Up-to-date Agent Portals: Table Stakes, Not Differentiators for Carriers

Steven Kaye

Half of insurers are planning to replace or significantly enhance their agent portals. While vended solutions are correspondingly gaining complexity and strength, many carriers still use homegrown systems.

The use of agent portals, although near ubiquitous, is also uneven. Specialty lines, as well as some of the more complex commercial lines, lag behind their more straightforward counterparts in transactional capabilities, but have been innovative in using agent portals for education and outreach to potential customers.

In this environment, it’s no surprise that many insurers count enhancement or replacement of agent portals as top priorities for upcoming IT projects. Interestingly, this percentage is approximately double the percentage of respondents who believed their current systems were “poor’ or “very poor,” leading one to assume that up-to-date agent portals are quickly being viewed as table stakes, rather than competitive differentiators.

For more, see our new report, Business and Technology Trends: Agent Portals.

Predictions of Insurance Future from 2011 are Materializing…

Matthew Josefowicz

In January 2011, I wrote a post on this blog highlighting three glimpses of the future of insurance. The three issues I called out were:

  1. Underwriting without questions, as illustrated by the Aviva/Deloitte pilot project featured in the WSJ in November 2010
  2. Agents optional, based on general trends, with the specific example of the NAIC basically throwing agents under the bus
  3. Maximum profitability, as illustrated by the industry’s acceptance of the minimum Medical Loss Ratio provision of PPACA

I asked insurers to:

Consider a future in which:

  • Underwriting requirements come from third-parties, not your own efforts
  • Intermediaries are only one channel among many
  • Your total loss numbers are constant from year to year at a mandated level

Is that a future in which your organization could survive?

I believe the first two, which seem far out now, will be commonplace by the end of the decade. I will be happy to buy the drinks at the 2020 IASA show if I am wrong.

The third is much more contingent on political winds. But if health insurers capitulate on this point, P&C and life insurers need to clearly differentiate themselves from health insurers in terms of public perception or face the risk of operating with the same constraints[emphasis added].

As we’ve pointed out in recent posts, agents are already just one channel among many, even in previously unthinkable lines of business like small commercial. I also recently came across an example of underwriting without questions, MetLife’s Xcelerate system, as reported in IIReporter.

Perhaps most concerning for insurers, however, is a recent example that indicates the third item — government-mandated maximum profitability — is not too far off. The ban by Florida and several other states on “price optimization” is an indication that political pressures may bring a PPACA model to P&C.

However insurers choose to try to address these changes, they cannot ignore them much longer. The industry is changing rapidly, and insurers must ensure that they can adapt their business models and the technology capabilities that support their business models.

NYT: Insurance Fails to Meet Evolving Needs, Tech Transformation Means Embracing Failure

Matthew Josefowicz

I came across two interesting articles in the NYT recently that I wanted to share with our Council members and clients, since they nicely illustrate some of the themes of change and adaptability that have been some prominent in our recent discussions.

The first, The Insurance Market Mystifies an AirBnB Host describes the challenges that a homeowner had trying to secure coverage that would allow her to operate as an AirBnB host. As the Times sees it,

…this is mostly the fault of the insurance industry, which doesn’t always want to answer questions about this sort of activity, whose agents aren’t always as knowledgeable as they should be and whose own policy language can be incredibly confusing.

Whether or not you feel this is fair, or however you feel about the emergence of the “sharing” economy and its attendant risks, the article makes an important point. There are consumers out there who want to manage their risks, and the insurance industry is not helping them. Stuck in old definitions of personal v. commercial, and old product and distribution models, the insurance industry is missing this opportunity to be more demand-led.

The other article was actually from a few weeks ago. Called Welcome to the Failure Age, the article uses a story about the rapid turnover of innovation enterprises in Silicon Valley to make a larger point about the increased rate of failure that goes along with the increased rate of innovation. While many insurers have proclaimed themselves dedicated to innovation (Novarica research shows that more than 1/3 of large P&C cos now tie innovation to executive comp), few insurers have developed the institutional tolerance for failure that goes along with innovation.The article also talks about the way that information technology advances are changing the nature of corporations themselves:

Corporations “were created to coordinate and organize communication among lots of different people,” says Chris Dixon, a partner at the venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. “A lot of those organizations are being replaced by computer networks….If you had to know one thing that will explain the next 20 years, that’s the key idea: We are moving toward a period of decentralization.”

This is an incredible challenge for companies in every industry, not just insurance. The central problem of the corporation, of coordinating the work and capital of thousands of individuals, is changing.
The article closes with this thought:

We are a strange species, at once risk-averse and thrill-seeking, terrified of failure but eager for new adventure. If we discover ways to share those risks and those rewards, then we could conceivably arrive somewhere better.

In my mind, this is a hopeful thought for the insurance industry. Currently, there’s no set of institutions better positioned to manage risk. But the way the industry manages risk in the future will not look like the past.

Related Research

Program Business Growth Outstrips Overall Commercial Market Growth

Matthew Josefowicz

Interesting article in PropertyCasualty360 today about how Program Business has now grown to $30B and is experiencing faster growth than the overall commercial lines market.

Hmmm…maybe there’s something to this idea of aligning products, market segments, and distribution strategies after all.

The Problem With Differentiation

Tom Benton

In reading recent articles on innovation, there is a definite focus on differentiation. Various elements to innovation are often mentioned: agility, culture, transformation, customer-focus, data-centered, etc. These are often directed at how a company can develop new innovative products or provide new innovative services or new innovative delivery channels. Carriers are encouraged to use big data to learn more about their customers (policyholders and/or producers), to use the cloud and mobile to provide ease of doing business or to modernize their systems to provide customers with faster better service through internal process efficiency. The focus of these efforts is to be different, faster, better than other providers.

Now, differentiation can be a very good strategy. Apple has become the number one brand and the company of the highest net value (or near it) by following a corporate-wide culture of “Think Different”. Within the insurance world, companies like MetLife, Geico and Progressive have use innovative marketing, branding and technology to their advantage through differentiation. However, there’s a problem with focusing your strategy on differentiation. To be successful at differentiation, a company has to have a corporate culture that supports it – a culture of listening for ideas, design thinking, and tolerance for failures. It has to support its innovation efforts with talented staff, properly funded technology investments and simplified agile processes.

Developing this kind of culture and environment for innovation is relatively easy for start-up companies, but more difficult for the established players in a market, especially if they are risk averse, have a culture of failure being fatal and established technology that is difficult to maintain, upgrade and replace. Creating the proper environment for innovation takes either radical change, or time to evolve the culture and environment. Leaders in established companies often are not willing to make the radical changes necessary, and evolving the culture takes time while other companies get further ahead in the race for innovation and differentiation.

The real problem with differentiation is that unless you are prepared to differentiate now, the innovations will become accepted and you will need to follow a course of imitation. In a recent HBR article, Freek Vermeulen. Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the London Business School, talks about how customers view differentiation. In some industries, the products and services are fundamentally not that different. He suggests that customers make buying decisions based less on what is different and more on social context – they buy a particular product or service because their social network and relationships suggest it is known and an acceptable choice.

The implication for insurance carriers is that differentiation is a good strategy, but eventually the innovation produced is imitated and becomes a standard offering. A strategy of imitation will eventually be required, and when products look the same to the customer, they will choose based on their social networks and relationships. An alternate focus for innovation by differentiation, then, might be to follow a strategy of imitation and socialization. For example:

  • Instead of using big data to understand customer behavior, shape the behavior through social interaction. While streamlining customer interaction through the cloud and mobile strategies, find ways to build relationships where customers will interact with you and others to build trust and preferences.
  • While modernizing systems to provide internal process efficiencies, put internal social networking into place to build a culture and skills that can be used to leverage external social interactions.
  • Win customers not by being the coolest or latest, but by being the most connected and trusted.

The best part is that a strategy of imitation and socialization can be done while updating technology to do what others are doing, and it builds the kind of culture that can transform into one that is innovative and possibly differentiated in the end. It doesn’t take a radical change or large technology investments that work against the clock of the wave of technical change.

July Acquisitions in the London Market

Catherine Stagg-Macey

In a recent blog on the evolution of core software in London market, I suggested that changes were afoot. (http://blog.novarica.com/?p=2470/) And so they were.

At the beginning of July, Xchanging acquired two insurance software companies within a week of each other –
AgencyPort Europe *(http://www.xchanging.com/news/xchanging-acquires-agencyport-europe/) and Total Objects. (http://www.xchanging.com/news/xchanging-acquires-total-objects) A week later, HG Capital, a private equity firm, announced a co-investment in Sequel Business Systems. (http://www.hgcapital.com/news/hgcapital-announces-investment-sequel-business-solutions)

Whilst the deals are very different in nature, they speak to the buoyant view of both software companies and private equity firms alike. With the consolidation of vendors, it also offers a more distinct choice for insurers.

The Xchanging acquisitions fill out their portfolio of offerings with the addition of a cloud based bordereau management system (TotalObjects), MGA systems (TotalObjects and AgencyPort), a risk aggregation tool (AgencyPort) and a system for Health Insurers (AgencyPort). The deals bring with them some duplication – two broker systems, two reinsurance systems, two MGA systems and two underwriting systems for both syndicate and company’s.

Xchanging has made it clear to all users of all these products that they will continue to support all products for the foreseeable future. That said, we would expect to see some consolidation of the product portfolio in the coming years. At a minimum, this is needed to streamline the market messaging and at an operational level, it would not be surprising to see some reduction in duplication to reduce current operational costs and future product investment.

The co-investment in Sequel Business Systems, a competitor of AgencyPort and Xchanging, will bring with it an injection of cash. No details have been published on where this might lead the company, but in conversations with clients of all these software companies, initial responses were mixed. A spate of deals like this always introduces uncertainty and it takes time for customers and prospects to embrace and understand the impact of these deals on their own technology investments.

One of our critiques of this sector of insurance software over the years has been the underinvestment in the solutions. These deals suggest show this is changing and insurers can be optimistic in the future evolution of London market software.

NOTE: Agencyport Europe has been separated out from Agencyport NorthAmerica in the recent years. This acquisition does not impact AgencyPort NorthAmerica.

For more of our recent research on the London Market see our CIO Survey and our Business and Technology Trends report.

Business and Technology Trends: Individual Annuities

Rob McIsaac

This week, Novarica released the most recent of our Business and Technology Trends reports, focused on the Individual Annuity market segment. The report is available for immediate download from Novarica’s research library or directly via the link http://www.novarica.com/b_and_t_trends_indv_annuity_2014.

The individual annuity space remains highly competitive for carriers in the United States, with cost pressures remaining high and low interest rates keeping margins compressed. With alternative investment and protection vehicles in the marketplace, demographic shifts underway and consumer preferences for how they engage with financial services providers changing, carriers face important investment prioritization decisions. Novarica’s latest Business & Technology Trends report explores all of these issues in detail. This is particularly timely for organizations that will be starting their 2015 budgeting efforts in the near future.

Consolidation in the industry is both creating more concentration of business among a smaller number of carriers, and forcing acquirers to consider a variety of options for managing multiple blocks of business tied to aging technology platforms. At the same time, carriers are looking for ways to bring product to market faster, which may include implementation of both TPA and BPO alternatives to internal hosting.

This may be a particularly opportune time for Annuity carriers, however, with the key Baby Boomer generation now reaching retirement age at a pace of 10,000 individuals per day, which accelerates a range of changes in their financial needs. For younger Boomers, the key to future financial health is tied to the final push in the accumulation phase of their lives. For the older segment of the generation, the transition is already underway to move from accumulation to preservation and payout. In either case, properly engaged carriers, who have the ability to deliver products and services effectively, can be positioned for success. With end user experiences now well established by both mutual fund complexes and Defined Contribution retirement plan providers, annuity carriers need to be considering how to create compelling and effective engagement models in order to remain competitive.

This report also confirms what has been seen in other Novarica research: in the current business climate, CIO’s and their teams are being asked to do more without much more funding. This report can be used to both confirm existing priorities and refine future investment plans.

Small commercial insurance moves online…because it’s too low margin to do offline?

Matthew Josefowicz

There was an interesting article today on PC360 about the state of small business online. The article echoed many of the themes and issues we raised in our report last summer, Direct Online Small Commercial Insurance.

The article had some interesting quotes from direct players like Insureon and Hiscox, both of which were featured in our report. But it also contained this quote, which raises an issue we didn’t mention last summer:

“The Hartford is committed to a multichannel distribution model in its small commercial business and independent agents are at the center of the distribution strategy,” says Ray Sprague, senior vice president of small commercial insurance at The Hartford, but adds that the vast majority of small businesses operating in the U.S. today are often too small for many independent agents to profitably acquire and serve (emphasis added).

This resonates with several comments that small commercial CIOs made at a meeting I attended last week. There’s a big SOHO small commercial market that’s too small for most agents to care about. I believe insurers will increasingly look to the direct channel to be able to meet this market demand.

Related research and blog posts:

Business and Technology Trends: Individual Life

Rob McIsaac

This week, Novarica released the most recent of our Business and Technology Trends reports, focused on the Individual Life Insurance market segment. The report is available for immediate download from Novarica’s research library or directly via the link http://www.novarica.com/b_and_t_trends_individual_life_2014/

Five years after the official end of the Great Recession, this is a segment of the insurance industry that continues to face significant challenges. Low interest rates and heightened levels of competition continue to cause economic pressure for companies involved in the sector. Slowing sales in 2013 exacerbated that pressure even as demographic changes in the market highlight future trends which carriers can ill afford to ignore.

There are, however, opportunities for the future, as carriers consider concurrent preparations for both the maturing of the Baby Boomer cohort and the rise of Millennials. Baby Boomers are now reaching retirement age at a pace of 10,000 individuals per day, which accelerates a range of changes in their financial needs. The latter group represents a larger, more diverse and technically more astute generation that has seen relatively low penetration by traditional life carriers. This is a discerning demographic group that has had expectations for services and information transparency heavily influenced by experiences with entities like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon. In order to take advantage of these opportunities, carriers should be carefully rethinking operational processes and the underlying technology investments that enable them.

This report explores the range of business trends, including changes in the regulatory environment, which are framing the market for Individual Life products. It also highlights the technology trends, and illustrative examples, for the investments decisions that carriers are now making in preparation for the future.

This report confirms what has been seen in other Novarica research: in the current business climate, CIO’s and their teams are being asked to do more without much more funding. This report can be used to both confirm existing priorities and refine future investment plans.

Commercial/Specialty Underwriting Automation: Cui Bono?

Matthew Josefowicz

Good article recently in I&T on Commercial Insurers and Underwriting Automation., covering some recent studies by various industry analysts. Here’s a quote:

Complex risks are still much more hand underwriting and will be for the foreseeable future,” says Matt Josefowicz, managing director at Novarica. “It’s all about empowering those underwriters with more communications tools and more data. A lot of the tech investment for underwriting in the specialty and large commercial side involves bringing all the information needed to make decisions to the underwriter’s fingertips as quickly as possible.

Complex-risk underwriters present a challenge when implementing new technologies, Josefowicz explains. “The individual underwriting desks have a lot of political power,” he says. When dealing with high-value cases, these experts have a great deal of specialized knowledge and tend to call the shots for which technologies they want to use.

One of the main questions in automating commercial and specialty is in answering the question Cui Bono? – “to whose benefit?” As we discussed in our report on Centralized and Federated IT Models, it’s hard to drive IT strategy centrally when the political power in an organization is federated. Commercial and Specialty CIOs need to work closely with their business leaders to make sure they are addressing their key data and technology issues. If the P&L heads can’t be convinced of the local value of an IT initiative, appeals to a weak central power are rarely successful.

For more on business and technology trends in Specialty Lines, see our recent report.