Q: How has the role of the insurance agent changed in the past few years? What challenges does this present for both the insurer and the agent?
A: Stephanie Jenkins, Conseco: The growth of the Internet has impacted the role of the insurance agent. Consumers still expect insurance agents to help them navigate the wealth of information available online. Although the agent still is responsible for making the sale, the customer is more informed than ever before. Customers expect the agent to be knowledgeable, and to respond to questions and requests at Internet-like speed. So, in turn, agents need quick access to information from the carrier 24-7. Because most of Conseco's distribution is independent and can market the products of any carrier they choose, we recognize that we have to earn our agents' business every day. Technology can be an important factor in an agent's carrier choice.
A: Craig Weber, Celent: Customers have more options today than ever before in how they buy insurance. Some customers prefer to go it alone, buying direct from carriers. Others leverage nontraditional channels, such as banks and brokers. The result is that insurance agents have to improve their value proposition. In many cases, that means demonstrating expertise in assessing insurance needs and finding the right products to meet those needs. It also could mean serving as the client's guide in getting service, offering clients a better experience than they get through other channels. Carriers need to give agents tools to help them simplify things for their customers.
Q: How has the relationship between agents and technology changed in recent years?
A: Paula Smith, Bankers Life and Casualty: We have seen a shift toward increased technology usage and adoption over the past two years. More than 70 percent of our agents have embraced technology to support their business. This has grown from only 15 percent just two years ago. Our agents use technology to identify and contact potential customers, build and solidify customer relationships, process business, stay current with the industry to gain a competitive advantage, and manage personal goal progression and sales statistics, as well as for training and compliance and to improve overall productivity.
A: Jenkins, Conseco: More than 9,000 agents have registered on our agent portal, www.consecobizlink.com, for 24-7 access to commissions, real-time pending business and forms. Agents can track their production for incentive programs, find and update leads and even learn online. We've plunged into electronic applications, allowing agents to complete applications on their desktops and then submit the digitally signed and encrypted applications online from their offices or homes. The number of agents adopting these new tools has grown dramatically during recent years. Agents now expect carriers to provide technology that will simplify the sales process. A recent Conseco survey of agents about their use of technology found that 68 percent prefer e-mail communications (versus paper); 82 percent have upgraded to Windows XP; 64 percent own a laptop; and 78 percent have high-speed Internet connections.
A: Weber, Celent: Carriers need to recognize that agents are getting more sophisticated in how they use technology. Agents are starting to see the value in electronic apps, particularly where they eliminate rework by validating fields and required forms on the fly. Agents are getting used to electronic signatures, and, although wireless applications have not yet exploded in popularity, agents are starting to use PDAs and tablet PCs because they improve productivity, which puts money in their pockets.
Q: How have agency management systems evolved to meet the needs of today's agents and carriers?
A: Smith, Bankers Life and Casualty: We have implemented several solutions to provide management with a complete view of field operations and performance. By creating a centralized reporting function with hierarchical field views, we can identify and more effectively monitor troubled areas. Through our field portal, agents and managers can set and track performance goals at all levels of our hierarchy (agent to branch level) on a daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. Through our Contact Management solution, field prospecting and customer servicing activities can be more effectively executed and managed. The biggest challenge in ensuring successful implementation of agency management systems is consistent usage throughout all levels of the organization.
A: Jenkins, Conseco: We've come a long way in recent years when you compare today's sophisticated Web-based tools to the desktop solutions just a few years ago. And agents who have adopted these new tools have been rewarded with reduced administrative tasks and increased selling time. Industry leaders have recognized that the paybacks of technological improvements - including robust and timely sales reporting - ultimately offset the initial costs many times over.
A: Weber, Celent: We hear a lot about agency management systems versus proprietary systems. In fact, both types of systems are valuable to agents - it shouldn't be an either/or question. Carriers need to find the right mix between richness of functionality and ease of use so agents can use third-party tools for some things and proprietary systems for other things. The primary obstacle for third-party tools is how to leverage necessary data across multiple systems.
A: Bob Juracka, XDimensional Technologies: Agency management systems have attempted - either through on-board functional augmentation or through integration with other products - to provide greater breadth and scope of capability. While achieving functionality via integration with another system may be better than no functionality at all, less definitely is more when it comes to how many systems must be involved. From the overall user experience to the pure hard costs, multiple systems translate into severely diminishing returns for agents.
Q: How do information security and compliance concerns affect agent technology?
A: Smith, Bankers Life and Casualty: There are three main areas in which we use technology to enforce compliance: ensuring that our customer information is secure, since agents have access to only their customers' information; providing 24-7 access to the most-current rates, application forms and marketing materials; and providing, tracking and regulating training modules on sales practices and compliance. Technology allows us to monitor field activities and enforce accountability.
A: Jenkins, Conseco: We use technologies to ensure that distribution is viewing and sending only the appropriate information online. A portal user name and password is tied to the agent's information. Just as important, we require agents to change their user names and passwords regularly to ensure that policyholder information is secure. We assist agents with compliance efforts by providing only the most-current product information online. Agents don't have to worry about using an outdated form or rate. We even help agents do product training online. When agents use our electronic applications, all the required forms pop up for them based on product and state information. As a result, compliance has never been easier than it is today.
A: Weber, Celent: Technology is a concern in terms of security and privacy. But I would argue that technology actually helps more than it hurts. Working with yesterday's tools, it was never clear who talked to a prospect, what was discussed and who had seen or even signed which forms. Today, tools such as role-based security, rule-based workflow and electronic applications can help keep track of who is doing what. Anything that happens electronically can be used to create an audit trail.
THE EXPERTS: Agent Technology
Vice President, Marketing Technology
Conseco Insurance Group (Carmel, Ind.)
VP, Business Solutions
Bankers Life and Casualty Company, a subsidiary of Conseco (Chicago)
XDimensional Technologies (Brea, Calif.)
On The Net
Peggy Bresnick Kendler has been a writer for 30 years. She has worked as an editor, publicist and school district technology coordinator. During the past decade, Bresnick Kendler has worked for UBM TechWeb on special financialservices technology-centered ... View Full Bio