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A Technology/Process Agency Culture Drives Continuous Improvement

by Jeff Yates, ACT Executive Director

I have spent a lot of time among agents in recent months, and I am heartily encouraged by the increasing numbers of agencies which have embraced a technology, business process culture in their shops. And these agencies are implementing some impressive technology and workflow improvements to enhance their effectiveness and value. In this article I discuss what it means to develop such an agency culture and then outline some of the technology and workflow improvements that have done the most for these agents over the past year.

In a technology, business process oriented agency there is a continuing focus on making incremental improvements in the agency’s workflows and use of technology. In such an agency there is a real frustration with inefficient workflows and interfaces with trading partners, and these agents often get involved with their user groups and carriers to push for improvements in systems and processes.

This orientation toward continuous business process improvement permeates the agency’s culture and must be driven by the agency principals to everyone in the agency. In such a culture, agency employees are rewarded for being willing to recommend process improvements and to embrace them when they are introduced, rather than to resist change. An agency with this culture is positioned to attract the best new employees and cutting edge clients.

See the ACT publication “A Vision of the Future for Agency Technology including the Essential Next Steps for Independent Agents” on the ACT website for a fuller discussion on establishing an effective technology/process agency culture. ACT identified this culture as the first “essential next step” for agents, because agencies with such a culture will continuously innovate with technology and workflow. In fact, the Best Practices agencies identify their unrelenting drive to improve their business processes and use of technology as a major factor in their achieving high levels of profitability and effectiveness.

I communicated with several agents recently whom I believe to have a strong technology/process orientation to ascertain which of the innovations that they have made in the last year have provided the most benefit to them. Several focused on improving the speed of their transactions and cited implementation of high speed Internet connections and more current hardware and software versions for their agency management systems and third party software. These agencies commonly have their hardware on a three year schedule where they replace one third of the desktops each year.

This hardware and software upgrading also positions these agencies to take advantage of the attractive software enhancements being offered by their agency management system vendors (such as more effective attachment of electronic documents to client files) and to get the full benefit from the real-time interfaces being introduced by their carriers.

One agent has saved a lot of time for his staff by using Adobe PDF writer to convert carrier electronic forms to ones his staff can complete electronically on a screen, rather than having to print the form and then complete it on the typewriter. The agency staff can then avoid having to scan these forms back into electronic form to send them electronically to their clients and underwriters. Several agents have recommended that carriers provide these electronic forms in a “writeable ” format in the future!

These agencies are jumping on implementing real-time interfaces when they become available from their carriers and vendors. The early action has been on billing inquiries where a transaction that had taken several minutes has been cut to a few seconds. Several of these agents have been surprised by just how much time their staffs have been spending doing billing inquiries. The St. Paul’s ability to send back a claims number in real-time after the agent files a First Notice of Loss has also been well received, as has the Travelers’ ability to respond to an agent request for a commercial lines loss run in real-time.

These agents are starting to see the potential of real-time personal lines upload. One agent reported that uploading personal lines applications to Michigan Insurance Group using WebSEMCI cut the time required to one fourth of what it had been. A Florida broker has started uploading personal lines with Fireman’s Fund through her Applied System and Transformation Station. With this real-time upload, the agency is saving a lot of time because it gets the correct issuing company and policy number on the frontend, allowing the policy to go right into the agency database on the back-end without the need to deal with a suspense or duplicate set of billing screens.

I urge agents to pay close attention to carrier, vendor, and user group announcements because a lot of new real-time interfaces are becoming available to agents. Agents should implement these interfaces promptly because they will bring real efficiencies to the agency, and such use will demonstrate the agents’ strong interest in moving beyond proprietary company interfaces toward real-time SEMCI solutions.

Several agents have gotten tremendous benefit out of implementing desktop faxing solutions. Employees receive all faxes at their desktop in electronic form as an e-mail message, allowing them to share this information readily or attach it to their electronic files. They are then able to send a response from the desktop, attaching any needed documents from the agency management system (such as an auto id card or certificate of insurance) in e- mail or fax form depending upon the preference of the original sender. One agent mentioned that desktop faxing has been particularly valuable to her commercial lines and claims departments.

There is also a major emphasis among these agents to get rid of paper wherever possible and convert to electronic files. One substantial personal lines agent reported that she has gone paperless in personal lines and has turned off the paper from those of her carriers which can provide the agency with an accurate download of policy detail, a daily log of download activity, and which has electronic versions of the information available on the carrier’s website. By making this move, this agent has been able to replace processing staff with full time personal lines producers.

Agents also reported that they have been able to improve the flow of communications within their agencies substantially using technology. Conversion to electronic documents, of course, improves the flow of communications throughout the office, to other offices, and to third parties. One agent regularly scans carrier and industry bulletins so that the entire staff can benefit from them and they do not get stuck on a colleague’s desk. Another agent has implemented an agency Intranet which has become the agency’s go-to source for new sales bulletins, agency announcements, systems issues, and the agency’s procedures manual.

Agents have also been able to use technology to enha nce their sales and marketing efforts. One agent reported great success in implementing a prospect/client contact system. This agent implemented SaleSource which has been developed by a fellow independent agent. The system automatically prompts producers to provide letters, phone calls, or visits to prospects in a disciplined manner as set up by the agency and includes sample materials to use. The system also can be used to prompt agency staff to provide the promised value added services to clients that were initially promised. I believe technology will increasingly be used to bolster the ability of agencies to provide more effective sales management for their producers.

Another agent has used Adobe PDF writer to package commercial lines proposals to clients and underwriters more cleanly and attractively as a single attachment by converting components that had been in various Excel, Word, TIF files to a common PDF format.

Finally, a third party administrator reported that his agency had been able to enhance the integrity of his database significantly by implementing a relational database so that claims reports sent to commercial clients have a much higher degree of accuracy. This agency uses Microsoft’s Claims Pyramid for Windows which allows the asking of queries that uncover data errors much more effectively. Such technology helps this agency’s staff save a lot of time in checking and correcting these data reports to assure that they are accurate when sent to the client.

These examples demonstrate the potential that these agencies with a technology/process oriented culture have to position themselves effectively for the future, where their business processes empower their staffs to achieve their full potential, rather than hold them back because of inefficiencies, redundancies, lack of communication, and other obstacles.

Jeff Yates is the Executive Director of the Agents Council for Technology which is affiliated with the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. The ACT website is found at www.independentagent.com. You can contact Jeff Yates here. This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement of ACT.

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