Agent extranets that don't support quoting, issuing and servicing policies are like dinosaurs: plodding, cumbersome and heading toward extinction.Grange Insurance executives understood that merely pushing information through a portal to its agents would fail to meet its standards of service.

In late 2004, the Columbus, Ohio-based carrier debuted www.grangeagent.com for its the 1,200 independent agencies in its network. The site, which was developed by Grange's IT staff, is the front-end of an integrated platform designed to enhance agent workflow and streamline business processes.

The extranet supports a suite of business processing solutions, known internally as AgentWare, which enable agents to electronically manage their entire book of business.

Agents are able to locate claims information, view policy documents, make payments, access forms and view current and past policy manuals.

Another component of the site is GAINWeb, Grange's policy quoting, issuance and servicing system for personal, commercial and life insurance.

"Through GrangeAgent.com, our independent agents have a tool to support continuous growth and increase the level of service they provide policyholders," states Phil Urban, president and CEO of Grange Insurance.

"The extranet exemplifies our belief in our Ease of Doing Business (EODB) initiative-because it combines so many resources and applications that agents need in running their business every day."

Since the extranet went live in December, 99% of Grange's agencies have logged on to Grangeagent.com to activate the transactional tools. Agent adoption of the extranet has been brisk, Grange executives believe, because agents have identified a number of meaningful aspects from both a bottom-line savings and top-line growth standpoint.

From a top-line perspective, Grangeagent.com provides real-time quoting capabilities critical to increasing sales volume. The site's policy administration features support agents' efforts to retain customers, and the portal is designed to help increase cross-selling opportunities. Grange markets bank products through its Grange Bank subsidiary.

"If an agent is quoting an auto policy but is also a life producer, the agent can easily access a life quote for a customer through the portal," says Charlie Carter, vice president and CIO of Grange Insurance. "P&C agents have told us they are more inclined to bring up the subject of life insurance to a customer now than in the past because they have the quoting capability right in front of them."

Capitalizing on ease

Ease of doing business at Grange Insurance is more than a generic mission statement: It's a proprietary initiative. Grange registered the EODB moniker as a trademark a couple of years ago.

And the company is capitalizing on EODB-all in the name of facilitating its agents. "It sounds like a tired old phrase, but we have established an amazing relationship with our agents," says Urban. The company generates $1 billion in revenue spread across insurance and financial services sales.

"We want to know what makes agents choose one insurer over another, and the determining factor seems to be ease of doing business," he adds. "All things being equal as it relates to prices and products, we felt we could leverage (ease of doing business). We had to take the relationship we had developed over the years with agents and ensure that it would remain an advantage for us."

"The idea was to get rid of all impediments for agents," adds Carter. "We said, 'Let's automate everything we can-and eliminate as much paper processing as possible'-declaration pages, billing notices and the blizzard of paperwork agents must deal with. That led us down a path to develop agent interface technology."

The way Urban and Carter perceive it, carriers that provide independent agents with dynamic tools and technologies are positioning themselves to grab the lion's share of business from those agents. In theory, agents might be regarded as "independent" in name, but many essentially become "exclusive" agents of the insurers who travel the extra mile to enhance their workflow capabilities.

That, in essence, is the genesis for Grangeagent.com. The portal essentially is the "de facto" agency management system for agents who deal primarily with Grange. This helps them reduce expenses on acquiring an agency management system, according to Carter.

"Agents who do business with one preferred carrier often do not acquire their own proprietary agency management system, because they don't need to interact with multiple parties," he says. "We happen to have a unique relationship with our agents-Grange is often the one and only carrier they conduct business with. I would say 40% of our agencies use our portal as their core operating system."

Consensus-builders

To build consensus with agents, Grange officials culled their insights to determine was acceptable and what should be scrapped when designing the portal.

"We spend a lot of time out in the field to confirm what agents find meaningful to their business," says Urban. "We asked agents what they wanted with extranet functionality," which helped determine the design features of the portal program."

One outcome was the decision to brand all of the separate components-Grangeagent.com, AgentWare and GAINWeb-under one roof. In the past, the company lacked that umbrella, which caused confusion among agents, says Carol Drake, vice president of marketing for Grange.

Another insight Grange uncovered was that a portal program must be flexible to spawn optimal adoption. In that respect, Grange understood there were two distinct groups of independent agents. "There are agents who live and die by their agency management systems and those who might not even have an agency management system," Carter says.

"Our extranet site was first aimed at the agents who lacked a management system. Our portal became their core operating system."

But Grange agents who are equipped with the most robust agency management systems have also been drawn to the portal, and can easily integrate with Grangeagent.com regardless of the system they use, says Carter. "We created a bridging technology that enables agents to use their own agency management system to access our system so they can conduct business quickly and easily," he says.

Many industry experts conclude that transactional Web portals will become a necessity as carriers make efforts to attract the best independent agents.

In fact, Celent Communications Inc. released a study in August 2004 on portal penetration among independent agents. The majority of respondents reported having at least an informational portal in place, and of those that did not have a transactional portal yet, most were planning to deploy one within the next 18 months, according to Matthew Josefowicz, manager of the insurance practice at the Boston-based research and advisory group.

An informational portal displays information to an agent while a transactional portal enables agents to receive quotes, submit new business or conduct other transactions.

Nearly ubiquitous

The Celent report adds that agent portal deployment has grown rapidly and "will continue this path until portals are nearly ubiquitous."

In 2001, Celent estimates, transactional and informational agent portal deployment by U.S. property/casualty insurers was 20% and 40%, respectively. In 2004, those figures increased to 65% and 80%, respectively. And this year, Celent says they'll rise to 85% and 95%, respectively.

Grange knows the power of the portal. Five years ago, Grange's proprietary Web site enabled agents to conduct basic functions, such as retrieving forms and manuals and performing comparative-but non-real time-rating for insurance.

Over time, Grange realized that it had to develop greater functionality for the site. Over the past 18 months, the company internally developed its AgentWare tools. Establishing the front-end presentation tool-Grangeagent.com-was the next logical step.

After testing the extranet site in the late summer and fall of 2004, the company was ready for a full rollout of Grangeagent.com.

Grange actually designed the portal to cater to three distinct user groups: agency owner/principals, individual agents within the agencies and customer service representatives within the agencies.

"We had to ask, 'How do each of these groups want to use the Web site?' Once we drew a consensus, we then designed it to serve each user accordingly," says Drake. "It's really an example of customization. We tailored the site to each group.

"One conclusion we reached is that information overload would be detrimental. The plan was to organize the extranet in a visual manner and cut down on clutter."

Drake adds that the portal is built around "the user experience." Agency owners, for example, need to have access to tools that help them manage their business. This includes having access to sales and commission numbers, confidential management reports, earnings statements and payroll information.

Undoubtedly, one concern about portals is whether the sponsors have provided the necessary security to protect confidential information, and whether there's a robust credentialing system in place.

Grange executives assure their security plan is as tight as a drum. "We use Secure Socket Layer (SSL) 128-bit encryption, which is standard in the industry. It's the same level of security that supports our daily download program," says Carter.

The company, which operates on Microsoft's .NET platform, has several upgrades in store for Grangeagent.com this year, but officials would not provide specifics.

Steady player

Overall, the company is confident that agents will continue to flock to Grangeagent.com, drawn first by Grange's long-standing reputation as an agent-friendly insurer, and secondly by the scope and scale of the extranet's functionality.

"I think the reason agents select us as their preferred or even sole insurance partner is because we have been a steady market player for years," says Urban. "Agents are seeking reliable partners. From an operational standpoint, I don't think we experience the up and down swings that other carriers might," he says.

"We have more agents knocking on our door than we can actually appoint. There has been a lot of agent consolidation over the years and when this occurs, a merged agency has to consolidate its business. Often, this means certain carriers become expendable. We've been fortunate. We have always survived agency mergers," he says.

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