Insurance carriers have been hearing an incessant mantra from independent agents for years now: "Make it easy for us to do business with you." In fact, surveys consistently reveal that, when placing business, aside from price and product features, agents are most influenced by accurate, fast quote turnaround and ease of doing business with carriers through automation.One way carriers can make it easy for agents to do business with them is by building real-time interfaces to various agency management systems. Using XML, carriers and agencies can transfer data back and forth, eliminating re-keying of policy, billing, claims and other information.
Encompass Insurance, a subsidiary of Northbrook, Ill.-based Allstate Insurance Co., has been developing real-time agency transactions for several years. Since 2002, Encompass (formerly CNA Personal Insurance) has implemented several ACORD XML transactions, including billing, claims, policy and loss-run inquiries.
But a brainstorming session the insurer held last spring with agency management system vendor Applied Systems Inc. led the two companies to jointly develop a real-time alert/company messaging transaction that the two companies believe may have opened the floodgates to countless possibilities for agency-carrier system interactions.
"It's funny. Four or five years ago when I went around the industry talking about real-time (transactions), I'd get a lot of blank stares," says Doug Johnston, vice president of interface services at Applied Systems Inc, University Park, Ill. "Now, when I talk about this new alert/messaging transaction, I get a lot of blank stares too-but it's different. It's not that they don't understand what I'm talking about; it's because suddenly they're thinking about all the possibilities."
The 'aha' moment
Those possibilities include: a carrier alerting an agent that a policy has been cancelled, or that an adjuster has been assigned to a claim, or that the agency needs to contact an underwriter for an upcoming renewal. Carriers can even transfer attachments as part of an alert.
For example, an insurer can alert an agency about an audit, and include a PDF version of the audit worksheet. Or the carrier can include a monthly production report with an alert. Or the insurer can alert an agent about a claim and include the adjuster's notes as an attached file.
"It's really limitless what you can do with this transaction," Johnston says. "We've had download capability for 15 years now, but download is for structured policy data. Alerts are for everything else."
Encompass Insurance has been providing these alerts via its agent Web site for three years, says Barry Stromberg, Encompass systems manager. And the company had already developed the Web services infrastructure to send other transactions through IVANS Transformation Station to agents' Applied agency management systems.
"We were already working with Applied on real-time alerts for billing, claims and policy inquiries," says Neil Nelson, senior manager in the business relationship management area at Encompass. "And we thought, 'What else can we do here to make it easier for agents to do business with us from their agency management system?' We thought alerts would be fairly easy because we had already built other interfaces to Applied Systems," he says.
The concept of sending an alert request from the agent's system through Transformation Station to the carrier had never been raised before that meeting with Encompass, says Applied's Johnston. "We were in the meeting to consider new ideas ... to say, 'Okay, we have this infrastructure in place and we have all the security and authentication, so what else can we do with it?'
"Encompass showed us their agency Web site, and how messages are waiting for agents when they log in, and they said, 'Is there any way those messages can go into the agency management system?' We looked at it, and the light bulbs went on around the room."
Off to the races
Since then, Applied and Encompass worked together to develop the XML transaction and, at press time, they were in the pilot phase with approximately 30 agents to ensure it runs smoothly before rolling it out to the 1,700 Encompass agents who use an Applied system.
"We've been in testing for about six months to make sure, as 100 records or 1,000 records come through, they are matching up with the correct claim number or policy number (in the agent's system)-and if they don't, they go into a holding area where someone at the agency assigns them," says Applied's Johnston.
Currently, agents can retrieve Encompass alerts manually-by sending out a request-or by using the night-time utility on their system-the same utility that picks up downloads from IVANS mailboxes.
Soon, however, agents using Applied's systems will also be able to schedule alert requests-essentially querying the carrier throughout the day for any new alerts.
Because of the possibilities, several other carriers that have been active in providing real-time agent transactions are interested in implementing alerts too, including Travelers and Ohio Casualty.
"It takes some work by the carrier to implement it," Johnston says. "They have to think about how they are going to generate the message-where it's going to come from. But the messages are small-unlike an ACORD AL3 record, which is complex. So once they figure out how to create the message, they're off to the races."
An ideal position
Similarly, because the new transaction is loosely based on ACORD XML Version 1.4.1, other agency management system vendors can also use it, says Encompass' Nelson. "We want to get to the point where we don't maintain these user interfaces. We'll let the agency management vendors maintain them," he says.
In addition, because the carrier has already developed the alert/company messaging transaction, it doesn't have to do any more programming for other agency management system vendors to implement it. Encompass can roll alerts out to agents who use other agency management systems-as soon as those vendors develop the capability.
So far, Applied and Encompass have not submitted the new transaction to ACORD, Pearl River, N.Y., where the insurance industry standards association can consider adding it to a subsequent ACORD XML standards release.
"At some point in the future, we may submit it to ACORD," says Applied's Johnston. "At this point, however, we prefer to roll (the alert transaction) out and get companies implementing it. Until we find out if it's a success, there's no sense in talking about making it an industry standard."
Still, the potential for alerts is great, according to Johnston. In fact, he's convinced, within two years, more alert messages will be transmitted on a daily basis than download messages.
"It's so easy," he says. "There are no boundaries around what you can do with it."
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