The Web They Weave

Roper DeGarmo ran his Kansas City-based agency from China for the past two years, returning home last fall. Over this long duration, his business didn’t suffer at all; in fact, not a single client was even aware he was away the whole time.

How did the owner of Signature Personal Insurance pull it off? SoMoClo.

Like many agents, DeGarmo has become an expert on the continuum of technology solutions—social media, mobility, business apps, the cloud and Big Data—that are now intersecting in novel ways. Technology analysts tout their various connections in abbreviated acronyms like SoMoClo (the intersection of social media, mobility and the cloud) and SMACK (social, mobile and analytics).

“There are interesting opportunities presented by these technologies for small- to mid-size agencies,” says Andrew Borg, research director of enterprise mobility and collaboration at research firm Aberdeen Group—and coiner of the SoMoClo mash-up.

“For instance, Big Data provides access to a universe of information about lifestyles, consumer trends and growing or recessionary regional economies,” Borg explains. “When coupled with the cloud, voluminous data can be captured and analyzed for decision-making purposes. Some of this data might come from social media like Twitter or LinkedIn. And it all can be available on a mobile device.”

How an agency connects social media, Big Data, business apps, mobility and the cloud depends on its particular sales and service strategy. “There’s a lot of experimentation going on right now among independent agencies,” says Ellen Carney, principal analyst, insurance e-business at Forrester Research. “Our analyses indicate that the industry’s biggest spending increase is in the area of data analytics, with mobile a real close second. And there is lots of activity with respect to social media. These tools are being used in different ways, and these differences will separate industry winners from also-rans.”

Mobile or Bust

DeGarmo was focused on mobility from day one back in 2004, when he launched his agency with a specialty focus on high net worth personal lines. “I wanted to be able to move around the country building my client base nationally, and employ others working from their homes as the back office,” he says.

When wireless mobile devices made their debut in 2007 with the iPhone, followed by the introduction of the iPad in 2010, what DeGarmo could only imagine in the past now loomed possible. He had assembled an agency staff that worked individually from their homes and remained connected to him 24/7, including his brother in Wichita and service staff from Colorado to central Kansas.

When DeGarmo’s wife, an educator, was hired for a two-month stint in Hong Kong in late 2010, DeGarmo tagged along. He found that running the agency overseas was as easy as running it from Kansas City. In 2011, his wife was invited to set up an English curriculum school on the Chinese mainland—a two-year commitment she wanted DeGarmo and their two children to join.

While most people might balk at operating a business in China given the infrastructure and communications hurdles, the challenge invigorated DeGarmo. “I had my virtual private network in place to access Google’s services, so I didn’t see any technical impediments,” he says. “I was more than game.”

As it turned out, the only problem DeGarmo encountered was the time zone difference when he had to schedule a phone call with a client. “Frankly, most prefer to deal with me through written communications anyway,” he says. “I can’t imagine one of them wanting to kill the morning talking about personal insurance.”

Not one client had the faintest idea he was anywhere other than Kansas City. “I didn’t go out of my way and advertise that I was in China,” DeGarmo laughs. “And the Skype connection was so good and the quality so excellent that you’d think I was calling from around the block.”

Pulling the Pieces Together

For Ross Dik, president of Knight-Dik Insurance in Worcester, Mass., primary tools include social media; the InfusionSoft CRM system and other cloud-based systems; and mobility, with a business app provided by the agency management system vendor. “All the pieces don’t yet all fit together as a unit, but they’re getting there,” Dik says.

The agency’s workflow is changing accordingly. Producers now routinely leverage social media for sales leads, finding particular success with LinkedIn, Dik says. They’re also out of the office much more than in past, connecting to the agency’s management system on their mobile devices. “If a prospect or a client has a question and the agent is on the road, they can easily and quickly find the answer by accessing the database from their tablet or smartphone,” he explains.

Dik touts the benefits of being able to access enormous amounts of data through the cloud on a mobile device. The CRM system slices and dices this data into insightful information, with a prospect minced into up to 17 data points. “This allows us to send a specific message to a specific prospect targeting their specific issues and needs, as opposed to a blanket message,” Dik says.

The tools are helping agency staff react more nimbly to opportunities and challenges. But that’s not to say there haven’t been bumps in the road. “We’re getting so much data from the website, agency management system, CRM system and social media that we literally had to stop and figure out how best to manage the overflow,” Dik explains. “These technologies are as evolutionary as they are revolutionary.”

Practical Application

They are also game changers, according to technology analysts and consultants. “Tools like Big Data are enabling independent agents to provide incremental and differentiated insights on their customers, in terms of their purchasing and product service propensities,” says Jim Kinzie, managing director and head of the financial services North America insurance practice at Accenture Analytics.

Borg of Aberdeen Group extols the benefits of coupling Big Data with mobility. “Agents now have access to all this data in the field,” he says. “After a natural disaster, they can access their clients’ account information, as well as data from all sorts of other outlets, and then synchronize this information through the cloud back to the office for analysis purposes. They can then upload the analytics anytime, anywhere, to provide a much higher level of customer service or undertake a more compelling sales approach.”

Other combinations are similarly potent. “An agency salesperson using Twitter or LinkedIn for sales and marketing no longer is a faceless individual behind a desk; he or she is someone who cares about and engages in the community,” Borg says. “When you add voice and video to the equation, these newer forms of connectivity extend the reach of the agency.”

And agents can’t afford to wait. “The agent of tomorrow will be completely mobile,” predicts Carney of -Forrester Research. “They really should be, anyway. They should be out there meeting with customers, answering their questions in real time on their mobile devices. Other-wise, they will appear to be behind the times.”

Russ Banham is an IA contributor.


SIDEBAR: Experimentation Equals Progress

Agency technology expert Steve Anderson, editor of The Anderson Agency Report, says agents like Roper DeGarmo and Ross Dik are “the uber-agents of tomorrow, today.”

“They had the confidence to invest in these tools because they had a strategy in place first,” Anderson says. “They did not sit back and wait for perfection.”

Anderson adds that agents must learn to embrace failure. “Connecting these different technologies in productive ways is not an exercise in perfection,” he says. “There will be missteps, and the value will be different for different agencies. The important thing is to experiment.”

Such experimentation doesn’t have to be expensive, notes Andrew Borg, research director of enterprise mobility and collaboration at research firm Aberdeen Group.
“With the cloud, you’re basically renting services,” he says. “You’re trading a large upfront capital expenditure for a more financially manageable operating expenditure, each month or each quarter. Not just multinational corporations can benefit from the insights that these tools provide.” —R.B.