Survey: What Keeps Independent Agents Awake at Night?

November 16, 2008

Commissions, Technology, Agency Branding and Catastrophe Zones Rank High as Concerns


Independent insurance agents and brokers are concerned about the future of contingent commissions, according to a recent survey.

But that’s just one of several major concerns agents have. They also have doubts about the support of some of their insurance company partners for the agency system and about the insurance industry’s ability to attract quality people.

Whether contingent commissions will be reduced or cut altogether in coming years outranked real-time technology and agency branding as important concerns to agents in the “How Independent Agents View Carriers” survey conducted by Channel Harvest Research and sponsored by Insurance Journal.

The survey asked agents to rank five issues within the American Agency System in importance on a scale of 1 to 5. The property/casualty agents made their priorities known: Loss of contingent commission (4.6 out of 5); Real-time technology (4.4); Agency branding (4.0); Internet sales (3.4) and; Reduced coverage in catastrophe-prone areas (3.3).

Channel Harvest Research, a partnership of The van Aartrijk Group and Campbell Communications, conducted the national survey of more than 1,600 independent insurance agents this past spring to determine their attitudes toward the carriers with which their agencies do business.

Industry Image

Agents participating in the survey were also free to identify other issues they believe are of critical concern, with many placing the industry’s poor image and the related difficulties it has attracting talent at the top of their list.

“Agency respondents who discussed the industry’s image were unanimous in their sentiments that there is an identity crisis: They believe the industry seems boring, unprofitable, dead-end and unattractive to young talent,” said Peter van Aartrijk, of The van Aartrijk Group.

Some respondents blamed weak or fragmented industry promotion, while others attributed the industry’s image woes to publicized scandals and uncomplimentary trends after recent catastrophes.

But agents did not let themselves off the hook, either.

“Many blame the independent agencies themselves, saying professionalism has declined,” according to John Campbell of Campbell Communications. He pointed to one agent comment in particular that seemed to capture concerns: “Agencies no longer seem to want to act as advisors to their clients.”

“This suggests that too many agents view their roles as product salesmen rather than trusted advisors or risk managers,” Campbell said.

Some agents also expressed concern that those entering the agency system are less qualified than needed.

Carrier Support

In addition to worrying about the industry’s lame image, agents are also upset over the quality of their relationships with some carriers and they have doubts about the commitment some carriers have to the independent agency system.

“Respondents generally long for a stronger partnership with carriers. Carrier competition with, and perceived lack of support for, independent agents drew the greatest ire from respondents,” said Campbell.

Those surveyed repeatedly singled out for criticism those carriers that promote Internet sales instead of encouraging prospects to go to independent agents.

Transfer of Work

Transfer of marketing responsibilities emerged as a real thorn in the side of agency respondents, with most indicating resentment that advertising costs for business — that will ultimately benefit the carrier — fall on the agency.

“It is difficult to compete when your commission is 8 percent, yet they pass the advertising budget to us,” complained one agent.

Along with their complaints about marketing costs, agents expressed a similar theme regarding carriers shifting duties to agencies, very often without compensation.

“There is an overall trend that companies are using technology to not only lower their workloads but also to pass responsibilities on to the agents,” said one respondent.

A number of agents expressed frustration over technology, with multiplicity and inconsistency of platforms the main complaint. With respondents ranking “real-time technology” a 4 out of a possible 5 on the scale of importance, “It is clear agents are looking for tools to more efficiently serve customers, driving higher customer and staff satisfaction as well as agency profitability,” said van Aartrijk.

The survey also explored other opinions of agents on a range of topics, as previously reported by Insurance Journal, including what performance criteria they use when evaluating their carriers and under what circumstances they might choose a market over a preferred carrier.

The “How Independent Agents View Carriers,” is the first in a projected series tracking agents’ views on issues in the insurance marketplace. For information on obtaining the full survey report, contact John Campbell: john@campbellsurveys.com or call 202-363-2069.

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