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February 14, 2017

Preparing for Future Disruption…

Summary:

...by fulfilling our traditional promise. Agents can stay relevant well into the future, but only if they truly deliver peace of mind to clients.

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

“The future is here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson

In his 2003 book, “The Slow Pace of Fast Change,” author Bhaskar Chakravorti highlighted how powerful innovations in technology and business often suffer slow adoption. He illustrated how, in a networked world, individuals, companies and regulators are all interacting, watching each other, guessing and second-guessing which investment choice is right. Often, the conservative choice is hard to dislodge.

But when alternatives reach a tipping point, change can be dizzyingly fast.

Insurance, a traditionally slow-changing industry, has more than its fair share of headwinds to innovation. It is a fragmented industry, compounded by: state-by-state regulation; an extended value chain of retail and wholesale distributors through carriers; reinsurers and capital markets; and a plethora of orbiting service providers. This fragmentation has inhibited transformational change and led to a prevailing view that, through continuous improvement, industry players can always adapt and catch up to change.

This fragmented marketplace has traditionally protected incumbents. However, predators are circling. Insurtech, Silicon Valley-backed software companies, are looking to deliver insurance solutions. They observe the structural inefficiencies in the industry — that agents and brokers work through every day — and see red meat, tantalizing opportunities for new and disruptive paradigms. How are traditional agencies to adapt and stay competitive in the face of this threat?

Disrupting the distribution model

You can see the signs of coming disruption. Usage-based telematics (Progressive), peer-to-peer insurance models (Friendsurance), e-aggregators (PolicyGenius) and Internet of Things (IoT) companies are offering insurance coverage embedded with their products (autonomous vehicles). In 2015, venture capital companies invested $2.65 billion in insurtech with the intention of, at the very least, shaking things up.

See also: 2017: A Journey Toward Self-Disruption  

Some see the traditional agency model as living on borrowed time. Debates rage about the unique role and value that agents and brokers provide. When they really want to scare us, potential disruptors talk about “the Uber of insurance,” promising to transform the role of the agent to create a completely different customer experience.

This transformation is most advanced in personal lines where digitalization is facilitating straight-through processing and is reducing the need for human intervention in policy processing. By analogy, think of people doing their own taxes online, where data-drive technology and intuitive user interfaces supplant human-driven, client intimacy.

But more complex commercial lines are not immune to disruptive transformation. Digitalization, automation, analytics, embedded devices and telematics provide powerful tools to be integrated into new service and business models that can considerably change the value proposition for insureds.

How the customer defines “the job to be done”

While highly attuned to these possibilities, I align with those who see the role of independent agents remaining relevant well into the future. But there is a caveat: agents must truly and expansively fulfill their core promise to provide “peace of mind” to their insureds.

I am often struck by the notion that the “job to be done” by retail agents is to provide “peace of mind.” It is not enough to provide a piece of paper and a commitment to represent the client’s interests in the event of a loss. Increasingly, peace of mind means providing information seamlessly, when and where the client wants it, via a user-friendly interface, backed by data and tools to help prevent losses (rather than simply mitigate or retrieve them).

One agency principal recently noted that it was imperative “to make the friction points go away” in the risk management process. But this is only the starting point.

Consider your organization. How much of your employees’ time is devoted to increasing your clients’ peace of mind? Or even understanding what peace of mind really means for your clients? By contrast, how much time is spent on “compliance activities,” busy work and redundant processing? While most insurance professionals are highly service-oriented, most insurance activities are not — tipping the scale in the opposite direction.

Developing client intimacy and institutionalizing that knowledge into daily practices is critical. This is because agents and brokers have what direct writers, software companies and device manufacturers will struggle to attain: trusted adviser relationships. This is the key asset to protect and enhance.

How to make your organization future-ready

You might think the first thing to do after reading this article is investing in new online systems, portals and user-experience consultants. This is secondary. The first thing to do is get your operational house in order. Look internally at your service operations and understand how aligned your business processes are to your business strategy. This may seem counterintuitive, but, to improve customer intimacy and deliver peace of mind, focus first on internal operations.

Streamlining operations is the foundation of the most successful innovation programs. Simplifying operational complexity increases transparency and strategic focus. Reducing process variability eliminates waste and inefficiency. Most agency leaders don’t realize how much time producers and service teams spend on redundant and non-core activities. This time can be reinvested in deepening an understanding of client preferences, purchase habits and risk profiles that will ultimately have an impact on loyalty and retention and will enhance the new business value proposition.

Creating internal capacity is not rocket science. It is achieved through operational best practices such as increasing strategic visibility so employees can better align priorities; segment accounts; standardize ad hoc tasks; source the right work to the right person; and improve the operational IQ of your people. Operational analytics additionally provide insights into which accounts or lines of business are profitable, which are dilutive and what to do where there are gaps.

Where once employees were under pressure to meet client needs, compete on price, put out fires and clean up backlogs, new, internal capacity will be discovered and directed to writing more profitable accounts, improving customer intimacy and innovating around digital channels and data-driven risk-prevention business models.

See also: Insurance Disruption? Evolution Is Better  

While the threats of disruption from insurtech are real, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Today’s agency will suffer decline, but tomorrow’s agency is within our grasp — not by saddling an already-complex operational environment with more sales people and systems but by building an organization on a foundation of operational and process excellence.

In doing so, the agents and brokers of tomorrow will assert their relevance and long-term competitiveness by delivering their clients the promise of peace of mind more expansively than ever before.

What does peace of mind mean to your organization?

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About the Author

Dan Epstein is CEO of ReSource Pro, where he is working to reimagine the way insurance organizations deliver services. Epstein has led ReSource Pro from startup to nearly 3,000 employees.

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