Benefits Management System

Effectively managing group benefits is a problem for many agencies. Now there is a new kind of agency management system that is specifically designed for the group insurance vertical and is built entirely on the Salesforce.com platform. The application is listed on the SalesforceAppExchange platform, and is called BenefitsGuide. Highlights include:

agency management systems
  • Streamlines the process of selling and servicing group insurance from the broker perspective.
  • Provides value-added communications to both members and benefit administrators, with no extra effort.
  • Reduces the amount of incoming client service calls to the broker office.
  • Increases a broker’s new business sales by differentiating one broker’s services from the others.
  • Develops relationships for the broker with their clients’ employees, while building upon existing relationships with employer group administrators.

It follows logically that brokers who use BenefitsGuide are able to:

  • Improve their sales close ratio while also winning bigger groups.
  • Improve their client retention rate.
  • Reduce the amount of time required to service their existing clients.

Read more about the unique features of BenefitsGuide and how they will impact a broker’s business. Additional information is also available on their blog.

How Do You Rate? Take the 21st Annual Agency Productivity Survey

Digital consumers continue to redefine what they consider to be “good customer service.” Increasing the productivity of your staff seems to be an elusive goal. In order for your organization to keep ahead, it’s important to make sure you evaluate how existing technology tools are being used as well as determine what additional tools have become available.

This agency productivity self-test is published each year in my newsletter, The Anderson Agency Report, as a way to help measure how well your organization is using technology resources. Hopefully, it also provides ideas about new tools that you might want to incorporate into your workflow.

The self-test delves fully into your use of technology in the following categories: Management, Administrative, Infrastructure, Sales, Customer Service, and Communications.

Everyone is encouraged to participate. The audit self-test will take you approximately 15 minutes to complete so set aside some quiet time to complete the survey. It’s well worth it.

We’ll provide the results so you can tell how your agency compares to others who took the survey. This year’s survey is only available online by going to http://www.taareport.com. As a little extra incentive, everyone who completes the survey will be entered into a drawing to receive our course, The Personal Lines Ultimate Marketing Program—a $500 value.

An Open Letter to Independent Insurance and Benefits Agencies

There comes a time for every business when it must make adjustments, embrace change, and reinvent itself. Occasionally, circumstances arise that bring an entire industry to just such a transformational moment. For the insurance industry, and our individual businesses, that time is now.

Some may not want to believe it and others may choose to ignore it, but for all those who are in denial, they may be doing so at their own peril.

An industry in crisis

We are at a defining moment for the independent agency system. Profits are being attacked, growth is a struggle, future revenue streams are uncertain and the result is a level of panic not seen before. The most concerning thing of all is that most agencies don’t seem to have a plan for how to deal with the lack of control they have over their businesses. As a result, there is an almost vulture-like strategy driving agency acquisitions, a development that seems to be gaining momentum and threatening the very survival of the independent agency system.

This isn’t just a personal opinion or observation. This is the collective opinion and observation of a group of 10 industry/agency consultants who recently came together for a somewhat unprecedented meeting. On most days, this is a group of competitors; either competing directly for the same clients or, at the very least, competing for the discretionary time and money of the same agencies. However, it was out of mutual concern for the future of the industry that this group came together in the spirit of “coopetition.” Rather than retreating into separate corners and competing more fiercely for the shrinking ranks of agencies, this group has made the decision to work together to help keep the ranks of independent agencies as large and successful as possible.

An industry worth saving

This is an unbelievable industry that has been rich with personal and financial rewards for those willing to make the investment. We are provided with great income opportunities, have more work/life balance than most other professions, work with diverse and interesting business owners, and perhaps best of all, we have the potential to make a significant impact on the businesses of those clients.

In fact, this industry has been so generous to independent agencies that it could be argued that the generosity itself has helped create many of the problems we now face.

We do not see the demise of this industry as inevitable. In fact, this group believes the best days of independent agencies still lie ahead. We know the independent agency system can survive; however, the surviving businesses will look different than they do today. What we don’t know is how large those ranks are going to be because the change is starting with a needed cleansing of the industry, something which is already happening.

We have put ourselves in this precarious position. As we just said, many of our problems as independent agencies are self-created (or, at the very least, have been tolerated). All businesses must control two critical elements:

  1. What it is they sell to their clients.
  2. How they get paid for what they sell.

Because the industry has been so financially generous, most agencies have allowed those critical parts of their business to be controlled by a third party, the insurance carriers.

Also, because of the generous financial rewards provided by the industry, it has allowed agencies that deliver marginal client value to find disproportionate levels of success. We know this is a bit harsh but, if you are being honest with yourself, you will agree that if all an agency does is place an insurance policy and then fix the resulting problems, they have been way overpaid. It is these agencies that have helped fuel an unfavorable stereotype for our industry and gained us little support in the court of public opinion.

It is not this part of our industry we are looking to protect and save. That would be a fool’s effort. Instead, we are looking to save those agencies who are able and willing to take control of their businesses and whose mission is to truly improve the business of their clients. That is an industry worth saving.

Now is the time to act

While we believe there is a great future ahead for these agencies, the future glory days are not guaranteed, not by a long shot. Each of us in this group has varied ideas as to how agencies will take part in that glory, but we are unified in our belief that it will require something drastically different than what has been done in the past.

And, as we all know, change is never easy and the right kind of change is rarely quick. While we also have differing opinions as to how much time agencies really have to save themselves, we are all in agreement that now is the time to get started and significant progress needs to be made within the next 12-24 months.

Focusing on the wrong target

Most would agree that this is a time of unprecedented challenges for independent agencies. Sure, some of the challenges are obvious: health care reform, exchanges, and a slow recovery from the recession, to name a few. As we talk to agency owners, it is these challenges that are getting the most attention.

However, as real as those challenges are, we don’t see those as the most critical challenges: these issues are merely exposing the underlying frailty of the independent system, a frailty that has been a ticking time bomb and whose clock is winding down.

A failure to address and correct the real issues will bring an end to the independent agency system, at least as we know it today.

Common agency challenges

Identifying those foundational issues was a primary focus of our recent meeting. The consensus of our group is that the following issues are leaving agencies vulnerable and exposed to the impact of the current (and emerging) market and industry conditions.

Too many agencies do not have an answer for these industry trends:

  • Carriers are starting to limit the number of agency contracts.
  • Carriers are writing policies net of commission, leaving the agency to negotiate their own fee.
  • Where commissions remain built in, they are being slashed.
  • After the cleansing of the industry removes the mediocre performers, the remaining competition will be potent and fierce.
  • The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) and the resulting Exchanges will drive many smaller businesses out of the medical insurance business.
  • While the commission slashing is currently focused in the health side of the business, it could be a false sense of security to think other lines of insurance are immune to reduced commission schedules.

Too many agencies (both benefits and P&C) have left themselves vulnerable in the following ways:

  • There is no unique sales process. Most are still competing with a spreadsheet and look just like every other agency to the prospect/client.
  • Growth is overly dependent on the owners to produce.
  • With the owner focusing on growth, there is not enough work being done “on” and leading of the business.
  • There is too much dependency on the placement of an insurance product as the only value delivered to clients, and therefore, the only opportunity to get paid by those clients.
  • Most agencies lack a vision as to what the agency needs to become in order to survive.
  • As businesses, agencies are largely controlled by the insurance carriers. It is the carrier who controls the product being sold and determines the compensation for the sale.
  • Agencies are having difficulty creating non-insurance solution revenue streams.
  • We’re seeing industry shifts in buying behavior: consumer-centric at the individual level and single-source (benefits, HR, payroll) at the employer level.
  • There is little relevant differentiation between agencies (better service and a list of value-added services are not differentiators).
  • There is a lack of effective recruiting, interviewing, selection, and training processes leading to too many poor hiring decisions.
  • The stereotype of the industry (not trusted and seen as delivering marginal value at best) is difficult to overcome.
  • Most agencies have little to no effective sales management.
  • There is a disproportionate dependency on the smaller groups most threatened by the above listed industry trends.
  • Compensation programs are misaligned with the behaviors needed to drive new revenue, often rewarding a “protect what I have” mentality over a “go get more” mentality.
  • There are too many silos within the typical agency – Sales vs. Service, Producer vs. Producer, Department vs. Department, Leadership vs. Everyone else, etc.
  • All too often, there is a lack of accountability to results, especially for producers. Agencies have to be willing to fire poor performers, including producers.
  • Agencies create a service culture instead of a sales culture with their compensation programs and their accountability structures (or lack thereof).

In all areas, the constant among the problems seems to be a lack of systems and processes.

The cost of doing nothing

We know we aren’t the only ones who recognize the existence of these challenges. Unfortunately, many agencies who see the direness of their circumstances are still not taking appropriate action. The reason for lack of action usually comes down to the difficulty of change but also the cost of addressing the problem in terms of both a financial and time investment. However, the cost of doing nothing and trying to stay the course would be the costliest decision of all.

Agencies who don’t change their course will watch their financials and their structure deteriorate before their eyes and are likely to be out of business in short order. The current path will lead to:

  • Little, if any, top line growth.
  • Eroded profit margins at the bottom line.
  • Disintermediation, either because of carrier selectivity, exchanges, technology, or new and unexpected competitors.
  • Talented staff leaving and difficulty attracting new/replacement talent.
  • Competitive acquisitions at distressed prices.

There isn’t one solution for everyone, but everyone needs to find a solution. Being honest, there are self-interests in this group for issuing this letter. After all, our own success is dependent on this industry remaining strong and viable. However, we got into this side of the business because we like to help others succeed, and success now includes a fierce belief that now is the time to fight for our survival. This is an industry worth saving and fighting for, but it is a fight in which we must all engage together.

If in reading through the list of challenges, you feel you are one of the vulnerable and exposed, we encourage you to take control and start addressing your situation now.

There are basically two courses of action:

  1. Tackle this problem on your own, or
  2. Seek out help.

For most, and especially for those who haven’t yet started making changes, we believe the limited time frame to put answers in place makes tackling this on your own the wrong approach.

We suggest you align yourself with someone who can help you put the answers in place. Of course, as a group of consultants, we would love the opportunity to discuss with you how one of us might help. But we also freely admit there are plenty of other consultants and resources out there to whom you may turn, and we will even suggest some places for you to look.

Another option may be to align yourself with a peer group of agencies who are committed to fixing the same challenges and are working together towards common answers. We see successful agencies every day, agencies who are more optimistic about their future than ever before. Find one of these agencies as an example; there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

The unacceptable response is to stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is going to be okay. Most of us don’t like the current course of the industry, so we need to be the ones who start steering the ship.

This is our defining moment; now is the time to take action.

What do you think? Is the industry in crisis? Leave your thoughts and comments below.

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The following are the consultants who met in Atlanta and who have committed to doing their small part in helping protect the independent agency system.

  • Agency Growth Mastermind Network – Nelson Griswold
  • The Anderson Agency Report | The Anderson Network – Steve Anderson
    Leading Authority on Insurance Agency Technology Productivity and Profits
  • The Brokers Broker – Kyle Hodges
    Helping brokers deliver unique wellness and marketing strategies for the 100+ market
  • Daymark Advisors – Jack Kwicien
    Trusted advisors to the insurance industry – Consulting, mergers & acquisitions, and charting the course for the future for brokers, carriers, and enabling technology firms
  • HR Technology Advisors – Joe Markland
    HR Technology Advisors is a leading provider of HR and Benefits Technologies for benefits brokers and their customers
  • iC3/The Intellectual Capital Coaching Corporation – Rick Bauman
    Helping Brokers succeed by building A Passionate Enterprise
  • Marsh, Berry & Company – Rob Lieblein
    Your Partner for Financial Consulting and Mergers & Acquisitions
  • Q4Intelligence (Formerly Benefits Growth Network) – Kevin Trokey & Wendy Keneipp
    An agency transformation network
  • The Wedge: Insurance Agency Sales & Management Training – Randy Schwantz
    Revolutionary Technology for Sales Team Development – Grow Your Agency Value, Grow Your Wealth

Webcetera Introduces Marketplace for Carriers and Vendors

EZLynx Marketplace will ultimately enable third-party vendors, insurance carriers, and large MGAs and brokers to build custom applications for, and market to, the vast EZLynx customer base. These custom applications can leverage the robust quote and policy data available through the EZLynx quoting engine and the EZLynx policy download engine to offer new and innovative services to the EZLynx customer base.

“EZLynx Marketplace will eventually allow agents to buy these applications with the click of a mouse just like consumers purchase apps for smart phones today,” says David Taylor, Vice President of Product Integration at Webcetera. “We believe strongly that the extensive EZLynx network of over 5,000 agencies will make this a compelling business model for third-party vendors and insurance carriers.”

Taylor, an insurance software industry veteran, has recently joined the Webcetera family to lead this effort. He began his career in 1991 as an assistant Controller at the major national MGA Combined Group Insurance Services, Inc. Taylor served in various roles including CTO for Combined Group and Quantum Integrated systems and later as National Sales Director for AgentDirectExpress and RealtimeExpress.

IT Plays Vital Role in Agency Success

Technology has always played a major role in marketing, but a recent report reveals that organizations will seek greater input from IT departments to achieve better sales and customer performance. IBM’s The State of Marketing 2012 indicates that marketing professionals are aware that they’re falling short in reporting and analyzing online visitor data. They’re overwhelmed with the amount of data and systems they have to manage. The vast majority say improved integration and metrics tools would provide a tremendous benefit. They also admit that their social media efforts lack a unified, integrated vision that greater collaboration with the tech side could provide. Ultimately, marketers hope that progress in this area will help them make better decisions about product and service offers and campaigns.

IT department

Don’t make the mistake of thinking these comments only apply to large organizations. Your agency, regardless of its size, should be looking to your IT department for sales and customer service support.

IT’s role has changed

In the past, most insurance organizations looked at their IT department as a necessary expense. IT made sure your computer network was up and running, secured your organization from external security threats, performed software maintenance and updates, and generally became the “fix it” department. In today’s environment that’s no longer enough.

Today, your IT department should be looked at as a profit center for the organization. IT staff should be involved in agency strategic business planning. They need to be viewed as the innovator in the agency, searching for new technologies and processes that will increase revenue. IT needs to work hand-in-hand with the marketing department, providing informed ideas as well as the technical support necessary to maximize the agency’s Internet presence.

Social platforms continue to increase in importance. IT staff should be leading the organization and exploring how you can best use these new platforms to facilitate better relationships with your existing clients, as well as develop new relationships with prospects.

How can your IT department be a profit center? By developing platforms and processes that create revenue for the organization.

For example, the CIO at a medium-size agency in Florida began experimenting last year with a marketing website specifically designed for the agency’s marine insurance niche. It was his pet project. After a year of experimenting and testing search engine optimization and Internet marketing techniques, the website is currently generating over $40,000 a year in commission income. Based on the information learned, the agency is now creating multiple additional niche marketing websites.

It’s time for IT to stop being the fix-it department and become a strategic asset for your agency.