I recall a conversation I had a few years back with the IT manager of a major insurance agency, who lamented how difficult it was to maintain online connectivity with carriers: The interfaces and protocols would be worked out for straight-through processing of applications and other business, and the agency would invest a lot of money into building and supporting the system — then the carrier would switch gears on the whole arrangement.
Such are the challenges agencies and brokerages face with constantly shifting technology preferences in the market. Yet, few other industries enjoy the eyes and ears on the ground that agent and broker networks offer to insurance carriers.
Connectivity with carriers is one issue, but vendors need to get onboard as well. A few months back, Chris Gagnon, director of strategic technology at The Council of Insurance Agents and Brokers, voiced some of the frustrations and missed potential that characterize the state of agency systems and networks in the council's magazine.
Gagnon points out that there's no shortage of software standards that ease the ability to integrate unrelated systems. Unfortunately, he adds, agencies rely too much on software vendors to do the heavy lifting — vendors are once-removed from insurance agency customers. Most software providers do not fully embrace standards, he says. “For system vendors, the good of the industry is not the primary motivating factor. While agencies have expressed their displeasure, we usually acquiesce and accept the burden.”
It's time for a change, he urges. This change needs to start with better collaboration between agency leaders, carriers and software vendors to better define how processes can be improved to meet customer needs in a more expedient and informed way. “If we are to grow our agencies and keep pace with the rest of the world, we can no longer sit back and accept automation as defined 40 years ago,” Gagnon writes. “The agency management system vendors need our direction, insight and experience—not just at a detailed level but to define the overall direction of automation in our industry.”
He calls upon agency principals to take the lead in moving software vendors toward more integrated approaches to bring various systems together. There will never be a single solution that can run an entire agency, but there needs to be greater compatibility between the various systems.
“The idea that a single software vendor can provide a complete set of tools to cover all needs of all agencies is unrealistic,” Gagnon says. “In addition to agency management systems, most brokers have deployed department-specific software and highly specialized systems covering everything from captive management to predictive modeling. Simply put, we require multiple solutions built by multiple firms with deep expertise in many disciplines.”
The focus of many agency management systems has been on speedier and more efficient processing, and less administrative burden on agencies. However, today's systems need to be designed to better reach and serve customers, not the agencies themselves, Gagnon says.
Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.
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