April 04, 2013

The emergence of e-commerce shook up personal lines at the beginning of the 2000s, creating The Great Disintermediation Scare and other horrors for participants in traditional insurance distribution processes. We're now on the cusp of similar sea changes in commercial lines, and the success of SeaPass Solutions' BOLT platform provides one example of how e-commerce is reshaping commercial business.

The success of the SeaPass platform is such that the company is rebranding to BOLT Solutions. "A few years ago we set out to deliver a better way for smal business owners to shop for and buy insurance online," comments Eric Gewirtzman, BOLT's CEO. "In the process we created the BOLT Platform, which evolved into a better way for anyone to shop for and buy insurance online."

Gewirtzman calls the rebranding a "natural progression" and stresses the opportunity he says the BOLT platform offers to carriers and agents to gain market share. A BOLT statement describes the platform as a fully integrated, turnkey, software-as-a-service, cloud offering that includes a full technology platform, including a portal for consumers, independent agents, captive agents, wholesalers and brokers. It also features integrated call center technology and reporting and analytics capabilities — plus other features that will be discussed below.

Selling small commercial risk online is indeed a natural step, agrees Karlyn Carnahan, a San Francisco-based analyst with Novarica. "Why wouldn't small business owners want to buy online?" she asks. "But carriers have been wary because commercial insurance is dominated by agents and they might perceive this as a threat."

To some extent, it's disintermediation all over again, but then the industry has seen that while disintermediation did happen, the internet also provided new ways for carriers and distributors to work together. BOLT represents a similar type of shake-out as well as new ways of interacting. Carnahan notes that, from a customer perspective, it introduces self-service functionality to the small commercial business.

Bolt also serves as a platform for the distribution of larger commercial risk, according to Chicago-based Aite Group analyst Stephen Applebaum. He characterizes the BOLT Platform as a reflection of the rapid evolution of the insurance distribution ecosystem in which now both commercial and personal customers demand multi-channel availability of quotes, comparisons, customer service and transactional efficiencies.

Stephen Applebaum, Aite Group
Stephen Applebaum, Aite Group

One of the more interesting advantages of BOLT is that it enables participating insurers to offer competitors' products. Why would they want to do that? Well, if a customer wants a product, carriers are well advised to provide that product, even if the risk is underwritten by a competitor, according to Tim Attia, senior VP, sales, BOLT Solutions. Given what a major insurer may spend on marketing and advertising, it could cost a carrier $500 to bring a customer to the door.

"Better to sell a competitor's BOP policy, say, and take a piece of commission rather than lose the customer," Attia argues. "By making that transaction the captive agent continues to own the customer, even though the other carrier underwrites the risk."

[Related: MetLife's Aggressive Distribution Strategy Reaches Business Market .]

Aite's Applebaum comments that, "today's new world also demands cooperative competition — or "co-opetition" — as exemplified by BOLT's end-to-end full service platform."

"What is most impressive — and different — about this platform is that it includes licenses in all 50 states, including agency appointments with multiple carriers and access to virtually all personal and commercial lines products in one place," Applebaum continues. "This capability is, as far as I know, unique in scope and will enable carriers to gain more market visibility and distribution across all product lines, while also allowing agents... the ability to improve sales results through a more complete range of customer product demands, regardless of their own appointments."

The online distribution advantages seen on the BOLT platform are only one aspect of major changes in the way technology supports commercial business. Stay tuned for reporting on new levels of straight-through processing of commercial risks.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek ...