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Some Communications & Technology Lessons Learned From Katrina

by  Jeff Yates, ACT Executive Director

I had the opportunity to visit with independent agents Angelyn and David Treutel at their temporary office this past week in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  The thirty two foot storm surge that destroyed virtually all of their community, also took their home, their office building, and all but a few of the worldly possessions that they and their two boys accumulated in over twenty years of marriage.  The storm surge did not take their spirit, however.  If anything, their spirit has emerged even stronger, as they work seven days a week filing claims, advocating for their clients’ interests, and championing initiatives to rebuild their community. 
 
Over the years, the Treutels have worked tirelessly to help other agents as active participants in ACT and the state and national associations.  Now needing help, they have been overwhelmed by the incredible kindness and support that they have received from many other agents, as well as from their carriers, vendors, and both the Mississippi and Florida agent associations. 
 
The Treutels are not unlike many other agents and brokers in the affected areas who have been dislocated, but who, nonetheless, are working non-stop to serve their clients’ needs and who are receiving support from the insurance community.  Many lessons will come out of these collective experiences over time.  In this article, I would like to focus on some of the communications and technology issues and opportunities that have been highlighted by what the Treutels have experienced.  I believe these issues will be highly relevant to most independent agencies and brokers, because they could come into play in a whole host of different disaster situations.
 
Communications with clients and carriers from their temporary office continue to be a significant problem for the Treutels even today, five weeks after the hurricane.  They are using several cell phones employing multiple providers, in an effort to make connections.  Even when those connections are made, they are typically cut off after a few minutes.  They also have not found satellite phones to be an answer in their area.  They have the same problem making connections and keeping them when they seek to connect their PCs using their wireless Internet access.  They have been told that it will be a considerable time before their land lines are restored by the phone company.  (This is in marked contrast to the power company which was the first out clearing trees and debris from the roads and rebuilding the electrical infrastructure, tapping crews from several states.)
 
Given this situation, the Treutels’ access to a 24/7 remote CSR phone service has been absolutely vital to their ability to continue to be responsive to their clients and to handle the sheer volume of increased calls. (Virtually every one of their insureds has one or more claims.)   This 24/7 service has a mirror of the Treutels’ database and is therefore able to answer many of the callers’ basic questions, including their carrier, coverage limits, and to provide  the carrier’s 800 claims number.  The service sends the Treutels emails on these calls, so they are kept in the loop and know when their follow up is required.  The service also contacts the Treutels directly in the event a particular call needs to be expedited.
 
The flooding of both the Treutels’ office and home raise the very real question as to where agents keep the backup tapes for their systems.  Fortunately, the Treutels had a tape backup and were able to rescue their hard drive with their data intact.  If the water had risen a little more, this would not have been the case.  The agency management system vendors are doing a terrific job of helping agents get back on line by transferring the data to their ASP systems, which permits the agents to access their systems from anywhere if they can get an Internet connection.  But, it is essential for the vendors to receive a good backup of the agent’s database in order to accomplish this result.  Agents should think about several things based upon this experience:
  • Is the agency regularly testing its back-ups to make sure they are good?
  • Would the use of a remote back up service be a good investment for the agency?
  • Would the gravitation from an in-house agency management system to an ASP system maintained by the vendor be a good move for the agency, because of the vendor’s expertise in protecting data, keeping software current, and safeguarding against security risks?
As mentioned above, it continues to be very difficult for the Treutels to access the Internet or their ASP system from their Bay St. Louis location.  They have secured an apartment located in Daphne, Alabama, which is located a little more than two hours away.  They are able to do their system processing during their commute each day and while at the apartment in the evening.  The Treutels have worked very hard to eliminate paper, but in this situation, they have been forced to resort to a paper claims system in their temporary office.
 
Agents who have a second location in an area that is not likely to be affected by the same disaster have a real advantage because they can re-establish their communications and have access to their systems from the second location.  They could maintain a presence in the affected community and shuttle information between the two offices.  Are there opportunities for agents in disaster prone areas without a second office to cluster their backroom operations with other agents in different areas of the state in order to backstop each other?
 
Another key element in the Treutels’ recovery has been the on-site assistance they have received from the teams of agent volunteers that the Florida Association of Insurance Agents (FAIA) has been sending each week.  FAIA even rented an RV trailer to house these volunteers at the Treutels’ temporary office location.  This is an incredible industry service, and it is only possible because FAIA took the steps in advance to put a system in place capable of delivering this type of pro-active, on-site help.  These on-site volunteers have been crucial for the Treutels, because the agency’s eight employees have been dislocated by the hurricane as well, leaving only a couple of them able to work on a part-time basis.
 
To handle their clients’ needs most efficiently in this environment of limited electronic access, the Treutels and their volunteers would like their agency management system to be able to print out a single client list that is alphabetical by last name and contains location addresses, policies, carriers, limits and deductibles, all on one list.  Currently, they must take the additional steps of referring to multiple lists in order to get all of the information they need to handle many inquiries.
 
Agency and carrier websites can play a much greater role in disaster situations than they do currently.  The Treutels posted on their site how they could be reached (24/7 remote CSR service, claims procedures, etc.) and the location of their temporary office.  They included the 800 claims numbers of their carriers and encouraged their clients to submit their claims directly to the companies.  Also, as a precaution, websites should be housed remotely, so that the disaster does not take the website down along with the agency.
 
Since many of the clients’ calls seek an update on their claims, the industry needs to do a better job getting prompt, up-to-date claims status information on the carrier websites, as well as on the agent websites, along with implementing claims download capability.  Where agents have access to their systems, it is also very important for them to be able to do real-time claims inquiries to the carrier through their agency management systems.  The next step is for agency management system vendors and carriers to enable clients to access this claims status information directly from the agency website.  This last step is very important for the industry to undertake, because many insureds do not know the names of their insurance carriers.  This is understandable when one considers that in states like Mississippi and many coastal areas, an insured typically must have three different policies and insurance providers to cover his or her property (flood, wind, and homeowners with wind excluded).
 
I also encourage that agents notify each of their insureds at the start of each hurricane season (or other foreseeable disaster season) and then again when an event is imminent, with information listing their policies, carriers and coverages and advising them to keep this information with them in the event of a disaster.  These letters should also encourage the client to check the agency’s website for contact information should a disaster strike, provide them with the agency’s emergency contact information and the 800 claims numbers for their carriers, and urge them to keep the agency advised of their phone number and location following the disaster.
 
Several carriers also have been of considerable assistance to the Treutels in the aftermath of Katrina.  They have provided cell phones, satellite phones, and most recently, a portable office trailer.  I would encourage carriers to think about maintaining an inventory of this type of emergency equipment that they could move around the country to assist their agencies should they suffer a disaster.  It is also important for carriers to allow their agents to file claims however they can in these situations.  In addition, carrier claims departments should reach out to their dislocated agents, so that good communications is maintained between the parties.
 
The key lesson to take from disaster experiences is that advanced planning and making contingency arrangements really pay off.  This advance work can make the difference between whether the agency survives or not.  I urge you to consult ACT’s disaster planning tool, “Key Considerations in Disaster Planning & Management for Independent Agencies & Brokerage Firms,” for assistance in developing your agency’s disaster plan.  (See www.independentagent.com/act under “Agency Improvement Tools.”)

Jeff Yates is Executive Director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) which is part of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.  Jeff Yates can be reached here.  This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.
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