Michael: Hello everybody. This is Michael Jans with Agency Revolution, we make it easy to automate your systems and gauge your customers and to grow your agency or brokerage. I want to welcome you to this episode of the Connected Insurance Podcast where we examine the trends, innovations, challenges, and solutions to the biggest problems facing retail agents and brokers and I am delighted to be able to introduce you to my friend Ron Berg.
Ron, is the executive director of the Agents Council For Technology. In this position with ACT, Ron works with all facets of the industry, independent insurance agents, insurance carriers, software vendors, other industry groups to advance the use of the most effective business processes, practices and technologies in order to enhance productivity, service, marketing, sales and security.
One word before I introduce Ron. First of all, Ron is providing leadership to the industry that matters at a time when it matters and ACT is doing exactly that, helping the industry pay attention to the technologies that will get us to the next level and protect us from threats from other technologies. I felt that his answers to my questions on “What are we facing? What do we need to do about it?” Very poignant, very profound and very important so without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ron Berg.
Ron, first of all thanks so much for joining us today.
Ron: My pleasure.
Michael: Ron, you’ve been advising this industry on technology issues for probably 20 years or more both through your careers and now as the executive director of the Agents Council For Technology. I know that it’s going to be hard to narrow this down to the two or three top technology issues that you think the industry is facing but from the seat that you got in this industry, what do you think are the top level technology issues that we’re facing?
Ron: Michael, I’ll respond to that but not necessarily narrowing it down as you said but kind of grouping what I think the top technology issue that we have in this industry are and they’re all I think you’ll see forward facing. One, I think is the overall customer experience. Independent agents by and large have been in relationship focused for the entire history of the independent agent and that not really changing.
The aspect that’s changing is how they must, we must respond to the changing consumer-customer needs and that falls under the broad umbrella of customer experience so I think that’s a big one.
Agents are still doing a great job of answering the phone. Many of them have improved their website, some have implemented other functionality but there’s a broad array of technology touch points that customers are expecting, consumers are expecting as they become aware they need insurance. When they find an agency and start looking at their website, when they start interacting with an agency, are they offering chat? Are they able to get a quote from their website?
Is the agent using automated marketing? Similar to what you offer, the palette of options that you offer. Are the agencies making it easy to transact business with electronic payments, a customer portal?
There’s a wealth of things within that umbrella that any one agency doesn’t necessarily have to implement every one of those but they need to very much be aware of their core and then their next core customers on what they want and look at that scope. I would say the biggest-one of the biggest ones is customer experience. I would say the other technology issue we have is catching up and keeping up and what that means
Michael the changing nature of the technology trends that are coming. When you look at the plethora of trends that are out there and how they are going to are already impacting our industry from a changing nature of a risk umbrella platform.
There’s things like peer-to-peer, telematics, drones, things that are more nebulous and complex like Blockchain and Bitcoin, smart homes, Internet Of Things. Internet Of Everything, machine learning, artificial intelligence, the sharing economy. Our industry as a unit, as a cohesive unit, I do not believe is focused on that so it acts as doing there is creating individual risk advisories to advise the leadership, the senior leadership of carriers, of vendors, of agencies and brokers on where to move forward on each of those individual things.
Third, you asked for three, I would say for every technology advancement there is a plethora of security and cyber concerns. That has to be a top three focus for our industry for carriers, for vendors and absolutely for agencies understanding how to wrap their arms around cyber, around data breach, around planning, around the top 10-15 things they need to address in the security realm for their agency, for their customers.
Michael, you might have meant like what are the top three things as defined as E-signature but those are the three that really I see encompassing a lot of the work that we have to do as a combined force.
Michael: Ron, when you and I came into this industry because both of us have been here for 20 years or more, for the retail agent this really was what a lot of people would call a lifestyle industry. It was fairly stable and it had been relatively stable for a long time and now I think a lot of people are getting the sense that if they had been in the industry for a while, this was not the industry they signed up for.
The kinds of things that you are talking about right now, they’re largely not a conversation that you and I would have had 10 years ago for sure and some of them not a conversation that you and I would have had maybe even five years ago or three years ago. What advice would you give to an agent who wants to thrive, cares about their future but doesn’t feel that they’re equipped with the knowledge and the access to the expertise about technology and the kinds of things you just talked about? How do they keep up?
Ron: Well, first of all Michael I agree with your assessment that this is not the industry you may have wind up with if you are a mid or long term agent or maybe even if you’re relatively new but the fact of the matter is our world has changed; the demands, the interactions, the expectations have all changed. I alluded to a little bit earlier that independent agents are in the relationship business.
Now, they’re by and large as a higher lens in the protection business and the guidance business but a lot of that distills down to relationship. In response to your question, it’s about understanding how to execute and perpetuate on that relationship as is needed by their customers.
Yes, the things that we, you and I, were utilizing for marketing for contact management years ago, 10 years ago even are far different than today.
It’s been said almost to ad nauseam but obviously Yellow pages, newspapers, to a degree broadcast marketing are far less effective and most of it is gone quite honestly and then a lot of the social channels that are out there, a lot of the mobile and web based channels that are out there so think the message is for those who want to be profitable to grow their business. There’s really no choice other than to understand the basic tenets of what technology components need to be in place to work for them.
How they do that? There are a number of resources out there. I know there are some great Facebook groups out there for independent agents where they share tips and tricks.
ACT the Agents Council for Technology as much as it may sound like a blatant advertisement, our role is providing free technology resources across a spectrum of technology for independent agents across the US. We have resources like best practices, education, webinars, videos training on a myriad of things from real time to agency workflow management systems download, internet marketing and social media, planning, and insecurity. As I was talking about before, agency security, things around coming trends, things about things around agency carrier technology agreement and ease of doing business, excess and supply lines.
There is no shortage, Michael, of resources out there. It’s a matter for any agent of distilling that into what their strategic plan needs to be and even with all of those things, it’s a daunting task. I get that.
Michael: It’s daunting task even for those of us who are professionals in this field. It’s a fast changing world. In a moment, I’m going to ask you what the most important priorities and projects are for ACT. But I think maybe first I want to ask you to explain it to as what ACT is, who makes it up and what is its mission?
Ron: ACT is a program within the Big “I” the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. ACT has been around since 1999. Was started by my predecessors the great Jeff Yates and a group of people to focus on the escalating trends. Now, imagine the difference between 1999 and going on to 2017. ACT though we are a program of the Big “I”. We operate by ourselves.
We are a free resource for independent agents. We are financially supported by our carrier and vendor members and that money goes to our work groups and to imperson meetings, so how that works, is we have volunteers from carriers, from vendors, agents and brokers, users groups and associations consultants that volunteer for any one work group, whether its e-signature or security and privacy or changing nature of risk.
That group gets together and determines what the industry needs to do consistently because our mission for ACT is to drive consistent and accelerated technology workflow improvements for agents.
So the work groups figure out their goals, everybody takes off their company half, whether they are carrier or vendor and does what’s best for the industry, and the output of that group is, generally a best practices document either for agents, like the top 15 things to implement for security, how to implement their customer experience plan, how to take advantage of e-signature.
Or it can be an advocacy document to carriers advocating to accept e -signature tools from compliant e-signature vendors that agents are using along with their own carriers proprietary e-signature solutions. It can be advocacy to vendors and carriers for a consistent management system raiding workflow for small commercial which we just completed. The resources that come out are driving either education or best practices but change to the industry and education for agents.
Michael: Ronald, we think that the entire industry would be supportive of your mission, resources what are the big challenges that ACT is facing?
Ron: My pat response Michael to our biggest challenge is that we are a free resource for all independent agents across the US. I would say a vast majority don’t know we exist, getting the word out resources one our biggest challenges.
Michael: Hopefully, we’re going to help you right here.
Ron: It would be a wonderful problem to have if we could not reply in a timely manner to every request we get. Now, having said that, our state associations all 50 states associations work to get the word out. So more and more agents are coming to us with questions about how to handle electronic transactions between them and their customers and other things.
Some other biggest ACT challenges, I would say, it is because we are a group that is comprised primarily or almost exclusively of volunteers, it’s driving enough ACT inconsistent actions on these work group that we can get in order to get this work product out more and more quickly to keep pace with the changing technology landscape.
Michael: Obviously Ron, our first focus is on the retail agents, what do you think id the biggest obstacle for agents in all this?
Ron: There are a number of them and the biggest obstacle, I have alluded to this a little bit is, putting a stake on the ground so that they can visibly be seen by all the potential customer that are out there and reacting to the customers’ needs in a timely manner with all of these technology aspects. Also juggling the changing requirements, now this is not against carriers but the changing requirements carriers are imposing on them.
Some carriers want customers policyholders, to come directly to their carrier customer portal. Most agents always want to be as a part of that conversation and they want to be able to direct their customers the policy holders to their agency portal and then cleanly link them into what is needed from a carrier, so the carriers that get that, the agent is as much customers of the carriers as the end policyholders is, are very clearly visible by how they enable that partnership, that makes sense.
Michael: Ron, as we do move into the new year, what are the big areas of focus for you and for ACT?
Ron: Well, as is have eluded to and you can tell I have a passion for this, security will continue to be at the forefront of what we are doing. I don’t see that ever going away unless we get to this panacea in the future where there are no malicious individuals out there, which I also don’t see happening. Security stays a huge part of that.
Now, we’ve recently created a partnership with a division of the Department of Homeland Security, the Center of Internet Security where we are offering free cyber hygiene tools to agents to count the hardware and software they have. Configured it, can put control of around it, to keep it secure updated and patched. We’re also working with them to generate in 2017 a fiber MOB business guide, so those are just a few of the things we’re doing in the security realm.
I would say a lot of what I have talked about already, Michael, continues for 2017, putting more ease of doing business around the customer experience creating a resource for agents who don’t know where to get started or don’t know how to extend, aren’t sure how to extend what they are doing, creating an easy to use resource for them on that. I’m repeating myself Michael but I would say continuing to focus on the horizons.
Those changing nature of risk trends we’re seeing insured. Buying up startups, I see a Hanover Reed, Hartford steam boiler, a number of others Liberty Mutual are buying and creating partnerships and opportunity with these startups whether it’s Insurify, Mesofy others. All of all this things that seems daunting in the immediate future that the lemonade that could put us out of business.
The reality is, and you know this as well as anyone Michael, in your business, that the palette of resources that you offer through Agency Revolution, there are as many opportunities as there are challenges. All of these things that are going through a genesis of being offered, I think of Lemonade there are end to end the easy easy to use mobile platform. It’s more than anything an example to our industries carries through agents of individual touch points that they can be adopting that our consumers are screaming for.
Michael: Ron, I want to end it up with a question. It’s off of our pre-planned agenda let’s put it that way. It seems that now more than ever, there’s a ascent of uncertainty in the air, when you mention Lemonade and other ensured tech competitors and potential competitors and emerging competitors, it’s causing a little bit of anxiety in the air and at least among serious entrepreneurs a sense of urgency to ACT.
What advice would you give to agents and brokers who really are serious about the future, recognize that it’s a changing world but nonetheless really want to survive, what would you say to them?
Ron: Highest level Michael, it hearkens back to some of what we’ve said previously opportunity. I would say what they need to do is to understand, utilize the resources that are out there and ACT, I’ve been harping on ACT, I’ve been advocating and advertising ACT all through this but there are other resources out there. I think of there’s a young lady out of Chicago called Shefi Ben-Hutta, she has a daily newsletter called Coverager C-O-V-E-R-A-G-E-R.
It’s one of my must reads because it takes a worldview down to a US view on all of these ensure text startup and it distills it in a way that I’ve been looking for and I’ve wanted to create for ACT. That would be first, is seek understand from that work with those of a like mind.
I alluded earlier to some of the Facebook groups that are out there for Asians that have those types of conversations, the Google Hangouts some of the podcast such as this, the blogs, converge with those of a like mind and talk about the reality versus the fears because some of the things as great as they seem, some of these ensured text right there providing this gorgeous user interface but how well they’ll will be sustained is yet to be seen some of them absolutely will impact us, absolutely.
Understand, discuss further with those of a like mind and utilize the resources to act as or strategically planned so that you can act as cleanly and clearly into the future as possible.
Michael: Got it. Ron you and I care about a lot of the same things, we both are deeply passionate about the independent agency and broker system. As I think, I’m an active advocate of ACT if an agent or anybody who’s listening wants to be involved or just find out more, what do you suggest that they do?
Ron: Two things; very simple, go to independentagent.com I think I-I-A-B-A.com or net also works. Independentagent.com/act A-C-T. That’ll get you all the background we’ve been talking about and my contact information or simply shoot me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org just that simple.
Michael: Got it. I do encourage people to follow through on that. Ron, I appreciate the work that you do it means a lot to all of us and I want to thank you for that and thank you so much for joining us today, really enjoyed this conversation.
Ron: My pleasure as always, Michael, thank you for the opportunity.