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Robert Tyrie, NexJ Systems
Robert Tyrie, NexJ Systems
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Carrier Versus Agency Portals: Making It Work, Not Making Work

While both agency management systems and carrier portals deliver value, in order to be truly effective, both systems need to be integrated into the workflows of end users in a seamless way that enables increased productivity and visibility across the agency and its clients.

When it comes to management systems, the insurance industry is at odds. Some side with agency management portals, citing increased functionality and a reduction of duplication on proprietary systems. Conversely, proponents of carrier-provided portals prefer the high functionality and broader reach.

Driving the question around insurance agency versus carrier portals is the simple need for business productivity. Users -- from senior level agents to their assistants -- need the job done quickly and effectively and require the most up-to-date information at their fingertips. While both agency management systems and carrier portals deliver value, in order to be truly effective, both systems need to be integrated into the workflows of end users in a seamless way that enables increased productivity and visibility across the agency and its clients.

So who owns the responsibility to integrate?

While carriers have responded by improving agent portals so that users have real-time integration to the carrier back-office systems, they still need to address the front-office needs of agents and assistants. At the same time, agent portals need to provide agile capabilities and functionality that can be easily extended as new insurance products are created.

Carriers need to choose architectures that leverage portal-based frameworks and provide open access to services which integrate with agency management systems (AMS). Frameworks which take advantage of open services and standards that allow for real-time integration can best service the needs agents to deliver better services and products to customers.

What producers expect when they are working with a carrier is straightforward. They need fast and efficient ways of moving lead information into new business transactions without re-entering data. Additionally, they require the ability to process multiple quotes and simple ways to do policy, billing and claims inquiries when they are servicing a customer.

A portal framework should enable flexible integration with the AMS through a set of drag and drop "portlets" -- windows on the desktop which display the integrated applications as a single system and allow them to be accessed by the agent in one place. The framework should be based on a service-oriented architecture (SOA), to enable real-time integration between systems through the cloud. The same web services that support these portlets could also be used for direct real-time integration to an AMS.

When choosing a portal framework, carriers and agencies need to consider the following:

- Focus relentlessly on the business case. Supporting producers through the use of technology has to be clearly linked to business goals and measurable results. Modern agent portals will impact the relationship with producers and customers. Baseline measurements of quote-to-bind ratios, received-in-good order rates, cross-sell effectiveness, and retention rates need to be investigated. Using these baselines, companies can identify specific sales and services operations that can be automated to increase efficiency. As efficiencies -- such as time savings, revenue growth and increased customer satisfaction -- are identified they can also be quantified and measured.

- Look at the playing field in Insurance and other industries. Companies should be looking to their internal teams as well as external partners and associations -- both within the insurance industry as well as outside it -- to identify current technology trends and processes that improve the customer experience and producer connectivity. For example, companies like Nike and Apple have documented successes using social media software to support marketing automation and lead management. These techniques can also apply in insurance and can be leveraged as examples to add depth to business cases.

- Build capability models and organize use-cases across business lines. ACORD has introduced an insurance capability model that describes the operations required by any insurance carrier. ACORD’s model can be used to describe capabilities -- such as sales execution or claims inquiry -- in common terms that can be applied across different lines of the business to identify the ways in which other divisions have automated these capabilities. Using a shared language, the possibilities of using a unified solution across multiple lines of the business becomes far more apparent and achievable. Insurers can use this technique to identify cost savings and synergies as a way to direct strategic investments across the entire company.

- Demand open, extensible architectures. Insurance companies that leverage an open, standards-based architecture are able to achieve greater flexibility in how the systems are implemented and have the ability support new standards as they come into effect. Open systems allow organizations to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software that can be easily configured -- without expensive services agreements -- to support new systems or standards related to compliance, jurisdictional or technological requirements that change over time.

- Don’t forget about integration. Insurance information is often scattered across multiple siloed systems in each business line. An agent portal should be designed to support multiple integration points, standards, terminologies and document formats. Flexible integration capabilities will ensure agent portals and integration services support an organization’s needs both today and into the future.

In the end, modern agent-portal approaches should cover both sets of requirements so that agencies can focus on the ease of doing business. Additionally, the costs for carriers will decrease as the need for upload and download is eliminated. These operational improvements will save time and make more money for the producers and the carriers, both over the short and long term.

About the Author: Robert Tyrie is vice president of Insurance Solutions, NexJ Systems (Toronto).

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