SOUND INTERNET SOLUTIONS
Practical use of Internet and other technologies can bring
competitive advantage and efficiencies to small agencies
By John Ashenhurst
This agency focuses on the practical--employing technology right now to reduce E&O exposure, improve efficiency and customer satisfaction, and increase the value of the agency as an asset.
Just east of Clayton, New York, the Thousand Islands dot the St. Lawrence River. This "summering" area is known for boating, fishing, and diving. Clayton itself sports three museums, a Bluegrass festival, and other tourist attractions.
Unfortunately, the summer season in the North Country is short. In addition, tourist dollars don't make up for damage to the Clayton area economy caused by the closing of local paper mills and mining operations. Unemployment rates are double those of more prosperous, but perhaps less attractive parts of the country.
It's in this physically desirable but economically challenging environment that Ed Higgins has chosen to build his Thousand Islands Agency into an asset to fund his eventual retirement. One key strategy he's employing is the productive use of technology--especially his agency Web site.
Higgins currently serves as chairman of the Independent Insurance Agents of America's Agents Council for Technology (ACT), an industry group dedicated to educating agents, carriers, and vendors about the promise of technology and then helping them work individually and jointly to make successful use of that technology. Higgins has been active in IIAANY technology programs for years and has authored a score of articles that address the practical side of agency automation.
I had a chance recently to talk with Higgins about his agency, what he's learned, and what he has in mind for the future. Higgins has been able to work miracles with modest resources and hard work. In any head-to-head agency technology comparison, Thousand Islands Agency would likely outshine most other agencies, no matter their premium volume.
Characterizing the agency
TIA writes about $1.2 million in premium on 1,700 policies (65% personal lines) and derives additional revenue through plan management services with self-insured health plans. At present, the agency has four employees; however, it expects to expand significantly at the beginning of next year when it consummates the purchase of a nearby agency.
TIA averages about $700 premium per policy--and that includes commercial lines. Agents in prosperous metropolitan areas might see averages two, three, or four times what TIA lives with. The agency's challenge is to use technology to make money on low-premium policies. And that's just what Higgins has done.
Thousand Islands Agency is completely paperless. It makes extensive use of digital imaging technology (scanners, digital cameras). The agency has high-speed, always-on connections to the Internet. It uses ebix-One, the vendor's 32-bit Windows client/server management system. Agency staff is equipped with quality wireless headsets. E-mail, via Outlook and Microsoft's Exchange server is imbedded into the agency workflow and increasingly into interaction with customers. The agency provides 24x7 local claims service--not through a call center--but through the agency phone system after-hours ring-through to Higgins.
Higgins believes that all agency staff members should be able to accomplish everything they need to do without getting out of their chairs. He also believes that agencies should have a single, consistent workflow and he has worked hard at developing and implementing a system that works well. (Not surprisingly, he has misgivings about the increasing deployment of carrier Web sites that take agencies out of their normal and expected workflow--even when those sites download to agency management systems to reduce or eliminate the need for double entry.)
The agency sees its value in its considerable insurance expertise and responsive service. Thousand Islands Agency wants to draw customers from middle and upper economic ranks, but Higgins has been disappointed with an Internet-based leads system that hasn't hit the mark. According to Higgins, out of 100 or so leads acquired, the agency wasn't able to sell one. The leads population was very young, with poor driving records, and old cars--and clearly price shopping. Higgins notes that 10 years from now, this Internet-savvy group may become a desirable insurance sales population--and that suggests beginning to prepare to handle them through the Web.
The agency Web site--process and product
Higgins is clear about the identity of his agency, his business strategy, and what he wants from his Web site. His focus is on exceptional service--not as an empty phrase--but as systems and practices (e.g., 24x7 local claims service). Thus his Web site, like his recently remodeled building, needs to "say" quality, professional, knowledgeable, cutting edge.
Like more than one agent, Higgins enlisted his Gen-X son to help with the Web-building mechanics. The resulting site isn't flashy (that's good) and is clearly the result of work by the agency--not delegation to a third-party Web builder that doesn't understand the agency and uses one-size-fits-all templates. On the other hand, the site has dead ends (under-construction areas), some typos, and other common shortcomings of do-it-yourself sites.
The site sports a left-column permanent site menu, so it's impossible to get lost. Site content primarily addresses marketing and service functions. The site also includes a stock ticker, insurance industry news, general news, and weather information. Higgins explains that since the Thousand Islands area is replete with second homes, some of the owners want to know what's going on weather-wise when they are at their primary residence--which is often in Florida. And if the weather is bad or snow heavy, they want to know how bad and whether to have someone take a look at their property.
Marketing menu functions include forms for quote requests, description of services, introduction to the staff, frequently asked questions, a mission statement, driving instructions, newsletter archives, and an online office tour.
The office tour is particularly compelling. Higgins said that his motivation came from realizing that consumers can wander around in and get to know a retail store without obligation--but they're not likely to come into his agency just to look around. He decided he needed to give people a way to get to know his agency and to form some visual impressions--without needing to open the door.
Higgins is on to something important and here's why. Every agency Web site and brochure says almost the same thing. If a consumer has only words to shop by, one agency seems about as good as the next. Actually looking at the building and the office allows one to form impressions about the quality of the agency.
Thousand Islands Agency claims to be progressive, modern, up-to-date, and professional. The online tour bears out these words. There are no file cabinets (as the tour points out). There's no mess, no clutter. Everything is in its place. These are organized people. They're the kind of people you want to depend on to protect you from life's unexpected crises.
The agency Web site contains two important service provisions: "My Insurance," an insured self-service area, and 24-hour claims service information. The latter provides claims contact information. The former offers real, online self-service functionality, that is, out-facing services to agency customers.
The My Insurance service is actually supplied by the agency's management system vendor, ebix. It's an ASP service that stores agency customer information and can be linked to from an agency Web site. A subscribing agency has some control over the layout and color scheme that appears to the user and so, with effort, an agency can make My Insurance a seamless extension of the agency site.
When a customer requests access to My Insurance through an agency Web site, the agency assigns the customer a logon ID. The first time the user signs on, the service asks the user to create a password as well as provide the e-mail address to which reply correspondence should be sent.
The My Insurance page is divided into four sections: client, policy, accounting, and claims. The client section displays name and address information, a change function, and the ability to request a certificate. The policy section lists policies (and version number), and the ability to link to a detail page and change-request service. The accounting section lists invoices and their status. The claims section lists claims by policy and shows their status. Because the Thousand Islands Agency uses direct bill, the accounting section never shows activity.
Today, only a handful of Thousand Islands Agency customers chooses to have available and use My Insurance, so it has little real impact or immediate practical value to the agency. Why bother? According to Higgins, he's begun evolving a process that will expand over the next several years. He's happy to start small and to really understand and then perfect Web site self-service. And it does provide an immediate competitive advantage today since it identifies his agency as being progressive and service-focused--even if current insureds or prospects choose not to use the self-service option. The agency Web site and self-service element speak to the kind of agency Thousand Islands is and attracts the kind of customers Higgins seeks.
The value of out-facing services
Higgins is convinced that, over time, agencies that provide self-service (and great service assisted by technology generally) will put laggard agencies out of business. Online self-service is visible and accessible to the customer in a way that conventional agency automation isn't. It has a greater potential to distinguish one agency from another--in a way that having one agency management system vs. another never could.
Higgins promotes his self-service offering through an explanatory piece he includes in customer-bound mail--for instance, with the annual insurance review the agency provides its customers. He promotes his Web site in general through listing the URL on business cards, stationery and print ads.
Higgins believes that concrete and palpable focus on service has a salutary effect. Because he's established such a rich service offering in comparison with the local competition, customers who look elsewhere or even leave (because of the increasingly hard market) are inevitably disappointed with the level of service they see elsewhere--and usually come back.
As part of my research, I looked at three other Clayton agency Web sites. I found one competitor through Google.com by searching for "clayton ny insurance agency." (By the way, though, "Thousand Islands Agency" showed up in the search list, but a link to its Web site didn't. The agency name was mentioned in articles that Higgins wrote that appear on publishers' Web sites so that's where the links went.)
I then used Google to find the Clayton Chamber of Commerce ("clayton ny chamber of commerce") and followed the link to the Chamber site. Thousand Islands Agency showed up there. I found the other two competitors on a list provided by a local Web builder/host (of the Chamber site). One lesson: Thousand Islands Agency isn't so easy to find through the Internet (nor are agency sites generally). By the way, the Clayton area does have a portal, www.thousandislands.com, but being listed requires a subscription fee and Higgins doesn't feel he can justify it.
The other three competing Clayton-based agency sites are basically brochure sites with little depth. One site is attractive and professional looking, more so than the Thousand Islands Agency site, but none gives the sense of deep commitment to service and the use of technology that the Thousand Islands Agency site does. Higgins has achieved his branding/identity and competitive differentiation goal with his site--as a side-by-side comparison with the competition quickly shows.
The importance and value of e-mail
For Thousand Islands Agency,
e-mail and self-service Web sites are two sides of the same coin; each reinforces the other. To make e-mail really successful, Higgins believes an agency must be responsive to incoming traffic. (That's true of telephone calls as well, of course, and Higgins has structured the agency so that incoming calls are always picked up and dealt with by whoever is available. That's possible because the agency is paperless and everyone has immediate access to the same information and customer transaction activity records.)
To be responsive, the e-mail must be visible to the agency as soon as possible. That doesn't work with a dial-up environment. So the agency is on the Internet full time, and e-mail constantly flows in to the Microsoft Exchange server and shows up in Outlook on the appropriate desktop. This arrangement prevents playing "phone tag." Higgins reports that he has frequently handled a service request for a customer through several short, painless, e-mail exchanges that might have consumed days via the telephone channel.
Higgins is convinced that many agencies under-utilize Outlook, a powerful office tool. Left to their own devices, agency CSRs and other staff are likely set up a folder scheme that may not optimize the use and accessibility of e-mails for continuing customer service transactions. Rather than leaving things to chance, Higgins developed an Outlook folder organizational scheme for his agency that the entire staff uses. It makes it possible for everyone to lay hands on relevant e-mail for an account in less than 10 seconds.
Higgins is hopeful about the possibility for emerging technology to solve persistent industry problems. He sees a day when data will move effortlessly among customers, agencies and carriers via the wonders of ACORD standard XML. No more multiple entry. No more processing delays. Greater efficiency, lower expenses, excellent service.
Because he's had success in taking technology ideas and making them real and practical in his agency, and because he has a strong sense of professionalism, Higgins has gone out of his way to share his experience and insights with others--in the New York State association, ACT, through trade press articles, panels and talks. He's now preparing to go a bit further and do some consulting in the area of agencies and technology.
Higgins focuses on the practical--how agencies can employ technology right now to reduce E&O exposure, improve efficiency and customer satisfaction, and increase the value of the agency as an asset. He can address in great depth the application of digital cameras, Outlook (and e-mail generally) as part of a 24x7 service environment, always-on Internet, scanner technology, cordless headsets, integrated fax, and customer Web-based self-service.
For more information about Thousand Islands Agency, visit its
Web site (www.tiagency.com). See www.tiagency.com/pmc_index.htm to find out more about the consulting services Higgins offers through Progressive Management Consulting. *
John Ashenhurst is editor of Sounding Line, a monthly newsletter covering insurance and the Internet. He can be reached at email@example.com or (978) 318-1944.