Using Technology Can Strengthen Relationships, Not Replace Them

More than anything in the past century, changes in information technology have revolutionized business practices in every industry.

In the financial services business, technology has changed everything–from how you communicate with your clients to how consumers shop on the Web for financial products.

The ways in which insurance and investment carriers approach the services they offer also varies widely. Now is a good time for agents and brokers to put some thought into what they should look for in a best-in-class carrier regarding technology services.

One of the most important issues to consider is how your carriers value the relationship with you and how effectively they incorporate and maintain that relationship in their technology approach.

Technology should serve the agent. The agent should not have to serve the technology.

Are the companies you work with committed to using technology to make your job easier, or is their technology adding more complexity without corresponding value?

Here are some elements that creative distributor-focused carriers should be building into their technology systems:

Enhance relationships with effective training technology. As an independent distributor of financial services, you are highly selective about which carriers you work with and recommend to your clients. You value the relationship you have built with your clients and understand the importance of effective communication. Expect that same level of care in how your carriers use technology to deliver training communication to you.

For example, in todays expense-conscious climate, many carriers are cutting back their sales forces and internal agent customer support staff and using high tech methods in their place. The goal is lower expenses–not a higher level of service to the agent. In this scenario, producer training and support–things you need more than ever–suffer from this short-sighted strategy.

Carriers may look to “virtual wholesaling” technologies as a way to streamline product education, training and service support. But think about what “virtual” really means–it means “almost there.” Agents and advisors in todays business climate need something that is more than “almost there.”

Carriers may implement business entry systems that require agents and advisors to do online business entry and servicing. But if these methods simply shift operating expense from the carrier to the agent, while the carriers labor costs may decrease, you, the agent, may lose valuable prospecting and selling time.

The “learning online” technology approach is one that may work for agents. In this best-case scenario, the primary focus is on helping agents learn what they need to know to do business effectively–when they want to know it–using online communications.

But whatever the approach, look for the companies that still stress the importance of the relationship and of the connection with people–the human element involved.

Seek to work with those carriers who use technology to build relationships, not those who replace relationships with high tech processes. No amount of virtual technology can replace the value of talking with a knowledgeable internal wholesaler when you need sales support.

Expect to work with carriers who will develop their online learning platforms to enhance the delivery of education and training, while increasing the level of personal interaction between you and the internal and external wholesaling personnel.

Connect online learning with effective use of online sales tools.Do the carriers you work with use their training technology to make it easy for you to learn how to use their online sales tools?

Think about the number of companies that offer online quote tools for life insurance and annuity products. Some such tools allow consumers to work directly with the company, to run their own quotes, and even apply online while steering the production credit and commissions to you.

Other carriers limit access, allowing only their agents and advisors to run the quote and apply tools. Regardless of how the sale is made, you have a need to know how to navigate the companies sites and use the sales tools.

Work with those carriers who offer you the best combination of tools and technology–online tools that help you increase sales and online training that teaches you how to use the tools most effectively.

Use technology to streamline continuing education.In a highly regulated environment like ours, education compliance is a constant concern. We must fulfill state-mandated criteria to maintain the licenses required to practice our trade.

Your time is precious and its difficult to fit CE into a cramped schedule. Best-in-class carriers can use learning online to make it easy for you to obtain CE credit.

Work with carriers who make it convenient for you to determine what you need for CE and to complete your requirements online. Look for carriers with well-rounded CE programs that offer: CE home pages on their producer Web sites; online course registration; CE requirements by state for various licenses; a broad choice of topics; options to complete courses online, 24/7, and cost effective pricing.

Allyn D. Close is a senior vice president of marketing for Safeco Life & Investments, in Redmond, Wash. E-mail him at advisr@safeco.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, July 28, 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.