There seems to be a renewed enthusiasm in the independent insurance agency arena. A number of factors are driving this, including a more stable market, a strong group of insurance professionals taking the lead for their agencies’ futures, more passionate volunteer involvement in industry associations, and a sharpened focus on customer satisfaction. Central to all of these is a heightened recognition of the role technology can play–indeed, is playing–in making the independent agency system vibrant and viable.
I had the privilege recently to observe and take part in several technology meetings and events with hundreds of insurance agency, carrier and vendor professionals. Some sessions focused on working together to drive solutions to make the independent agency system stronger. Others were geared more to showcasing diverse solutions that might help reach that goal.
One statement delivered at the start of one such tech meeting was, in part I believe, the result of the positive role technology has played for agents across the country. The speaker recounted words shared by agents who said that this is the best time in 20 years to be an independent agent.
I agree it is a good time to be in the industry, thanks to increased participation by agency professionals, responsiveness by carriers, hard work by vendors and advances in technology. Agency professionals–young agents and more seasoned ones, those with a passion for technology as well as those more attuned to workflows and selling–are rallying like never before. Agency management system user group involvement seems to be at an all-time high.
Much good work has been done in the development of real-time data transmission functionalities. As important, agents and brokers are beginning to overcome barriers, real or perceived, and are adopting some of the new technology. But to quote a well-known song lyric of the 1970s, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
A technical capability to handle straight-through processing has been in place for some time. But acceptance has been slow. This is, in part, because solutions that handle just the transmission of information don’t fully meet agency wants and needs. The ability to support an interactive conversation with the agent for data gathering and editing, leading to real-time transaction, is where the industry will see real payback for its investments in technology. But there have been many challenges to achieving that.
One such challenge has been the diversity of systems currently in the market. Carriers employ a broad array of legacy and Web-based systems. Similarly, a variety of different systems find themselves at home in the tens of thousands of agencies across the country.
Second, the information required to complete a transaction differs by carrier and comes from multiple sources. Different underwriting guidelines and appetites must be considered. Involvement of third-party providers of MVRs, CLUE reports and ISO data, for instance, adds to the complexity of any attempt at a solution.
Agency workflows pose other challenges. Agency practices have been built around a variety of systems and have become entrenched, even as new technologies are developed. Training, consistency, accuracy, lost opportunities, and even errors and omissions considerations come into play. These agency challenges have led to depressed adoption rates for some new solutions.
Finally, regulatory oversight, and the myriad of regulations and requirements brought on by the diversity of business lines and jurisdictions, make it even more challenging to develop a solution that can address a sufficient number of problems to make it workable.
Given all of these potential barriers, it’s a wonder anything has been accomplished at all. And it’s a testament to the determination of optimistic industry players working for change.
Key to achieving the efficiencies that real-time processing can bring is finding a solution that allows carriers to maintain their uniqueness and competitive strengths–whether technology, people, processes or guidelines–while offering agencies the opportunity to streamline workflows and reduce redundant work efforts, regardless of the agency management system they use, or even if they use none at all.
From a carrier standpoint, such a solution should not fight existing technology but complement it. Technology that rides on top of a carrier’s current system–legacy, Web-based or other–can bring efficiencies while making it possible to reap the benefits of its investment in technology. The more seamless the solution and the easier the solution is to deploy, the better.
For agencies, any solution should focus on supporting existing workflows and facilitate a two-way, conversational interaction through the agency’s existing system. Fundamental, of course, is the ability to transmit data both ways in real time. Beyond that, though, such a solution requires an ability to interact in real time, generating an actual conversation between the agency and the carrier system. The solution must be able to analyze data based on underwriting rules and guidelines of the receiving carrier, identify any gaps or errors in the data, and provide a way for the agency staff to complete or correct the information in real time, as part of the agency workflow.
On top of that, it’s critical that data be incorporated from third-party vendors and the carrier’s own system. This data must be validated and must track with what the agency transmitted to the carrier. Finally, real-time transaction functionality–actual policy issuance, endorsement confirmation or other response–must be part of the solution, so the agency can make the best use of its staff and agency management system resources.
These solutions will bring the most value to carriers and agencies alike when they can be deployed across all lines of business. They will increase profit opportunities for all parties, boost accuracy and efficiency, make it easier to do business, boost employee satisfaction, and deliver better levels of service to the insurance-buying public.
Momentum exists within the agency, carrier and vendor communities to achieve the efficiencies of real-time, straight-through processing. Investments in people and technology have helped the industry make great strides toward the goal. Technology exists that will allow the industry to bring this real-time functionality to fruition–and soon.
As participants, we need to redouble our efforts, work together, understand what is available, determine what works, and, most importantly, keep our focus on providing world-class service to insurance-buying customers that expect and deserve nothing less.
Eric Gewirtzman is president of SeaPass Solutions’ U.S. operations, based in New York.