Surviving the Agency Management System Switch

Must a switch of agency management systems be a Pyrrhic victory, conquering some inefficiency but exacting a toll that negates any gains?

The assertion of a range of independent agents, system vendors and industry consultants is a resounding “no”—but surviving the switch is tough. It requires five key essentials:

1) Perform a solid cost-benefit analysis.

2) Involve a swath of staff and producers in deciding whether to switch, what to change and how to transition.

3) Realize where and what the pain points are and prepare for them.

4) Clean up data in the current system prior to porting it to a new one, recognizing that processes often require updating for a new platform.

5) Expect ramping up the new system to take time and effort.

Time to Change?

What might indicate it’s time for your agency to make the switch? System fees are creeping—or leaping—up. Or the existing system is aging and lacks updated capabilities. Or it might be facing its end of life, making a change inevitable.

“Agents want to change because they are frustrated that something does not work or is not available how they want it,” says Michael Foy of Foy Insurance, a board member of Network of Vertafore Users (NetVU). “Others have not implemented version updates or stayed on legacy products, and they become forced to change. Most will find their issues can be addressed with training or version upgrades.”

Steve Anderson, an agency technology consultant who tracks 40 agency management systems available from 25 different vendors, says many agencies may go through a sales demo but conclude that they don’t see enough advantage over their current system: “Some decide it’s not worth it [because it seems like they’re] not getting enough to make the pain of switching worthwhile.”

Many times, users are better served learning to use the current system more efficiently rather than switching. Kris Hackney, executive vice president of customer experience at Applied Systems, says it’s a must for agencies to have “systems that are advanced and flexible enough to respond quickly to new market opportunities.”

But many agents reach a point where the existing system just doesn’t offer what they need. For Sherry Burrell of Grimes Insurance, a 10-employee agency in Duluth, Georgia, it was a risk management issue. “I think the E&O control was probably the biggest thing that convinced me,” she says of moving from Applied Systems’ TAM platform to Applied Epic four years ago. “In TAM, there is no tracking as far as changes to policies. In Epic, you see the date, time, who made changes and what changes were made to the policy or application.”

Vertafore’s Bruce Winterburn, vice president of industry relations, cautions agency principals against waiting until what he calls a “watershed moment”—a system or business crisis when it’s “almost too late,” he says. “It’s not any one time or event, but kind of a movement I think agents can sense.”

Buying the Switch

Complaining about the flaws of a management system might come easy. But getting users who might fear the pain of switching to buy in? Not so much.

That’s because the agency management system is “the heart of your company,” says Jaideep Jayaram, vice president of sales and marketing for EZLynx—and “asking people to do a heart transplant is always scary. It all depends on which clinic you go to.”

Michelle Somberg, marketing/commercial lines manager at Collinsworth, Alter, Fowler & French, a division of Nielson, Hoover & Company that employs more than 90 staff members throughout the country, says the crux of the problem is fear of the unknown. “Have you ever read a book called ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ Cheese is very important,” she says. “No one likes change. I don’t like change either, but unfortunately change is the future.”

That’s why clear communication is so important in a successful process. “Clearly communicating why change is needed and the benefits of implementing a new agency management system across an agency to all stakeholders in the transition helps to build buy-in from the start,” Hackney explains.

Anderson, who helps agencies evaluate and select managements systems, understands that changing systems is a very big deal. “Most agencies do not give it the consideration it deserves. Then they make a move, didn’t research it well enough, didn’t know what they were getting into and then all of a sudden have major productivity issues,” he says. “So they’re not getting the benefit they expected or thought they should. Certainly sometimes that’s a vendor issue, but a lot of times it’s just unrealistic expectations.”

After deciding a change is necessary, Anderson says employee buy-in is critical—it shouldn’t be the agency owner making a solo decision about the new system. Rather, the agency should engage a group of employees representing all agency functions.

That’s exactly the approach Somberg used when her agency combined three operating systems in Epic, converting branches that used AMS360, TAM and AfW. “We drafted people from various departments and said, ‘We want you on the team,’” she explains. That included producers, account managers, service and marketing reps and accounting. “By doing that, they all had input.”

Managing the Migration

But getting your team on board is only half the battle—they then have to take the time to implement the change in a thoughtful way. “We’re all creatures of habit,” Winterburn says. “No one is sitting around at their desks looking for something to do. Everyone is very busy.”

The migration typically involves not only funneling data from one system to another, but also improving or updating workflows within the agency and with carriers. Experts are unanimous: No matter why or how an agency chooses to switch, the process will disrupt everyone in the office. From training to new processes and procedures to other shifts, it’s essential to input data properly in the outgoing system, manage the change efficiently and get proper training.

According to Hackney, Applied Systems encourages clients to identify “champions” early in the transition process and involve them in every step along the way. Agencies “should identify key business areas where they can streamline workflows and reduce duplicate administrative tasks,” she says.

Benefits can include optimizing business operations and service practices, Hackney says, as well as adding capabilities for the agency to meet the expectations of personal and commercial lines clients for online account access, never-ending customer service and self-service tools.

Unfortunately, most agencies rely on vendors for implementation—and “there are pretty significant considerations to setting up the system properly that the vendor isn’t going to handle for you,” Anderson says, citing accounting, document and data conversion as three top issues for agencies to consider prior to switching systems.

Hackney likens the switch to moving to a new home. “You take the time when moving to consider what to move into your new home and what you no longer need,” she says. “You don’t simply move everything from your existing home to the new one. When making the transition to a new agency management system, data quality is critical to your success.”

Somberg agrees: “If the system isn’t cleaned up prior to the conversion, the conversion can be very challenging.”

Foy says agents shouldn’t forget to account for the downtime associated with a switch. “You’ve got conversion time,” he says. “When you move systems, you’ve certainly got training issues and then that ramp up time. It takes three months for everybody to get proficient in the system if they were proficient in their system before.”

Somberg remembers that adjustment period well—but notes you can come out the other side with fewer scars if you get in the trenches with the employees you’re asking to make the change.

“As a manager in the agency, I actually worked the workflow and I created cheat sheets in Epic for every workflow in the organization,” Somberg says. “I created picture books for users to refer to when they felt frustrated. I had an open-door policy and literally at one point had six people standing outside my office. I felt like I was at Publix: ‘I’m now serving customer number 101.’ But that’s OK. You need to make sure you have someone that is very, very good [in the new system] to answer.”

Rick Morgan is an IA contributor.

6 Signs it’s Time to Switch

Brady Polansky, vice president of agency relationships for solutions provider EZLynx, points out six reasons it might be time to switch agency management systems:

1) You can no longer get meaningful information about your sales and operations out of your system.

2) You don’t trust the reports coming out of your system—they don’t jibe with what you think is going on in your organization.

3)  You need to improve the efficiencies of sales and service through current technologies, and your current vendor just doesn’t offer that.

4) You have to take out a mortgage to pay your monthly bill.

5) Your employees can no longer effectively use the system in a consistent way.

6) You’re tired of telling the system what to do.

It should be telling you what to do to keep and sell more business. —R.M.