SOUTH PORTLAND, MAINE — Technology has proven to be a double-edged sword for many independent insurance agents, both helping to simplify some tasks while simultaneously creating more work in other areas, according to the agents who took part in a panel discussion at the Maine Insurance Agents Association (MIAA) convention.
When asked by moderator Ken White of F.A. Peabody about the role technology plays in their agencies, panelists revealed that it has both helped and hindered selling insurance and serving clients. Danielle Marquis, CPCU, account executive, commercial department at Higgins and Bolduc Agency, appreciates the speed of technology — being able to communicate instantaneously with clients or service their accounts by going into the comparative rater program.
For Marquis, the challenge is to make sure that she doesn’t lose the personal connection with her insureds. “It’s so easy to hide behind a computer all day and lose that personal touch with clients.” She tries to focus on seeing clients and picking up the phone to keep that connection intact.
Like Marquis, Stephen Kasprzak, president of Kasprzak Insurance Associates, worries that agents are losing the personal touch with clients as well as underwriters. He thinks agents need to find a “happy medium” between working with clients who prefer to communicate via technology andwith those customers who want to work with agents on the phone or face to face. “It’s a constant balancing act and will be for many years to come,” he said.
While Kasprzak noted the benefits of how technology has helped speed up transactions with clients and carriers, for him the downside is that “carriers have pushed some of the work that used to be done on their end onto us, creating more work on the agency side.” Steve Cote, president of Chalmers Insurance Group, unabashedly loves technology, in part because it has helped level the playing field with the competition. “We can communicate, deliver and be so much more accessible than ever before. The challenge [that comes with technology] can also be a huge opportunity if we can think of ways to more personalize the technology we use,” he said.
Wendy Tapley, CIC, owner of Tapley Insurance Agency, is another fan of technology, “as long as someone else can run it for me,” she joked. Tapley especially likes software programs that allow her to do sales and marketing campaigns from her agency. “It brings us small independent agents up to the level of larger national brokers,” she said. While that may be an exciting opportunity, Tapley said one major drawback of technology is that as advancements have been made, agents are asked to take on increasingly more work through their agency management systems.
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly of 24/7 Access
One of the reasons the Big “I” developed the TrustedChoice marketing brand was to give consumers better online access to agents, according to White. He asked the panelists if they feel “more present” with technology in terms of delivering what insureds expect them to.
For Marquis, the key to 24/7 access is to carefully manage clients’ expectations. “If you [answer] an email at 11 p.m., that’s setting an expectation. Yes, you’ll be available if they have a fire but not if someone wants to know if coverage will go up if they trade in a car. You have to have a life, and shut your phone off sometimes.”
Cote agreed, saying he is not going to be Jake from the State Farm commercials, taking calls at 2 a.m. For him, 24/7 access largely means giving insureds the ability to email anytime they like, whether they are looking for specific information or to report a claim. Another reason to weigh 24/7 access carefully is to protect against errors and omissions. Tapley explained that it is very easy to get caught up in communicating with an insured via text messaging or social media, but at some point, the conversation needs to be moved over to the agency management system email. “You can’t do that if you’re taking phone calls at midnight,” cautioned Tapley.
Challenges Facing Agents
In addition to the challenges that technology brings, independent agents and their agencies have a number of other major concerns, including growth, perpetuation, marketing, risk appetite and advertising.
Tapley’s daughter recently joined her agency. While Tapley knows what her perpetuation plan will be, she wants to make sure that she is doing what is best for tax or income purposes and noted that it can be difficult to find resources to help her answer some questions.
In addition, she finds that growing with the carriers can be difficult. “It’s like being on a hamster wheel. The more you write, the more growth that is expected. As those numbers increase, the percentages of growth increase, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep up,” she said.
Although Cote listed attracting youth into the insurance industry as the biggest challenge, he named growth as a close second. He thinks it is important for agents to have conversations with carriers to make sure they understand what the goals are at the agency and vice versa.
“Sometimes all companies want is new business growth. We’re focused more on retention, cross selling and account rounding and might not have that scale needed to grow new business,” said Cote.
Kasprzak echoed Cote’s comments regarding attracting and retaining new talent, saying that it will be the industry’s number one struggle for the next decade or so. “We have to continually find ways to talk up our industry and the exciting opportunities there are,” whether it is with students in the University of Southern Maine’s risk management program or high-school students via “Project InVEST.”
With all of the time it takes to sell insurance products and service clients, sometimes the day-to-day business of running an agency can take a back seat to more pressing issues, according to Marquis. She explained that she has been scheduling time to manage her staff, making sure they are keeping up with their education, staying relevant and engaged. Equally important is making sure that they are happy to minimize turnover.
“As a small agency, we don’t have a lot of turnover, but when we do, it is very disruptive. So [we want] to be able to keep the staff that we have and keep them happy and well educated. Carving out time to manage staff is important to help the agency run smoothly,” said Marquis.
New Employee Training
When new employees do join an agency, the panelists all said that having them take professional training classes has been extremely helpful. Most of the panelists used a combination of carrier programs and MIAA classes.
Cote noted that it is valuable to have experienced staff work with some of the newer employees for on the job training. His goal is to have newer employees get up to speed with the business before any staff members retire. “If you’re offering professional training in your agency, it makes it easier to promote from within than to go out and hire another account manager. You don’t have to have someone with experience, you can bring someone in and mold them,” said Tapley.
The professional training Marquis relies on the most is from her agency’s carrier partners. “In Maine, we’re really fortunate that our marketing reps and underwriters are all very willing to come in and help us get a new employee up and running on their system or on insurance coverages in general. We really appreciate that because I don’t have time to sit down and go through every single company program and website that they’re going to be dealing with. We take advantage of those carrier programs as well as programs through the association.”
Kasprzak uses a combination of training schools, carrier programs and classes offered through the association. The classes are vital, particularly to smaller agencies that do not have much time for producers or account manager/customer service representatives to train someone new.
Remarketing a Policy
An MIAA member asked the panelists about their stance on remarketing insurance policies.
According to Tapley, she gets a weekly report of all the renewals being processed, so she can see what the rates are. She explained that she has a threshold, but when a policy increases $200, it may be due to the value of a house going up. “A lot of it is just educating the policyholder. We placed them with that carrier for a reason; it wasn’t haphazard. It was a thoughtful, considerate process. Just because a premium goes up the following year doesn’t mean it’s no longer a well-placed policy,” said Tapley.
“We can’t be day traders, figuring who’s going to be up and down every day,” cautioned Cote. “We try to converse with our clients to gauge where they are, and then we might negotiate where we feel a fair market price is with the current carrier. There are coverage issues that we may market out, but we could drive each other insane if we remarketed everything. I leave it up to my commercial lines account managers to make those kinds of decisions.”
On the personal lines side, it can be difficult to see sizeable rate increases, according to Kasprzak. However, it may be for a property that an agent hasn’t seen in 10 or 15 years (when the policy originated) that may have since deteriorated.
For commercial lines, the key is knowing the market, said Kasprzak. “Right now, the only time you’re seeing large rate increases is if there’s claim history. The market isn’t quite soft, but it’s kind of wishy-washy because the good risks are seeing some rate decreases, and the bad risks are seeing appropriate rate increases …. Unless there’s a coverage issue, we’re not looking to move business from company to company. It takes too much time, and it costs us money.”
Marquis chalks remarketing up to educating and managing the expectation of her clients. “If they understand how the [remarketing] process works … I can help them understand that it is not in their best interest to shop their insurance every year,” she said.
-Article by The Standard