Customer satisfaction can make or break any business. When it comes to insurance, an agent's ability to provide top-notch customer service can have long-term consequences for revenue and can make or break a carrier's image in the marketplace. That may be why so many carriers provide agents with portals that create a win-win situation."Unknown [or objects of curiosity] a mere seven years ago, agent and policyholder portals are now required channels and are nearly ubiquitous at insurers," says "The Technology Foundations of Advantage for Insurers," a report from Boston-based Celent LLC.

What's more, 52% of property/casualty insurers view agent portals as key differentiators, the Celent report says. The carriers cite faster cycle time for new business and reduced re-keying errors as advantages and they also note that strong portals improve visibility and reputation among agents and policyholders.

Meanwhile, life/health companies, whose policyholders go online to manage investments or track claims payments, see portals as differentiators.

Carriers benefit when they work hard to provide the capabilities agents want, observers say.

"Ease of doing business for our agency partners is critical," says Brad Hauser, vice president and CTO of Columbus, Ohio-based American Commerce Insurance Co. (ACIC), which sells through AAA and independent agents.

"We realize that we owe our distribution partners the ability to do business with us easily," says Hauser. "They make a commitment to us to sell our product; we've got to make a commitment to them that we're among the best and easiest to do business with."

Agents want 24/7, "always on" systems so they can work when they want to, Celent research shows. They also want Web-enabled systems, accessible without proprietary hardware and software, says Celent's "Designed for Success: The Must-Have Attributes of Producer Tools."

Ohio National Financial Services, Cincinnati, another insurer devoted to the wants and needs of agents, conducted a focus group before rolling out the fifth version of its agent portal, On-Net, which has more than 10,000 users. The carrier gathered agents, general agents, regional vice presidents and office staff-anyone who might use the Web site-as an advisory panel, says Chris Spanier, director of enterprise and Internet communications at Ohio National.

"With each successive iteration as we got closer and closer to beta and then at launch we widened that group," which even included one of Ohio National's biggest critics, says Spanier. "I remember telling our developers we're going to involve Person X, and they were hesitant. [The critic] was always quick to share ideas on what else we could be doing. But we turned someone who was highly critical of our site into one of its biggest advocates."

Agents often want interactivity on Web sites, says Doug Allen, vice president of IT for Columbus, Ohio-based State Auto.

"When we first started doing agency interface in the late 1990s, a lot of data uploads were done through a batch process, so the agents would start something on their system using some of our rating software," says Allen.

They would eventually upload that, and we would pick that up every night," says Allen. "But now, with portals, we're seeing a lot more interactivity with that agency management system, so they may want to start the process of collecting their customer information in their agency management system but then bridge that data into a portal."

The story doesn't end there, Allen continues. "We have built a lot of functionality on that requirement so they can start the process on their portal," he says. "Now, a lot of agents want to be able to start in their agency management system and plug that information into other carriers' Web sites." (See "SEMCI Still Making Waves," p. 12.)

QUOTES, ENDORSEMENTS AND UNDERWRITING

State Auto introduced its portal, AgentSite, in 2001 and has been enhancing it ever since, the company says. Agents today can quote new business, request policy issuance and conduct endorsement activities for personal lines, such as auto and homeowners.

"We get 95% of our new business in electronic and 85% of our endorsements are done on that portal. So, we've really gotten a lot of bang for the development dollar there as far as letting agents do things electronically [such as quoting] with us," says Allen.

Ohio National built its own Web-based application entry type of system, TermXpress, to provide online quotes to term life agents and distribution partners in the On-Net portal. The system, which runs in Windows, is an electronic version of Ohio National's paper-based "easy app" program, says Don Flannery, information technology head.

"Agents are provided with an online term quote and then they can submit all of the data required for an easy app-style application online," he says. "The agent can electronically sign the data as it's being sent in and it goes into the same internal processes as the easy app does."

ACIC enables automated underwriting in its portal from AgencyPort Insurance Services Inc., a Boston-based provider of Web-based agency portal and agency interface software for P&C companies. The portal went into production in Southern New England and Idaho.

Washington is next on the schedule, followed by all other states where ACIC does business. ACIC interfaces with ChoicePoint for credit, motor vehicle reports (MVRs) for auto violations, and the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (CLUE), property claim databases, for auto and homeowners.

Automated underwriting helped reduce the number of referrals to underwriters at ACIC, says Hauser. "Because we have all of the rules included as part of the solution," he says, "it's clear what can be bound with a referral and what can be bound without a referral."

DON'T FORGET THE STAPLES

In the last year State Auto has added a feature called AgentSite dashboard, which can proactively push information to an agency. For example, if a policy goes into cancellation for nonpayment, the dashboard section would reveal what happened.

"Before, it would've been days before they knew a policy was pending a cancellation, because they were waiting for something in the mail or a call from somebody," says Allen. "Now, first thing in the morning they should be aware of everything that processed the night before with us, and they should be aware of all of the events that they need to follow up on to either keep their business in force or provide proper customer service." The dashboard also contains bulletins, forms, supplies and marketing materials.

Every year Ohio National conducts a survey to ask its agents which of the portal's features they like most. In the last survey agents named one of the carrier's newest features, the forms finder.

It's an interactive tool that asks three questions: What product are you selling? In what state are you conducting business? And, what are you doing at this point (submitting an application, for example)? The system returns a short list of optional forms culled from the 1,500 to 2,000 forms on hand.

"We hear from the agents that they couldn't remember exactly [the name of the form] and they didn't want to look for it," says Spanier. "They just used this tool and in 30 seconds had the answers."

The portal is not useful if the customer doesn't use it. State Auto uses technology from San Francisco-based Tealeaf Technology Inc., to find out just what its agents are doing on the portal. "Recently we put some scorecards in place so we could measure the performance of the site," says Allen. "We can now measure how fast an individual will go from screen to screen and measure the impact on business initiatives."

For example, if the personal insurance group makes a change to a particular product, State Auto can measure what impact that has on the quote activity the following week, month or quarter. "A lot of our business sponsors are using that information to say what impact that business change has on our portal or our point of sale."

Most industry experts say the agent portal world is becoming more interactive, as younger, tech-savvy generations move into the workforce.

"I'm starting to hear things like, "It'd be really nice to be able to access this with my Blackberry, or I'd like to be able to extract information from the On-Net system and put it into my client management system,'" says Spanier.

State Auto built Web services into its portal and is expanding on that. The Web service scrubs an address to USPS standards. If the address is attached to a homeowner's policy, the system makes a Web service call to the ISO protection code-while it's scrubbing the address.

So, when an agent continues his quoting process, State Auto has an accurate protection code, and it reduces the number of keystrokes they make and the amount of time involved, according to Allen.

Allen expects State Auto's reusable strategy to provide more opportunity for people to work together. "These Web sites have to be pretty dynamic and be able to handle a lot of different work styles," he says. "And that's what the challenge is-to build these things in a fashion that can morph into a richer and a better client experience."

IT'S GET REAL TIME FOR CARRIERS AND AGENTS

Agents can now do real time transactions with insurance carriers without leaving their own systems or going outside their normal workflows. ACT (Agents Council for Technology, part of the Big I) and AUGIE (ACORD Users Group) are driving an industry campaign to promote Real Time.

The technology is designed to enable agents to click on a button from a client file in an agency management system or comparative rater for immediate access to carrier information on that client. The transaction may be a quote, billing inquiry, claim inquiry/loss runs, policy view, endorsements or a request for information. This provides a single workflow for servicing or quoting.

And according to Jeff Yates, executive director of ACT, all carriers need to do is set up a Web service. Some of the agency benefits of Real Time include:

* Enables superior customer service, because one-click customer inquiry provides immediate response.

* Enhances the professional image and work environment of an agency.

* Provides a single, consistent workflow for multiple carriers and permits training staff on a single workflow, rather than on the separate workflows for each carrier Web site.

* Enables the processing of policy transactions, such as billing inquiry, quotes, policy view, endorsements, and documentation from the client's file.

* Permits claims management from the client's file, using claims inquiry, procuring loss runs and, with some systems, sending first notices of loss and receiving the immediate return of the claim number.

* Improves E&O loss control, because the activity record is automatically triggered by the real-time inquiry/transaction in the agency management system.

* Provides for automated logons, so the employee does not need to find and then manually enter the password for the carrier Web site.

* Reduces processing time, thereby freeing up time for sales, cross-marketing and pro-active service contacts.

The campaign's goal is to double the number of Real Time transactions over the next year. Right now, about 20,000 real-time transactions take place each business day. The industry's Web site for the campaign, www.getrealtime.org, is designed to give agents practical implementation information on Real Time, as well as to provide direct links to vendor pages for vendor-specific implementation and trouble shooting information. The site also contains links to carrier-specific information.

SEMCI STILL MAKING WAVES

For years, the greatest pain point for agents and brokers seeking efficient communications with insurers has been on the transactional side. Agents want to do more than simply view or access forms on a portal; they want to enter data and communicate with multiple carriers and vendors for quoting, policy issue and inquiry-and they want to enter the data once.

As some in the industry consider the broader "electronic insurance exchange" design (INN March, p. 6), others have questioned whether agents are ready for single-entry, multiple-company interface (SEMCI). And some believe that carriers are reticent to support either effort.

A 2005 survey of 72 members of the Council of Independent Agents and Brokers (CIAB) showed that 32% of respondents use SEMCI to enter data and communicate with multiple insurers for quoting, issuing policies and handling policyholder inquiries. At the time, only 24% of insurers supported SEMCI.

Over the years, several companies-on both the carrier and the vendor sides-have banded together to offer variations on the SEMCI theme. As early as 1998, what was then Travelers used ACORD ObjX to create a SEMCI interface with University Park, Ill.-based Applied Systems. It could be used with the IVANS Transformation Station system. In fact, the terms "real-time comparative rater," "SEMCI" and even "straight-through processing" all rely on standards.

"Since 2001, technology innovation and an increasingly competitive marketplace have fostered a change in our expectations," says Jeff Yates, executive director of the Agents Council for Technology, which is affiliated with the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA). "Now we are seeing more carriers understand what agents need, and more vendors are stepping up with offerings that make it easy for all parties to do business."

Carrier and agent support notwithstanding, vendors now sell numerous SEMCI offerings, some tied to line of business and others tied to agency management systems, some of which are included below:

New York-based SeaPass Solutions, where Dean O'Hare, retired chairman of Warren, N.J.-based Chubb Group of Insurance Cos., sits on the board of directors, is working on SEMCI with agencies such as AON, ABD, CommerceBank and Acordia. Its gateway interface is used with commercial lines carriers that include The Hartford (Expressway), OneBeacon, Safeco, St. Paul Travelers, CNA, Selective, Ohio Casualty and others.

In early 2006, AMS Services, Bothell, Wash., picked up Rackley Solutions' SetWRITE, a Web-based rating product that provides single-entry function for multiple comparative rate quotes. Since then, AMS partner Marshall & Swift /Boeckh (MS/B), a Los Angeles supplier of local building cost information and residential and commercial property valuation technology, is making the SetWRITE product available for agents to receive multiple carrier home valuations from MS/B Express sites.

Ipipeline, an Exton, Pa., application service provider, uses XML/ACORD standards to provide the life, annuities and long-term care sectors access to product rates, information and forms. Currently contracting with more than 725 MGA, BGA, broker dealers, banking institutions and other distributors, the company is about to launch a SEMCI developed by Coss, Huntersville, N.C., called Isolve.

Atlanta-based Ebix provides application software products ranging from carrier systems, agency systems and exchanges to custom software.

Chicago-based Insurance Noodle uses SEMCI technology to tie 11 major carriers to more than 2,500 brokers in the commercial property and casualty insurance space.

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