Monthly Archives: February 2017

2017 Marks Digital Tipping Point

2017 will mark the tipping point in agents’ efforts to adapt to the digital marketplace.  I base that conclusion on the fact that most agents are no longer talking about why they should become “digitally- savvy” but how best to do it.  Agents are also concentrating most on two areas of concern and the high stakes for ignoring them: customer experience and cyber coverages and security.

“Agents are recognizing that customer experience needs to be an integral part of their strategy,” says   Ron Berg, Executive Director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT). “‘Relationship’ is still the name of the game, but now it’s taking different forms such as mobile, chat, guided conversation and real-time response.

Bruce Cochrane, President of the Renaissance Insurance Group is more blunt.

“Consumers have clearly indicated their strong preference for human interaction at the point of sale,” he says.  “They want to do business with those with whom they share values.  However, the catch is they will do so only with those who can provide the customer experience all us consumers now expect, meaning 24/7 access, ease of doing business and technologically pleasing.  The purchasing public is ours to lose.”

Cyber issues take two tracks: –agencies keeping up with latest threats to clients and the coverages to meet them and strengthening their own security systems.

“In 2017, agents will have more opportunities in the area of cyber security as additional carrier products and services enter the market”, says William Pieroni, President/CEO of ACORD.  Agents will also need to engage in a lifelong learning process around how cyber security protocols continually evolve with changes in technology and impact their value proposition.”

ACT’s Ron Berg adds that agents will also see a continued focus by carriers, vendors and agents & brokers on all things cyber, “not just coverages, but also tightening down agencies to prevent malware, phishing ransomware and other attacks.”

Now that agents are actively looking for digital solutions, there are many applications that will take hold this year.

“Agencies will begin to see real life practical applications of machine learning,” says Steve Anderson, longtime technology authority for agents.  “There’s been a lot of press around “chat bots” and how customers are obtaining information through an online digital conversation. Platforms are being developed that will allow the industry to add this to their repertoire of communication options.”

Voice interface will also play an increasing role according to Berg.

“I’m not talking just voice recognition,” he says.  “More companies are partnering to provide insurance-related resources for voice – Think Amazon’s Echo and Liberty Mutual Aviva, and now Grange creating ‘skills’ to search for an independent agent, compare carriers products & services.”

Marc McNulty, Vice President of Insurance Operations, The Uhl Agency and Chair of the NetVu Young Professionals Chapter wants to see additional automation on agency management systems.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could automate existing integration technology and have our management systems automatically quote personal lines accounts prior to their renewal?, he asks.  “Or, for carriers that support it, have similar technology set up for commercial lines small business accounts?”

Ted Besesparis, Senior Vice President, Communications, National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA) wants to see the adoption of the concept of a Buy Button for independent insurance agents.

“The Buy Button is the technology capability for agents to bind coverage in real time from their own agency platforms, without the need to bridge to carriers’ systems,” he says.  “This functionality will enable the agent to bind coverage instantly when a prospect calls on the phone, walks into the agency, when the agent is offsite at a client’s physical location—or even when the customer goes to the agent’s website. It is an idea whose time has come.”

Of all the coming technology developments, artificial intelligence (AI) is the most intriguing and arguably the most challenging according to agency marketing legend George Nordhaus.

“AI will open the door to marketing systems that will pinpoint the insurance-buying of consumers, says Nordhaus,  chairman of Agenciesonline LLC and Monday Morning Markets. LLC.   “Think IBM’s “Watson”   How soon will it be before someone in our industry programs a Watson-type system that will automatically analyze consumers’ present and future Insurance needs.   It’s just a matter of time.  Perhaps the most important contribution to the insurance sale has been and still is the analysis of the prospects’ (personal or business) insurance needs. That task can be simple or highly complex. But either way, when an analysis can be created so rapidly and correctly, and when that fact is communicated via a “GEICO”-type advertising system, today’s major sales “asset” of the independent agent will have to change.  But change to what?  This is the $64 trillion dollar question.”

Welcome to a brave new world.

Digital Transformation 2.0

The just released Insurance Digital Transformation Study (available at http://www.insurancedigitalrevolution.org/) sheds a lot of light on why agents still struggle with adapting to digital technology. As we have discussed extensively in this column, agents must master digital tools to stay competitive, so we asked the study’s three sponsors to dig more deeply into the findings and pinpoint what steps agents need to take immediately.

Each of them agree that agents can no longer put off the process of upgrading their websites and adding mobile apps and 24/7 availability.  Just as important, they say, is that such actions must be based on a clear digital strategy that’s tailored to each agency.

ACORD’s new  president and CEO, William Pieroni, put it this way:

“Apart from the explicit findings, I think there is a critical implicit conclusion that agents now recognize that the time for digitalizing is now and that the focus needs to be on how to do it effectively,” he said. “The first step is to develop a true digital strategy, including objectives, measurable targets and the required resources.  Half-measures do not work well.    For example, just having a Facebook page is not a social media strategy.”

“The opportunities to use technology to serve customers are huge, however so are the consequences for not doing so,” says Ron Berg, Executive Director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT).  “43% of agents told us they operate 24×7, but that leaves more than half who do not serve their clients any time of day.  The fact is, customers expect service when and how they want it and they get it now from banking, Amazon and many others.”

The results of the survey are encouraging but cautionary according to Mike Becker, Executive Vice President & CEO, National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA).

“Independent agents want to embrace digital technology, however at the same time the survey demonstrates they need guidance, especially in implementation,” he said.  “One area greatly in need of improvement is agent websites. Only 8% of respondents rated their sites as excellent, and 60% of agents said their sites are average to poor.”

Becker added that independent agents “need to remain mindful of their value proposition that sets them apart from the direct writers.  Technology tools will help independent agents deliver their unique value.”

ACT’S Ron Berg believes agents do recognize the urgency of going digital, but for many smaller to mid-sized agents, the process appears so big and they don’t perceive a strong customer demand.

“The tools are out there – mobile apps, agency website quoting, live chat assistance and eSignature,” he says.  “Of more concern is the agent’s perception of the need.  More than 90% of agents said their customers are not asking for a client portal – but just because their customers aren’t proactively asking for a client portal does not mean they do not expect it.”

PIA’s Becker is equally forceful.

“Just because most agents say their clients are not asking for a client portal or a mobile app, that doesn’t mean they don’t want them,” he says. “ Agents can’t take the position that ‘no news is good news’ when it comes to their customers’ digital requirements, which will evolve and become more refined going forward. Consumer expectations are changing dramatically.  It’s critical that agents are able to have functional web sites, service their customers 24X7, and have the most up-to-date automation in place so that they are efficient.”

The bottom line is that agents cannot afford to put off their own “digital transformation.” The stakes are too high to do otherwise.