Bel Air, Md.-based Harford Mutual Insurance Co. is a latecomer to agency portals, and that, suggests Steve Fabian, assistant VP for IT, isn't necessarily a bad thing. By arriving late, the company was able to draw on its agents' experience with other portals, and take its pick of mature systems from industry vendors. Coincidentally, the new portal also served as an incentive to update the technology behind some of its existing systems. Founded 166 years ago in Harford County, Md., Harford Mutual offers a range of commercial property/casualty and workers' compensation coverage through more than 250 independent agents in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware, Tennessee, North Carolina and the District of Columbia. Harford Mutual's direct written premium is around $110 million, and the firm employs about 120 people.

The carrier rolled out its first agency portal, an inquiry-only link, in late 2006. Although it worked well, its limited functionality wasn't in line with what Harford agents had become accustomed to from other companies they represented, and they said as much. "We increased our marketing effort a number of years ago," Fabian recalls, "and marketing and sales began to focus more on improving our agency relationships."

"Most of the feedback we got from agents' as well as from watching industry trends was consistent: We needed to provide the capabilities for online rating and policy submission." This wasn't just an issue of getting new business, Fabian adds; it also was a matter of staying competitive. "Our larger agents already did some in-office comparative rating. They were telling us that it was a necessity in order for them to push more business to us."

Since Harford was getting into the game late, Fabian knew it was important to get its enhanced portal right the first time. "We did not want to start out with a product that we knew we would need to improve," he says. "We wanted to come out with something that was industrial-strength right away, and would be easy to use."

Ease of use was especially important, Fabian notes, "because agents will be drawn, consciously or subconsciously, to something that's easy to use." A design goal for the new portal was to get information to agents quickly, with a minimum amount of data entry. "We built the product so that the critical information to get a quote was part of the initial entry process, so they could get those rates and quotes earlier. Then, if they wished to pursue the business, subsequent screens would fill in the missing blanks."

Around the same time, Harford started work on its inquiry-only portal and began laying the groundwork for its rating and policy submission system, which it calls RapidWrite. A broad vendor search led the carrier to Boston-based AgencyPort and its AgencyPortal, a Web-based transaction system developed specifically for insurance companies.

"AgencyPort seemed to be a good fit for us in terms of IT architecture," Fabian says. "They also seemed to be flexible with their user interface. Since we already had a presence on the Internet with our agents, we certainly wanted our new online rating and policy submission to be an enhancement to products that they already had, rather than something completely different. AgencyPort's product could be easily customized for that front-end look and feel." In early 2007, Harford and the vendor reached an agreement, and work on RapidWrite began.

IMPLEMENTATION

To help keep the implementation manageable, Harford Mutual decided to limit the initial roll-out to its three main lines of business-business owners, commercial auto and workers' compensation. Fabian characterizes the IT development and implementation process as "typical." "We used the classic iterative project management methodology. We did a lot of requirements work with [AgencyPort]." Communications with the vendor, he adds, went well.

What delays there were happened because the carrier needed to make some changes to its existing systems in order to integrate AgencyPortal with them. "We had to convert our rating engines from our existing processes to a more service-oriented architecture so our policy admin system could use the same rating engines as our online rating product," Fabian says.

AgencyPort offers ACORD XML templates, which were used to interface to Harford Mutual's systems. An underlying goal of the project was to move toward the ACORD standard, and AgencyPortal acted as a catalyst for that, Fabian comments. "Now we are importing data in ACORD XML," he says, "and we're in a better position to leverage that going forward with other applications and other tools."

RapidWrite replaces paper, telephone and fax communications, and saves users' time. "It was a drastic improvement," he adds. "Turnaround times are now measured in hours, as opposed to days. We feel it has opened up more opportunities for agents. If there's a potential insured standing in front of them, they want to get quotes right away and get their policy wrapped up all in the same session. If you can't do that, you're going to fall further and further behind. "Therefore, these tools are something you need to grow and are necessary to stay in business right now."

Agents log onto RapidWrite and enter basic information about a prospective insured and his requested coverages. The system responds with the premium, schedules and so on, and then lets the agent print a quote for the customer. It then saves the information. If the prospect wants to continue-immediately or at some time in the future-the agent completes the application data.

The system also runs the bulk of the underwriting rules (95% of them, Fabian estimates) interactively, so agents know immediately if they're breaking the rules. If they are, they either can make adjustments to the application, or refer it to an underwriter. A separate communication tool within RapidWrite lets underwriters correspond with agents about changes to the application that may be necessary for Harford Mutual to accept.

General release of the initial version of RapidWrite, which included business owners and workers' comp lines, took place in December 2007, and the company added commercial auto at the end of the first quarter of 2008. The company plans to add more functionality down the road. "We're letting this settle in for a little bit and getting some feedback from the agents," Fabian says. "We're scheduled to have additional agency councils in September, so we'll get some priorities from them for other IT initiatives." One possibility is to expand the number of lines RapidWrite handles. Another is to enable agency management systems to communicate directly with Harford's portal.

Fabian is planning new releases of RapidWrite quarterly. Coming soon: "We're going to do some automated VIN and MVR lookups, so that will improve the data entry experience," Fabian says. "We're going to utilize the geocoding address scrubbing modules to do some additional underwriting rules based on exposure and radiuses of exposure in particular high-density areas, and the distance to the coast." The enhancements, he adds, will further automate those rules.

Since Harford Mutual designed the portal to be easy-to-use and intuitive, training agents wasn't necessary, Fabian says. "We designed it to be self-explanatory. We didn't really send out training guides or hold training sessions."

Reaction to RapidWrite from agents has been positive, and although he's reluctant to quantify any increased business due to the new portal, Fabian notes, "We are getting more quotes coming in. It's definitely improved our workflow, and we like to think we're getting more opportunities to write business."

Bob Mueller is a business writer based in Grand Beach, Mich.

(c) 2008 Insurance Networking News and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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