Until recently, tech-savvy insurance agents made due with a limited arsenal of online tools to support their business activities. Today, however, several trends are changing the technology landscape.

Insurance products are growing increasingly costly and complex. Customers are asking for more affordable choices–and more information about their alternatives. And agents are embracing technology like never before. As they spend more time online and grow increasingly comfortable with packaged software applications, they’re looking for new solutions that can save them time and help them build a competitive advantage.

These trends are especially clear in the health insurance sector. The rising cost of health care services and insurance premiums has made health insurance unaffordable for many American consumers and small businesses. It also has spawned a strong and fast-growing consumer choice movement, in which well-educated consumers seek greater control over their health care options and expenditures.

These trends have, in turn, led innovative insurance carriers to develop cost-effective new products like Health Savings Accounts, high-deductible individual medical policies and policies with condition-specific deductibles.

As consumers and businesses sharpen their focus on health care costs, agents face greater pressure to understand today’s new products and help their clients identify the optimal balance between premium costs and coverage levels. Because cost and coverage vary greatly by state–and carriers continue to introduce new features–agents need easy access to detailed product information and efficient tools for managing their opportunities.

Today, the online channel is fast becoming the most efficient, economical and reliable way for agents and carriers to communicate. Agents are discovering powerful new technology tools that provide instant access to product and market information, and that help them respond to customer inquiries faster and manage accounts more efficiently.

When agents field inquiries about HSAs, they can get instant access to much of the product information they need by visiting the websites of the leading carriers. These sites often contain cross-links to different sites that provide both detailed product specifications, and sales and marketing materials. For example, agents can collect comprehensive information on the growing spectrum of new and traditional health insurance products available today, so they can help customers make the right choices. They also can find sales materials that make these products easy to compare and understand.

Some sites go a step further by providing practical information on how to identify prospects and how to close a sale. For example, such a site might contain a search engine that enables agents to type in a customer’s ZIP code and instantly receive information on the two most popular products available in the customer’s specific area. Agents immediately can see what the deductible is, what the co-pay is and what other coverage options are offered.

Agents also are taking advantage of new tools that streamline the quoting and application processes. Today, they can create customized quotes in real time, fill out and submit electronic applications at the end of their sales presentations, and receive approvals within hours. When issues arise, they are quickly notified online so they can provide additional information and/or present different solutions or counteroffers.

This is a time-saving alternative to a paper-based process that takes days–in part because 20% of all paper applications have missing information that increases administrative time and delays policy approval and issuance. The additional benefits are easy to see: a faster and easier sales process; the flexibility to create customized solutions in real time; faster underwriting; faster payment; and a differentiated client experience.

As agents expand their rosters of health care clients, technology also can help them manage their client relationships more efficiently. For example, one application allows them to track account activity more efficiently by designating which other agents can access underwriting status information and which staff members can access quote status only. Agents also can set up automated e-mail notification that informs them of requests for additional medical information, alerts them to counteroffers and notifies them of final actions.

Soon, they may be able to keep customer, account and payment data in a secure area their carriers can’t access, and flow the data directly into specific fields within their own management systems. These new tools will help them improve service, track a larger number of customers, boost information accuracy and better manage their cash flow.

In the next two years, agents will see an explosion of new online tools. Carriers are soliciting feedback on current applications, and they are working hard to develop new iterations that offer even greater power and flexibility. Some applications will be much more automated and interactive. For example, agents may soon be able to access specific health care plans and use a search feature to retrieve more information on specific topics. Other software will make it easy to integrate electronic applications and other information into their own agency websites.

Now is the time for agents to increase their focus on electronic sales tools. They can take full advantage of the fast-changing technology landscape and seize new opportunities in the health care segment by taking the following steps:

o Using the Internet to determine which carriers offer the most robust set of automated sales and sales management tools;

o Collecting and studying the available product information to understand where to find the best match for your clients;

o Sharing online experiences with carriers so next-generation solutions will provide even greater power and flexibility; and

o Looking for opportunities to create a competitive advantage by automating as many processes as possible.

Given the competitive pressure both agents and health insurance carriers face today, now is an excellent time to communicate ideas for making online tools even more powerful and easy to use. By embracing the technology revolution now, agents can help build a more robust online experience that meets their growing need for information, speed and efficiency.