New Innovations in Agency Management Software
- Category: Insurance Agency Acquisitions 101
- Published Date
An AgencyEquity.com Exclusive
If you haven’t looked at agency management software programs in a couple of years, it’s time to look again. The segment of the software industry serving insurance agencies has been hard at work – and they’ve made several improvements that make their newer systems more useful than ever.
Practice management technology aims to take as many business processes as possible and automate them. The idea is to minimize the amount of time your selling staff has to spend filing and retrieving paperwork, and reduce errors in the process.
The insurance industry has been an early adopter of many of these technologies. But recent advancements in programming and computer technology have made possible a number of significant improvements in recent years.
Why? The issue has to do with the product-specific nature of the industry, according to Daniel Ochoa of Agency Matrix. Insurance agents have all the same issues with billing and document retrieval as other professionals. But they regularly have to retrieve current policy information directly from the carriers themselves.
At the center of these efforts is ACORD (Association for Cooperative Operations Research and Development), a global, nonprofit standards development organization serving the insurance industry and related financial services industries. ACORD’s mission is to facilitate the development of open consensus data standards and standard forms. The Association is the coordinating agency working towards full data integration and cross-platform implementation across the insurance industry.
While direct data dumps from carrier servers down to the agency level have been possible for the past 15 to 20 years, there have been implementation difficulties in scaling a given computer protocol across 8 to 10 different carriers who often represent different insurance lines. But new breakthroughs in computing – and an increased willingness on the part of carriers to standardize, have now made it possible for software companies like AgencyMatrix and InsurancePro to automate a nightly “data dump,” updating an agency’s servers with current policy information for that agency’s clients, up to the close of the previous day.
Tablets and Smartphones
While the technology has finally become viable on PC-based platforms, we haven’t yet seen a massive build-out to embrace tablet systems, such as the iPad. To do so would require a substantial additional investment in programming on the part of the software companies. However, Vertafore has recently rolled out substantial support for Tablet for agents with its AM360 software, allowing them to update their client information directly into the system via a tablet. And more advances are on the way. “We have a development team working full-time on UI [user interface – Ed.] and mobility,” says Bruce Winterburn, Vertafore’s Vice President of Industry Relations. "That’s their core responsibility.”
Vertafore’s signature software platform, the 360, is iPod capable, Winterburn says. But they have not yet fully integrated smartphones. “With the true handheld devices, it’s more of a real estate issue,” explains Winterburn.” There’s only so much screen space available on a hand-held, which somewhat limits application for those devices.”
Recent generations of practice management software have come with tremendous advances in work-flow automation. As industry experts and programmers develop a more detailed implementation of back-office procedures and best practices. The result is more efficient allocation of man-hours.
Newer generations of software have built robust time management tracking and reporting features in the software – allowing agency principals to see where their limited man-hours are going, and how long each step of the sales and service processes take.
“There’s a stopwatch at every step of the process,” says Winterburn, whose company is working to make the user interface more and more invisible. A big part of that process, of course, starts with seemingly small things. “When you enter a date, you shouldn’t have to key in every digit,” said Winterburn. “You shouldn’t have to worry about format. The software should do it for you, and you’re off to the next task.”
Workflow automation can also generate an easily grasped list of unattended tasks, so managers can easily identify where staff is falling behind and where more resources need to be allocated.
Much of the utility of automation comes from the ability to run new kinds of reports – designed to inform the agency executive decision-making process, says Bryan Kahlig of the Insurance Technologies Corporation, which manufactures InsurancePro.
For example, a cross-sell report recently integrated into their product will instantly generate a list of contacts that all have a specific policy type -- and do not have a different specific policy type. This information allows you to focus and customize your marketing efforts to clients that you already have a relationship with, says Bryan.
For example, you may be interested in selling homeowner policies to your customers who currently have auto policies. You don’t want to sell homeowner policies to your clients who already have them. Running this report can provide you the list of customers you want to focus your marketing on – and prevent your reps from tying themselves in knots on the phone trying to make appointments based on irrelevant or outdated information.
While some software platforms in other industries are going for the total turnkey practice management solution niche – such as XPLAN, an Australian software program by EvolveLogic that serves the fee-only financial planner market, the insurance industry software situation is still modular. Back office programs like InsurancePro and AgencyMatrix do not seek to replace other crucial software packages doing accounting, pipeline/contact management, email systems, and the like. These systems are designed to exist as part of a suite of software programs, including programs like Peachtree and Microsoft Office Suite/Outlook.
However, most of the software providers do offer packages of multiple products designed to offer a more comprehensive solution.
One of the most crucial aspects of software automation, from the point of view of the agency, is data security. The first concern is recovery. In legacy systems, agencies held all their data on their own servers – and backed up their data to another disc array or via tape to an offsite location as a hedge against a flood, fire, disc crash or other catastrophe taking crucial data down.
However, with the advent of “the cloud,” today’s generation of software packages routinely provide automatic backup to an offsite server in real time, or very close to it.
This alone is a big step forward – a sudden and catastrophic data loss would be a disaster for a busy agency. Even losing a day’s worth of data would be problematic – and potentially open your practice to a worrisome E&O claim.
Some legacy companies still store much of their client information in file cabinets – leaving them vulnerable to all kinds of disasters.
While there’s usually no direct discount on E&O premiums for implementing a specific program, your automation and backup systems are an important factor that your E&O carriers will use in underwriting your policy, says Winterburn.
Today’s automation programs allow you to easily digitize all phone conversations with a client, let’s say, and send the recorded file up to the cloud, associated with your client. The same software will capture any emails and any letters you print out, and integrate it right into your system. So you have a record of every interaction with your client. This can be invaluable in backing you up in the event of an E&O claim.
You can also use your program’s various reporting functions to quickly build a more complete picture of your revenues and expenses, and where they come from – enabling you to value your agency, using reports and ratios that are commonly accepted in the industry.
This can help you demand a better price when it’s time to make your exit, and sell your practice.