If you ask a group of independent agents to name the technologies on the top of their wish lists, you likely will hear a different answer from each.Some agents want carriers to improve their Web portals, making it easier for agents to obtain quotes and make inquiries and endorsements on carrier sites. Others want carriers to provide real-time transactions through their agency management systems-via so-called "bridges." This way, they never have to leave their agency systems to conduct their business.
Scott Hinderks, principal at Flury-Hinderks Agency, Leawood, Kan., says he'd like Safeco Corp., which accounts for 85% of his business, to concentrate its resources on improving its own agent portal. "I'd greatly prefer that they put their resources in ease of doing business with Safeco as opposed to (bridges)-because my business is greatly tied to Safeco," he says.
On the other hand, "if you're a person who has a large book of business and you place most of your business with 10 different companies, you have to remember 10 different Web addresses and 10 different user IDs and passwords," notes Karen Zeneczko, broker services division technology manager at Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., Itasca, Ill.
"Not a lot of agents are going to do that. It has to be fully integrated." Agents have to be able to go from one carrier system to the next with one click, she says.
Indeed, these two comments alone illustrate the dilemma insurance companies face in providing tools for agents: Agents have different perspectives on technology-depending on the nature of their business.
"If (a carrier) goes in one direction, it leaves another group of agents behind," notes Hinderks, who is also a member of Safeco's agency advisory council. "Trying to agree on the 10 (automation priorities) Safeco should work on has been a challenge," he says.
The real-time challenge
It is a challenge, but Safeco and other insurance companies are moving forward with real-time transactions for agents nonetheless.
Many carriers are providing quoting, endorsements, and billing, policy and claims inquiries via their own Web sites. And several insurers are integrating their systems with agency management systems for real-time transactional processing through various bridges from vendors, including Transformation Station, Web Bridge and Transact-NOW (see "Agency Bridges To Carriers," page 29).
Despite the mixed messages, listening to what agents want helps. Safeco, for example, has established some clear priorities after several meetings with the automation group of its agent advisory council.
"We need to look at bridges-such as Transformation Station-and anything else that expedites workflows around quoting, writing new business, and handling transactions on in-force policies," says Anne Randall, head of automation for personal lines at Seattle-based Safeco.
Safeco currently supports Transact-NOW and Web Bridge, which enable some real-time transactions through agency management systems. Further-more, although Safeco executives have determined that Transformation Station is a more costly option, "we haven't ruled it out," Randall says.
Safeco's long-term agency automation plans include moving its endorsement systems and automated underwriting application for personal lines to browser-based formats.
Short-term goals include developing Internet-based e-mail communication with agents, working with agency management system vendors to provide Internet claims download, and implementing a single sign-on platform. "Believe it or not, our agents have to sign on multiple times within Safeco systems," says Randall.
Agents' pet peeves
Multiple sign-ons and re-keying information are pet peeves of agents-across the board. "The main thing agents want is to stop re-keying information multiple times," says Chris Garson, agent business IT director at Progressive Casualty Insurance Co., Mayfield Village, Ohio.
"They write it down on a piece of paper, and they type it into their comparative rater, and they type it into their agency management system, and they type it into the carrier system. They spend a lot of time re-keying information. A lot of my efforts are around: How do I eliminate re-keying for agents?" he says.
Agents also want downloads from carriers' systems into their agency management system databases, according to says Jeff Yates, executive director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT), an affiliate of the Independent Agents and Brokers of America (IIABA), Alexandria, Va.
"The question comes up: If agents can get the information they need on carriers' Web sites, do they still need download?" Yates says. "And agents clearly have said: They do need download, especially for policy information. They use this information for marketing and they use it for reports. It's not realistic to expect them to pull it from a carrier's site every time they want to use it."
In fact, most agents want to use their agency management system as their customer relationship management (CRM) system, Yates says. They want to be able to look up clients, and answer their questions when they call. It makes sense for some policyholder information to reside on the agent's system-which requires downloads from carriers' systems to be working properly.
Some information-billing or claims, for example-can remain on the carrier's site, he says. "But, in those cases when agents go to the Web site, they want to be able to pull the information they need without leaving their agency management system."
That sounds like a tall order, but "sourcing" policyholder data in a sensible fashion is a sound approach to carrier/agency system integration, according to Progressive's Garson. Progressive's strategy for interfacing with agency systems is based upon the premise that agents are a better source of data on new customers, he says, while carriers are a better source of data for servicing in-force policies.
"All our integration efforts are geared toward simply and easily moving data (on new customers) from the agency management system to our Web site without re-keying. But when we move to the service paradigm on an in-force policy, all our integration efforts are geared toward seamless navigation from the management system directly into our Web site."
A click away
Seamless navigation is made possible on Progressive's agent portal by one fundamental rule: Whatever the agent wants to see next should be no more than a click away.
Encompass Insurance also tries to simplify the navigational moves agents have to make to find what they want on its portal.
The Encompass agent site is organized into seven categories: market and sell, NorthStar (the agent advisory council), service your accounts, train your agency, communications, references, and manage your business.
Within each category, all material published by Encompass is only a click away, says Liz Ryan, a customer service representative at Mega Personal Lines insurance agency in Ballston Lake, N.Y.
"The Encompass site is so easy to use," she says. "For example, the site has InterLink, where we quote and upload policies. And Encompass is the only company we work with that has a phone number to call if you have a problem. And they actually dial right into your computer, and you can see them moving around and fixing it," she says.
Ryan is vice chair of the customer service committee on Encom-pass' agent advisory council, a group that has greatly influenced the design of the agents' Web site, says Neil Nelson, senior manager, technology services for the Chicago-based carrier. "We listen to our agents," he says.
And, listening to agents has resulted in a similar experience for Encompass as for other carriers: One group of Encompass agents wants to use the carrier's Web site to conduct transactions, while another group of agents wants to stay in their agency management systems.
"We really prefer that agents come to our Web site-because we provide so much information there that we can't provide through their agency management system," Nelson says. "At the same time, we totally understand that agencies don't want to train people on 12 different proprietary carrier systems."
The "inflexibility" of carriers' proprietary systems-and the issue of training and re-training-are the main reasons agents have been pushing for SEMCI (single-entry, multiple-carrier interface) for 20 years, Progressive's Garson says.
"I'd want SEMCI too if I were a victim of some of the poorly designed software that agents have been forced to use over the years," he says.
The original vision for SEMCI was for agents to enter client information one time on their agency system, and they'd receive quotes back from multiple carriers. No longer would agents have to learn each carrier's proprietary system. More recently, with the Internet playing an important role in sharing information, moving among carrier systems easily to perform other insurance transactions-such as policy, billing and claims inquiries-is also considered a component of SEMCI.
Give up the ghost
Although carriers are making progress on "single-entry," the "multiple-carrier" part of the equation hasn't budged much-in part, because carriers aren't motivated to present their products homogeneously, side-by-side with their competitors in an agency management system. "They're concerned about being 'spread-sheeted,'" ACT's Yates says.
"I'm not the biggest believer in SEMCI," Progressive's Garson admits. "As a carrier, I care about efficiency, and I care a whole lot about single entry. But the 'multiple-carrier' part is something the comparative rating vendors or the agency management system vendors are going to have to figure out."
Some people take SEMCI to its purest form, Garson explains, proposing that carriers shouldn't be developing agent user screens. In this scenario, agent interfaces would be built by a few dominant agency management system vendors.
But Garson is unwilling to delegate that responsibility exclusively to third parties, he says. "I disagree with that notion. How we present our products is critical to how they are received, how they are understood, and their ability to get sold."
For agents who are weary of using carriers' cumbersome systems, Garson puts the onus back on carriers. "If carriers build software for usability, if the questions are in English, if the pop-ups are in English, if there's no green-screen code, and if there's intelligent navigation, any insurance professional should be able to use the software-with zero training," he says.
As for SEMCI, Garson pleads with agents: "Give up the ghost and look for incremental improvements that are becoming available today with new hybrid ways to make agency management systems work in conjunction with carrier Web sites."
For example, he explains, when an agent wants to make a policy change, the agent can click on a link in the agency management system, and the next screen that pops up is on the carrier's Web site with the in-force policy loaded. Then, the agent can make the change on the carrier Web site, receive real-time confirmation documenting the activity occurred, and the carrier can download the final policy image the next morning-after the policy has been processed.
"That's preferable to never seeing carrier screens and living within your agency management system," says Garson.
In November, Garson will request to form a working group within ACORD to build standards for these types of hybrid transactions to take place across carrier Web sites and agency management systems-an idea he received from an agent. ACORD also is beginning to work on standards for machine-to-machine handling of passwords, which would enable agents to move easily across carrier sites, ACT's Yates says.
The paperless trend
The whole concept of real-time transactions for agents is to make it easier for agents to do business with a carrier. The carrier that is easiest to work with gets the "tip of the hat," so to speak. As customer-service representative Liz Ryan testifies, "When you have four or five companies in your office, you're always going to use the carrier that is easiest and most user-friendly."
The carrier that has most real-time transactional capabilities also saves itself time and money.
For many years, carriers issued insurance certificates-and that task slowly has been pushed off onto agents and brokers to ease the carriers' workload, says Arthur J. Gallagher's Seneczko.
Seneczko is happy her agency is issuing certificates-because it uses an Internet-based system, called CertificatesNow, which delivers them electronically in minutes, rather than days. But she wouldn't mind seeing carriers go back to issuing auto ID cards, she says.
"And being able to go directly into (carriers') systems to request changes would be great too-as opposed to all this paper going back and forth all the time."
In fact, the trend among insurers to replace paper with electronic information has been gaining momentum over the past year. CUNA Mutual Group, for example, has installed an enterprise incentive management system, which-in addition to enabling the company to implement new incentive programs quickly and easily-has eliminated its need for 2,000 reams of paper each year.
With Internet-based field compensation and production reporting available on this system, "we significantly reduced printing, mailing and imaging costs for the reports we used to mail out," says Jim Lazarz, vice president of field compensation at the Madison, Wis.-based company (see "CUNA Mutual Cashes In On EIM," left).
"There are a lot of positives about the paperless trend," ACT's Yates says. "But it has happened on a haphazard basis." As a result, carriers, agents and vendors must resolve some remaining problems.
For instance, carriers may need to set up new Web sites for agents who no longer represent them but who still need access to their customers' policies.
"Technically savvy agents don't want paper," Yates says. "But if they rely on the company site for information, they need to have the assurance that it will be there even if there is a change of relationship between the agent and the company. That's a huge issue that hasn't been addressed," he says.
Editor's note: For a free copy of "Turning Off the Paper to Agents," visit http://na.iiaa.org/ACTDownloads/TurningOffPapertoAgents.pdf.
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