As world of insurance grows more complex due to competition from within the industry and from banks and other financial services providers, Allied Insurance has a simple business strategy: attract and retain quality independent agents."Agents are our primary focus. Everything we do is aimed at how we can help the independent agent do business better," says Nate Beyene, IT officer for e-commerce at the Des Moines, Iowa-based carrier. "If our automation is not good, our agents can go next door."

Although Allied is a subsidiary of Columbus, Ohio-based Nationwide Insurance Co., it competes for business and independent agents as a regional insurer. Nationwide acquired Allied in 1998 to fill a niche for the larger insurer in the market served by independent agencies.

Allied's business is concentrated west of the Mississippi River and includes homeowners, auto, small business and farm policies. The insurer had direct written premium of $1.41 billion in 2000 and has earned an A+ rating from A.M. Best. Allied has 3,047 employees and works with 3,089 independent agents.

The acquisition by Nationwide "really hasn't changed how we operate," Beyene says. "We get the best of both worlds. We get great synergies with a big company backing us, but we still run our own business."

Assisting agents

Allied's executives believe that technology gives the company a competitive advantage in a tightening market. "We market ourselves to agencies on automation, assuring them that 'our automation will make doing business with us more efficient and profitable for you,'" Beyene says.

With those goals in mind, the company designed an Internet-based quoting and inquiry system for its agents in 1998. Allied's "Agent Center" is the portal through which agents can do all their transactions online, Beyene says. The system allows agents to accept new applications, make changes to applications and make quotes over the Internet. Agents have been making good use of the Agent Center as approximately 50% of Allied's personal-lines applications are being submitted through the center.

By the end of 2002, Beyene says he expects that 90% to 100% of all personal-lines applications will come through the center. Eventually "we should be able to stop taking paper applications altogether," he says.

The Agent Center is well designed and user-friendly, says Roger Arnold, a partner with Baldwin Insurance Services, an independent agency in Baldwin City, Kan. Arnold says Allied's Web site ranks at the top of the list among carriers that he works with, noting that "everything I do with Allied I do online. There is no paper at all involved."

Agents who don't have their own Web site can rely on Site Builder, Allied's Web site development service. Site Builder provides agents with a template that enables them to design their own page, which Allied will then host for them.

Arnold also took advantage of this service, which he notes was "reasonably priced, very easy for me to do myself, and as good as anything I could get anywhere else."

All of Allied's online services were developed in-house. They are accessed through Allied's home page on the Web at www.alliedinsurance.com. From there agents can go to their separate sites by entering user names and passwords.

Competitive Edge

The introduction of Web-based support for independent agents is consistent with Allied's philosophy of implementing technologies that make it easier for agents to work with the company.

More than a decade ago, Allied opened up its mainframe-based system, dubbed Amanda, to its agents, enabling them to link their own computers to the system and use it to manage their books. Moving to an Internet-based portal was a natural extension of the technology Allied was already using, Beyene says.

The carrier has 655 IT employees and is likely to add to that number by 10% in 2002. Technology spending accounts for 13.5% of Allied's annual budget.

In 2001, Allied focused on adding new functionality and products to its Agent Center including homeowners, auto, fire and recreational vehicle policies. The Web site also enables agents to make changes to existing policies and to make more extensive amendment changes.

Allied plans to upgrade the Agent Center in 2002. "We want to make it faster, easier to use and more intuitive," Beyene says, adding that employee turnover within agencies is a concern. "We can't just think about the users we have now."

Agencies are constantly training new customer service representatives and other new employees, making it important that the system be easy to learn and use. Some of the changes will incorporate technology that was not available at the time of the initial launch and will include drop down boxes on some of the quoting features, which should make the center even easier to use.

The company offers another service that is meant to attract future customers while at the same time empowering Allied agents. Current or potential policyholders can obtain a no-obligation online quote from the insurer through eQuote Selects.

In addition to a quote, the service will match the prospect with a local independent agent. The automated quote includes the agent's name and brand as well as the Allied logo. Independent agents with their own Web sites can choose to link to eQuoteSelect so that current or prospective customers on their site can get Allied quotes.

Customer self-service

Independent agents aren't the only group benefiting from Allied's technology investments.

MyAlliedPolicy.com is an online customer center that enables policyholders to view their policies and billing history and make online claims inquiries.

In the future, Allied's policyholders also will be able to make payments and choose from a variety of billing options.

Although the myAlliedPolicy.com Web site is geared for policyholders, it's secondary mission is to make life easier for the independent agents writing Allied's business. Policyholders get quick and efficient service, reducing the amount of time agents have to spend servicing their clients.

"We value independent agencies. Their independence offers customers the added benefit of direct contact, but it doesn't mean the agents have to give up the benefits that automation offers," Beyene says.

"We've set up all of our automated services so that Allied Insurance and each agency brand is on there," he says. "And agents are able to come on our Web site and really conduct business. Agents can log on to make policy amendments and the next day their customers can log on to myAlliedPolicy.com and see the changes."

Sara Harty is a freelance writer based in Grayslake, Ill.

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