One Size Fits One

How would you feel about retooling your agency to only provide coverage in massive bundles? Need a professional liability policy? We can provide one but that comes with personal auto, commercial general liability and a side of employer-funded benefits. You only wanted professional liability? Sorry, no substitutions. Oh by the way these policies are riddled with exclusions and will only provide about half of what you’re looking for.

Surely your customers and prospects wouldn’t appreciate this idea. Unfortunately we accept this scenario in our agencies when it comes to our business systems. Agency management systems are filled with features but somehow manage to only satisfy a percentage of what each agency needs. CRM and sales automation systems generally hit the mark when it comes to meeting our needs but are so jam packed with superfluous features that they’re intimidating and hard to navigate. This results in lackluster adoption that negates the positive features. On the flip side there are features that would immediately benefit our agencies that simply don’t exist in our industry.

Pick Your Prison

Imagine insurance technology as a landscape filled with windowless square brick buildings each promising to provide everything you need. But this promise comes with a catch. Once you enter one building you won’t be able to access features and services in the other buildings. Each building is an eco-system designed by a company that contains their best guess as to what your agency needs. Unfortunately every feature doesn’t always hit the mark. In contrast the world outside of our industry is experiencing a renaissance of open, easily connectable software and cloud-based systems.

In fairness to our agency management system vendors they do try to gather our opinions on new features through their user groups. Unfortunately when I speak with agencies about their systems the highest praise I typically hear is “It works for the most part.” While these systems have improved over time the piece of the equation missing is innovation.

Why the Lack of Innovation?

The recently announced retirement of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer holds some clues. When he took the reins of Microsoft the company was firmly seated at the top of the software innovators. During Ballmer’s tenure the entire world changed. Software moved to the cloud eliminating the need to continually upgrade PCs. Mobility and smartphones further eroded the PC market. Ballmer’s strategy was to protect Microsoft’s most profitable products: Windows and Office. This defensive strategy forced Microsoft to ignore the inevitable: the world of the PC is changing.

In the meantime Apple pushed forward with the iPad. In a much quoted exchange Steve Jobs was asked if he feared that the iPad would cannibalize sales of Apple laptops to which he replied “If we don’t do it somebody else will.” In the end Apple not only cannibalized their own laptop business they devoured the entire PC industry. This strategy was unthinkable at Microsoft. Their defensive posture virtually eliminated their position as an innovator and they’ve been huddled around their increasingly irrelevant products ever since. Sound familiar?

Our agency management system vendors have to play defense, choosing a path of evolution over revolution. Creating an environment that provides open access to the best features, even if they exist in a competitor’s product simply doesn’t make sense to their bottom line. In addition making major changes to these systems, even if requested by the majority of the industry, introduces risk into the machine. If you’re playing defense you’re not innovating. Welcome to the world of insurance technology.

Going Off-Road

Most agencies accept the status quo of insurance technology. With an agency system and a healthy dose of Excel workbooks most agencies can get by but it doesn’t have to be this way. There is a way to innovate outside of our standard software.

Do you want a dashboard that shows a holistic view of your customers across all lines of business from both a coverage and financial perspective cross-referenced with real-time geographic, weather or other data? While it may not be an easy path your agency can make this happen with third-party systems that haven’t become commonplace in our industry. You will be heading off-road on a journey that will weave through developers, integrators and consultants who may have a very narrow (if any) understanding of how your agency works so you have to be prepared. In addition you will have to tie your new system into the eco-system you chose above or perhaps even multiple eco-systems.

Does this mean you should shy away? Nope. If this industry needs anything related to technology it’s a kick in the pants. Those firms who invest wisely will always outperform and outmaneuver the firms that accept the status quo.

So how does an agency start down the path to innovation? The following steps will start you in the right direction:

Understand Your Pain

The first step is to truly understand your needs. Before you start creating a list of wants take some time to focus on your pain. Is certificate issuance and tracking in your agency system insufficient? Why? What are you missing, who does this affect and how does the world improve once the problem is solved? Firms tend to skip this step and jump straight into making lists. Understanding the problem, the solution and the return are critical.

Understand What’s Out There

A common mistake firms make when rushing headfirst into innovation is the creation of a tool that’s no better than existing solutions. Once you understand your pain take the time to survey the environment. If your firm is relying on consultants or outside developers make sure they’re not missing this step. Solutions exist outside of our industry that may provide a better path than custom development. Explore all angles before you proceed.

Communicate Relentlessly and Take Ownership

Whether your firm is developing a custom application or integrating a third party solution communication is key to your success. Don’t plan to farm out the entire project and only show up for status reports. If you do you’ll likely be unhappy at the end. You’re off the beaten path and need to participate in the process at every stage.