Tag Archives: agent

Unfair Perception of Insurance

The definition of a commodity, per Investopedia is:

“The basic idea is that there is little differentiation between a commodity coming from one producer and the same commodity from another producer. A barrel of oil is basically the same product, regardless of the producer. By contrast, for electronics merchandise, the quality and features of a given product may be completely different depending on the producer. Some traditional examples of commodities include grains, gold, beef, oil and natural gas. More recently, the definition has expanded to include financial products, such as foreign currencies and indexes. Technological advances have also led to new types of commodities being exchanged in the marketplace. For example, cell phone minutes and bandwidth.”

West Texas oil of x grade is West Texas oil of x grade. It does not matter what hole in the ground it comes from. The market values it the same. Red Russian wheat is Red Russian wheat. It does not matter what farmer grew it. The market values it the same. When the market values something the same, regardless of who grows it, drills it, makes it or services it, that “something” is a commodity. Sometimes the product is truly indistinguishable, such as the oil and wheat examples.

Sometimes. though, differences exist, but the buyer does not recognize the differences and therefore treats something as a commodity that really is not. The seller knows, or should know, the difference. The seller can then take advantage of the buyer by selling a product/service of less quality than the buyer imagines at the commodity price. Or, the seller will sell a higher-quality product at the commodity price and lose money or at least waste money because no one is paying for the extra quality because the buyer does not realize the higher quality exists.

In these situations, a perceived commodity exists, not a real commodity. The difference is important. Insurance is a perceived commodity, not typically a real commodity (a few exceptions exist). As a result, quite often, people buy lower-quality insurance policies because they think all policies are commodities, so why spend any extra? If they were correct, then their logic would be right. However, they are getting taken advantage of because they are comparing a lower-quality product at a lower price with a higher-quality product at a higher price and not seeing the difference in quality. Where they get suckered a second time is the seller of the lower-quality product prices the policy higher than actually necessary but materially less than the higher-quality policy. The insured thinks he is getting a good deal when he is not, the higher-quality provider loses a sale and the lower-priced seller makes extraordinary profits.

See also: Insurance Is NOT a Commodity!  

Any reader thinking this is not happening clearly does not live in the real sales world. An entire economic analysis of this circumstance was described in detail in 1980 by an economist named Dr. Shapiro, and we’re seeing it played out before our eyes every day. The only winners are the entities selling low quality.

The reasons insurance is a perceived commodity rather than a real commodity are:

  • Insurance is complex. All one has to do is read a policy to understand that it is complex. Then add the elements of service and claims, and how no one publishes quality claims data relative to which carriers provide the best claims service, and one understands why consumers’ eyes glaze over.
  • Most consumers do not want to buy insurance, even if it was simple, so asking them to invest time and energy into determining which product is quality by learning something so complex as insurance when they do not even want to buy it is asking for far too much.
  • Let’s be honest, most producers and customer service represenatives (CSRs) do not truly understand many insurance coverages, either. I have been teaching coverages, auditing agencies for E&O, answering email questions from agencies regarding coverages and so forth for 30 years. I am amazed at how little quite a few producers and CSRs do know.

If sellers cannot explain insurance, they default to selling insurance as a commodity. Typically we refer to this as “selling price,” but it is really defaulting to selling insurance as a commodity because the only differentiation with a real commodity is price. Such actions reinforce to the public that insurance is a commodity. At the very least, producers should selfishly avoid selling insurance as a commodity because, bluntly, insurance companies and the public do not need to pay 15% commission to sell a commodity. To sell price is to tell the market you are worthless.

The industry now has new players, insurtech or disrupters as they’ve become known. Many have no insurance background and therefore no pretense they know anything about insurance. They do not pretend that insurance is special. They see insurance as a commodity. Many industry veterans cannot stand the thought of obvious “know-nothings” selling insurance, but at least when they admit they know nothing I admire them for being honest. Quite a few people in the industry who have decades of experience do not know much either but will not admit it. These particular new players are simply making ignorance transparent.

When ignorance is transparent, price also becomes more transparent, and this is what the public, who sees insurance as a commodity, wants. They want transparency. If they see insurance as a commodity, they certainly do not want pricing obscured by an agent, who pretends to know something, when he does not, making an extra 15%, which means the public may pay an extra 15% that is truly a waste. Truly, the industry should not be upset if the result is to eliminate the waste incurred spending 15% on agents who are incompetent.

The catch, as Dr. Shapiro described back in 1980, is what happens to the producer who truly knows what she is doing, brings true value to the consumer and is worth 15%? What happens to the insurance company who truly has far better coverages or far better claims service? These entities bring important value to all of society, and they are being squeezed. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • Actually know coverages. Actually learn business income. Actually learn ordinance and law. Actually learn at least what questions to ask around cyber. Actually even learn the differences in homeowners policies.
  • Then learn how to discuss coverages with clients. Knowing coverages and knowing how to communicate coverages are two different things. This is work and a craft. Learn your craft well.
  • Hire a marketing firm/publicity firm to explain for you your knowledge and ability to communicate.
  • Package the insurance policy with services. Insurance policies in and of themselves do not deign a premium of 15% commission any more. The 15% is for the package of services the agency provides, the experience the agency creates at sales, renewal and claim.

See also: Insurance is Not a Commodity? Hmmm  

I work with a handful of clients that have truly built their culture around these features and others. They do not have the problem of selling commodity insurance that most agencies have, and their organic growth rates prove it. Study after study has shown that, regardless of the industry, building expertise, communication skills and a consumer experience around the sale is absolutely the only way to counter, even thrive, in a world where consumers perceive a product to be a commodity when, in reality, it is not.

The Agent of the (Digital) Future

The direct channel has a major impact on the distribution landscape, as customers become the focal point for every transaction and sale. More agents consider the market shift toward online or direct sales a major constraint in the growth of their business.

EY recently surveyed 530 P&C and life insurance agents to better understand trends, growth strategies and ways in which engagement rules have changed. They were asked about carrier selection, support and perceived value, as well as future growth engines and how they see their role as agents evolving in three to five years. Four key themes emerged from this survey.

1. The threat of direct-to-consumer and digital business models is driving insurance agents’ desire to use digital and social sales tools.

Agents are concerned with how they fit into the trend of more direct-to-consumer and online insurance models. Most view the market shift to direct-to-consumer and online channels as the major constraint in the growth of their business going forward. Inadequate products, investment in analytics, administration and automation, and speed and quality of access to customer or policy data also are constraining growth.

Agent perceptions of carriers

While carriers begin to explore alternative distribution platforms, agents still believe they add value and want to be actively engaged with the customer.

Survey findings reveal that agents who sell commercial insurance understand the most about how they fit into their carrier’s strategy, while those who sell personal lines and life insurance understand the least.

Growth is a major concern

The landscape of consumers is rapidly evolving from “traditionalists” to “technologists.” Millennials are the largest customer group in history — and a target growth area for most industries, including insurance. Agents indicated that they need different tools and products to meet their needs and to capture this growth.

Agents currently value basic functionality (e.g., operations and sales); however, the agent of the future will be concerned more with digital capabilities and tools. Quality of tools plays a large factor in the decision-making process.

See also: How to Support the Agent of the Future  

2. Agents expect carriers to enable simple customer and agent experiences, which, in turn, will drive agent loyalty.

Today, 90% of agents tap into multiple carriers, which is forcing insurance providers to rethink their value proposition and ability to differentiate. Personal P&C agents are more likely to have two to five most-favored carriers, while those in commercial lines tend to favor one or two carriers for each product. Only 12% have one primary alliance carrier.

Agents need support from carriers

When asked what carriers could do to ease the operational burden on an agency, respondents universally identified better communication, improved customer service and underwriting.

Agents think simplicity is the key for carriers to improve the customer experience. Across product types, agents have different opinions of what carriers can do to improve their responsiveness to customer service or claims; 45% want fewer forms and less paperwork, while 35% propose simpler products and better customer online tools.

Better sales tools, technology and analytics

Life agents are more focused on systems that support new leads and better underwriting, representing an opportunity for improvement. While 65% of commercial and P&C agents rate current tools as very good or good, only 45% of life agents rank them as such. The larger the agency, the higher the quality rating.

3. The agent of the future is looking for innovative, customized products to meet changing market and customer demands.

Innovation will require product change

Product innovation will be a key driving factor behind the agent of the future’s expanded basket of products. All agents place significant value on innovation that facilitates new business. Nearly half of commercial agents perceive technology that automatically identifies potential opportunities within their existing book of business as highly important.

The majority of agents believe that carriers could be more innovative by producing more simplified products that require less explanation and better address the needs of millennials. Only one third view the needs of Gen-X’ers and baby boomers as the type of product innovation that will help them grow their business.

Wearables and new technology present opportunities

Technology is viewed as an important factor in addressing the needs of a new generation of agents – and adding millennials to the salesforce will better cater to that market. As millennials continue to represent more market share, almost 40% of agents question their preparedness to meet the needs of the next generation.

4. Agents see close collaboration with carriers as driving growth.

Agents want to be more involved in the underwriting process. They agree that carriers could improve underwriting interaction by allowing more access to underwriters, enabling agents to work with the same underwriters and shifting underwriters’ transactional role to a relationship-focused engineer of customer solutions.

Agents seek closer working relationships with carriers

The majority of agents are open to the idea of reducing their role in servicing to focus on sales and growth. Across all product types, nearly half of agents view increased customization as one of the main product changes to address future needs. In line with customization, 40% of agents view the ability to provide many available features to address a wide set of needs as key to meeting evolving market demand.

Improving the agent experience

Strengthening current customer relationships and achieving customer-centricity in core operations have become strategic imperatives. As consumers embrace digital and other emerging technologies, insurers must rethink their distribution strategies, agency interactions and partner relationships.

See also: The New Agent-Customer Relationship  


Listening to the “voice of the agent” can help carriers provide a deeper, more robust experience and support them to rethink their commitment to the agency system. A collaborative process will allow carriers and agents to interact and strengthen their relationship. Our survey supports the concept that insurers and the agent of the future will be stronger by working together.

Why Disintermediation Is Overrated

Venture capital money has poured into insurance technology to the tune of more than $3 billion in the last 18 months. Much of this capital has financed companies founded under ambitious missions and goals:

“It’s a digital-first, direct-to-consumer agency — we’ll be a carrier in 18 months.”

“We’re a mobile-first, full-suite personal insurance shopper.”

“We’re leveraging IoT and blockchain to completely redefine underwriting — in a way that makes sense to consumers.”

Wow, sounds disruptive.

Anyone close to the insurance industry has heard some variation of these assertions countless times over the past 18 months as entrepreneurs have identified the antiquated insurance industry as one ripe for disruption. There’s no arguing that insurance is a relative laggard in a financial services industry that has seen material innovation over the past decade. Advancements in payments, investment management and lending have permanently altered the way consumers think about banking and the movement of capital, while insurance has remained relatively underserved by technology.

See also: Find Your Voice as an Insurance Agent  

Technological innovation across industries has typically come in two ways: through uprooting incumbents or through empowering the existing system. In industries and business lines that are largely commoditized, the former approach has historically created lasting value — with Uber being a prime example. Meanwhile, industries that require expertise or personal touch have generally innovated incrementally by enabling existing channels — Charles Schwab or Sabre are examples.

Most agree technology will improve the user experience in insurance. Most agree technology will provide new access to data sources to improve underwriting. But will technology actually displace the incumbents and existing institutions? Is that the approach that will work in insurance? In some cases, yes. In the case of the commercial insurance, we generally think not.

Disintermediation? We see empowerment.

At first glance, commercial insurance may seem like an ideal candidate for meaningful disruption. It is a substantial market with more than $240 billion in premiums written annually; it has a brick-and-mortar, aging distribution channel (39,000-plus retail agents with an average age over 50); it primarily operates with pen and paper communication; and it largely functions in a data vacuum. In addition to these structural features, many small commercial policies can now be quoted, rated and bound instantly (they don’t need human review). This seems like a startup opportunity in a box.

With these market fundamentals in hand, a host of direct-to- consumer digital insurance brokers or companies (MGAs) are entering the market with the intent of disintermediating existing channels and delivering instant policies to small commercial insureds. Examples of some of these are Next Insurance, Embroker, Coverwallet, Trym — and the list goes on. For some business owners, purchasing coverage in this manner may in fact be the best way to transfer their business’ risks. Though it is quite likely the amount of premium placed through digital channels will increase from its current number (around 4%), we see the incumbent brick-and-mortar retail brokers, who command 96% of placed premium, as incredibly entrenched for a host of reasons:

  1. Commercial insurance is complex. Each business has unique risks that business owners struggle to understand. The alphabet soup that is commercial insurance and discussions of CGL, EPLI, E&O, coverage limits and deductibles are often met with blank stares. So, even if business owners understood their risks and could purchase coverage directly, they often are not familiar with what they are buying.
  2. Brokers actually acquire customers quite efficiently, and it may be difficult (or impossible) to acquire customers online at the same cost that brokers do through more traditional means. Acquisition of small and medium-sized business (SMB) clients generally works best when done vertically or locally — most brokers, local to their area and experts in specific products, fit that mold.
  3. Commercial insurance policies are not commodities. Each policy is unique and has its own specific set of coverages, endorsements and exceptions. An experienced agent has immense value to the insured navigating potential coverages.
  4. There is no cost savings by going around a traditional broker. Brokers are free insurance consultants to the client, and there is no cost difference between going through a digital channel vs. a traditional one.
  5. In commercial insurance, the buyer is insuring against certain things that could put her entire business at risk. A trusted adviser is, therefore, incredibly important in understanding various policies and insurable risks.

Unless there are significant advancements in artificial intelligence and reductions in marketing costs, we don’t see the possibility for meaningful disruption or displacement of the broker in the near term. We do, however, believe in a massive network of digitally empowered brokers.

The digital broker

Imagine a world where a technology platform gives a network of brokers the same digital tools that are being produced by the technology startups trying to replace them. The broker now has a digital interface that services insureds quickly while simultaneously providing expert advice that takes years to amass.

See also: 3 Ways to Improve Agent/Insurer Links  

Moreover, there is meaningful precedent for industries with the above dynamics to become empowered, not disrupted, by technology. Charles Schwab became a household name largely because it allowed wealth managers to break away from banks, freeing them from the operational overhead of having to build trading, reporting or portfolio management systems. Schwab enabled wealth managers to focus on being a high-quality consultant to its clientele. This has also been exhibited in real estate, where startups have empowered real estate agents with infrastructure and data science to provide a level of service and expertise on par with companies like Amazon and Google.

Both of these examples illustrate the transformative effect of empowering existing, experienced distributors of complicated and operationally intensive products. We see this same future for commercial insurance brokers.

RIP to the Idea of ‘Sold, not Bought’

Let’s have a moment of silence for the “sold, not bought” paradigm. Before anyone gets panicky, we’re not laying agents to rest, but rather recognizing that sold, not bought is about a mindset that served our industry in the past and that holding on to it for too long is now hurting us.

It’s not about favoring a particular distribution method. Agents can live without this paradigm — and likely be better off for it.

Learning from other paradigms

If people in your company are still having arguments internally about this, let’s first look at what we can learn from other arguments that have died over time. These include:

  • “the Earth is flat;”
  • “the four-minute mile is impossible;”
  • “HIV is a death sentence;” and
  • “Pluto is a planet.”

What’s common about all these arguments? New capability. Somewhere along the line, a scientific breakthrough, a person with new knowledge or a separate discovery caused us to see the argument in a new way. Then we eventually agree on the new truth. It’s time to do the same for the sold, not bought paradigm.

What’s changed?

There is new capability in the hands of consumers that did not exist when the paradigm was created. The modern consumer has so much new capability that the term “prosumer” was invented by Alvin Toffler in his 1980 book “The Third Wave.”

A prosumer is a very active consumer who blurs the lines between professional and amateur and controls information flow, the experience and, even, the sale. Modern companies like Amazon, Apple and Google have done a great job, both leaning into this trend and shaping it.

See also: Paradigm Shift on Cyber Security

As an industry, we have convinced ourselves that nobody wakes up in the morning and wants to buy insurance unless someone makes her do it. This drove the sold, not bought paradigm. It had truth to it in the days when consumers did not have access to information like they do today. However, the prosumer found this concept disrespectful and, perhaps, even arrogant. Hanging onto this notion has caused the industry to lose focus on the end consumer and shift the focus to the agent as customer. We then end up with:

  • Complex products that please a few key sellers but damage the customer experience;
  • A heavy push in marketing strategies that result in expensive incentives and margin pressures; and
  • Compensation models that provide incentives for the wrong behavior and lead to onerous regulations, such as the DOL fiduciary rule.

Opportunity to relearn

There’s a lesson here, but we need to revisit the nature of demand. Economics lessons tell us that there are several nuanced styles of demand, dictated by the nature of a product.

It’s the manufacturer’s job to cultivate demand, manage demand or both. Historically, creating demand was in the hands of the agent and was fused with the sales process. Because of the prosumer’s new capability, the role of demand creation and the sale are now decoupled.

See also: Taking the ‘I’ Out of Insurance Distribution  

For those who think nobody wants life insurance, think again. While it isn’t as highly sought after as beer or shoes, the 2014 study by LIMRA and Maddock Douglas indicated there are almost 19 million “stuck shoppers” (people who intend to buy but the current experience causes them to get stuck along the way) for life insurance. In addition, if you talk to some of the new startups/disruptors in the insurance space, they believe insurance is a bought product, and it is simply their job to cultivate more demand and create a superior experience.

So if we replace the paradigm of “sold, not bought” with “bought, not sought,” we can put the responsibility back into the manufacturer’s hands to cultivate demand, deliver better on the experience and, most importantly, ask ourselves what role advice plays in the new world. Many are pointing to robots as the answer.

But can an industry so deeply rooted in social purpose really operate without humans helping humans? If not, we have an opportunity to reinvent the agent role in a profound way.

What Does Success Look Like?

It seems every press release you read, every case study in the news, every session at industry conferences and every webinar on tap for the next six months will at some point mention the 100% implementation success rate of the vendor involved. That fact, in and of itself, throws serious shade on what really constitutes implementation success and dilutes the impact or validity of the concept as a whole, but should it?

Depending on where a person sits, implementation success can mean different things and may include different elements, technologies or metrics. Implementation success is therefore often qualified by varying criteria that are completely dependent on the role of the individual in the project or the company. To truly guarantee implementation success, all perspectives and perceptions must be considered and incorporated.

For the CEO, it’s all about the big picture. Sure, nearly all CEOs want an increased ability to process new business and grow the company organically, but time and again individuals in this role will focus on these key questions:

  1. Did we implement what we set out to implement?
  2. How will this implementation affect our ability to modify existing products or launch new ones?
  3. Does this implementation support our construction of a future-ready technology environment?

For the CFO, everyone instantly assumes a successful implementation is simply about being on-time and on-budget, and while those factors are definitely important, CFOs additionally want to know:

  1. What is the maintenance and licensing like on this new technology product, and how does it affect our total cost of ownership (TCO)?
  2. Does this implementation make other downstream or supporting systems obsolete, requiring the company to make additional technology investments in the coming year(s)?
  3. Does this implementation allow the company to retire existing legacy systems and recognize cost savings in maintenance and support of these systems?
  4. Is support or the professional services required to implement changes included in the initial contract price, or is it an additional, and continuing, charge?

For the CIO, data conversion is a crucial, yet truly not sexy, part of the package that allows one system to be turned off and the other turned on, so to speak. It is important to understand that while CIOs are often thought to have the most interesting, cutting-edge piece of the insurance technology puzzle, these individuals are not easily distracted by solutions, tools and gadgets that turn out to be little more than bright, shiny objects. Questions CIO typically focus on when measuring implementation success include:

  1. Does my internal team have the expertise today to maintain the new solution, including making simple changes without deep technology programming expertise or the ability to create and implement custom coding?
  2. Will I be able to easily integrate emerging technologies as the need arises?
  3. What is the upgrade path for this solution that will clearly demonstrate my company is not implementing legacy?

Other players, including the company’s heads of claims, underwriting and customer service, are counting on achieving a certain percentage of straight-through processing (STP), decreasing the time from first notice of loss (FNOL) to claim resolution, and still others are rabid about mobile access and self-service capability delivered via a portal. Alternatively, FAIR Plans, for example, are less concerned about growth and bottom line profits, but instead are focused on increasing internal efficiency and delivering a top-quality customer experience. Different strokes for different folks.

So, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that the magical middle ground that will make everyone happy likely doesn’t exist. It’s back to the old saying that it’s impossible “to make all of the people happy all of the time.” The trick is knowing which stakeholders’ happiness is on the nice-to-have list and which is on the must-have list. Keep in mind, there are degrees of happiness, and incorporating even small pieces of capability can be important when it means validating stakeholders’ priorities and implying broader ownership across the enterprise.

Ultimately, what composes implementation success is unique to each company and should be well-defined for each company before the start of the project. All projects should have a well-defined set of expected outcomes from both business and technology that need to be achieved to have that project defined as a successful delivery. While budget and schedule can be a part of the objectives, they should not be the primary drivers. A successful implementation is one the delivers the required business and technology outcomes.

When the core system implementation itself is done right, with the right partners and a well-defined set of objectives, it leaves room for peripheral goals to be achieved at the same time with a faster ROI and the ability to get back to the business of insurance.