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How the Cloud Is Changing the Game for Independent Agents

Does your agency have its head in the clouds? If so, you're in good and growing company—here's why independent agents are flocking to cloud technology.
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how the cloud is changing the game for independent agents

Does your agency have its head in the clouds? If so, you're in good and growing company. Eight in 10 agencies and brokerages choose to host their software in the cloud, according to a 2021 survey from Applied Systems. That's a jump from 2020, when seven in 10 were in the cloud.

 As more agencies ascend to the cloud, how has it impacted agencies and their profitability?

The cloud is “a vast network of remote servers around the globe which are hooked together and meant to operate as a single ecosystem. Instead of accessing files and data from a local or personal computer, you are accessing them online from any internet-capable device," according to Microsoft.

For Mike Foy, president of Foy Insurance in Exeter, New Hampshire, the cloud is “peace of mind," he says. “Prior to being in the cloud, I had to worry about whether my server downstairs was backed up if the building burned down or a hurricane came through. When you host your own servers, you either need to hire a tech-savvy third party or you need a staff person dedicated to it."

Foy Insurance currently has a cloud-based agency management system, email provider and phone provider. “Being in the cloud means it's one less thing a business owner has to worry about," Foy says.

“Many agencies struggle with where to store data with 200 employees," says Joyce Sigler, systems intelligence manager at SeitbertKeck Insurance Partners in Akron, Ohio, which uses a wide spectrum of cloud-based products. “From a logistical standpoint, the ability to have everything stored on the cloud changes our customer experience, our employees' experience, and gives us a preparedness for disaster recovery that you don't have otherwise."

No Place Like the Cloud

Of course, you can't just click your heels and be there. At InterWest Insurance Services in Chico, California, “we've got one foot on one ship and one foot on the other," says Tony Rubio, director of information services. “We're very cloud heavy. The only area we're still providing in-house is our virtual desktop infrastructure. But we're more in the cloud than we are on-premises."

Moving to the cloud has allowed the agency to spread its wings. “It's really hard to be competitive when you're building your own infrastructure. You spend much more time and resources on technology maintenance," Rubio says. “Now, we can focus our efforts on providing solutions versus keeping the lights on."

“The implications that the cloud has on the wider industry is freedom," says Joel Zwicker, insurance evangelist at Agency Revolution. “It allows agencies to access documents in real time from anywhere. This allows for agencies to provide faster service, which undoubtedly is why more agencies will adopt cloud technology."

But not everyone is sold. What about those agencies who aren't in the cloud?

“Insurance is a very form-driven industry. We still see customers who have a basement full of paper files, let alone a basement full of servers," says Brett Chenail, vice president of customer and solution consulting at Vertafore. “Those who gravitate more toward the traditional business model are putting their faith in staff or someone to guide them on having their own setup—hosting their own software, keeping their own data secure and compliant—and that if anything happens they can take care of it themselves."

That's quite the task. It's “an incredible investment and responsibility," Zwicker says. “Frankly, it's a waste of an agency's time and resources given the capacity, flexibility and security that cloud storage offers today."

Here are four big ways the cloud is making life easier for independent agencies:

1) Disaster preparedness and security. Back when they had on-premise servers, “if my corporate headquarters burned down, yes, we would have backups, but it would have taken days to be back up and running with access to our customer data and email," Foy says.

“Cloud enables organizations to implement redundancy, ensuring that customers of service providers rarely face downtime," says Adam Kiefer, CEO of Talage.

“One of the things that we as an agency can never do as well as a cloud provider is provide redundancy," Rubio agrees. “Microsoft has data centers all over the world. You just can't compete with the economy of scale they have."

“Not that you're never going to have an outage," he adds, “but in terms of disaster, there is less to worry about."

Further, in a cybersecurity environment filled with breaches and evolving regulations, by outsourcing data storage, “you're getting the highest standards in security from a company that's dedicated to staying on top of security," Chenail says. “That's important because security standards are changing constantly."

2) Easy upgrades. Being in the cloud places your agency at the front of the line for technology advancements. “When most companies bring out a new feature, they actually deliver it to the cloud before they deliver for on-premises installation," Rubio says. “For example, we use Office 365, and some of the features on the cloud are more robust and more quickly delivered than the updates available to your local exchange server."

3) Connectivity. “The cloud allows for wider connectivity across the entire industry," says Rich Belanger, chief technology officer of Applied Systems. “Because the connection between two systems isn't tied to a physical server, agencies on the cloud have much more flexibility and speed."

Additionally, Belanger explains, cloud technology is much better than on-premise systems at real-time communication, reducing the risk of outdated information and increasing agencies' reaction time to new business opportunities.

 “When it comes to rating, appetite and underwriting, the cloud is necessary to ensure agents have accurate information as it enables real-time communication," he says.

And from a carrier perspective, “they can update their underwriting requirements and instantly push that change via their quote application programming interface," Kiefer says. “This means agents don't have to update anything—it's done for them."

Ultimately, the connectivity allows the independent agency system to use data in a new way. “Carriers have always generated enough data to get a view of a market," Chenail says. “Historically, agents' piece of the pie is just their business—it's too small. But what the cloud lets us do is pool that data. It puts analytics back in their hands."

“Appetite and underwriting are greatly improved with that more accurate view," he continues. “We can make better decisions."

4) Remote work. When Foy Insurance decided to move to a cloud-based provider in 2015, an extra perk was that it was easier for employees to work remotely. “When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we were already positioned for employees to work at home," Foy says. “The cloud allowed us to do that because the systems were already pointed to cloud-based applications."

Three years ago, the agency only had one remote worker. Now, “we have about 15% of our workforce remote—not just in the next town over but in the next state," he says.

Meanwhile, the cloud is positioning SeitbertKeck Insurance Partners for the future workforce. “The employer who is using clear, relevant innovations will be the most attractive," Sigler says. “Implementing things like cloud storage is how we're preparing our business for the future."

The Occasional Cloudburst

Despite the benefits for independent agencies, innovation, improvement and clarity are still needed. “There can be access issues," Foy points out. “When my email doesn't work or my AMS is down, I don't have control or knowledge of how long it'll take to fix."

However, Foy also notes that he has his three cloud-based components—AMS, phone and email—in separate clouds, so if something happens to one provider the agency isn't completely locked out of their operation.

Additionally, cybersecurity is on many people's minds. “We don't necessarily control how someone might gain access, and I can't just go down to the basement and pull the plug anymore," Foy says. “Of course, your cloud providers will have better security than most agencies would have who host internal servers."

“The whole cybersecurity question is so complicated," he continues. “What do carriers want us to do? What do vendors want us to do? How do you satisfy everyone? If your hosted partners can't meet the requirements of a contract you might have with a carrier, that's a problem."

“As we transition our employees to the cloud, one thing on our minds is that if you're not set up correctly, people who have access to your cloud can take items from you or share a file with someone who it shouldn't be shared with," Sigler says. “There's definitely an opportunity to lay a better security foundation."

Further, the lack of control is a concern for business owners. “You're taking something like that you used to be able to control—like your customer's data—and putting your eggs in that basket," Chenail says. “What if the vendor has problems? It's a matter of trust."

Ultimately, despite its flaws, the cloud can ensure agencies will be there for customers when they're needed the most.

“Consider the role you play in your communities. Consider the severity of the events that occur every day around the world," Zwicker says. “Something like that could happen in your community and your ability to access your data from anywhere is absolutely critical to provide your clients and their communities the service they not only need but should expect from you."

AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.

Cloud Formation

Here are four tips on making the jump to the cloud, from those who've done it:

1) Determine your non-negotiables. “It's not a decision or journey you make overnight," Sigler says. “Sit down and think about your non-negotiables—like security and compliance—and then prioritize what needs to be cloud-based and what doesn't."

Foy started with his phone system, and then moved the AMS, and then finally email. “It probably took two years to complete the entire process," he says. “Don't try to do everything at once."

2) Find a third-party IT consultant. “You probably don't have the time or knowledge to figure out how to migrate to the cloud," Foy says. “Hire a third-party consultant that understands your operation and your goals."

3) Prioritize value over cost. “As independent agents, we always talk about value, not cost or price," Foy says. “Think about the value a cloud-based solution provides."

Sigler recommends a similar approach. “A good product has a financial expense to match," she says. “You should be budgeting for that."

4) Be purposeful with training. As with any new technology, success hinges on implementation and whether agency employees are comfortable using the cloud to its full advantage. “Training can be an obstacle, especially if you're not a small agency," Rubio says. “Getting everyone on the same page can be complicated. Definitely set expectations and think through that aspect." —AM

Wednesday, December 1, 2021