WHAT’S IN STORE FOR THE DIGITAL INSURANCE FIRM IN 2021
Considerations for refining and enhancing digital strategies
By Christine Horne
The year 2020 will be remembered as the year that insurance agencies and brokerages tackled their digital strategies at a moment’s notice thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, agencies and brokerages will want to shore up their existing strategies and look to the future … beyond the pandemic.
As vice president of systems support at Bankers Insurance, I saw first-hand how our digital strategy allowed us to deploy our crisis management plan in response to the quickly evolving pandemic. Our digital strategy allowed us to swiftly move to a remote footing while maintaining our client service standards and protecting the safety and health of our employees and clients.
Reimagining ourselves as digital agencies and brokerages changes who and where our clients are because we’re not tied to physical locations, and it broadens the talent pool of potential new hires since we’ve learned that we can successfully operate remotely.
From sheltering in place to lock-downs and social distancing rules, many agents and brokers found themselves having to quickly react and pivot to a distributed workforce. Some agencies and brokerages had disaster recovery/crisis management teams in place and were monitoring the situation and preparing to go remote. Many have remained on remote footing and now see remote or distributed workforces as an operational opportunity and will be using 2021 to refine and enhance digital strategies to support it.
Even as many agencies and broker-ages turned to remote workforces, some didn’t and others were hybrid, with some in the office and some working remotely. In 2021, agencies and brokerages are likely to turn to different solutions to meet their business and client needs. I think that agencies and brokerages (and carriers, too) are going to feel freer to reimagine work-force arrangements.
Not everyone is comfortable or performs best when working remotely, however, and there are challenges for both the organization and its employees. Flexibility will be key, and each agency and brokerage should take the opportunity to reevaluate its needs and what works best. This fits right into and supports the whole idea of digital transformation.
COVID-19: Catalyst for change
Where digital was first something only a few had actively embraced and were pursuing, COVID-19 has made
it more of a necessity. Reimagining ourselves as digital agencies and broker-ages changes who and where our clients are because we’re not tied to physical locations, and it broadens the talent pool of potential new hires since we’ve learned that we can successfully operate remotely. Becoming digital has allowed us to rethink our traditional presence and physical footprint and has supported disaster recovery/crisis management plans. Additionally, digital operations often allow us to serve our clients better, as we move to offering online portals for client self-service opportunities. While many of us are forced to work in non-traditional spaces—and during non-traditional hours to accommodate childcare and remote learning—we’re actually more available to our clients when they need us.
We’ve also reconsidered our relationships with carriers and vendors. We not only accept new technologies that we might have been curious but not serious about pre-COVID-19, we also ask for more. eDocs and Messages quickly come to mind for me because, at the beginning of the pandemic, with over 20 offices, we still had a lot of paper coming in the door. Although we had been looking to reduce the amount of paper and revise our document management strategies, COVID-19 immediately put that concern front and center. Fortunately, we were early adopters of eDocs and Messages, and already knew the significant advantages they offer.
When the pandemic hit, we took another look at our carriers to see which ones were offering eDocs that we had not implemented yet. That turned out to be a great decision for us, but, even with our successes, we found the number of carriers offering eDocs and Messages to their agent and broker partners is still distressingly low. Because eDocs support our overall digital strategy, our executive team now includes the need for this download functionality in discussions with carriers.
Considerations for digitalization
One of the biggest considerations for a remote workforce was purchasing the necessary hardware—for example, laptops, extra monitors, headsets for IP phone systems, and cameras. In the first several months of the pandemic, these were some of the items that were in the shortest supply. Another consideration was how to monitor staff engagement and productivity in a remote setting, as well as how to support employees affected by the pandemic.
Moving ahead in 2021, data will be critical for agencies and brokerages. By refining and harnessing the data we generate, agencies and brokerages can gain significant insights into clients’ needs. However, the adoption of analytics has been slow, which is unfortunate, as these tools can make it faster and easier than ever to put data to work. With data analytics, firms can drive productivity, identify sales and renewal opportunities, and focus on carrier relationships.
I’d love to see 2021 be the year of the shift from being just generators of data to becoming really data-centric and focused agencies and brokerages. There’s so much insight to be gained from deploying an analytics tool, and you don’t need to be a data scientist to create real value for your agency. There are several different tools available, and there hasn’t been a better time to dip your toes in and see how you can start harnessing the power of your data.
The Internet of Things is another technology I see as having a more direct tangible impact for agents and brokers, as it continues to enable us to mitigate risk and plays a growing role in products and services that are offered to clients.
Here are five recommendations for digitalization:
- Digitalizing should be a priority. Given COVID-19 and the fact that it is expected to stretch into 2021, digital strategies are important to how agents and brokers operate. Some of the benefits of digitalization are increased efficiency, maintained or improved profitability, and meeting and serving clients where they are.
- Agencies and brokerages should take a long-range view and make the mental shift. They should dig into and understand how their digital strategies can set their firm up for success.
- Firms need to identify the opportunities in terms of cost, time and effort to implement. Be willing to make the appropriate investments to implement—whether that’s financially or culturally.
- Embrace the challenge. Digitalizing your agency or brokerage is a difficult endeavor, but the payoffs for doing so are well worth the effort. It’s important to embrace the idea of any post-pandemic “new normal” as an opportunity to shed legacy thinking.
- Don’t assume your staff or coworkers are on the same page or are ready to make the digital leap with you.
Because of the upheaval of 2020,firms need to remember to bring their teams along on the digitalization journey. They must clearly communicate the agency’s or brokerage’s vision so that everyone understands the “whys” behind the move. Find digital champions, and encourage them to share why they have embraced the chaos and are excited to go on the digitalization journey. Hearing from a peer about how and why a new digital tool made work easier goes a long way toward encouraging the team to try new things.
For example, Bankers Insurance wanted to see an increase in the use of eServicing among my client services team but just couldn’t seem to move the needle. A group of us brainstormed how to get the word out. In looking at usage of eServicing via an activity report, we realized that two individuals on the team used it significantly more than anyone else, so we asked them to do a short testimonial video about why they use it and how it helps them. The result of that peer-to-peer testimonial? An instant increase in usage of eServicing. Find ways to help your champions share “wins” with peers—it really does make a huge difference.
Challenges of digitalization
There are myriad challenges, depending on what digital tools you choose to implement. Identify the opportunities available and strategize around implementing them. Rank the options in terms of high, medium, and low impact versus high, medium, and low effort and work from there. What are some of the low-hanging fruits in terms of effort and expense that still might have a big impact on your team? Consider those as a starting point and work your way from there. Those quick successes will set the stage for you and your team to embrace and think positively about becoming a more digital agency or brokerage.
Some items that may be easy to implement with immediate, tangible results are eDocs and Messages, eServicing, and eDelivery of client documents. eDocs, in particular, is important because it sets you up to be ready to offer a client portal. I would consider client portals, marketing automation and marketing submission tools as medium effort, which could mean they are part of phase two in the digitalization process. Higher effort (phase three) goals might be an analytics tool or an integrated CRM.
In terms of moving to a cloud for software hosting, agencies and broker-ages will find it is easier to manage digital strategies. However, single sign-on, multi-factor authentication and vendor management strategies, including an understanding of the cyber strategies of whom your agency or brokerage chooses to partner with, are simply must-do items. Firms should add VPN connectivity now that so many are working remotely, and don’t forget the importance of low-tech cyber strategies, such as indicating that an email received is from an external party, phishing testing of your staff, and accessing control to your physical locations/infrastructure. There are lots of tools and vendors out there to help with a cyber strategy, and some insurance carriers are getting involved and will help implement things like phishing tests.
The future of the digital agency/brokerage
The Applied Systems 2020 Digital Technology Adoption Survey revealed that digital technology adoption continues to rise among agencies and brokerages. While no one has a crystal ball to predict the future, there’s too much at stake for digital adoption to wane. Clients, agents and carriers are all facing numerous challenges due to COVID-19, and I think we’re finally at a tipping point where there is enough collective will to see our industry move to a digital-first footing.
That’s a great thing for those ready and willing to get on board and embrace the transformation. For those less willing to embrace the transformation, they are going to face some real challenges as a result. Carriers are getting on board in ways that they may have wanted to for years but were, in some ways, held back by their agent or broker partners. For a long time, they’ve had to say to agents and brokers asking for more digital technologies that they couldn’t, or that the timing wasn’t right because they still had a large number of agents/brokers who weren’t willing to embrace those technologies. Some carriers would implement technologies but not really pay attention to their adoption. That’s changing, and I think we’ll see the pace of that change increase.
What this tells me is that carriers are looking more and more to partner with agents and brokers who embrace technology and digital tools to create the most profitable partnerships. However, firms still need to be realistic about their goals. If things go a bit awry, take a breath and regroup. From my perspective, going digital is a journey and definitely not a destination, with a long horizon and lots of new technology and opportunity yet to come. Not every change is going to be earth shattering, but incremental improvements to processes really do add up and the barrier for entry is low. There has never been a better time to start your digital transformation.
Christine Horne is vice president of systems support for Bankers Insurance.