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Best Practices:  Agency Business Processes and Information Management

By Laura Nettles, Nettles Consulting Network
 
The focus of the Independent Agency System is always, first and foremost, increasing agency revenue. Everyone wins when agencies experience a steady stream of sustained growth. Certainly, increasing sales should be a part of every agency’s plan. But the best agencies—those achieving sustained growth today—also implement best practices in their operations to ensure productivity is maximized. This provides a balance between growth and continued process improvement, guaranteeing the agency minimizes the cost associated with increasing revenues and frees up employees to focus on more productive, client oriented activities.
 
The Best Practices Guide to Agency Business Processes and Information Management provides agencies with a resource to improve agency operations. This tool was developed by IIABA’s Agents Council for Technology and Council for Best Practices working with Nettles Consulting Network. It gives CEOs and managers critical indicators to assess current operations and offers tools for improving. The guide includes something for everyone—from main street community agencies to the largest most complex commercial or benefits departments. The guide is meant to be used electronically.
 
Where Are You Today?
 
It is interesting to note that most agencies today have the tools and technology needed to operate at peak efficiency. This includes agency/benefits management systems, document management systems and connectivity to the carriers for real-time transaction processing. However, we are only as good as our implementations.
 
The Best Practices Guide provides a self-assessment questionnaire. We recommend the manager of each department take the self-assessment quiz AND have each service representative also take the assessment. You will be surprised at the results. The results typically vary desk-to-desk. The manager usually has a much higher expectation as to what has been implemented than what actually has. The assessment is available online at http://www.nettlesconsulting.com/Assessment.htm.
 
Moving to More Advanced Workflow Environments
 
Once you assess your current level of technology and workflow implementation and obtain your scores, the guide places you into a specific operational environment. The four environments—Manually Automated, Process, Service, and Client—let you know how the energy in the office is being spent. In the Manually Automated and Process environments, all the energy is being spent on internal tasks. With the technology you probably already have today, workflows, processes and procedures can be streamlined moving you to the Service environment where the focus is on serving the customer, not just processing transactions.
 
Most agencies will have staff scattered among three environments—Manually Automated, Process and Service. This is useful information for the manager; information that can help move the staff to the same page operating at peak efficiency.
 
For those agencies that find themselves below the curve, the guide provides some practical, back to the basics tools to quickly get your staff up to speed. Included are a feature implementation checklist, training checklist, database audit guidelines and monitoring and managing backlog suggestions.
 
Integrating Technology Features into New Insurance Workflows
 
Technology delivers features. Many agencies have successfully implemented the features as trained by your vendors. You store documents using attachments. You invoice from the computer. Applications are generated from the data in your agency management system. RFPs are created from the benefit plan input in the benefit management system. You go online to check the status of carrier payments. This is a very important part of implementation, but you can’t stop here. It is not enough to simply implement the feature. You have to integrate the feature into practical insurance workflows to benefit fully from your technology implementation.
 
Agencies that are successfully implementing best practices actually rewrite the workflow integrating technology into a new workflow. They let go of the old way of doing a transaction and embrace a totally new way taking advantage of the features and weaving the features into a new, more efficient process. The Best Practices Guide shows you how to put your focus back on your client. It gives you the guidelines and suggestions to think about a new way of processing work—eliminating unnecessary steps and putting the client first.
 
For example, many agencies have access to real-time processing. The IT folks set it up and showed everyone how to use it. But if you take a look at your assessment, you will probably find very few people are actually using the real-time feature in a way that eliminates all the manual steps—doing real-time quoting while on the phone with the client, generating no paper, and employing an integrated electronic follow up and client communication. Real-time transactions take a fraction of the time to process. Your staff may say they use the feature—but have they changed their workflow to be more efficient?
 
The same is probably true for commercial lines submissions and benefits RFPs. Both your agency and benefits management systems along with document management systems have the capability to completely automate the marketing process. This includes preparation and tracking in a completely paperless environment. However, we still see staff printing and scanning loss runs in commercial lines and manually tracking RFPs in benefits. This loss in productivity for an agency that has all the technology tools is unnecessary.
 
Best Practices to the Rescue
 
The guide includes sample workflows integrating the technology tools you probably already have purchased into practical updated insurance processes. If you follow the guide, you will be more efficient. It teaches you how to implement the feature AND integrate it into the workflow. Good workflows lead to improved E&O loss control and better services delivered to the client. The guide provides all you need to improve operations and move your agency to the Client Environment. In the Client Environment, the staff spends the majority of its time with the customer.
 
Monitoring Compliance
 
The guide also gives you practical audits you can do to assess staff compliance with your procedures. The compliance section of the guide guarantees that your staff adheres to the changes you implement. The audits will tell you where you have the capacity to grow without hiring additional staff. Before hiring that next CSR, run these audits. You might be surprised to learn that your existing staff can absorb the work with some minor adjustments.
 
There is always room for improvement. The Best Practices Guide provides a framework to focus on improvements in areas where you are sure to get results. The world is changing. To be competitive in the future, you must be serving your client in a new way—not just by processing work—but by truly being a trusted advisor.
 
Vision of the Future Agency
 
As an industry, we need to get out of the insurance processing business and get back into the insurance service business. We have become an industry where the service staff believes that processing equates to service. That is not how our customers define service. They want a qualified staff available when they have questions or concerns. Your customers want to know that you are working hard to maximize coverage and eliminate risk. The Best Practices Guide helps you move your organization to the Client Environment where serving the client is defined by a trusted relationship, not processes.
 
Laura Nettles, President of Nettles Consulting Network specializes in agency workflows and organization. She can be reached at lnettles@nettlesconsulting.com; 404-325-0023. Nettles developed this article for the Agents Council for Technology (ACT), part of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. ACT’s Web site is www.independentagent.com/act. This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.
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