step processing.

Personalized marketing and service.

Within the ACT report, specific steps are recommended for independent agents so they can position themselves to profit from these emerging technological trends. They include the need for agency owners to establish a culture that views technology as a strategic opportunity and an integral part of running an agency.

Technology should be implemented to respond to a defined need in the agency, such as improving a particular business process or workflow, according to the ACT report. That resonates with the overall message that our organization has long been delivering to members of the insurance community.

Specifically, many agencies must carefully study their business plan (to this day, some dont even have one), and actually implement the plan rather than let it gather dust on their shelf.

The plan must be–and this is key–flexible enough to adapt to constant change. This in turn will lead some agencies to the realization that, with the help of technology and redesign as needed, theyll be able to operate much more effectively.

Often, the scenario that will unfold will depict a need to restructure. This will sometimes mean the installation or redesign of computer systems so that they are future-oriented and focus directly on the customer.

It will also often mean changing from an old assembly-line approach–where tasks are handed from one person to another–to work stations where jobs are more efficient and customer-focused, creating more productive, and usually more contented, employees.

It also means mixing people with technology to create a modernized agency environment, asking for staff input every step of the way. An agencys staff can be amazingly analytical when asked for feedback. Often, the staff has productive and cost-saving ideas that the agency principal never thought about.

All this said, its not enough to have technological solutions if the critical changes needed by agencies are not aligned to support its initiatives. There are three elements needed–processes, systems and people–to create a high-performance agency.

Processes. These are linked activities designed to add value on behalf of clients. Whats needed within this area includes value-added analysis, the reworking and possible redesigning of jobs, and the decision points required–all targeted on the goal of meeting client needs and expectations.

Systems. This refers to the infrastructure for maintaining the overall agency operation. Required within this area are a review of policies and procedures, and operating within an open versus closed environment.

People. The individuals comprising your agency staff are the very lifeblood of your business, and they influence and are influenced by both systems and processes in various, often unpredictable ways. When any changes are made to the system or processes, the agency needs to be concerned with issues that affect people who represent the agency.

Therefore, its mandatory to forever keep in mind that people can only produce if they have the requisite skills, resources and motivation to do so. It follows that agencies need to assess core competencies, skill requirements, job design, and the training needed to provide the necessary resources to get the job done. Also remember that even in the most automated environment, people still do the work.

The old ways dont work anymore. Those agencies that didnt learn that, and somehow didnt find time to enter the Information Age, arent around anymore. Theres no reason whatsoever to join them in oblivion.

What all agency principals must do is look within and, as deemed necessary, restructure and update automation and processes quickly, shifting all agency operations to focus directly on the client.

This should all be accomplished within a business plan that is flexible enough to adapt to change, and which, if properly thought out, will allow you and your agency to see today with the eyes of tomorrow.

John A. Uzzi is president of Roy W. Walters & Associates, a nationwide management consulting organization serving the insurance and financial services industry, headquartered in Paramus, N.J. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 30, 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.