To download, or not to download? That is the question for carriers and agents yet to fully embrace the technology that enables the transfer of policy information in an accurate and timely manner.

To be sure, carriers have largely adopted download tools for personal lines. Those insurers that have implemented the technology are able to provide faster, more accurate service to both agents and policyholders as a result. Among commercial lines carriers and agents, the uptake has been markedly slower.

But over the past year, the momentum has begun to shift in favor of adoption of tools that enable download. Much of the credit for this sea change is due to a major industry initiative-carriers, agents' groups, and industry trade groups that are actively supporting the industrywide adoption of download technology for both personal and commercial lines. "The ease of doing business is a very important consideration," says Jeff Yates, executive director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT), an arm of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.

So far, the proof that download can benefit all parties concerned-insurers, agents and customers-has been in the pudding. For commercial lines carriers that have implemented download tools, the gains have been well worth the investment.

"The main benefit to us is that it makes the agents' job easier, so they can concentrate on sales and service to the customers," says Rick Gass, SVP for Productivity and Technology at EMC Insurance Companies in Des Moines, Iowa. EMC has both its personal and commercial lines using download technology from IVANS Inc., a software vendor in Stamford, Conn., to provide policy information and other important data to its agents. "If we have happy customers, then more good business will come our way by having helped the agents do their business more easily."

Of course, no new technology comes free, and download requires both a financial investment as well as staff time. "When I look at the cost of the technology and what it takes for our staff to maintain it versus the benefit of keeping our agents happy and enthusiastic doing business with us, it's well worth it." Gass adds. "It's not expensive."

Nonetheless, some carriers have elected instead to make policy information available only to agents on their Web sites. Yates says agents generally would prefer to have the policies on their own systems. "With download, the policy information goes right into the agency management system, enabling a better workflow for the agency than if it comes via e-mail," says ACT's Yates.

Giving agents the ability to use download to transmit and receive information may ultimately result in more business for EMC, says Gass. "We deal exclusively with independent agents who do business with a multitude of insurance carriers, and if they have other carriers who don't use download, they are likely to throw more business our way," Gass points out. "From the very beginning, it was clear that this was a win for both agents and carriers."

A third positive for the carriers is that download tools ensure that their data meshes with that being used by their agents in the field. "There are benefits to the carriers because download drives the consistency of the data," says Malta Collins, senior specialist and assistant interface manager at Cincinnati Insurance Companies, which uses download software from Vertafore, Bothell, Wash.

Most of the benefits from installing and maintaining download technology accrue to the agent rather than the carrier, Collins adds.

For instance, download software enables agents to respond almost instantly to a policyholder's inquiry. "If the agent gets a call from a customer, they can look in their system and get the answer right away, instead of having to call the carrier to find out," Collins says. "At renewal time, the agent can send the policy up to the company to get a quote. Being able to answer a customer's question faster, helps the agent to retain customers, and that's a benefit to the carrier," Collins adds.

 

COMMERCIAL CHALLENGES

Agents also can use the download platform for business development. "The agent can get a list of all the auto policies they have that don't have a homeowner's policy and forward to them a marketing letter," Collins suggests.

One reason commercial lines have been slower to embrace download technology is that business coverage generally is more complex than personal lines.

"I think that as a process, download can be cumbersome and more trouble than it's worth, and for commercial lines, it's more difficult, because of the diversity of the product," says Joyce Sigler, VP of administration at Jones & Wenner, an insurance agency in Fairlawn, Ohio. "Commercial lines are a puzzle-you build the policy around what needs to be covered. It's more fluid and more dynamic than the personal lines product."

As a result, setting up the software tools to work appropriately with a particular carrier can be a bit more difficult. "You have to look at what your incentive (to adopt the technology) is," Gass explains. "We are 80% commercial and 20% personal lines, so for us it was an easy decision. But for some other carriers, they may not see the justification from a cost standpoint."

Another reason some agents have been reluctant to use download technology is due to a major glitch that occurred early on when some agencies tried to adopt the technology for commercial lines. As often occurs with the introduction of new technology to automate a business process, the problem stemmed from a lack of coordination.

In the case of the agents, for their commercial lines policies, they had a line for "driver" data, since they were accustomed to having driver data on their personal lines auto policies. Unfortunately, the carriers didn't have "driver" data included in their commercial coverages, because for most businesses, a vehicle driver isn't an essential aspect of the policy. "For personal auto, the car drivers drive the rate a lot," Collins explains. "But on a commercial policy, the drivers don't drive anything. The business drives the policy, not the driver."

"The agents wanted that information, but it was not so important to the carrier," Collins explains. "So when they first started downloading, they wiped out all the agents' driver information." Needless to say, the debacle left a bad taste in some agents' and carriers' mouths when it came to commercial lines download tools.

Yet, the adoption of commercial download technology is on the rise, with an increase of about 25% in the number of agents using download in the past year. Cincinnati Insurance is a good example. "We just started rolling out commercial download technology," Collins says.

But the benefits, to both carriers and agents, are clear. An example is the boost download tools provide to agents in utilizing real-time capabilities, Collins points out. "Download has helped drive real time, because if your application is correct in your agency management system, you can send a rate request to different carriers. Many raters will send rate information direct to the company to get a rate. They can ask, 'What's the premium due on this policy,' and immediately find out that it's $X dollars on this date. That's an immediate benefit for the agent."

The ability to provide a quick response to customers can be critical to customer retention, industry experts say. "If the customer contacts the agent for something about their billing, the carrier wants to enable that agent to respond right away," says Cal Durland, executive director at ACORD/Augie, an industry trade group that is promoting the adoption of download tools.

Avoiding human errors in keying in policy information, another reason to embrace the technology, ultimately benefits both carriers and agents. "When carriers download information into our system, it helps us in that we don't have to have a human being do it," says Kathy Golly, agency manager at Independent Insurance Associates Ltd., Des Moines, Iowa.

Sigler, for one, thinks agents could be harnessing download to get more of what they want from carriers in the way of tweaking of data. "Agencies should recognize that they can be in the driver's seat," she says. "Agents could go back to the carriers and ask for what they want. They could tell the carriers what data they would like to have from that download for marketing and for customer retention purposes."

In other words, download has the potential to be an even more powerful tool than it already is, so long as carriers and agents implement it and use it.

Doug Bartholomew is a freelance business writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

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Corrected February 7, 2011 at 2:40PM: yes