About this article: This article is a modified version of comments Jeff Yates made at the Phoenix ACT meeting as he anticipated his retirement at the end of February, 2014. Jeff discusses the significant progress that ACT and the industry have made with technology over the last thirteen years and provides his thoughts on taking ACT to the next level, as well as on the future for independent agents and brokers.
ACT: A Decade of Progress with Enormous Opportunities Ahead
by Jeff Yates
As I prepare to turn over the reins as ACT Executive Director to my very capable successor, Ron Berg, it is a great time to take stock of the progress ACT and the industry have made over the last 13 years and to provide my thoughts on how ACT can achieve even greater things in the future.
A Decade of Progress
Sometimes we all get frustrated with how long it takes to see a time-saving technology implemented broadly within our distribution system. But when you view it with a longer term perspective and look over the last decade, the progress we have made is amazing and is impacting every employee in almost every agency across the country.
We are seeing the agencies of the future emerge right before our eyes. And the best thing is that these agencies are willing to share their innovations and experiences with the rest of the industry, so that the whole distribution system benefits.
Agency principals have become a lot more engaged with technology in recent years and are working with their staffs to implement these technologies. They realize that their competitors are using technology as a competitive differentiator and they are starting to harness these tools as well to improve their own agency’s customer value proposition.
Real Time, Download & Going “Paperless”
Real Time has come of age over the last ten years and has so much more potential to grow in the future. I get frustrated when I talk with agencies that have not made Real Time the standard workflow in their agencies, because I have seen the positive benefits other agencies have realized from using this technology. Agencies have wanted to be able to work with their multiple carriers in a consistent manner through their management system or comparative rater for decades. Real Time is the vehicle that will get us there.
There has been enormous progress in download in the last several years. Personal lines download is almost universal and commercial lines download has been much improved. It is time for agencies which have not implemented commercial lines download to take another look at it and to use it at least for small commercial business with those of their carriers that are able to send clean downloads. IVANS reports that 14,000 agencies are currently receiving 639,000 commercial lines download messages a month from 95 carriers. In other words, commercial lines download is working today for many agencies and brokers!
Direct bill commission statement download and claims download are two additional innovations over the last decade that are saving incredible time for agencies today. The download of Activity Notes by carriers directly into agency systems is the latest technology that will profoundly impact agencies in the coming years. Using Activity Notes, carriers can send agencies electronic policies and documents, important client billing notices and other needed information. This technology saves the agent having to go to multiple carrier websites to pull these documents and information – a huge pain point.
Using Real Time, Download and the electronic filing, agencies have been able to become largely “paperless,” particularly for personal lines and small commercial business. This trend has enhanced agency efficiency greatly and enables employees to work from anywhere that they have an Internet and phone connection. As a result, agencies are breaking down traditional geographic boundaries as they look to expand.
Agencies Build Online Presence
Over the last decade, agencies have had to re-align their marketing efforts to build an online presence, so that the 80% of consumers who now go online to do insurance research can find them. Agencies are building websites with more content and client self-service features. They are taking advantage of Local Search and social media tools to attract prospects and build relationships. IIABA is helping agencies attract online consumers through TrustedChoice.com and Project CAP services, and will soon be expanding this initiative into commercial lines.
Agencies Adapt to New Privacy Requirements
As new state and federal privacy and data breach laws have passed over the last several years, many agencies have taken the necessary steps to comply with these requirements by implementing secure email with their carriers and clients, adopting written information security plans and procedures, securing their websites when requesting personal information, and training their employees in these procedures. This is an area that will require continued agency attention in the future as businesses continue to experience data breaches and laws and regulations are updated to respond to these threats.
ACT Provides Forum to Promote Technology Adoption
ACT has been dedicated to advancing all of these issues by providing a forum for their discussion. We have used ACT meetings, work groups and regular ACT articles, reports and communications to discuss innovation and to encourage further implementation. We have also had a very active Strategic Future Issues Work Group which has helped us keep an eye on the future and aware of the key trends that will impact our businesses.
ACT Provides Resources
In addition to providing a forum to encourage the use of innovative technologies, ACT has created or curated numerous resources to assist agencies and carriers with implementation. I encourage you to take a few minutes to review the wealth of material that ACT members have created by going to www.independentagent.com/act. A few highlights from the site include:
People Make the Difference
ACT has had great success over the last decade because of the incredible passion and talents of its volunteers. Agents and carrier representatives thank me all the time for the resources we have made available to them and those resources are a direct result of the work of our ACT volunteers.
I have seen time and time again, one person step up and take leadership of an initiative and with the support of the group, make a real difference in driving an improved workflow or technology forward.
I just got back from our ACT meeting in Phoenix and was blown away by the level of idea sharing, camaraderie and friendships that have developed among the ACT members. This was truly the sign of a healthy organization that has so much potential for the future.
We are always looking for new volunteers to get involved in ACT to make a difference – not only for their businesses, but also for our distribution system as a whole. Please contact Ron Berg and let him know of your interest (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Taking ACT to the Next Level
I believe ACT has become a jewel for the industry. It is your forum. It can have as big an impact on your future as you want it to have.
Dare to bring the big issues to the table that ACT needs to be discussing. That is what ACT meetings are for.
Be a leader in making innovation happen. If a new technology needs to be incorporated to advance our distribution system, make it happen. Don’t just wait to see what other carriers or vendors do. Be willing to do that Proof of Concept and then bring that innovation to an ACT meeting to demo it and encourage the industry to adopt it.
Agents, you need to be persistent in advocating for what you need in terms of improved workflows and technologies from your vendors and carriers. Innovation and change takes time. This is a big industry! Keep pushing for positive change at ACT and AUGIE meetings, but also when you meet with your marketing reps and when you attend carrier advisory councils. Most important, implement new technologies when they become available to you. That’s the best way to encourage carriers to continue to invest in these improvements on your behalf. Finally, remember to thank your carrier executives and vendors when they do implement a new technology or workflow that benefits you.
Ratcheting up our Sense of Urgency
ACT has created a great foundation to build upon, but I encourage you to increase your sense of urgency. The competing distribution systems are doing everything they can to use technology to beat us in the market place. We need to move faster in taking advantage of new technologies and implementing improved workflows.
All of us – both as individual organizations and collectively through ACT and other industry organizations – need to do a better job of publicizing the new technologies that we do implement, so that the industry begins to understand the level of innovation that is going on within the Independent Agency System, and additional agents and carriers are encouraged to follow suit.
We should be the innovators that future reports from McKinsey & Company and A.M. Best point to, not the competing distribution systems.
We can be the group setting the pace for future innovation in the industry, if we all work together. You all have ACT, AUGIE, ACORD, and the vendor user groups to help support you and amplify your individual efforts. The direct carriers and captive agent companies do not have these organizations.
A Bright Future
I believe independent insurance agents have an incredibly bright future. You have the best business model. You have the freedom to advocate for your clients and to offer them a wider choice of markets. You now have the technology tools that permit you to write business efficiently and those tools will continue to improve over time.
You can build a strong online presence on the Internet if you choose to use the tools available to you. You can’t compete with the national advertising of the direct carriers, but you can compete with them using local search, social media and your active community involvement.
I urge independent agencies to focus on developing your unique value proposition in concert with your employees. Why should the consumer do business with you as an independent agent rather than with a captive agent or a direct carrier? And what makes your agency stand out from other independent agencies and brokers? Once your have developed your unique brand, make sure your website, blog and social media reflect that brand and that your employees articulate and reinforce that brand with every client contact they make.
Having the opportunity to work with independent agents and brokers and the IIABA staff this past 39 years has been a pure joy. Having the opportunity to work with the ACT membership this past 13 years has inspired me and energized me. I deeply appreciate the many friendships I have formed and will miss working with such a talented group of people very much.
I urge you to take ACT to the next level by promoting a sense of urgency, putting the big issues on the table, exercising leadership in driving innovation, and providing Ron with the type of wonderful support that you have provided to me.
I wish each of you every success and much happiness in the future.
Jeff Yates has been Executive Director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) since 2001 and will retire at the end of February, 2014. Ron Berg takes his place as ACT Executive Director and he can be reached at email@example.com. Jeff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.