It seems that everyone is jumping on the wireless bandwagon. From cell phones to PDAs to wireless pagers, both professionals and consumers are seeking new, more efficient means of communication. The fast-paced growth of wireless technology in other industries hints at the tremendous potential benefits these solutions may hold for insurance.With wireless technology, agents can have a continuous connection to their information resources, management staff can monitor business from any location, or instantly respond to time-sensitive communications, and clients can look forward to faster response times. That means support issues that once took 24 hours and two or three phone calls can now be resolved in a matter of minutes via wireless e-mail.

Perhaps the most notable benefit will be the insurance carrier's ability to provide proactive service to its sales force. Proactive in the sense that insurance agents will no longer have to call in or log in to review pending business or to find out when their commission checks will be mailed.

Instead, the insurance carrier will be able to push important information directly to the device. Agents can be instantly notified when a beneficiary files a claim, a client wants to surrender a policy, or a client has called customer service with questions.

This "always-on" connectivity between back-office applications and agents can dramatically decrease the cost of doing business. For example, a recent report from Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn., shows that sales reps who use wireless PDAs reported a 30% increase in the number of clients they were able to meet.

Waiting for wireless

Unfortunately, agents are still waiting for that wireless connection to materialize. Much of the delay stems from three factors which have hindered the widespread use of wireless among the industry's mobile workforce: proprietary systems, lack of integrated sales-force automation and messaging platforms, and cost.

More than 91% of respondents to a recent survey by ACORD felt that dealing with multiple proprietary systems was the biggest challenge of their job. More than 51% felt that redundant data entry across these proprietary systems was their largest waste of time.

Just imagine how much more complex the situation would be if every company built its own wireless solution. The number of user names, passwords, and user interfaces already required would more than double.

Open Standards

However, with the acceptance of new open-platform standards, data warehousing solutions, and extensible, cost-efficient middleware, the problems of proprietary systems are beginning to fade away. And the best part is: These solutions don't require insurance companies to jettison their existing investment in IT infrastructure.

Yet, these proprietary systems are only part of the problem. Because most agents are independent, they don't have access to the messaging, sales-force automation, and customer relationship management (CRM) tools that corporate users take for granted.

Enterprise SFA/CRM solutions just don't make sense for the small-office or home-office user. They are too expensive for the agent, and represent a security risk, as well as a potential channel conflict for the insurance carrier.

Consequently, insurance agents must fend for themselves when it comes to applications to help manage their clients and their business. But all this is about to change. Capabilities once available only to large-scale corporations are now being offered to independent agents, enabling them to conduct business more efficiently and increase productivity significantly.

The Cost Roadblock

Another roadblock to driving wireless technologies to the insurance industry has been cost. Let's face it, insurance companies don't want to pay for a device and airtime that could possibly benefit their competition, and IT departments don't want to funnel IT dollars for a work group outside the walls of the company.

Furthermore, insurance agents won't pay for wireless data unless they have a solution that helps them make more money. Although this one issue seems the most formidable, the question, "Who will pay for it?" has already been answered.

Those insurance companies that have already budgeted incentive dollars can easily provide these wireless solutions by tying them to agent production. Companies can then look forward to the benefits of decreased service and support costs. As these issues are resolved, it becomes clear that wireless will begin making significant contributions in insurance, just as it has in other industries.

The successful carriers will be those that use wireless technology to attract and keep top producers by making the agent's day-to-day life easier. Carriers can be assured that if they don't take advantage of this wireless channel to reach producing agents, their competitors will.

Robert A. Lotter is founder, CEO and chairman of eAgency, Newport Beach, Calif. He is also the founder and chairman of the R.A. Lotter Financial Group, with holdings that include RA Lotter Insurance Marketing Inc., a general agency and the Agent Builders Company Insurance Marketing Inc., a managing general agency.

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