Finding Their Niche
Independent insurance agencies that specialize in niches and focus on technological improvements are getting a leg up on their competition — and reaping greater profits, according to the 2013 Best Practices Study by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America.
By focusing on niches, agencies have increased their targeted leads and referrals, improved retention rates and boosted their competitiveness, according to a study of “best practice agencies,” chosen by the in Alexandria, Va.-based trade group and Reagan Consulting for their “outstanding management and financial achievement.”
Specializing in certain product lines or courting specific industry sectors has paid off: The average revenue growth rate in total commissions and fees was 9.8 percent for agencies with net revenue of more than $5 million, up from 4.5 percent in last’s year’s study. For agencies with net revenue less than $5 million, the growth rate was 9.4 percent, up from 2.1 percent last year.
Agency revenue was also boosted by the results of higher technology spend, including for search engine optimization and social media marketing, as well as by increased hiring and improved producer accountability.
Finding niches is key, said Madelyn Flannagan, the trade group’s vice president of agent development, research and education. Many agencies are adding personal lines such as auto insurance to their product mix, often bundling them with commercial lines to enhance offers to business clients.
Some agencies are also specializing in cyber liability insurance.
“Almost every business now has to safeguard information about their customers and employees, and they need to have the correct liability insurance for when security breaches occur,” Flannagan said.
Specializing for Assurance Agency, with offices in Schaumburg, Ill. and Chesterton, Mo., means focusing on particular industries, including temporary staffing companies, contractors, nursing homes, manufacturers, municipalities and school districts, said Jackie Gould, chief operating officer.
“The benefit of specializing in our clients’ industries is that it allows us to dig deeper into their business and understand the issues they are facing, so we can be better at solving their problems with special coverage they might need,” Gould said.
“We have the right carriers in place to handle their exposures, and our claims advocates and safety advocates know how to deal with claims and risk control issues,” she said.
M.F. Block in Paragould, Ark., concentrates on serving family farms, said partner Phillip Greer. Few carriers are in that market, so there is less competition.
“We understand family farms, so we can price the insurance right,” Greer said. “We also try to go above and beyond insurance, and offer other services to family farms, such as loss control and risk management.”
Firms cited for their best practices in the study also were noted for increasing their technology spend.
Agencies with annual revenues above $5 million invested more in agency management systems, while smaller firms spent more in Internet SEO marketing and social media marketing.
Agencies of all sizes devoted more staff time to social media marketing: On average, 1.3 employees spent 10 percent of their time marketing via social media.
“Social media is becoming more important to agencies as they try to get a leg up on their competition,” Flannagan said. “They use it to become more visible in their communities, which makes them more effective in selling and marketing in those communities.”
Assurance Agency has “a very big initiative around social media,” geared toward enhancing the firm’s relationship with its existing clients and attracting prospective clients by posting articles on topical issues, Gould said. The firm also uses social media to publicize its seminars and webinars on hot topics, such as on health care reform.
“We help hundreds of employers to figure out how to manage their benefits programs, and that can be very different, depending on the industry, such as the temporary staffing industry,” she said. “It’s a moving target, so we help employers by giving them a step-by-step playbook on what they can do now to prepare.”
Pierson & Fendley Insurance LLC in Paris, Texas, increased its SEO marketing spend to use on sites such as Google and Yahoo! to attract more clients, said partner Matt Frierson. Moreover, the agency has a Facebook page and its producers are encouraged to post topical information and helpful advice on their own Facebook pages, which are tied to the firm.
“Facebook is a great way to get your brand out for an inexpensive price,” Frierson said. “It’s a media that’s far more encompassing than anything the agency has seen before.”
The agency also encourages its producers to post updates on their LinkedIn profiles to trigger push emails to their connections.
But the company’s growth is mainly attributed to buying two other agencies as well as hiring additional producers, he said. In 2010, Pierson & Fendley had three producers; it now has eight.
Stuart S. Durland, vice president, operations at Seely & Durland Inc., said the Warwick, N.Y.-based company has been “consistently growing” due to IT implementations including imaging, eSignature, real time technology, consumer website ratings and a “sophisticated” website.
“Agencies have got to have an agency management system — and use it, as well as technologies that take advantage of marketing capabilities and those that enable us to work in real time,” Durland said.
“Instead of taking four hours to input information for a quote to four different commercial line carriers, we use our agency management system, Applied Systems, that enables us to input the information just once, and then send data to any of our real time carriers.
“That has significantly reduced the process, which not only saves us money, but frees up time to allow my [customer service representatives] to do more important things, like cross-selling and writing new business,” he said.
At Insure-Rite, a Norman G. Olson Co. in Evergreen Park, Ill., each generation of the family-owned business grows the enterprise by taking “it to the next level,” said Pete Olson, who works alongside his father and grandfather.
Over the past several years, processes have been turned “upside down” to improve producer accountability, he said.
“We’re focused on placing business where it belongs, not just how it could help our profits,” Olson said. “We place according to what’s best for the client, not on what’s best for us.”
The trade group’s study also showed that profitability improved at many best practices agencies over the past year.
While profit margins in the prior year’s study “remained stubbornly flat” due to waning contingent income growth, that trend has reversed — contingent income grew an average of 10.7 percent for those with revenue of more than $5 million, and an average of 21.8 percent for agencies with revenue less than $5 million.
Moreover, agencies did “a much better job” of controlling expenses so that operating profits grew faster than contingent income, according to the study. As a result, larger firms averaged 22.7 percent proforma EBITDA, and smaller to midsized firms averaged 29.3 percent.
Every three years, the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America collaborates with Reagan Consulting to select “best practices” firms throughout the nation, nominated by either an affiliated state association or an insurance company.
The agencies are grouped into six revenue categories: less than $1.25 million; $1.25 million to $2.5 million; $2.5 million to $5 million; $5 million to $10 million; $10 million to $25 million; and more than $25 million. Financial and benchmarking information for the participating agencies are also reviewed and updated.
Sixteen insurance companies and four industry vendors provide financial support for the research and development of the best practices study: Agency Business Solutions/Amerisure Insurance, Applied Systems, Beyond Insurance, Central Insurance Cos., Chubb, CNA, EMC Insurance Companies, Encompass Insurance, Erie Insurance, Great American Insurance Group, The Hanover Insurance Group, Harleysville Insurance, Imperial PFS, InsurBanc, Kemper Preferred, Liberty Mutual Agency Corporation, Main Street America Group, Ohio Mutual Insurance Group, Travelers and Westfield Insurance.
Coping with Cancellations
Airlines typically can offset revenue losses for cancellations due to bad weather either by saving on fuel and salary costs or rerouting passengers on other flights, but this year’s revenue losses from the worst winter storm season in years might be too much for traditional measures.
At least one broker said the time may be right for airlines to consider crafting custom insurance programs to account for such devastating seasons.
For a good part of the country, including many parts of the Southeast, snow and ice storms have wreaked havoc on flight cancellations, with a mid-February storm being the worst of all. On Feb. 13, a snowstorm from Virginia to Maine caused airlines to scrub 7,561 U.S. flights, more than the 7,400 cancelled flights due to Hurricane Sandy, according to MasFlight, industry data tracker based in Bethesda, Md.
Roughly 100,000 flights have been canceled since Dec. 1, MasFlight said.
Just United, alone, the world’s second-largest airline, reported that it had cancelled 22,500 flights in January and February, 2014, according to Bloomberg. The airline’s completed regional flights was 87.1 percent, which was “an extraordinarily low level,” and almost 9 percentage points below its mainline operations, it reported.
And another potentially heavy snowfall was forecast for last weekend, from California to New England.
The sheer amount of cancellations this winter are likely straining airlines’ bottom lines, said Katie Connell, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group for major U.S. airline companies.
“The airline industry’s fixed costs are high, therefore the majority of operating costs will still be incurred by airlines, even for canceled flights,” Connell wrote in an email. “If a flight is canceled due to weather, the only significant cost that the airline avoids is fuel; otherwise, it must still pay ownership costs for aircraft and ground equipment, maintenance costs and overhead and most crew costs. Extended storms and other sources of irregular operations are clear reminders of the industry’s operational and financial vulnerability to factors outside its control.”
Bob Mann, an independent airline analyst and consultant who is principal of R.W. Mann & Co. Inc. in Port Washington, N.Y., said that two-thirds of costs — fuel and labor — are short-term variable costs, but that fixed charges are “unfortunately incurred.” Airlines just typically absorb those costs.
“I am not aware of any airline that has considered taking out business interruption insurance for weather-related disruptions; it is simply a part of the business,” Mann said.
Chuck Cederroth, managing director at Aon Risk Solutions’ aviation practice, said carriers would probably not want to insure airlines against cancellations because airlines have control over whether a flight will be canceled, particularly if they don’t want to risk being fined up to $27,500 for each passenger by the Federal Aviation Administration when passengers are stuck on a tarmac for hours.
“How could an insurance product work when the insured is the one who controls the trigger?” Cederroth asked. “I think it would be a product that insurance companies would probably have a hard time providing.”
But Brad Meinhardt, U.S. aviation practice leader, for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., said now may be the best time for airlines — and insurance carriers — to think about crafting a specialized insurance program to cover fluke years like this one.
“I would be stunned if this subject hasn’t made its way up into the C-suites of major and mid-sized airlines,” Meinhardt said. “When these events happen, people tend to look over their shoulder and ask if there is a solution for such events.”
Airlines often hedge losses from unknown variables such as varying fuel costs or interest rate fluctuations using derivatives, but those tools may not be enough for severe winters such as this year’s, he said. While products like business interruption insurance may not be used for airlines, they could look at weather-related insurance products that have very specific triggers.
For example, airlines could designate a period of time for such a “tough winter policy,” say from the period of November to March, in which they can manage cancellations due to 10 days of heavy snowfall, Meinhardt said. That amount could be designated their retention in such a policy, and anything in excess of the designated snowfall days could be a defined benefit that a carrier could pay if the policy is triggered. Possibly, the trigger would be inches of snowfall. “Custom solutions are the idea,” he said.
“Airlines are not likely buying any of these types of products now, but I think there’s probably some thinking along those lines right now as many might have to take losses as write-downs on their quarterly earnings and hope this doesn’t happen again,” he said. “There probably needs to be one airline making a trailblazing action on an insurance or derivative product — something that gets people talking about how to hedge against those losses in the future.”
Advocacy: The Impact of Continuous Triage
In the world of workers’ compensation, timing is everything. Many studies have shown that the earlier a workplace incident or injury is acted upon, the more successful the results*. However, there is further evidence indicating there is even more of an impact seen when a claim is not only filed promptly, but also effective triage is conducted and management of the claim takes place consistently through closure.
Typically, every program incorporates a form of early intervention. But then what? While it is common knowledge that early claims reporting and medical treatment are the most critical parts of a claim, if left alone after management, an injured worker could – and often does – fall through the cracks.
All Claims Paths are Not Created Equal
Even with early intervention and the best intentions of the adjuster, things can still go wrong. What if we could follow one injury down two paths, resulting in two entirely different outcomes? This case study illustrates the difference between two claims management processes – one of proactive, continuous claims triage and one of inactivity after initial intervention – and the impact, or lack thereof, it can have on the outcome of a claim. By addressing all indicators, effective triage can drastically change the trajectory of a claim.
While working at a factory, David, a 40-year-old employee, experienced sudden shoulder pain while lifting a heavy box. He reported the incident to his supervisor, who contacted their 24/7 triage call center to report the incident. After speaking with a triage nurse, the nurse recommended he go to an occupational medicine clinic for further evaluation, based on his self-reported symptoms of significant swelling, a lack of range of motion and a pain level described as greater than “8.”
The physician diagnosed David with a shoulder sprain and prescribed two weeks of rest, ice and prescription strength ibuprofen. He restricted David from any lifting over his head.
By all accounts, early intervention was working. Utilizing 24/7 nurse triage, there was no lag time between the incident and care. David received timely medical attention and had a treatment plan in place within one day.
A critical factor in any program is a return to work date, yet David was not given a return to work date from the physician at the occupational medicine clinic; therefore, no date was entered in the system.
One small, crucial detail needs just as much attention as when an incident is initially reported. What happens the third week of a claim is just as important as what happens on the day the injury occurs. Involvement with a claim must take place through claim closure and not just at initial triage.
The Same Old Story
After three weeks of physical therapy, no further medical interventions and a lack of communication from his adjuster, David returned to his physician complaining of continued pain. The physician encouraged him to continue physical therapy to improve his mobility and added an opioid prescription to help with his pain.
At home, with no return to work in sight, David became depressed and continued to experience pain in his shoulder. He scheduled an appointment with the physician months later, stating physical therapy was not helping. Since David’s pain had not subsided, the physician ordered an MRI, which came back negative, and wrote David a prescription for medication to manage his depression. The physician referred him to an orthopedic specialist and wrote him a new prescription for additional opioids to address his pain…
Costly medical interventions continued to accrue for the employer and the surmounting risk of the claim continued to go unmanaged. His claim was much more severe than anyone knew.
What if his injury had been managed?
A Model Example
Using a claims system that incorporated a predictive modeling rules engine, the adjuster was immediately prompted to retrieve a return to work date from the physician. Therefore, David’s file was flagged and submitted for a further level of nurse triage intervention and validation. A nurse contacted the physician and verified that there was no return to work date listed on the medical file because the physician’s initial assessment restricted David to no lifting.
As a result of these triage validations, further interventions were needed and a telephonic case manager was assigned to help coordinate care and pursue a proactive return to work plan. Working with the physical therapist and treating physician resulted in a change in David’s medication and a modified physical therapy regimen.
After a few weeks, David reported an improvement in his mobility and his pain level was a “3,” thus prompting the case manager’s request for a re-evaluation. After his assessment, the physician lifted the restriction, allowing David to lift 10 pounds overhead. With this revision, David was able to return to work at modified duty right away. Within six weeks he returned to full duty.
With access to all of the David’s data and a rules engine to keep adjusters on top of the claim, the medical interventions that were needed for his recovery were validated, therefore effectively managing his recovery by continuing to triage his claim. By coordinating care plans with the physician and the physical therapist, and involving a case manager early on, the active management of David’s claim enabled him to remain engaged in his recovery. There was no lapse in communication, treatment or activity.
After 24/7 nurse triage is conducted and an injured worker receives initial care, CorVel’s claims system, CareMC, conducts continuous triage of all data points collected at claim inception and throughout the life of a claim utilizing its integrated rules engine. Predictive indicators send alerts to prompt the adjuster to take action when needed until the claim is closed – not just at the beginning of the claim.
This predictive modeling tool flags potentially complex claims with the risk for high exposure, marking claims that need intervention so that CorVel can assign appropriate resources to mitigate risk.
Claims triage is constant – that is the necessary model. Even on an adjuster’s best day, humans aren’t perfect. A rules engine helps flag things that people can miss. A combination of predictive systems and human intervention ensures claims management is never stagnant – that there is no lapse in communication, activity or treatment. With an advocacy team in the form of an adjuster empowered by a powerful rules engine and a case manager looking out for the best care, injured employees remain engaged in their recovery. By perpetuating patient advocacy, continuous triage reduces claim severity and improves claim outcomes, returning injured workers to the workforce and reducing payors’ risk.