How important is your distribution network? Is it the lifeline of your business? What if your distribution network was a finely tuned machine, cranking out more business than capacity allows? As seen in our cover story, carriers agree that technology is the key to solving many distribution dilemmas. In another article in this issue (page 20), we learn that they're not all that excited about investing in technology that enables agents to leverage single-entry, multiple carrier interface (SEMCI) technology. It may depend who you ask, but few would disagree that technology plays a critical role in independent agents' ability to help carriers realize success-across all lines.So, who is ultimately responsible for making sure that happens? In a recent Insurance Networking News virtual trade show, available on the INN Web site, we posed that question to Jeff Yates, executive director of the Agents' Council for Technology for the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, a national alliance of 300,000 business owners and their employees.

"The carrier, the agent and the vendor all must play a role," says Yates. "Carriers need to implement standards and technology that will make it easier for agents to do business, and agents need to take the responsibility to implement new technology that integrates with the carrier's systems and stay current with it." The role of the vendor-if it's been held accountable to do the job properly-is to partner with both parties to sell the solution and help make the marriage work.

Carriers that are making significant investments in delivering real-time capabilities to their agents don't always realize that agents often are small-business owners, whose primary focus is sales and marketing, not necessarily high-tech, maintains Yates. With carriers pushing real-time and paperless technology options, it's important that they present technology and its implementation requirements clearly and simply to agents. "This is sometimes lost," he says.

On the other hand, agents-of all sizes-that don't step up to the technology plate can't compete.

So what's the answer? Yates believes a starting point is adoption of industry standards.

"Take one transaction: real-time billing inquiries," he says. "The agent can go to the carriers' site, access data and feed it immediately back to their agency management system. That one innovation, if it were standard practice that all carriers agreed to offer, and all agents agreed to use, would save six million agency employee-hours per year. That's time that could be spent generating new business. Now, add real-time rating, getting loss runs in real time back into the system, being able to process endorsements in a more efficient way-all of these new technologies will help move our industry forward."

Ultimately, it will become a matter of market share. The carriers, agents and vendors with an eye on increasing their individual businesses will find a way to work together, and they'll embrace technology in order to do it. The rising tide will raise all those boats, and the others will sink.

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