When you look at an insurance core systems
map there is a small box on the left hand side of
the diagram labelled Agents Portal. Eclipsed by
the size and complexity of the policy, billing and
claims components, the importance of the portal
is easy to underestimate. For independent agency
carriers, the portal is the technology pipe through
which business flows; it is the sales interface to
the distribution channel. Constrict, complicate
or confuse that pipeline and the results will likely
be an immediate, significant reduction in new
premium volume—the lifeblood of the carrier.
Multiple studies over the years have consistently shown that agents consider ease of doing
business the single most important reason for
placing business with a carrier, assuming similar
risk/price profiles. An independent agent usually
represents between 10 and 15 carriers. While
several of those carriers may represent special
markets or programs, in general every carrier in
an agent’s office is in competition with several
other carriers for a given piece of business.
Further, despite all the talk over the years about agent upload
and multi-company interface, the technological reality is that in
order to transact business with a given carrier the agent’s CSR must
log-on and use one of many proprietary portal systems, all of which
are different. For the CSR, a key consideration is which carrier
systems are easier to work with.
Several features constitute “easy to work with.” Usually, the first
thing a CSR needs is a price, so the ability to get a fairly accurate
quote with minimal data entry is a priority. Having secured an
acceptable price, the CSR wants to know whether the risk is acceptable to the selected carrier, again with the minimum of data entry
Two things count for the CSR—speed and simplicity. Balancing
these imperatives against the underwriting needs of the carrier to
create a portal that works for the agent and meets carrier requirements takes thought, innovation and focus.
So the question arises, can a carrier buy a third-party portal
product that will serve its distribution network in such a way as to
promote more business? The answer is a definite maybe.
A key fact to recognize is the equation for a build-versus-buy
decision is fundamentally different for a portal than for a policy,
billing or claims system. Two factors are critically different. First a
portal is a significantly less complex system to build. While I feel
that most carrier IT departments have no business trying to build
a policy system and would probably fail, many carrier IT depart-
ments would have a good shot at developing an agents’ portal.
Second, an agent’s portal is exactly the kind of application
that—if IT is going to build anything—should be near the top of
the list. The harsh reality is if the carrier deploys a new policy or
claims system, which its users don’t much like, they are still going to
use it because they don’t have an alternative.
As we already noted, this is not the case in an agent’s office. If
the CSR doesn’t like Carrier A’s system they will use Carrier B’s.
Further, the shortcomings of an internal system can be masked
somewhat from the outside world by manual workarounds, which
make service delivery better than the system behind it. By defini-
tion, a customer-facing (in this case the agent) system is exposed
with all its imperfections.
A second fact to bear in mind is the degree to which an agent
portal needs to specifically reflect the agency plant that will be
using it and even if a vendor has written a snazzy-looking agents’
portal it may work better for one group of agents than for another.
I recently had the opportunity to participate in a portal review,
which was both revealing and enlightening. The carrier, which
writes low value and mobile homes in southern states, is now in
Any Portal in a Storm
Agency portals don’t always receive the attention core systems demand, but
distribution remains the lifeblood of the insurance industry.