It's not as if I hadn't been warned.

Just four weeks into the position, INN threw me into the deep end, sending me to two of the largest insurance industry trade shows, ACORD LOMA and IASA. I was impressed by the number of vendors and the sophistication of the technologies on display, and when one of my new colleagues asked me for impressions, I told her that the solutions were not radically different or obviously outdated compared with those I've seen at countless other tradeshows outside the insurance industry. Which surprised me, especially after having been told, repeatedly, that insurers are technology laggards.

"But a lot of this isn't the technology that the majority of insurers are currently using," she smirked. "It's what they are investigating."

Turns out, she's right. After attending all of those cloud sessions and seeing several demonstrations of online and mobile quoting applications and Oregon Mutual Insurance's MiAgent app on an iPad, I was seriously concerned to hear from an industry analyst that, even today, for mid-market commercials, 80 percent of quote submissions are sent via e-mail with a PDF attachment.

For insurers, legacy technology is considered not only an operational impediment, but a major hurdle for finding IT staff, who by and large don't study COBOL any longer; recruiting recent graduates, who view the insurance industry as technologically backward; and appealing to today's technology-enabled consumers, who find the whole insurance sales process onerous and painfully long.

Given the state of the job market and the prevalence of the agency distribution model, insurers may be lulled into thinking they have time to upgrade the technology that supports producers and customers alike.

But the situation brings to my mind a quote from Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises." When asked how he went bankrupt, character Mike Campbell answers "Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly."

And so it is with updating, extending or replacing legacy billing and policy management systems, which contain the information most valuable for interactions with producers and customers.

Yes. Accessing that information and distributing it through new communications channels and to new users can be incredibly difficult. But, in my research and discussions, I was reminded that sales people are finely attuned to rewards systems and gradually are steering business to those carriers that are rolling out technologies that make their jobs easier, such as Web-based comparative quoting, immediate access to real-time Web-based account information, straight-through processing, and the like.

Those insurers that don't maintain and evolve their back-end systems—with the goal of pushing timely and actionable information to producers and customers through new communications channels—may 'suddenly' see a dramatic drop off in new business and renewals.

For insurers, being easy to do business with, by supporting technology-enabled producers and customers, can mean the difference between retaining and growing the business, or not.

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