Evolving technologies make the Web a compelling place for agents

Not since the early days of automation have insurance agencies faced such challenges and opportunities affecting their core business. Things like the Internet and Sarbanes-Oxley already have altered the way agencies and others do business, and are likely to be even more pervasive in the future.

The real-time nature of the information age radically enhances an agent’s ability to interact with clients and markets but also raises the bar on performance metrics and accountability. The game remains the same, but the playing field continues to evolve–with the stakes ever increasing.

This does not mean that an all-Internet agency is all right, or a no-Internet company is all wrong. Somewhere in the middle, successfully married between legacy and new, a median exists of optimization specifically benefiting today’s agency.

Desktop Applications vs. the Internet

In the early days of computing, everything you needed for your agency was stored on your desktop computer. All of your programs and data were physically located within the box sitting on your desk.

As time went on, this information became distributed between networked computers, often referred to as local area networks (LANs), as well as your home computer or laptop. This made it possible to share resources across a broad area, but it often required multiple copies of the same program and made matching your programs and data with your current location an interesting challenge.

The Internet initially emerged as a convenient way to exchange information but has since evolved into a robust platform of distributed applications, information and communications. Today, net-based applications enjoy all of the functionality of desktop applications with the added advantage of geographic independence.

Common to all Internet applications is the use of the browser as the primary point of entry. Interestingly enough, this is itself a desktop-based application that provides a “window” into the world of the Internet.

All Internet browsers operate essentially the same way. You launch them from your desktop computer or laptop and they provide interactive communications with content and applications on the Web. Providers of Internet browsers include Microsoft, Netscape, Opera and others. Deciding which one to select depends on the base operating system you use and any specific requirements mandated by your software. For Windows users, the standard Microsoft Internet Explorer browser is typically fine.

Once you’re on the Web, a vast array of information and applications is available to you. Information is categorized through addressing, like that of your business or home. Instead of streets and cities, the Internet uses domain names to get you into the right neighborhood.

Even with addressing, finding specific information or resources on the Web can be more than a little challenging. The process of wandering through this digital ocean is referred to as “surfing,” however, as in its real-life counterpart, it remains a surface-level endeavor and subject to the whims of the currents.

To counter this, an important tool has emerged that is a “must-have” for business and personal use: the Internet search engine. Search engines restore order to the vastness and truly place information at your fingertips. Best of all, search engines are highly accessible and usually free. Search engine companies include Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others.

Company Connectivity

A browser without connectivity is like a window without a view–not much to see. A number of options exist for today’s agencies that range from simple dial-up to high-speed cable and DSL.

In most instances, dial-up is reserved as the last resort. Despite being relatively inexpensive, it offers the least performance and is not readily shareable.

Cable TV providers often provide high-speed Internet access, which is often very fast and easily shareable. However this service may not be available in all areas or for businesses. Additionally, while fast, it is a “shared” connection with other users in your neighborhood, and performance can suffer when a lot of people use it at the same time.

A digital subscriber line (DSL) from your phone company can provide you with fast, shareable, reliable connectivity without the shared degradation found in cable. However, it has strict limits of availability tied to your proximity to the phone company’s main switching equipment and is often more expensive than cable. Additionally, cable is often faster in bursts.

Another option, usually reserved for larger agencies and organizations, is a dedicated line, such as a T-1. This is like DSL on steroids. It can be extremely fast and reliable but also more expensive.

Security Considerations

Using the Internet as a business tool raises important security issues that can have a profound effect on your business. First and foremost is the flow of information. Unlike desktop applications (where your information stays within the confines of your desktop or LAN), the Internet is a nebulous place where information may be stored at, and accessed from, a number of diverse locations. To counter this, modern browsers and the Internet, in general, support advanced encryption for the secure transfer of information. Unfortunately, this is not a requirement and its use is certainly not the norm.

Today’s climate of accountability, as specifically manifested by the requirements of Sarbanes-Oxley and other such regulatory requirements, places the insurance industry at particular risk. Client information is, by its nature, highly sensitive, and it is incumbent upon insurance-related companies doing business on the Web to use their best efforts to protect this information.

Companies can minimize this exposure by only transmitting sensitive information to and from secure Web sites. These are usually designated by the appearance of a small “lock” icon in the lower right-hand corner of your browser. If you are unsure of the secure nature of a particular Web site, contact the company in question directly.

An additional security consideration is that of viruses. While present in the desktop world, viruses have really found their arena in the Internet. It is critical that companies use anti-virus software on all computers that access the Internet and that the anti-virus software is always kept up to date.

Taking the Leap

Despite all of the concerns the Internet raises, it nevertheless represents the future world of automation and business processing. It will increasingly provide companies with a competitive advantage, lower operational costs and allow for a distributed work force operating in real time.

Virtually every insurance industry software provider has Web-based versions of their agency management and company systems that are more powerful and often cost less than their desktop counterparts. Hardware, software and support costs are typically cheaper, as well.

Overall, the prevalence of standard browser technologies, cost-effective availability of connectivity and reasonable responses to the concerns of security make the Internet a compelling place to do business.

Nevertheless, a real-world implementation of the Internet will never supplant the need for desktop applications. Local spreadsheet and word processing applications, among others, offer the perfect compliment to complex Web-based applications. Used together they represent a powerful business resource that no modern business should ignore.

Steve Repetti is CEO/CTO of Business Risk Technologies Inc., a provider of Web-based technology solutions based in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. He can be reached via e-mail at srepetti@brtsystems.com.