February 13, 2015
How to Maintain a Competitive Edge
by Dax Craig
In the face of the threat of possible new competitors, agents and insurers must cooperate on digital means for better engaging clients.
The recent speculation about Google entering the U.S. insurance market adds to the growing list of non-traditional competitors turning their attention to insurance — a list that already includes Overstock, Facebook, IKEA and Walmart. While personal auto remains the popular entry point for these outside competitors, the impact is more far-reaching for property and casualty insurers. The question is no longer “if” outside competition will affect the insurance industry, but rather “how” agents and insurers can maintain a competitive edge and protect their businesses.
Agents need to adjust their customer service approach to reflect the reality that younger consumers are not as loyal as their predecessors, while at the same time facing the increased threat of a direct sales channel. Insurers must grapple with the reality that tech companies will be relentless in finding ways to lower costs for consumers and circumvent agents.
Insurers like Progressive, Geico and State Farm are already playing in the digital arena and are better positioned than mid-sized and small insurers, because they understand how the online game is played. The same is true for large national agents vs. regional or local agents. The big question is: Will the industry as a whole take a step back, identify its distinct advantages in today’s rapidly changing insurance market and start a wave of unprecedented innovation? Or, will the industry go the way of those that have come before (i.e., Blockbuster, credit card lenders in the ’80s, travel agents, Yellow Pages, taxicabs, etc.)?
The New-Entrant Advantage
Before we discuss agents, let’s look at the advantages of the non-traditional competitor. It should come as no surprise that major tech companies and e-commerce giants have an interest in insurance. It’s one of the last remaining industries to not reach full digitization and root the business in analytics — a weakness that can be exploited by the data-rich competitors with deep pockets. Additionally, with the lack of customer loyalty, the struggle will boil down to who will win the customer: the agent or a company like Google.
At the forefront of customers willing to jump ship are Millennials, who have surpassed the Baby Boomers to become the largest population in the country at 76.6 million strong. If insurance doesn’t take the extra steps to innovate and entice this generation, Millennials will more than likely gravitate toward a well-known tech company that already understands what they are searching for and what they are buying. Most Millennials were raised on Google — whether it be for research, directions or email — so why wouldn’t they feel more comfortable purchasing insurance from Google?
For this reason, it’s no surprise that the top three priority areas for agents this year are found in retaining and servicing customers, as opposed to growing their business. The opportunity for agents is that this disruption from new competitors is forcing an urgency to evolve the customer engagement model to better serve Millennials, who have grown up using technology. This needed to happen regardless, and the sooner the industry modernizes its customer acquisition and retention strategies, the better.
The Agent Advantage
Though there is increased pressure for agents to stay relevant in this quickly evolving insurance industry, agents who leverage their distinct advantages for both customers and insurers will thrive. According to an Accenture consumer survey, customers value the insights they gain from face-to-face interactions with their insurance agent more than any other method, yet agents themselves often downplay the importance of their expertise as a competitive advantage. This is a mistake.
When you consider that insurance enters our lives at times of personal turmoil, agents serve as a trusted adviser during critical moments. Agents help both the consumer and the insurer navigate the process of making the consumers’ lives whole again when tragedy strikes. Agents who adopt digital technologies and analytics will gain greater customer insights and will bring insurers the right business at the right price.
According to a recent Applied Systems survey, 48% of participants listed competition as a top factor driving agency technology investments. Agents who allow a disparity in analytically driven risk management between themselves and their insurers will begin to lose their foothold in the industry.
The Insurer Advantage
There’s only one place where mass adoption of data-driven decision making, product innovation and modern customer engagement strategies can all take off at the same time. Insurers alone yield the largest ability to transform the industry in better service of their customers and fight back against the pure commoditization of insurance. There’s likely no stopping this trend, but there is a lot of opportunity to provide innovative solutions so that traditional insurance players maintain ownership of the customer.
There is no time to waste, however. Just because the early focus is on personal auto, it should not drive a “wait and see” mentality for the property and casualty industry. Learn from industries that have gone before us in the digital revolution and suffered from technology disruption. Once the trend takes hold, the ripple effect of change industry-wide happens very quickly.
The Bottom Line
The best chance for agents to stay competitive and relevant is to work together with insurers, utilize data-driven strategies and engage consumers on a more personal level using technology as an enabler. The face-to-face interaction with clients is still extremely important, and analytics can effectively collect and store invaluable insights so you can make the best connection between insurer and consumer. Remaining a relevant and trusted adviser is the name of the customer relationship game.