What Do Agents Want?

By Ellen D. Kiehl, Ph.D. | May 18, 2009

What do agents want from their insurance carriers? Surprisingly, compensation is not No. 1 on the list. Rather, independent insurance agents would rather have a good relationship with a carrier that is responsive. One agent explains it this way:

“When it is hard to work with a company, we don’t use them a lot.”

That statement shows why PIA groups in four states put so much effort into their joint Company Performance Survey project, now in its eighth year. A market is a terrible thing to waste — yet, some companies all but disqualify themselves. Here’s another comment from the most recent survey:

“A company with good service and technology can pay us less. A company can have bad enough service that no compensation will offset it.”

The CPS project began with a prototype developed by PIA of Connecticut’s Company Relations Committee back in 2002. Since then, more than 29,000 individual company ratings have been provided by agents in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York — an average of just over five carriers rated each year by each participating agent. PIA publishes performance ratings annually for nearly 100 different insurance markets.

In preparation for its 2009 company-specific survey, PIA conducted a preliminary “benchmark” survey in the four states to test the 16 standard performance criteria it uses. Additional criteria also were presented — 35 in all. Using a zero-to-10 scale, agents were asked to score each factor according to its importance when they evaluate an insurance carrier. Space also was provided for free-form comments like the ones quoted here.

Results show PIA is accurately capturing the concerns of its members. According to a participating agent:

“Tough survey — I had to fight off the urge to mark everything a ten!”

None of the 35 items scored below a six, on average. Rated of least importance by agents is whether a company runs a customer service center.

Two performance items relating to claims-handling scored highest overall: “adjusts claims fairly” and “pays claims promptly.” Around 70 percent of respondents rated each of those a “10.” Fewer than half said “competitive compensation” is of highest importance when they look at a carrier. In fact, agents tend to identify strongly with their customers and need their companies’ support. “If there’s a claim, let’s show we care. It matters,” one PIA member commented.

“Quality of service clearly overrides the ‘profit-only’ motive that agents are falsely accused of being driven by,” according to Jim Pittz, business issues director for the four state associations. “A smooth claims process allows independent insurance agents to help their clients quickly.”

Speed sells. PIA often hears from members that speed in providing quotes and resolving problems also is extremely important to agents. According to a benchmark survey comment:

“Perhaps insurance companies should concern themselves more with customer service to their agencies … It is very frustrating to be unable to speak with a person and solve a problem in a timely manner.”

That comment explains many of the benchmark survey’s remaining top-10 company performance items:

  • communicates clearly, honestly;
  • resolves issues quickly;
  • underwriter knowledge, experience;
  • listens, responds to agents;
  • easy, intuitive technology;
  • stable markets;
  • consistent underwriting; and
  • competitive pricing.

Based on feedback from the benchmark survey, PIA will add a few items to the CPS company-rating procedure and modify some of the survey’s standard items to reflect agents’ need for speed and clarity in an ever-accelerating business environment.

But poorly executed automation isn’t helpful, as this agent explains:

“Too many companies throw a Web-app together with no consideration toward the agent’s time. [It] asks unnecessary questions, poor design in screens, long pauses for screen refreshes, asks questions in a stupid order, etc. This is the biggest waste of time for the agent, and then he can do little to make the sales process more efficient.”

Sales — it’s what both companies and agents want most. When there’s a mismatch between what agents really need and a company’s execution, this can affect their sales partnership, the survey revealed. An agent puts it this way:

“The overall relationship [between] companies and agents is [in] direct relationship to the amount of business … Also in direct relation is the ease of doing business, both from a technology standpoint and from a customer service/claims-handling standpoint. The more streamlined and efficient a carrier can be at this, the more an agency will be apt to write with them.”

Communicating on behalf of agents what a specific company or business unit is doing right, and where it could improve is the goal of PIA’s CPS project. In 2009, more than ever, PIA can explain to carriers what their performance ratings mean in relation to agents’ priorities — and thus to potential sales.

About Ellen D. Kiehl, Ph.D.

PIA Senior Research Analyst Ellen D. Kiehl, Ph.D. came to PIA in 1976, and has worked in numerous communications and government-related positions, including assistant executive director and director of government and industry affairs. Dr. Kiehl has researched and written numerous position papers and hearing statements and on several occasions has testified for the four associations. PIA of Connecticut, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York State Inc., is a partnership of four statewide trade associations that represents professional, independent insurance agencies, brokerages and their employees.

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