The second installment of our Producer Insights series of interviews is with Chuck Stout, broker and co-owner of Meridian Insurance, a thriving full-service benefits brokerage firm located in South Florida.
Meridian offers a full menu of coverage, including personal medical, group medical, dental, vision, long and short term disability, property, business and life. Partly due to these diverse offerings, the group has enjoyed a 12% growth in business versus this time last year, even as some of its competitors have been hit by hard times. How do they keep pace with their bustling business? Mr. Stout says that a key ingredient to staying current is using the right technology to communicate with carriers and nurture relationships with clients.
Mr. Stout shares his appraisal of carriers’ technology to see how well it delivers the most important factor for brokers: easy access to critical data.
Q. Which technology is most important to your work on a daily basis?
Mr. Stout: I travel a lot, so I love my Motorola Droid, which syncs with my work calendar and email addresses so I can keep up with work from anywhere. I get 100 emails per day, so being able to address them as they arrive is essential for my productivity.
For quoting, we use Norvax for our individual business and Centrax for our group business. These sites are great because we can submit the business online once, and we get quotes back from many different carriers. If a carrier we want to quote is not subscribed to either of those sites, we can usually submit the quote on the carrier’s website, but it slows us down. With both of these sites, we choose which quotes to show our clients and can send the quotes to them via email. Then they can submit the application online or email us their completed application. It’s a very clean, professional process.
Q. What other technology does Meridian use to run its business?
Mr. Stout: We have seen how technology can really help our business, so we try to stay plugged-in. For Customer Relationship Management (CRM) we use an agency management system that allows us to load contacts and keep track of communications with them. We can attach emails and faxes, which helps us in our effort to go paperless. For keeping track of our commissions received from carriers, we rely mostly on their statements and track them in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. We are also experimenting with a service that lets us build websites on behalf of our group clients for their employees to view and sign up for benefits online. Clients love this idea and it is a good differentiator for us, but client adoption has been slow. We also recently started using Constant Contact for keeping in touch with our clients via email.
Q. Do any carriers offer mobile applications to help your productivity?
Mr. Stout: A few carriers, such as Aetna, have started to come out with mobile apps for insureds. As far as I know, there is nothing similar geared towards the broker community. But carriers do have websites that we can log in to for running quotes and servicing groups and those sites are mobile friendly.
Q. Which carriers’ technology do you most enjoy working with?
Mr. Stout: Humana and UnitedHealthcare are two carriers that have very broker friendly online sites and tools.
Q. What are some things that carriers could do better when it comes to technology for brokers?
Mr. Stout: One thing that would be helpful would be a “one stop shop” for agents to find everything they need. Right now, some carriers have different sites for different activities. I might have to go to one website for enrollment, but a different site with a different username and password to view my commissions. If carriers could combine all activities into one site, it would make things much easier. Another thing that would help me in servicing accounts would be real time insight or regular reports on my clients’ billing status. Occasionally a client forgets to pay a bill and their coverage gets cancelled, causing us to have to go through the re-enrollment process. It would save everyone time and energy if I knew a client was late in paying and could give them a quick call to check in.
Q. How do you expect healthcare reform to impact your business?
Mr. Stout: We’re a bit concerned about the future. In the near term, things look good; but we expect that in the next 3-5 years, brokers will be doing more work for less money. Employers will need more service and have more questions, and individuals are entering the market that may never have purchased insurance before, so they will really depend on the broker as an advisor. It may take extra education and effort, but we’re not getting any extra commission for that extra work. It will be more important than ever for us to rely on technology so we can be as efficient as possible and service a higher volume of clients. Luckily, Meridian has a good amount of diversity in product offerings, and many clients have all their different types of coverage through us. When we start to see less commission for health products, we’ll know that we have to sell more of the other types.
Q. How are you preparing for changes ahead?
Mr. Stout: I’ve been actively sharing information in my accounts and in the community about how health reform will impact employers and their health insurance so they can be informed and prepared. Besides that, I feel that the way we do business now is well suited for a post health reform world. We have a strong idea of what type of firm we are and what type of clients we want. We don’t want to be the Wal-Mart of insurance; we’re not a good fit for people who are looking for nothing more than the lowest quote around. We’re the brokerage for people that want advice, good service, and a full explanation of their options. We always take the time to create a detailed and professional proposal when delivering quotes and treat every client like a VIP. That’s important because we have a very strong referral business; we actually don’t advertise or market at all. Through networking and getting involved in the community, we can find the right type of client that will value our advice and continue a deep and lasting relationship with us.
Q. What trends have you observed in the commission statements and incentives you receive from carriers?
Mr. Stout: On our statements, many carriers indicate the total premium they are compensating us for and what the commission rate on that business is. With those types of statements it is easy to see how our commission payment has been calculated.
As far as commission and incentive trends, I’ve seen a lot of carriers cut base commissions but offer bonuses for volume and client retention to reward agents that have larger blocks of business with them. I understand this because it motivates the high performers to sell even more. Plus, the carrier gets to identify the brokers they most want to work with, and give a little less commission to lower performers. Also, some carriers give reward vacations and sales trips. These are fun, but I feel I speak on behalf of all brokers when I say that we would much rather have the money so we can go on our own vacations with our families, instead of with other brokers who may be our competitors.
Q. What advice do you have for carriers looking to improve their commission statements and agent tools?
Mr. Stout: Our statements usually include the total premium we’re being paid on, but they don’t have information on the number of covered lives. It would be great to be able to see the number of enrollees, as well as their dependents. It would also be wonderful to see some more in-depth analysis into the commissions we’ve received from our groups, like a year over year comparison of commission per group. And this information should all be available online, so I can get to it whenever I am interested in reviewing it. We brokers are constantly on the go and looking to reduce paper, so carriers need to have good online sites that are easy to use and have all the information we need in one place.