Insurance agents by their nature tend to be anxious, especially when it concerns customer information. Coverage confirmation, billing information and personal data are critical pieces of information in any agent's customer database, and fast access to up-to-date data is an important customer service criteria.At DS Barkley Insurance Management Services, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based managing general agency that underwrites nonstandard auto insurance in five states, meeting these informational needs for its 150 agents was more than a full-time job for its support staff.

Routine informational demands from retail agents actually hampered the organization's growth, says president Drew Barkley-until the company teamed with Results International Systems (RIS), a Columbus, Ohio-based outsourcing and application service provider (ASP) company to take the process online.

Over the past two years, DS Barkley and RIS have been building an online service center that provides round-the-clock information access to retail agents and will eventually offer automated new business opportunities that will help fuel growth, Barkley says. Cornerstone of the system is a customer information data application hosted by RIS and delivered to retail agents through the DS Barkley Web site,

Information needs

The Web access project is just the latest step in a long-term business and technology plan. Barkley acquired the MGA in 1987 when the firm had underwriting agreements with two insurers and wrote nonstandard personal automobile coverage in only two states, Arizona and Nevada. Even then, Barkley recognized the need for automation. Information maintenance and slow manual policy rating bogged down the company and impeded his plans for rapid expansion.

"I couldn't grow the business. If I didn't take some action, we would have gone right down the tubes," Barkley says. By 1998, Barkley invested $50,000 in hardware upgrades and had implemented automated rating with an AS/400-based system from FiservSIS, Atlanta. He also expanded the MGA's geographic coverage to include Texas and Tennessee.

The green-screen system was showing results and Barkley targeted a potential premium volume of $100 million as his long-term objective. But facing Year 2000 compliance issues and increasing demand for policy information access from retail agents, Barkley recognized the need to make another technology leap.

In 1999, the MGA began working with RIS to replace the former application with a Windows-based graphical user interface and Web access, built around the existing database and hardware configuration. In the process, RIS also streamlined the system, replacing 44 data entry screens with 15 browser pages.

The MGA tested the service in October 2000 first with 25 agents, later expanding the test to 50 agents. By early 2001, the system was rolled out to all of the DS Barkley retail agents with Internet access.

Impressive depth

The front end of the application is a simple two-color Web site that uses rollover graphics to communicate a marketing and product information message to retail agents. Agents with customer policies at DS Barkley are invited to click to access the inquiry system. A click-through takes the agent to a log-in screen and then into the inquiry database.

The surface applications look easy, Barkley explains, but the database depth beneath the Web pages is impressive with rapid access for retail agents and powerful flexibility for in-house management.

RIS built the application using JWalk from Atlanta-based Seagull Software, a set of development tools, server software and viewer technology for building Java and Windows thin-client applications from AS/400 applications. JWalk has been used extensively in other industries to build Web-based online order entry and other transaction systems from older AS/400-based databases without changing source code or moving the database to new hardware.

DS Barkley mirrors the RIS host computer to maintain its own complete policy database using DSL Internet access and uses the RIS report generation applications for management information. Barkley describes the system's ability to generate customized reports as "eye-popping and jaw-dropping in its capabilities," a factor that has contributed to its overall value to the MGA.

Reducing inquiries

Since full implementation early this year, telephone customer service inquiries are down 60%, according to Barkley, enabling employees to focus on new business development without increasing headcount. Premium volume has surpassed $20 million and is on track for $50 million next year.

RIS plans to expand the available automated processes quickly. The company was already testing online data entry for policy changes, and has scheduled claims reports for implementation in July.

Next on the drawing board are policy issuance and new business applications, including the ability to print coverage binder documents and temporary coverage ID cards.

RIS would not disclose the cost of the DS Barkley project, but Jon Santa, vice president of marketing and sales, says a similar implementation would cost $50,000 to $100,000, including an initial application license fee of $500 to $1,000, and require 60 to 90 days development time.

"The real advantages to ASP implementation are time and money," Santa explains. "Web-enabled ASP services are quick to deploy and much less expensive on the front end. To build a freestanding system with new hardware and software would have cost DS Barkley four times as much."

Barkley agrees. He reports that a survey of 1,500 retail agents in his company's service areas reveals that only 7% lack Internet access and more than 50% expressed a high level of interest in using the Web-based system for inquiry and data entry.

ASP options

ASP-based products for retail insurance agents have also become a hot trend in agency management technology as agents seek ways to Web-enable their operations and offer their customers access to policy information.

As a result, some agency technology vendors are revising their old office management network systems for ASP delivery.

AMS Services in Windsor, Conn., one of the largest agency management technology companies, provides systems to more than 9,000 agents and brokers. Products include Prime 2000, a personal computer-based agency management system for small agencies, AfW, a Windows network-based management system for mid- sized agencies and PS4 Plus, a comprehensive commercial lines submission and sales database for large agents and brokers.

Last year, the company introduced AfW Online, an ASP version of the product that is housed in an AMS data center in College Station, Texas. Agencies access the management system through their office Internet service provider and retrieve customer and insurer transactional information from a hosted database maintained by AMS.

The online delivery of agency management services may be the wave of the future, says Loren Parsons, AMS Services president.

"In the past, agencies have had to replace their agency management systems every four or five years to keep up with the latest innovations in technology. This has been a necessary, expensive and sometimes time-consuming process," he says.

ASP delivery eliminates the disruption of upgrades and reduces the periodic big financial hit of hardware upgrades, he adds.

Len Strazewski is a business writer based in Chicago.

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