How the independent agent's role in commercial lines submissions is evolving and how, in many important ways, it will stay exactly the same.
The commercial lines submissions process is in the midst of an evolutionary growth spurt. The fish has crawled out of the ocean, but it's still got a long way to go before it walks on its own two feet. And commercial lines independent agents have been brought along for the ride.
To adapt to an increasingly digital world, carriers and vendors have begun implementing technology to make commercial lines submissions faster and digitalized. Gone are the days of snail mailing an application and sitting tight—that's the ocean behind us—but leaps and bounds in connectivity must be implemented before independent agents feel less like fish out of water.
Here's how the independent agent's role in commercial lines submissions is evolving and how, in many important ways, it will stay exactly the same.
Need for Speed
What prompted the evolution in the first place?
“A lot has changed over the past several years in terms of consumers expecting faster turnaround," says Matt Simon, president of CoverLink Insurance in Bellefontaine, Ohio. “It's the Amazon effect. And part of the challenge is that the industry hasn't kept pace with that change."
“Individual carriers have adapted their technology by completely overhauling their infrastructure to make it easier for us to get what we need in a timely manner," Simon continues. “But then we felt torn between having one or two carriers that we could go to for a quote in the next couple hours versus a carrier that was a far better fit but had a four-week turnaround."
The patchwork progress poses a conundrum for agents. “Do we go to the carrier that's going to provide the solution to the customer in the timeframe that they want?" Simon asks. “Or do we try and talk to the customer about a better product that will take more time?"
Many times, the customer makes the choice for them. “By the time we got that better but later solution in place and reached back out to the consumer, they'd already moved on and bought a different policy, even though it wasn't the best fit," he says.
Even with multiple carrier options, the lack of coordination and standardized processes poses challenges.
“Because a lot of carriers have their own separate online rating tools, we have to go to their specific portal to do the rating ourselves," says Bonnie Two Bears, manager of training for agency automation at InterWest Insurance Services in Redding, California. “And each carrier's proprietary portal requires different types of information on what lines they accept, what data they need and so on."
“There are so many siloed systems," says Ilya Bodner, CEO and founder of Bold Penguin. “They're handled by different vendors, different insurance companies and different integrators. It's just a big spider web of stuff, with no standardized way of submitting an application."
And in a hard market, agencies like InterWest are faced with “limited" coverage options, Two Bears says, “especially since we service wildfire areas."
Add the complications of agents being required to essentially become experts in each carrier's submissions process, and it's like finding a two-legged fish in a prehistoric ocean.
When options are limited, agents risk losing business. “In fact, nearly 70% of agencies say they often lose opportunities because they cannot find a market to quote the risks," says Kathy Hrach, vice president of product management at IVANS, citing the 2020 IVANS Agency-Insurer Connectivity Report.
With these isolated ecosystems for commercial lines submissions, independent agents are finding their role shifting away from consumers. “Our commercial lines account managers aren't here to be technology gurus," Two Bears says. “They want to work with their clients."
The lack of connectivity hits at the heart of the independent agent's mission. “Our value proposition as an independent agency is that we work with multiple insurance carriers to find the best solution for a specific risk," Simon says. “If technology has only been upgraded with a handful of carriers, that diminishes our value proposition."
“The situation and climate that we're in today has pushed back a little on the agent in their role, especially in the small commercial space," agrees Ken O'Sullivan, product manager at Duck Creek Technologies. “The primary role of the agent is providing that deeply informed insurance knowledge and guidance, as well as needing to become the digital agent, keeping up with technology coming from both carriers and vendors."
“Right now, it's up to the agent to rely on their own infrastructure and automation, being the integrator through the submissions processes with multiple pairings," O'Sullivan adds. “It's really taxing the agent."
Of course, that's not where we want this fish to stop walking. Ultimately, technology in commercial lines submissions processes should “allow agents to focus on the parts of their job that brings the most value to the end customer," says Adam Kiefer, CEO and co-founder of Talage. “If they aren't spending extra time on submissions and other processes, they can focus on providing advice and guidance to their clients."
But how do we get there?
Connecting the Dots
“I would dearly love to see a solution where our agents can, from our agency management system, complete the submissions application, upload the data to carriers, and then have it all come right back to us in our AMS," Two Bears says. “My hope is that we can get carriers to come to some kind of a common agreement to make it simpler for agents to be able to utilize that technology."
A multiple carrier interface is not that many steps ahead. “Just about every other industry has a single-entry intake, whether you apply for a mortgage or get an airplane ticket," Bodner points out.
CoverLink uses Bold Penguin's exchange to solve many of their ecosystem connectivity pain points. “Rather than going to multiple carriers, we can go into the Bold Penguin terminal, enter the underwriting information one time, and then their technology bridges with every carrier they're integrated with to return a bindable quote to our producers in a matter of minutes, not weeks," Simon says.
“Several components of the commercial lines submissions process that agencies can begin using are either free to the agent or integrated into other technology they may already be using," Hrach says. “IVANS Markets is complimentary to agents and allows them to search for insurers based on risk details like the line of business, class code, side and location."
Increased connectivity will benefit carriers as well. “Carriers will continue to drive into new products and regions," says Matt Sheridan, senior director of product marketing and strategy at Duck Creek. “It's only going to get more interesting as carriers continue to configure, build products and tackle markets more rapidly with data that can come from a connected society."
All this evolution means agents can get back to the origin of their species. “We feel like we're finally back in the driver's seat, having those important conversations with clients and helping them understand the differences between various products," Simon says. “We can actually advise them on what's best for their business, not necessarily which quote will turn around the fastest."
As the insurance industry evolves toward improved connectivity in commercial lines submissions, agents can focus their technology investments to improve their submissions process.
But forget about perfection. “There is no complete solution for submissions out there today," Bodner says. “Whoever tells you that they have the perfect answer to everything is lying to you." The freedom in that realization is “don't be afraid to go with a vendor that's forward-thinking," he says. “It's more important to look at the product roadmap to determine where it's headed."
The worst-case scenario is an agency letting the evolving nature of the technology block their decision. “It's scary to spend money on a technology or go into something that's still constantly shifting," Bodner continues. “But sitting around and waiting is worse. There's so much activity surrounding commercial lines you don't want to wake up three to five years later and realize you're that much further behind."
Instead, agencies can focus their efforts by keying into staff needs. “I suggest eating the elephant one bite at a time," Two Bears says. “Identify your pain points first by watching your staff and seeing what they need. If you throw too much at them at once, it can push them off the deep end."
And be prepared to offer ongoing training for technology solutions. “I've heard from new employees immersed in all our various tools that it's like drinking from a fire hose," she adds. “When we initially train, we have a process that I call 'snorkeling,' which is a broad overview. Then a few weeks later we take a deep dive."
For information, collaboration and assistance, Two Bears recommends participating in their agency management systems user groups as well as groups like the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) and AUGIE Group. “They are invaluable in terms of information and assistance," she says.
Most importantly, agents can exercise their voice to push evolution forward.
“Talk to your insurer partners about your need for improved digital submissions," Hrach says. “Insurers want to invest in technology that will ultimately benefit their agent relationships. The more awareness of this technology between agents and insurers, the faster we can create a more connected commercial lines ecosystem."
AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.
Survival of the Fittest
Agencies should look for a commercial lines submissions vendor that is:
1) Battle-tested. “Do they have the volume of quotes admissions to justify that it works for a variety of different customers?" Bodner asks.
2) Application program interface integrated. “Focus on technology that is integrated with carriers via direct application programming interface integrations," Kiefer says. “There are multiple ways to pull quotes from carriers, but APIs are the only reliable way from our perspective. Other ways will take too long, easily break or provide misleading price indications."
3) Pre-fill optimized. “Look for components that reduce the time through data pre-fill," O'Sullivan says. “Look for carriers who provide easily accessible appetite information to make sure that you're pursuing the right carrier for the risk, as well as class code specific questionnaires to help identify referrals quicker."