Agency Management Systems: Bridging to the Future in Real-Time

By | May 3, 2004

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” With those melodramatic words, the longest-running soap opera in TV history has tried to impart an air of gravitas to the beginning of each episode.

Life is short, Days of Our Lives tells its viewers. So, don’t waste it by dying in a car crash only to come back as an evil twin sister who gets kidnapped by her jealous boyfriend’s doctor. Or something like that.

The original point of this seems, as a friend would say, to be shrouded in mystery. But the vision of those precious grains of sand slipping through the hourglass must flash before the eyes of many an agent and CSR as they re-key the same set of data into yet another insurer’s proprietary Web site.

Duplicate data entry is the biggest automation time waster, according to 50 percent of the 9,000 CSRs, producers and agency owners surveyed by the ACORD User Groups Information Exchange (AUGIE), while proprietary Web sites came in second with 28 percent.

So long, SEMCI
While comparative raters abound, the industry seems to be farther away from the independent agent’s dream of a single-entry, multiple-carrier interface (SEMCI) than ever before. Like a stern father pouring a bucket of water on a recalcitrant son late for school, leading voices in insurer technology are advising agents to give up the ghost of SEMCI.

Yet it appears that while a perfectly seamless workflow between agency management systems and each carrier’s proprietary database is far off, slow and steady progress is being made to help reduce re-keying and make the billing, claims, policy changes, quoting and issuing faster than ever before.

“There’s a lot of re-keying being done by agents,” said Chris Garson, agent IT business leader at Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive, considered one of the tech savviest insurers. “That creates huge inefficiencies. What can we do to reduce keystrokes to get transactions completed accurately and efficiently? There are billing inquiry capabilities available with various Web sites and agency management systems. It’s changed people from thinking there is a silver bullet [e.g., SEMCI] to let’s just hit a bunch of singles and make a real difference.”

Garson points to billing inquiry as a “big win” so far. He said that the same billing inquiry that can be processed instantaneously—or in “real-time”—using ACORD’s XML standard was estimated to take between three and 12 minutes on the phone via the traditional workflow.

XML—or extensible markup language—is an extension of HTML (the code that serves as the backbone of the Web) that presents a flexible way to create standard information formats and share both the format and the data on the Web. This is the true promise of Web technology, which was originally designed to allow different systems to interface with each other seamlessly.

“XML is HTML on steroids,” according to Garson.

With the proliferation of increasingly complicated and specialized proprietary carrier Web sites, however, some of the original promise seems to have been lost along the way.

Dan DeSerto, president of Lumtron Technologies, has been consulting on agency automation issues since 1984.

“When agencies ask me my opinion, I’ve kind of jolted them a little bit,” DeSerto admitted. “Twenty years ago, we had to learn everybody’s mainframe, green-screen and do it their way. We still have to learn everybody’s screens, but now we have pretty colors.”

Seattle-based Safeco, for example, recently announced a redesign of its agent Web site after talking with 650 of its agents about what they expected. What the company learned, according to Paul Bryant, director of Web/online experience, is that “agents wanted to get at their quotes and issue business as quick as they can. Much of the work we did was about refocusing the site, eliminating things that were in the way. On most pages, we now have 50 and 60 percent fewer links. As opposed to treating it as a Web site, we’re treating it almost as an application.”

Carrier Web sites—yea or nay?
The single-platform site, which will be rolled out across seven lines of P/C business by the end of the year, will allow agents to much more easily quote different products to a customer nearly instantaneously, according to Anne Randall, vice president of automation for personal lines at Safeco.

It sounds wonderful of course, but the problem—as described so, ahem, colorfully by Lumtron’s DeSerto—as each carrier seeks to reinvest in making its Web site as great as it can be, the harder it can become for agents to do the work they want to from within the agency management system.

Garson defended the value of the proprietary Web site: “Agents might get some advantage from a simplifying training standpoint by only having one set of screens to look at,” he said. “On the other hand, my belief is that agents need to understand what is the most effective way in their shop to get things done. I think carrier Web sites have very powerful capabilities and can be very streamlined to get transactions done. AMS, for example, is broader in scope and allows you to get policy history, etc. But the screen flows aren’t necessarily designed for efficiency.”

Garson said Progressive has been active in partnering with third-party vendors to make it a one-click process to go from the agency management system to the exact location on the insurer’s Web site where the change is made.

At least one longtime observer of the agency automation scene agreed.

“My long-term stance is that I don’t believe company proprietary Web sites are bad,” said Steve Anderson, editor of The Automated Agency Report. “What is bad is multiple entry of data.”

Here is where XML comes to rescue, Anderson said. The technology has made it much easier for the leading agency management vendors to provide a so-called “bridge” from the agency system to the proprietary Web site, automatically pre-filling many fields as dictated by more than 500 ACORD forms now available.

AMS’ TransactNOW is one such product, as is IVANS’ Transformation Station, which is licensed by University Park, Ill.-based Applied Systems to bridge to its agency management systems. XML allows the different proprietary systems to share the data in a way that both sides understand.

“What XML/real-time communication helps solve is the multiple entry of the same piece of data,” Anderson said. “There is progress being made.”

Of course, as long as different carriers ask different questions there will always be blank fields to fill, but this really is a leap forward according to technology experts.

“What they’re doing is isolating the CSR from having to know all the idiosyncrasies of some of the unique or specific Web sites of each of these carriers,” DeSerto said. “TransactNOW has done a phenomenal job with the different elements, the different carriers and the numbers of users who are actually using it.” At press time, AMS boasted 35 carriers supporting the year-old TransactNOW technology and more than 2,600 agencies actively using it.

DeSerto added that XML does not do the job all by itself. “You also have data mapping. They have different edits for different programs. You can do multiple carriers for different programs. XML in itself doesn’t do that.”

According to Anderson, who has participated as a member of standard-setting AUGIE outfit, the group has played a pivotal role in pushing carriers to realize the value of the Web bridge/real-time evolution in agent-carrier automation. “The reason for [AUGIE] was to provide carriers verifiable info about what agents want,” Anderson said. “So for example a lot of the functionality that’s currently available to agencies, those real-time inquiry functions really started or were pushed along due to the efforts of AUGIE. …

“The next step is actually exchanging info in real-time. XML is being used for the inquiry function, but none of that is being populated back into the agency management system. It comes back as a static PDF or status page.”

According to Hugh Anderson, director of interface and integration for AMS, there’s no conflict between carriers’ signing onto a Web bridge product and investing more resources in making their proprietary Web sites more efficient. The two complement each other, he said.

“The bottom line is really that with this product, with this approach, we feel like we’ve made carrier interface the standard workflow within the agency management system,” AMS’ Anderson said. “It’s as much a component of the system as invoicing or anything else.”

AUGIE’s latest project is to work out a set of standards to simplify the Web site logon process that has bedeviled agencies struggling to keep track of dozens of usernames and passwords for the various carrier agent portals.

(A scheduled interview with a sales and marketing executive from Applied Systems did not take place due to an administrative snafu.)

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Insurance Journal West May 3, 2004
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