For years, carriers and agencies have looked for ways to better connect and share information as quickly and seamlessly as possible. There has been notable progress in the development of agent portals and extranets, which offer access to customer data, applications and ancillary information. However, many agents still rely on e-mail and a mix of online and offline connections to interact with carriers.

Cloud computing brings a new dimension to the carrier-agent relationship. By putting information and functions out on clouds, carriers have a single, managed environment that is potentially accessible to every agent. At the same time, carriers don't have to worry about the technical or hosting issues that can arise with such widespread connectivity.

Also see: 8 Ways to Become an Agent-Preferred Carriers

"Agents are looking for a self-serve portal and ease of doing business," says Richard Hallman, SVP and CIO of Employers Insurance Co., a workers' compensation carrier. "Moving to the cloud gives us more flexibility around security settings and better availability when our systems go down for maintenance."

 

BENEFITS TO CARRIERS

For carriers, cloud platforms offer a way to enhance and accelerate communications with independent agencies. "We aren't using the cloud necessarily for the transactional aspects of business, but for more informational purposes," says Stuart Tainsky, SVP and CIO for P&C insurer PURE Group. PURE's cloud, built on Salesforce.com, is a conduit to members and agents, Tainsky explains. "They have full transparency and see everything that is going on with a member's account: billing information, policy information and claims information."

 

Employers' cloud solution, E-ACCESS, is an agent portal created on Oracle's cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) system, Hallman says. "We provide real-time agent data to our sales force when they're out meeting with the agents and the agencies," he says. Previously, sales representatives and agents needed to print paper copies of documents for such meetings, he adds. E-ACCESS speeds up quote generation and helps agents manage accounts and offers access to a customizable dashboard, claims information, loss runs, marketing materials and a rapid quoting system.

AGENCY MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS

Along with carrier connections, the cloud offers new ways for agents to manage their internal business operations. The typical independent agency allocates its staff to operations, customer service and production, observes Martina Conlon, analyst with Novarica. "They very rarely have any significant IT staff or anyone responsible for managing their technology on a full-time basis," she says.

Cloud services offer a range of benefits to agencies, says Jim Schubert, leader of Southern States Insurance Agency. "We have fewer moving parts that can break, such as in-house servers, multiple versions of our agency management system and multiple phone systems," he writes in a recent blog post, simplifying the administration of and access to the company's agency- and document-management systems, e-mail and telephony. And the agency now can make quicker acquisitions, he says. "As soon as the ink is dry, we can have a new office up and running in days, not weeks or months." Plus, Schubert says, the agency is able to get more work done with fewer employees, and cloud computing also helps keep the agency operating during disasters. Most major agency management system players now offer cloud-based options.

There are also vendor application interfaces that integrate with cloud-based agency management solutions, as many agencies subscribe to agency management systems. "The carrier provides upload and download services to a specified number of agency management systems," Conlon says. "In most cases the carrier needs to support all of the major agency management systems in order to address the needs of their agents."

Along with basic CRM capabilities, Employers' cloud enables sales agents to access documents. Data is stored both locally and in the cloud, Hallman explains. "Some information is retained locally, depending on the sensitivity of the data, and some is pulled from a cloud-based CRM application. When the agent logs in and looks at their submissions and book of business, they get a single consistent view of what the book looks like. It doesn't matter where that data's coming from or how it's being leveraged."

 

PURE's cloud roll-out complements existing connectivity; it does not replace applications, Tainsky points out. "In our cloud portal, we offer a different view of the overall account: some of the claims detail, some of the billing, copies of bills for the last 12 months, and payments that have been made and processed. A member or agent can see if a check was cashed, how much is due, what the policies cover and what the status of a claim might be." It's not likely PURE will develop an agent cloud capable of reaching deep into core systems, however. "Our policy administration system is wonderful," says Tainsky. "But it is a policy administration system. It is not an aggregation of all the data that goes in for a member, and we don't want it to be."

DO YOUR DUE DILIGENCE

The key to developing an effective cloud effort is due diligence, Tainsky advises. "Make sure you understand who is supporting your environment, understand the long-term vision and understand who else is using it. Do some reference checking and build a relationship with the company to make sure you're comfortable." Just as important is understanding what agents and customers want, Tainsky continues.

"Take time to ask good questions and figure out what you can do to best serve the needs of your agents and policyholders." For Employers, Hallman says the goal of cloud enablement for agents is to drive value to the agent through the ease of doing business and the consistency of the experience. "The agent has a single repository or a single portal they access to pull this data together. It helps us drive home our commitment to self-serve, low-touch, no-touch, ease of doing business and value-add."

POTENTIAL FOR STRONGER CONNECTIONS

While cloud computing is still relatively new, it clearly offers opportunities for stronger connections between carriers and agents sharing the same cloud service platform. "I haven't heard of a lot of insurers doing this yet, but there may be quite a bit of consolidation, since insurers and agencies are grafted to the same providers," Conlon says. "They can take advantage of the fact that they're both running Salesforce.com or Microsoft Dynamics Suite, for example," she says. "Providing prospect data from the carrier's instance of Salesforce into the agency's instance of Salesforce, and structuring the Salesforce application so that information is shared across both instances, that's a win-win."

Joe McKendrick is a writer and consultant specializing in IT, and a regular blogger for insurancenetworking.com.

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