Agent-Company Interface Still High On User Groups Wish Lists

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Although agents are dealing with a host of technology issues, one that keeps coming up with user group experts is agent-company interface, or SEMCI as some still call it.

Roy C. Riley, president of AMS Users’ Group and chief operating officer of Peel & Holland Financial Group in Benton, Ky., said agencies face “a whole host of issues.”

One of them, SEMCI, is improving, he said, though “you still have many differences from company to company.”

“Companies that have enabled real time, through Web sites or from our management systems, do make it easier for us to do business,” he said.

Agents are still doing “a lot of logging in and out of company Web sites every day,” he said, which though negative in some respects, is “positive in that the carriers have enabled this ability for the agents, which is a great first step.”

Now, he added, it’s important to take the capability the carriers have built and “spin it out to a more efficient way for the agents beyond that–so that we can gain the information directly from our management systems.”

Currently, AMS is working to solve SEMCI issues with its own product, he said. “It’s going really well. We have eight carriers currently enabled for billing and claims inquiry.”

He explained that with the AMS product, agents can start within their management system, load up a particular policy, “click a couple of buttons,” and the information will be returned within their management system, “as far as the billing or the claims,” in real time.

This cuts out logging into multiple Web sites and multiple workflow. “It allows me to teach my employees one workflow for any of these eight carriers and I think they are hoping to roll out another set of carriers soon.

“The more carriers, the more momentum,” he said.

For Sallie Knighten, president of Applied System’s ASC-Net users’ group and operations manager of ISU Francis-Pinney Insurance Services Inc. in Roseville, Calif., agency-company interface encompasses more than SEMCI.

Ms. Knighten said, “The biggest concern to agents is using our management systems more efficiently.” To be efficient, she said, agents need “to tie as much together as we can within our management systems so that we can utilize that in all our workflows.”

She noted that company Web sites tend to pull agents out of their agency management system. “We get a lot of information at those Web sites, but for an agency to keep workflow consistent, to prevent errors and omissions and all the things that can happen,” the information needs to be pulled into management systems.

The issue differs from SEMCI, she explained, because SEMCI focused on rating and quoting, whereas agent-company integration is needed for all the transactions that occur, including claims, first notice of loss, billing inquiries and loss runs.

Agents get a lot of information at carrier Web sites, “but what we need to try to do with real-time interface is to try to pull as much of that as we can back into our management systems,” she said. “It’s a technology integration issue.”

The technology is there–in many cases built by the companies, she said. “They just haven’t built it out” to allow for integration, she said.

Steve Redel, principal of Redel Insurance Agency in Ballwin, Miss., and board member of Ebix Users Group, agreed that agency-company interface still tops the list of concerns.

The number of systems that users must access depends on the lines of coverage they offer and how the markets are set up, he said.

“In our little office, we have concentrated things to three personal lines companies. But with commercial, I might have to go to as many as five company sites to investigate a prospect or try to put a quote together,” he said.

Where he believes agent-company interface is heading, he said, is a “quote to issue” system where basic information is entered to get a quote. About 90 percent of the time, companies request standard information, he said. If the quote is acceptable, a detailed application is filled out, which is then processed. The quote is instantaneous.

To achieve SEMCI, Mr. Redel said, “I would think that you would have to step back and approach it from a different direction, because we’re not getting the job done year after year after year with having everybody agree to a single site.”

Mr. Redel said Ebix is working towards that goal with a product that is able to store company user names and passwords, “so that if you are in their agency management system, you can do a direct bill inquiry.” The system, he said, would log the user on and navigate him or her to a direct bill inquiry screen where the status of a customer’s direct bill could be accessed.

“The beauty of this [product] is that companies don’t have to do anything,” he said. “They don’t even have to give authorization because you’re already doing it manually. All this does is save you all the keystrokes.”

Pam Parry, immediate past president of AMS Users Group and executive vice president of GBP Risk Solutions in Tucson, Ariz., said the biggest issue for agents is still SEMCI.

“When I was president, I used [the term] SEMCI because agents related to it. But I had a lot of companies up in arms saying ‘that’s old.’”

“But if it looks like a duck, smells like a duck and walks like a duck, it sounds like a duck to me.”

The biggest problem facing every user is company interface, she said. “Web sites are a beautiful thing, but to have to leave our management systems and tag onto those Web sites to gather the information that we didn’t have before is an extra step.”

All those extra steps add up, she explained, creating a “workflow nightmare” and a “password management nightmare” that increases the agency workload. Currently, she said, user groups are focused on how to drive the industry to develop technologies that will streamline workflow.

Progress, she said, has been substantial.

“For the first time, everybody is working together to make it happencompanies, vendors and agencies,” Ms. Parry said.

How will it work? “You would be able to access a [company] Web site and never leave your management system,” she explained. Several products are in the works that would make this happen for agents.

“These technologies are starting to save bites of time within the agency,” Ms. Parry said. The technologies only handle certain transactions at this point, and utilization by agents will be imperative to continue the development of the products “to the point where you won’t have to leave your agency management system for anything that you can get off a company Web site.”

For example, she said, AMS Services Inc. has developed a product and so far has eight insurers on board for claims and billing inquiries.

“I just hit a couple of clicks within my management system when I’m on a customer file and I immediately get back claims or billing inquiry from those two companies,” she said. Additional transactions and companies are ready to come on board to provide more services to agents. “So it’s a beautiful thing.”

In general, she said, agents are struggling with the marketplace. “I think we’re right at the beginning of the information age and we don’t know what is going to happen,” she said. “I think a lot of agents are struggling with that.”

Mr. Riley said that another issue that agencies are struggling with is internal integration of agency management systems, document management systems and e-mail systems.

He said he is concerned that “the majority of agencies are not integrated to the point necessary,” which could lead to issues with the inherent exposures.

An example, he said, is e-mail, which is increasingly being used for communication by the carrier, the agent and the customer. Many agencies, he said, may not be properly documenting their agency management system.

“They may be depending on e-mail systems as backup. Yet many times if you haven’t done an adequate job, it’s hard to find that one e-mail you need out of the 10,000 that are in your ‘sent’ items,” he said.

“As the business environment around us changes on a rapid basis,” he added, “agents really need to take a hard look from an E&O [errors and omissions exposure] perspective. Are we really adequately documenting everything and covering ourselves?”

For agents, finding a solution can be as simple as working with their vendor to make sure they are taking full advantage of integration opportunities that currently exist. Most vendors, Mr. Reilly added, have work-around solutions where agents can cut and paste an e-mail into an activity log or utilize some other method to save and file. More than anything, he said, agents need to take full advantage of the opportunities that are already available to them.

For the most part, he noted, agents are becoming more technologically savvy “because it is a requirement to compete and remain viable into the future. You have to embrace technology because there are not a lot of other options.”

He added that agencies best poised for the future “are those that have their arms around technology issues.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, May 12, 2003. Copyright 2003 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.