Quietly gaining market share
These agency management system vendors may not be on everyone's radar, but their longevity suggests the systems are worth looking for
By Nancy Doucette
Are you one of those agents who has had a persistent dream of starting your own agency? It’s not a simple matter of just hanging out your shingle, is it? There’s a lot of “stuff” associated with starting up an insurance agency. For one thing, you’ll need an agency management system.
On the other hand, perhaps you have an established agency but you haven’t found a management system that will suit your needs and fit your budget.
In either instance, you’re probably already familiar with the major players in the agency management system space. But there are also system vendors with long track records in the industry that have been quietly mee-ting the needs of agents and attracting loyal customers in the process. We’re going to introduce you to three such vendors. Their owners, coincidentally, were all once agents themselves.
The Agency Advantage
“We’ve designed The Agency Advantage to be complete, but not complex,” says Tom Preston, president and sales and marketing manager for Advantage Information Systems, Inc. “Our logical, intuitive menus and functions combined with our trainers who provide one-on-one sessions on the phone or via Web conferencing make our system easy to learn and use. We use simple menus, but there’s a lot of power behind that simplicity.”
Preston founded Advantage Information Systems with Bruce Brownlee in 1990. Preston has some 15 years as an agency owner on his resume in addition to software sales experience. Brownlee’s background includes developing software for government and small businesses.
The Agency Advantage is available either as an Internet-based solution, or the agency can install the product on its local server. Among the system’s features is interface capability with comparative rating software. The system automatically calculates pro rata and policy term premium changes. It also includes document imaging and digital photo management, transactional filing support, download, and ACORD form management.
With respect to accounting, The Agency Advantage focuses on what Preston calls simplified accounting. He explains that The Agency Advantage provides detailed tracking and reporting of commissions and fees. It fully manages the agency’s trust account and dovetails with third-party products such as QuickBooks® for the general ledger/operating account.
“The Agency Advantage tracks what is in the agency’s trust account that belongs to you,” Preston says. “On demand, you can prompt the system to issue a check for the difference. That is then deposited into your QuickBooks operating account so you’re able to pay all your expenses right out of QuickBooks. You have a clean operating account and your trust account is a 100% in-and-out account. You have a lot less to learn about accounting, thanks to our system.
“We have no add-ons,” Preston continues. “Everything we offer is included in our monthly price. There is no contract, so we earn our customer’s business every month.”
Stacey Williams, office manager and bookkeeper for Foster & Witmer Insurance Agency, in Lawrenceville, Georgia, has been with the agency since 1989. She’s been using The Agency Advantage since it was first available. “We’re one of the original users of The Agency Advantage,” she reports.
The agency specializes in what Williams describes as hard-to-place risks, high risk auto in particular. The agency’s comparative rating software is integrated with The Agency Advantage. The rating software also bridges to its carriers’ Web sites. Download from the carrier completes the round trip of the data. “We don’t have to re-key, which saves time and reduces mistakes,” Williams says. “The Agency Advantage pulls information from one system to the next.”
Williams says The Agency Advantage provides other efficiencies as well. “We’re virtually paperless. We scan information into The Agency Advantage and we access carrier Web sites from within the system. Everything is at our fingertips. There’s no more getting up and tracking down the paper file.”
In terms of service, Williams says The Agency Advantage takes some important steps in training its support staff. “They recently hired a new customer service person, and that individual spent the day in our office to get an idea of what our day was like. The staff at The Agency Advantage is very sensitive to the needs of their customers.”
Agency Management Anywhere
Dean Westover has been with a family agency since 1970. ACORD forms were in their infancy back then. Early on, typewriters were the technology that agencies used to complete those forms. By the late 1980s, laser printers were playing a growing role in desktop publishing. Building on that, Westover developed some software for his own agency to use to automate the completion of ACORD forms. In 1988, Choices Software, Inc., was born when he made that software commercially available.
Over time, Choices’ forms-only desktop product spawned a number of products to enhance agency efficiency and profitability. One of the products is Agency Management Anywhere, a software-as-a-service solution. Among the features that Agency Management Anywhere provides are integrated contact management; instant access to all latest edition property/casualty ACORD forms (there are some 650 forms); fill-in, combine, and e-mail capability for ACORD forms, invoices, receipts, proposals; saving and retrieving to an included SQL database; sharing of those documents in real time over a local network or the Internet.
“Users of our system don’t need to install anything,” Westover points out. “Anyone can log in and try the product completely free for 30 days. As long as they have the free Acrobat Reader which is included with most major brand computers, they can use the system.”
Agency Management Anywhere includes invoicing capability but no general ledger. “Our users typically use QuickBooks,” he says. “For a vendor like us to try to replicate what is already available doesn’t make sense.”
Al Downs, a partner in Herbert-Lee Insurance Agency, a largely commercial shop located in Seaford, Virginia, has been using Agency Management Anywhere for about two years. When he joined the agency about seven years ago, it had no management system.
In addition to Agency Management Anywhere, Downs says the agency also subscribes to Choices Real Time™, a password manager that enables users to access carrier Web sites and view policy information in real time with one click of a mouse.
Beyond providing agencies with easy access to carrier Web sites, Westover explains that Choices Real Time includes a feature that allows agents to save policy and endorsement copies from carrier Web sites as .jpg or .bmp images. “Many insurance companies have stopped mailing paper copies of policies and endorsements to their agents,” he notes. “Agents are concerned that they might not be able to access a complete record of all transactions. They are concerned about errors and omissions.” This capability helps address those concerns.
Downs says he’s not concerned that the agency’s data is stored off site. In fact, he sees it as a benefit. “The Agency Management Anywhere program is on the Choices server, so I’m not maintaining a high-end server and backing up files. The responsibility for backing up is someone else’s.
“Software-as-a-service is a good disaster recovery tool as well,” he continues. “Because everything is available via the Internet, I can log in from anywhere. Additionally, when I visit a client, as long as they have Wi-Fi, I can log into our system on my laptop.
“Choices does everything that I need,” Downs concludes. “And in terms of affordability, no one can touch what Choices offers for the price.”
Insurance Management Solutions
Brent Sheppard was an agent in a highly automated agency in the early ’90s. As the agency began to develop its own document imaging software, Sheppard discovered he preferred working in the technology field to selling insurance. By 1994, he’d established Xanatek, Inc., his own technology consulting company, and was marketing the document imaging solution his company had created.
Building on the document imaging solution, Sheppard rolled out Insurance Management Solutions (IMS) that same year. Among its features are client/prospect management (including campaign management); secure storage of sensitive human resource information, tax and accounting records, and agency agreements; e-mail and in-house instant messaging, a multi-user scheduler (calendar and to-do list) that can be synchronized to a Palm Pilot™, access to ACORD forms, download, and reports. The accounting module includes a complete account current and is integrated with QuickBooks.
Taking into consideration the features that IMS offers, he believes the product has two specialties: document imaging and an add-on capability—a telephony product dubbed the Call Center.
“Because we started out as a document imaging system,” Sheppard says, “we’re able to store millions of pieces of paper for long-term, legal storage. The documents are stored under the customer record in an encrypted proprietary format. The images can’t be modified.”
Users can purchase the Call Center for an additional amount that is computed based on the number of incoming phone lines. The Call Center will track all the agency’s incoming and outgoing telephone calls using caller ID. He explains if a caller’s phone number matches one that’s in the client database, the Call Center will pull up the customer record and open the client’s note section on the user’s computer screen so the details of the call can be documented.
Sheppard says agencies own the copy of IMS which they house on their server. “It’s not a lease,” he emphasizes. “So if the agency decides to discontinue paying for IMS, they still have access to their data. It is their data, after all. They won’t, however, have access to support or updates.”
“We use everything Xanatek offers,” proclaims Mike Peterson, CIC. He heads up Peterson Insurance Agency, Inc., in South Bend, Indiana. He was attracted to the IMS product more than 10 years ago because of the imaging component. “We were tired of hunting for files,” he recalls. “And the more you use technology, the better your profit margin becomes.”
Peterson appreciates the “cool tools” that are part of IMS. One time saver is the system’s ability take a client’s address directly into MapQuest or Google Maps without rekeying. He also likes the Boolean search feature which will search all notes and images for a particular subject. Additionally, he relies on the in-house instant messaging function. During our phone interview, he said a message box opened on his computer. It read: “Client wants to reduce his limits. Would you like to talk to him?”
In terms of security, he values the ability to block access to certain portions of the system. “You can set different levels of security to designate which users can see what. Best of all, you don’t have to be a computer guru to do that,” Peterson concludes. *
For more information:
Advantage Information Systems, Inc.
The Agency Advantage
Web site: www.agencyadvantage.com
Choices Software, Inc.
Agency Management Anywhere
Web site: www.choicessoftware.com
Insurance Management Solutions
Web site: www.xanatek.com