Property/casualty firms are offering agent portals with rich functionality to reduce costs and appeal to agents' pressing needs.

The current economic climate is causing insurers to rethink their agent portals. The onus is on insurers to replace static, information-only sites with transactional sites where agents can conduct business. The secret sauce? Configuration-based Web systems flexible enough to align insurers' business requirements with agents' new business input.

Nevada general Insurance Co., which began using Insuresoft's policy rating engine, Diamond, in 2004, needed an easily deployable, easily maintainable portal for its agents that could cut costs and boost efficiencies. So in the spring of 2008, the automobile insurance provider, which solely has captive agents, launched a customizable agent portal using Diamond as its back-end rating engine. Since then, its agents have been singing praises about the portal's speed and ease-of-use, while the carrier has seen a reduction of about 85% in the time it takes for underwriting to issue a policy, says William Walo, VP of information systems for the Las Vegas, Nev.-based carrier.

Insuresoft's agency portal "drops the policy directly into the policy management system and it waits there for issuance," explains Walo. "So all that our underwriting crew has to do is verify that all the documents were signed correctly, that we have the correct MVRs, that everything is as it should be, and then they just rate and issue the policy." For its agencies in Nevada, New Mexico and Arizona, Nevada General plans to continue adding functionality to its portal, including processing endorsements and automating calls to pull driving records. The firm also is building a consumer portal-based on its agent portal - that will enable potential customers to rate and issue a policy online. "We are a small market player and a small company, but we are going to be able to provide to the customers at large on the Internet the same basic ability that you can see happening from a lot of the larger, major players," says Walo.

SURGING ADOPTION

Nevada General is hardly unique in its portal play. Most property/casualty firms now have agent portals, and have moved beyond static Web pages (that, for instance, featured downloadable PDF forms) to offer fully interactive sites that help agents with most of their interactions with the carrier. Carriers now frequently have agent portals that allow for new business submission, renewal negotiation, endorsement processing, cancellation processing, direct bill inquiry, real-time rating bridge and application submission. Web sites also enable agents to access basic information about the carrier and the types of products offered, as well as the ability to manage their personal profile so they can view their commissions, reports and other data.

"The insurance industry has come leaps and bounds in the last few years in terms of what kind of portals they are making available to their agents and to their customers," says Jeff Goldberg, senior analyst in the insurance practice of Celent, a research and consulting firm based in Boston, Mass. "They have grown from very static information-only sites to become transactional sites where you can do business, and actually do business easier."

Vendors are thus tackling more sophisticated tasks such as "how we apply specific rules so that we get more of the upfront underwriting out of the way so that an agent has a more solid quote, or is able to bind coverage upfront," says Terry Brown, VP of implementation services of University Park, Ill.-based Insuresoft.

HIGHLY-SOUGHT FEATURES

Carriers are distinguishing their sites in part by creating a design that makes for a user-friendly experience, and by providing rich functionality. Insurers that have launched multifunctional portals, such as Accident Fund Insurance Co. of America, Lansing, Mich., have frequently found that agents have particularly embraced the real-time rating bridges. While they are in their agency management system, Accident Fund's agents can click a "transact now" or blue butterfly button, triggering the data in their core application to flood into Accident Fund's Agency Link system, a product from Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), Falls Church, Va. After filling out several fields to obtain a quote with Accident Fund, an agent has successfully bridged the data.

A real-time rating bridge "is huge nowadays-especially with the market and the pressures of agencies, as well as companies, to make it easy to do business with us," says Teresa Lambie, Web services manager of the workers' compensation insurance provider. "That is the one feature agents are raving about: how much time it is really saving their bottom line."

Accident Fund first implemented Agency Link in 2001, giving agents the ability to quote and submit new business electronically. In April 2008, it upgraded to Agency Link 12.0, which gave it both renewal capabilities and a real-time rating bridge. Other features that Accident Fund's portal offers include renewal negotiation, direct bill inquiry and application submission, as well as an agent inbox feature where agents can pull up all of their documents for the day and print, e-mail or distribute them however they choose.

While Accident Fund in 2010 plans to provide agents the ability to make online endorsements, the wave of the future could be renewal functionality, which Lambie believes will become a big differentiator for her firm in the next year or two. "There are not many systems or companies that allow the agent to see the renewal before it is issued-to give them that window of time to go in and to make changes to the renewal, to negotiate with the underwriter and to actually issue a final renewal," she says.

Also, retaining business is far more cost-effective than writing new business, and many insurers increasingly focus on retention during a financial crisis.

ECONOMIC STIMULUS

Indeed, today's tough economic climate has only motivated insurers to further expand their agent portal offerings. Intent on obtaining a strong ROI on their IT spending, they often are choosing to extend their IT assets. Rather than solely serving insurers who had not yet moved to online transactions, about 75% of the deals that AgencyPort Insurance Services is sealing are with carriers that are replacing older, less agile Web systems with modern, configuration-based Web systems to align with the changing business and product needs they have internally, says Steve Hauck, president of the Boston, Mass.-based agent portal provider.

Hard times are motivating insurers such as The Republic Group to pass more work onto agents. "The more we can put in the hands of agents, the less we have to do internally, the better it is going to be for our cost structure internally," says Frank Vaccaro, VP and CIO of the Dallas, Tex.-based firm. The Republic Group is using AgencyPort's agency portal chiefly for new business submission, including for workers' compensation and commercial auto.

The economic crisis, too, is helping to spur Nevada General to expand its use of the Web for agents, as it automates to cut costs. Previously "the Internet for us had really not been a big channel," says Walo.

CHALLENGES

In developing agent portals, one hurdle for insurers can be integrating their in-house agency management systems with their Web and policy administration systems. This can be particularly challenging for companies such as The Republic Group that have been using their portal for commercial lines, which tend to be more complex than personal lines.

"The deeper and better you can integrate with your agency management system and reduce duplicate entry, the better off you are going to be and the better accepted it is going to be inside an agent's office," says Vaccaro, adding that his firm is concentrating on enhancing such integration.

Another major challenge in launching new functionality in agent portals is getting widespread agent buy-in.

"You just can't go into it expecting that you are going to have 100% participation," says Lambie of Accident Fund. She explains that in today's economic crisis, agents are spread thin, so "the thought of them having to stop their daily routine to then contact the vendor to get set up can be kind of overwhelming for them."

Consequently, agent education and awareness are critical. Accident Fund holds Webinars, and visits agents in order to educate them about the system's benefits and to motivate them to adopt it. This year the company launched an automation campaign: It is contacting each of its agents to make sure they are fully aware of the new features in Agency Link, and assisting them to set up their system to be able to do real-time transactions and download.

To ensure immediate agent acceptance upon its rollout, The Republic Group worked with its agents to design the workflow, screenflow and other attributes of the agent portal, Vaccaro says. The carrier also trains agents on the technology either in group sessions or individually at an agent's office. "Once we train them on it, it is very intuitive, so retraining is never really needed," he says.

In this fiercely competitive environment, vendors are going the extra mile to ensure that their insurance customers spend scarce resources on their portal and that the design is precisely how agents demand it.

"We need to continue to invest in understanding what agents want from a workflow standpoint, and pour that back into the product to make sure that we don't lose a differentiating product that maximizes utilization and adoption of the system by agents," says Hauck.

In mid-April AgencyPort will visit more than 75 agents from Portland, Maine to Orlando, Fla. On behalf of its carrier customers, AgencyPort will assess their systems, find out what workflow is optimal for them, and then pool that back into its customer implementations and product development.

VENDOR COMPETITION INTENSIFIES

Carriers looking to launch or expand their agent portals typically choose one of four avenues. To date, most have built their solution in-house, according to Jeff Goldberg, senior analyst at Boston-based Celent.

However, an increasingly popular option is to contract a vendor that specifically provides agent portal solutions and focuses on new business automation. Such providers find heated competition not only from one another, but also from policy administration system vendors. For P&C firms, there are approximately 60 policy administration systems, some of which offer an agent portal that is directly connected to the policy admin system and the product definition.

Agent portal-centric vendors often peg policy administration system vendors as unable to deliver differentiating Web technology for agents. "They are typically applications built from an underwriter perspective, and they are not necessarily easily deployed or propagated out to the agency universe for Web transactions," says Steve Hauck, president of AgencyPort Insurance Services.

However, policy administration system providers too have their competitive advantages. While their portals sometimes lack "the bells and whistles" of those of agent portal-centric vendors, the former's portals are tied directly to the back end so that fields added to a policy admin system will immediately appear in the agent portal. "Carriers are looking for ways to modernize their systems today," says Roger Rudell, director of product strategy within the P&C division of Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC). "Agent Link is built with an architecture that allows it to easily sit on top of any current admin system (it doesn't have to be a CSC system). So carriers are taking this today, and extending the capabilities of their back-end system out to agents with a real modern look and feel."

A fourth option for insurers - though not as in vogue as the others - is to contract a professional services firm or outsourcer for an agent portal. These firms offer portal frameworks to a client to help them build out their custom portals, explains Goldberg.

Vendors are salivating over this market, convinced that it will see growth, since fewer insurers are internally building their portals. This is due to cost constraints around adding employees for an internal development project, as well as the rise in strong vendor solutions for customizable agent portals.

(c) 2009 Insurance Networking News and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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