Time Is Money: Agents Try Tech To Limit Training Costs

The biggest training expense for independent agents is not necessarily the money spent on courses or travel. Rather, the time lost while attending educational programs could prove to be much more costly in the long run, agent group representatives say.

Whether it is a training course to improve sales or office functions, or classes to fulfill state continuing education requirements, there is little an agent can do to replace the time lost from a day that could have been spent servicing accounts or expanding a book of business.

However, thanks to technology and some innovative programming by agent associations, producers are in a position to minimize their loss of time and still get the necessary training and CE programs for themselves and staff.

Besides fitting more easily into an individuals schedule, these programs have the added benefit of saving money by reducing or eliminating travel-related costs.

Traditionally, the biggest obstacle has been fitting in classroom time. An agent or customer service representative has to figure out where to fit the designated date and time into his or her schedule. If they are lucky, the class is just a short drive away. Otherwise, there will be some travel time and maybe even an overnight stay or two.

“Anytime you can use alternate means of education and not lose time in the office, [principals] are better off,” explains Diane Kattrein, assistant executive director for the alliance of Professional Insurance Agents in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York, based in Glenmont, N.Y. “People work all day and want to do these education courses at their convenience,” she says.

“Travel time out of the office is difficult for agents to find,” notes David VanDelinder, executive director of the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas in Austin. “The cost [of the courses] is not as much an issue as time out of the market.”

Similarly, Madelyn Flannagan, vice president of research and education for the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America in Alexandria, Va., observes that “price is not an issue. Its always the question of convenience–to be there, where and when you want it.”

Thanks to the Internet, the quickly developing area for CE is online classes. These have an established record in many fields and institutions, including colleges, and they are a way for experienced agents to get the credits they need at their convenience.

Associations have taken several different approaches in developing these classes, from partnering with others, as the four-state PIA alliance has done, to developing unique programs, such as the route taken by the Big I of Texas.

Whichever way an organization goes, says Flannagan, the development will remain primarily in the hands of state associations. Incorporating each states regulatory demands into one national CE program, then seeking the approval of individual insurance regulators makes a comprehensive plan impractical, she points out.

But some states are stepping up to the plate with their own online programs.

“We are now beginning to see [regulators] accept online courses, and these are getting the continuing education approval,” Flannagan says.

One of the biggest impediments to approval is the proctoring process, she notes. Regulators want verification of who is taking the test.

For CE courses offered by IIABA, there are pop-up questionnaires during the online courses aimed at verifying the test takers identity, Flannagan says.

“Each [insurance] department is looking at the issue differently, but there is slow, steady progress,” she states.

She adds that when it comes to granting approval for courses, “the departments want to be very careful that people are still learning, not just paying and getting nothing out of it.”

Once these issues are resolved, Flannagan expects more movement by the insurance departments to “an online environment.”

The PIA alliance has a substantial repertoire of online courses covering life, commercial and personal lines, workers compensation, annuities, and pension plans–”soup to nuts,” explains Kattrein.

Also available is the “MindLeader” program–a library of online training and self-study products and employee orientation programs. These programs are aimed at those new to the insurance industry (less than a year of experience), who need to learn the basics. Agents also can sign up for employee orientation certificate courses.

To speed up the process of making online products available to insurance professionals, Kattrein says the alliance opted to partner with software developers that have proven products, thereby cutting research and development costs. These savings are passed on to members, she adds.

Texas is still working on developing its CE online courses, says VanDelinder. One of the major technical hurdles, he says, is making the lessons interesting. Many programs, he points out, “are very static, boring and difficult to learn from.”

IIAT is meeting that challenge by making its courses more interactive with Flash Media Player, creating a more dynamic presentation, he says.

While some courses can be adopted for online education, there will still be a need for personal instruction, especially when it comes to arcane or complex subjects, agent association executives note.

Growing in popularity, especially for CSR training, is onsite instruction. Instead of employees going to a location, a large agency can arrange for an instructor come to the office, notes VanDelinder.

A future educational possibility is video conferencing.

But a current problem in Texas is the lack of facilities to hold a large number of participants for a class, VanDelinder says.

In contrast, the Independent Insurance Agents of New York hosted a videoconference class in June this year for 700 agents in 14 separate locations through the states university system.

One failure of videoconferencing noted by VanDelinder is the difficulty of interaction between instructors and participants. The benefits of having a personal instructor are lost without the ability to ask questions and get answers during the class, he observes.

However, he predicts that these problems will be solved, and that one day students of insurance will be able to go to their computers and attend classes online with the help of streaming video.

Mark Ruquet is an assistant editor of NUs Property & Casualty/Risk & Benefits Management edition.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 4, 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.