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Get That Bread: Customize Your Agency's Tech Stack

If your tech stack is resulting in anything less than perfection, your recipe could use some refinement. Here's how to create a smooth digital experience for clients and colleagues alike.
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get that bread: customize your agency's tech stack

Curating your agency's technology lineup is a lot like baking bread. Throw in some flour because you feel you have to, dump in a random amount of yeast from the fridge that expired last month, maybe a glug of a fancy extract because it looked cool, pop it in the oven and forget about it—and end up with a perfectly balanced and harmonized end product.

Wait, what? That's not how bread works? Guess what—it's also not how your agency's technology works.

The tech products that go into your agency's tech loaf, better known as a tech stack—the entire ecosystem of technology solutions in your agency—have most likely been accumulated over the years. Maybe your customers are no longer getting the cutting-edge digitalized service they want. Or perhaps your staff wastes time switching between systems and rekeying data into siloed programs.

If your tech stack is resulting in anything less than perfection, your recipe could use some refinement. And the stakes are high. With 4.5 million workers quitting their jobs in November 2021 alone, the fourth record-breaking month of 2021, according to the Washington Post, agencies must ensure their staff's workflow and operations are efficient and optimized to keep employees at their desks.

“We have a hiring problem right now in the industry," says Rick Fox, vice president and head of agency sales at Vertafore. “The first piece of the problem is that insurance isn't sexy so many new workers aren't considering it, but the second is that the youngest generations are not interested in sitting down at a desk in your office and using technology that behaves likes it's 30 years old."

On the customer side, clients increasingly expect a smooth digital experience from agents. Over three-quarters of independent agents report that customer expectations for automated processes have increased, with almost as many (73%) reporting that their customers expect a fully digital experience, according to a Bindable survey.

“It's time to meet your customers where they want to be met, and it's absolutely, unequivocally time to use technology to do that," Fox says.

Gather Your Ingredients 

To simplify matters, many of the common capabilities that an agency needs from its tech can go into two buckets, explains Michael Howe, chief product officer at Applied Systems. “First, all things internal: accounting, policy management, document management—there is always room to make those operations more efficient and effective. The second bucket is all the technology you use to interact with your customer: customer relationship management, sales, marketing, online presence and more."

New tech products are being cranked out every day, each promising to cure every agency ache and pain. How does an agency determine what it needs to curate a tech stack that fits its needs? Here are three ways to prepare:

1) Identify your goal. “The most successful agencies don't start by answering a technology question—first they answer a business question," Howe says. “What are they actually trying to do? Are they trying to operate more efficiently, sell more, introduce a new kind of offering to customers?"

“If you don't understand where you're going, it's hard to select a vendor that's going to fit your needs long term," agrees R. Dean Giem, president & CEO at Paradox Insurance Agency in Kalispell, Montana. “You'll find yourself switching and changing tech quite frequently, which is a complete disruption."

When it came to figuring out his tech stack, Giem had the benefit of starting from scratch. Launching his insurance career with a direct writer, he moved into the independent channel and grew a four-person team into a 30-person team before branching out to start Paradox Insurance Agency.

As he began crafting his tech strategy from the ground up, “I knew that I had to have a vision for my agency," Giem says. “I needed to know what kind of products we were going to sell and who our clients were going to be because that was going to help me narrow my focus on what tech I needed to accomplish the customer and internal solutions that I wanted."

“Are you targeting a sector of the community that's less likely to use technology, or somebody who's going to want that instant access at 2 a.m.?" Giem continues. “We also wanted a business model that was remote capable, and so we knew we needed to have cloud-based technology."

“A new agency makes it easy," he says. “But an existing agency still needs to consider those same things. It's not just a matter of where they are today, but where they're going to be in the next three years."

Marshall & Sterling Insurance in Poughkeepsie, New York, knew that to reach its business goals it needed to improve its tech stack in three areas.

“We wanted a set of systems that could work for our entire business, so we could see customers in one pane of glass without bumping into each other," says Jim Dahoney, senior vice president and chief information officer at Marshall & Sterling. “We also wanted the ability to cross-train users from different areas of the business, meaning a set of workflows and systems that translate to those other areas of the business."

In addition to streamlined access and connected workflows, “we wanted to give visibility to our managers so they could monitor and adjust workload if needed," Dahoney continues. “And of course, all these systems had to talk to each other."

2) Audit your current tech stack. Once you've identified your goal, assess where your agency's current tech stack fails to rise to the occasion.

“Use key personnel from across the agency in strategic review and planning sessions to map out your current technology and functionality," says Ron Berg, executive director of the Big “I" Agents Council for Technology (ACT). He recommends asking questions, such as “Does your technology provide the customer experience expected by today's consumers? What workflow challenges does your current tech stack not resolve?"

Questions shouldn't just revolve around what products your agency can access, but also how those products are being used. “Have you maximized the technology that you already use, whether it's your agency management system (AMS) or customer relationship management system (CRM)?" asks Philip Charles-Pierre, co-founder and CEO of Semsee, a commercial lines quoting platform. “And then, have you tied them together? It's important that your technology is compatible so you can create a seamless experience."

If your products aren't working together, it's something you should—and can—fix. “If I'm doing work in the AMS and then have to jump over to a separate product and none of the data comes along, I now have to rekey literally everything that already exists in this other system," Howe says. “I'm now more error-prone, much slower, it's frustrating—you need to create an experience where the products are working together."

3) Determine your order of priority. Most likely, you found multiple areas that need improvement within your agency's tech stack. Where do you start?

“We break it into three phases," says Jason Liu, CEO of Zywave. “You really need that system of record on your customer and an accounting system, and that's your AMS and CRM."

“It's important for an agency to have a foundation in place with a good AMS," Howe agrees. “What we see sometimes is, for any number of reasons, an agency might have more than one AMS. My cardinal rule is to make it easier for yourself and get that common foundation together."

However, changes to an AMS or CRM can take a long time. Once the process to improve those foundational systems is underway, “there are some softwares that are much easier and more quickly deployed that you could have some quick wins with in the meantime," Liu says. “Marketing automation software, like marketing emails and websites; digital quoting tools; content management; and the submission process for large commercial or large group."

Finally, Liu recommends that “if you get all that right, you can start worrying about how you service your customer, like a client portal or app."

“I see a lot of agencies just kind of buy stuff without a plan," he adds. “We really encourage them to sequence the process and be very thoughtful about how you build your tech stack."

Time to Bake

Only after you've identified your goals, assessed your current products and determined your order of priority should you turn to tech.

“There's so much out there," Giem says. “At the end of the day, our tech stack has to be easy for staff to use, make customers' lives easier and have the functions we need it to accomplish from a business perspective."

As you look for products to assemble your tech stack, here are the top criteria to evaluate them:

Integration 

While your specific products will be centered around your agency's goals, one component is nonnegotiable: integration.

“If I have to manually pull information out of my AMS and put it into another software, do something with it, and then go back and tell the AMS I did it, that is not a win—that's a loss," Fox says. “Find tech that talks to your other tech."

The magic phrase is application programming interface (API). “You want to look for a product that's open to working with others, and API is the most common way for technology products to work with each other," Howe says. “It's the common set of capabilities that Product A and Product B both need to talk to each other."

Two systems that are especially crucial to integrate are your AMS and CRM. “Your existing customer information sits in your AMS, and your new prospect information sits in your CRM," Liu explains.

Eighty-one percent of agencies don't use a CRM, according to a 2021 survey by Applied Systems. However, if combined properly, “we have seen CRM and AMS functionalities begin to merge, with CRMs increasingly being used by account managers as a front-end tool, while still using an AMS to complete more complicated reconciliation or commission reconciliation tasks," according to “The Sales Revolution," an e-book authored by Liu and Don Bailey, partner at Bristlecone Partners.

For Marshall & Sterling, dedication to an integrated tech stack paid off. “We have offices in the Virgin Islands, which were struck by two hurricanes in 2017," Dahoney says. “We were able to have our staff in other locations help out with claims. Plus, we were able to integrate a tool from another vendor on the fly, which rerouted calls as landlines were down and used the messages to set up claims automatically and push it into our system."

“Because we were integrated, we were able to help our staff get back to business," he says.

Innovation

“What is the vendor doing to innovate?" Giem asks. “If somebody has a great product that they're not innovating, we may have to leave them, which is a huge pain point."

“Tomorrow is a completely different animal," Fox says, which is why having integrated products is crucial. “You need to work with companies that are nimble and open enough to have conversations with other vendors and integrate with them."

Security

“A big challenge is vetting all software vendors on their cybersecurity measures to ensure that not only the data is secure both at rest and in motion but also that they can fulfill the cybersecurity requirements for third-party providers as dictated by state and national cyber regulations," Berg says.

With the average cost of a data breach for a company at $4.24 million in 2021, according to the IBM Cost of a Data Breach report, considering cybersecurity is a must. Go to independent
agent.com/ACTCyber to access ACT's “Agency Cyber Guide 3.0" for more guidance.

Cost

“Let's not leave out the elephant in the room," Giem says. “There's a cost of software, implementation and training. I like to test the product if possible and do plenty of research to be really sure of what I'm investing in."

And “investing" is the right word. “If you just dip your toes in by buying a cheap thing, that cheap tech can be 10 times more expensive than investing in a technology you can use for at least five to 10 years," Fox says. “And if you're making an investment in technology, make sure that it is willing and able to have conversations with other technologies."

Service

Although integration is key to building a tech stack, most agencies don't have the know-how or time to stitch systems together, meaning a vendor who can provide that level of assistance is crucial.

For Marshall & Sterling, that was the most challenging aspect of building its tech stack. “You can build your own systems, but we really didn't want to do that," Dahoney says. “We needed to find the right partner who was willing to help with those integrations. Some were simply unwilling to do that, including the vendor who we were with originally." 

For Paradox Insurance Agency, to be a good fit, “a vendor has to be quick with service," Giem says. “Everyone's going to have issues at some point, but if I need help, I need to be able to get a hold of somebody for resolution in a timely manner so my team and clients aren't disrupted for extended periods of time."

Let Them Eat Cake

You've strategized, bought and integrated your seamless tech stack. But that's only the beginning.

“It is 100% not the case that you can just buy your tech, plug it in, and it's done," Fox says. “You have to go back to the beginning where you identified the problem you wanted to solve and then follow through with your technology until the problem is solved."

Here are four tips to enjoy the perfect loaf of bread you just baked:

1) Training. “Most vendors are very willing to do webinars and demos," Charles-Pierre says. “There are too many times when the principal says, 'we're buying this,' pays for it and then the agency never uses it because the staff wasn't invited to see how it works."

Looking for an easy way to start? “Once a month, have one of your agents who is a heavy user of the technology show the team how they're using it to push the rest who aren't implementing it as much," Charles-Pierre suggests.

Training is important to make sure each product in your tech stack is being used to its full potential. “Everything else is irrelevant if you're not maximizing your tech stack," Giem says. “At the end of the day, technology is just capable of what you're asking it to do. Be involved in conversations, expand your education and develop a comprehensive understanding of the capabilities and how to best use them."

2) Reevaluate. “It's always a learning process," Dahoney says. “We have regularly scheduled workflow meetings where our team examines our current workflow to see if anything should be adjusted or changed."

3) Upgrade. You'll be glad you invested in API technology, which makes it even easier to keep up to date. “We plug newer technologies into our system, such as e-documents, document delivery, e-signature, digital delivery and customer portals," Dahoney says.

4) Use your vendors. “Stay in consistent contact with your tech providers to ensure you are aware of future offerings and improvements that can have positive impacts on your agency's workflows," Berg says. “If your software provider has a user group, take full advantage of it."

Additionally, “agencies should tell the provider what's working and what's not," Charles-Pierre adds. “All providers are thinking about ways to make the products better. They want it to be sticky." 

Starter Recipe

Liu recommends that agencies center their tech stack around a structure of “six core systems," he says, explaining the structure outlined in “The Sales Revolution."

Foundational data systems:

1) Agency management system (AMS). “An AMS is your customer tracking mechanism and system of record," Bailey and Liu wrote. “A well-oiled AMS is critical for success … since accurate and complete client records are essential for delivering faster and more effective service."

2) Customer relationship management (CRM). “A CRM allows you to manage all your top-of-the-funnel activities and accounts you're trying to win and renew at any time," Bailey and Liu wrote.

Automation force multipliers:

3) Marketing automation system. “This is where you send out email and use other means to interact with customers digitally," Liu says.

4) Content management. “This has all the content that you need to distribute to your customers," Liu explains.

5) Configure, price and quote (CPQ). “It's the ability to send and receive digital quotes, rather than having to go through the exhausting process of sending out and receiving six quotes to different carriers manually," Liu says.

Client value-adds:

6) Customer portal. “This final piece is where you can service customers through an agency app and provide other services like content or even training," Liu says. 

AnneMarie McPherson is IA news editor.