For years, organizations and industry influencers have been working to convince independent insurance agents to adopt new technology to improve service and efficiency.
And although many agents have been taking steps to transform their agencies, the implementation of digital technology has been slower than it should be.
That’s about to change.
The insurance industry is currently facing a perfect storm of conditions for a major move to digital technologies. Consumers continue to demand tech that allows them to gather information quickly, comparatively rate, request quotes, submit claims, print ID cards, pay their premiums and perform a wide range of other functions. InsurTechs are raising billions of dollars to build digital solutions that, in many cases, displace intermediaries and streamline processing.
Carriers, meanwhile, are partnering with venture capitalists and private equity firms and creating innovation labs of their own in hopes of discovering the next big thing for enhancing the consumer experience.
And many independent agencies are focused on diversifying their businesses to provide a well-rounded portfolio of personal, commercial and financial services lines—which will require them to not only add new clients, but retain current clients at a high rate.
In this competitive environment, independent agents have the advantage: the customer relationship, arguably the most valuable asset in this disruptive equation. By incorporating digital solutions, independent agents can emerge as the winners.
Here are five predictions about how agents will need to leverage the power of technology to succeed in the years ahead.
PREDICTION 1: A flexible digital infrastructure will be critical to growth.
Digital solutions cannot be an add-on for agencies—they must be a part of the infrastructure. Flexible infrastructures empower agencies to prospect, engage, nurture, close and retain clients, while constantly measuring performance.
To build this foundation, agents will need to incorporate client-facing technologies, including:
- A mobile-friendly website with content management and distribution functionality.
- A comparative rater.
- Internal tools, such as:
- An agency management system.
- A lead management system.
- A customer relationship management system.
- A marketing automation platform.
- Analytics and reporting dashboards.
Infrastructures must be flexible, with the ability to enable new tactics as necessary: paid media, email marketing, referral marketing campaigns, search optimization, and social media marketing and advertising. Agencies will need to monitor activity closely, regularly reviewing the infrastructure and making necessary adjustments based on what’s working and what’s not.
PREDICTION 2: More vendors will move from closed loop to open access to facilitate ease of doing business.
Today, agents use many systems—agency management systems, carrier portals, customer relationship management systems, comparative raters. Unfortunately, many of them don’t talk to each other.
Disconnected systems slow down the insurance process and increase the risk of errors from rekeying data. Open access, by contrast, enables all systems to talk with one another, sharing information about every part of the sales, customer experience and retention process.
With open access, leads from multiple sources and databases flow into one repository, which distributes leads to the appropriate producers based on routing rules. The distribution results in a work start that technologically prescribes the proper workflow to nurture the prospect. The prospect progresses through rate, quote and bind via technology before receiving automated messages that promote additional risk coverages.
Plenty of partners already exist to fulfill portions of this type of open-access workflow. For example, marketing automation systems tie into agency management platforms to perform drip marketing. Carriers sync with data providers to enable upload and download capabilities.
But a completely open-access platform will not exist until carriers, vendors and agencies collaborate to ensure all parties work together on one complete solution. Agencies have hundreds of appointments and access to thousands of products, but no single, universal way to share, shepherd, upload, download, store and analyze data.
The opportunity to collectively drive growth will facilitate greater partnerships among vendors, carriers and agents to enable more seamless systems and workflows.
PREDICTION 3: Paper policies, endorsements and files will become obsolete.
E-signature, e-docs and e-messages are not new to the industry. But adoption continues to lag, and many agencies still face challenges when trying to implement, including:
- Adopting the necessary security measures that protect clients’ personally identifiable information.
- Overcoming the trust factor when moving from tangible, paper-based processes to an online experience.
- Convincing consumers to move insurance transactions online.
- Successfully integrating with third-party vendors to enable usage.
- Leveraging universally accessible standards for data collection and processing.
But the benefits outweigh the challenges. E-signature, e-docs and e-messages save agencies and carriers money by eliminating the costs associated with printing, mailing and filing documents. They also increase productivity, enabling agents to automatically attach documents to a client’s file in the agency management system. Finally, they make the agency more sustainable by significantly reducing the amount of paper the business uses.
Moving forward, more and more agencies will adopt these digital tools to provide a faster, more seamless experience for consumers. Giving consumers, producers and customer service representatives the ability to interact and bind insurance electronically saves agents time and money. By automating mundane tasks, agents free up more time for handling consumers’ unique and complex insurance needs.
PREDICTION 4: Agencies and carriers will share more data and knowledge on the front end.
Because they are the front line to consumers, agents have access to unique sets of sales data, including website page views, asset downloads, event attendance, inbound form submissions and phone calls, email marketing click-throughs, and social media interactions.
With shared access to this information, carriers could develop more targeted, data-driven campaigns to ensure the right products are getting in front of the target audience.
Meanwhile, carriers boast more advanced digital technologies than most agencies, as well as access to tools that can help improve agency workflow and client management. Investing in digital education and offering best practices can help increase agency technology use.
Carriers can also subsidize and provide co-op for strategic agency partners that embrace integrated technology. The more technologically advanced an agency is, the more useful data it will be able to generate for the carrier—leading to more sales for both parties.
Expect more and more carriers and agents to embrace these synergistic partnerships. In the future, agents will share relevant internal sales data with carriers, while carriers will help agencies select and implement the right digital tools for increasing customer service and improving marketing.
PREDICTION 5: Use of next-generation technologies will become more prevalent.
Some may say artificial intelligence and machine learning sound too sophisticated for independent agents, many of whom are still trying to implement more foundational tools such as websites, e-signature and customer relationship management systems.
But many agents might already be using or planning to adopt some form of these technologies without even realizing it.
AI can be as simple as activating a chat window that prompts the beginning of a conversation with consumers. Many customer relationship management systems use simple machine learning to score leads based on information a prospect provides, which improves producer close rates. Finally, web forms often utilize some combination of next-gen tech, changing questions based on consumer responses to drive a catered customer experience.
Use of AI and machine learning in insurance will take consumer targeting to the next level. It will improve processes by assessing every step of the acquisition and retention workflow and then defining which tasks a computer could easily handle with a few if/then rules.
As AI and machine learning continue to evolve and become more mainstream, agents will need to increase their adoption of these tools to deliver the customized, consumer-focused experiences the modern insurance buyer demands.
The conditions are right for independent insurance agents to increase adoption of digital tools. Pressure from InsurTechs and other competitors will help propel agents to embrace more tech, marrying their superior customer service with solutions that streamline workflows and enhance the customer experience.
As agents accelerate their progress on the path toward digital evolution, they will not only increase their market share, but also find new ways to demonstrate the differentiated value they bring to the insurance equation.
As managing partner at Smart Harbor, Jason Walker oversees the strategy, development and delivery of the company’s technology solutions and analytics platforms for the insurance market. Previously, Walker served as founder and executive of People To My Site, a company that developed digital marketing programs for automotive dealers and franchises. He is currently an advisory council member for the Insurance Digital Revolution, an industry organization focused on advancing digital technology adoption among independent insurance agents.