Mr. Sarich serves a senior solutions architect, strategic consultant and business advisor with over 25 years of insurance industry experience. He uses his extensive knowledge of insurance operations, information technology (IT) systems, sales and marketing to develop and define operational strategies for the company’s sales and marketing initiatives.
Agent-carrier relationships can be a lot like romantic relationships: it takes communication and effort to make them work long term. How carriers manage their relationships with agents will undoubtedly dictate the quality and quantity of business they will witness in the long run. When insurance carriers provide agents with everything they need to be successful in the field, agents are more likely to remain loyal, leading to a larger and more satisfied customer base.
When one looks at much of the research done by the analyst firms such as Novarica, Gartner, Celent and others the topic of carrier relations is an area where neither the advisor nor the carriers are satisfied. Financial advisors want the carriers to do more for them, and carriers tend to see the advisor’s concerns as important, but not a high priority. The overall relationship between agents and carriers is symbiotic – they have different needs, but each benefits from the other.
We are all familiar with the term “customer relationship management” or CRM. And there is a pretty common understanding of what CRM means to any organization. CRM, from a basic technology perspective is maintaining customer information that will help an organization to achieve a high level of customer satisfaction. With the use of technology information can be collected that will help to retain the customer, get the customer to buy more, and to have the customer hold the organization in high regard. The CRM technology is designed to enable meeting those goals by using e-mail, tracking last purchases and amount of money spent, and providing the customer with information on new products or services that make it very easy for the customer to continue to do business.
Many of the uses of CRM technology directed at the customer or end-user are applicable to financial advisors as well. However, rather than Customer Relationship Management, the carriers and agents need to be looking at Agent Relationship Management (ARM). Just like in the typical CRM scenario, agents have needs as well, but the agent’s needs are different. One big difference is that the agent and the carrier share the same ultimate customer. To do their job most effectively, advisors must be as informed as possible about both the products they’re selling and the customers they’re working with, particularly when it comes to life and health insurance. Carriers are often the best source for both the product and customer information they need to help customers make decisions that are right for them. If agents are uninformed about products or fail to understand their customers’ needs, they’re less likely to target and advise new customers effectively.
For agents to establish strong customer relationships, they must first develop a lasting relationship with carriers. In turn, carriers need to take advantage of new trends and technology that help make these relationships beneficial for both parties involved. First impressions are important: ensuring a smooth onboarding and initial training process is the first step in building strong carrier-agent relationships. Cloud-based technology tools can speed up this process by days or even weeks. Beyond the initial interaction, mobile technology and social media may be the answer to maintaining relationships with agents long term.
Agent onboarding inefficiencies can cause delays in new agent sales and productivity. Manual, paper-driven processes can take several weeks to complete, meaning several weeks of missed sales and revenue opportunities. Rather than starting a new agent relationship off with a slow and frustrating start, insurers should consider updating to cloud-based systems that accelerate these processes to take just a few hours. Not only does this save time, but also reduces human error and administrative costs. Keep in mind that the on-boarding process is the first step in establishing a business relationship that for the carrier will generate more quality business, and for the agent relationship that will enable the agent to offer better products and services to customers and prospective customers. If the on-boarding process is cumbersome, slow, and more of the same, then the agent (agency) is left with a less than inspiring impression of the new business partner.
Once advisors are onboarded quickly and efficiently, maintaining the relationship is key. As agents begin building customer relationships, it is important that carriers have the ability to communicate with agents at any place and time to ensure that they are equipped with the information they need to be successful.
Mobile technology applications can provide agents with all of the most up-to-date information they need to make an initial sell, advise a customer or adhere to an industry regulation, eliminating the lengthy bureaucratic processes that often add additional time to completing sales and answering general customer inquiries. Additionally, for newer carriers, mobile technology can help agents become better informed about a carrier’s products. Mobile and web applications that contain product information, webinars or sales tips give agents the opportunity to learn what they feel they need to know on their own time and at their own pace.
Even after agents are on-boarded, trained and knowledgeable, mobile applications are still tremendously beneficial when it comes to improving process efficiency and information sharing. As the insurance industry slowly shifts towards cloud-based technology, interacting on-the-go is now easier than ever. With properly customized mobile applications, agents can access cloud-based networks and information from their mobile device securely, making it easier to complete transaction processes or interact with customers on the road. And, more fundamentally, the type of information that is made available via mobile technology should provide faster more accurate information to the agent. Advisors want to know about upcoming policy expirations, claim status, underwriting status, renewal status, location of clients, recent customer service contacts between the insured and the carrier. Mobile technology is intended to open up real-time service, self-service, and access to information which in turn improves agent satisfaction with the carrier.
Big data is everywhere, and insurance carriers are not an exception to this trend. There are highly effective ways for carriers to use data from social media to make agents’ jobs easier, leading to a relationship where both parties benefit from one another.
Insurance carriers understand that they need to take advantage of social media to keep up with competitors. In fact, a recent Celent report revealed that almost 80 percent of insurance companies are using social media for branding and marketing purposes. However, using social media solely to push your company is not enough. Carriers need to take a closer look at the way customers are interacting on social media channels and begin to reach useful insights using data pulled from sites like Facebook and Twitter.
How does this fit into improving the agent-carrier relationship? When carriers analyze social media data to recognize life events such as a change in employment or a new baby, and then equip their advisors with this information, it allows them to conduct a much more targeted approach to sales and develop lasting customer relationships. It is no longer effective to rely solely on age and basic demographics to determine which products a potential customer might need. Instead, agents should have more detailed knowledge about potential customers on hand to better understand the products that are right for them.
Insurers that are failing to take advantage of more in-depth social media data are falling further behind their data-savvy competitors. Without equipping advisors with the information and tools they need to succeed in today’s data-driven world, carriers are setting agents up for failure. When agents are unable to do their job efficiently, loyalty, morale and ultimately sales decline.
Many advisors are removed from centralized office settings, and while it is likely that they know your products well, they may miss out on important product updates or changes in state regulations.
The key to effective agent relationship management is improved modernization. Today, consumers expect information to be readily available at the click of a button. Insurers need to improve internal processes to keep up with consumer demand and remain competitive within the marketplace. Ensuring a smooth and healthy agent-carrier relationship is arguably the first step in becoming a tech-friendly industry. Using cloud-based services, mobile communication channels and social media data to help agents conduct a more targeted sales approach are simple changes carriers can make to maintain strong agent relationships, and ultimately long-term customer satisfaction.
Vice President of Corporate Strategy
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