The news at the annual ACORD-LOMA conference in May wasn't just that duplicate data entry was labeled the No. 1 time-waster among agents and brokers. The other, more surprising news was how little has changed in the four years since the first such survey was conducted by the ACORD User Group Information Exchange, back in 2002.
In 2002, the survey found that 50 percent of the respondents said that duplicate data entry was their No. 1 time-waster. In 2006, the survey found that 46.6 percent of the respondents said it was their No. 1 time-waster.
The percentage change over the past four years on the duplicate-data-entry issue has barely budged. It's dropped by a measly 3.4 percentage points.
This, despite an army of office productivity technologies designed to eliminate the clerical functions of data entry: powerful desktop computers, fast Internet connections, the ubiquity of information download, and the shift in Web site functionality from the static electronic postings of "brochureware" advertising products and services to the active multimedia extensions of the corporate brand.
Given all these developments, how is it that roughly the same percentage of agents in 2006 as in 2002 claimed that duplicate data entry is their "major automation time-waster in doing business today"?
The answers vary, agents say. Some blame intransigent carrier bullies that insist agencies follow their procedures and applications.
Other agents say the hard market that began in 2001 has provided little incentive for the carriers to work with their producers over the past four years.
Still others claim that agents themselves are to blame, as these agents believe their role in the industry is to go out and sell new policies instead of typing the details into a carrier policy system.
Even Lisa Leach Goth, vice president of marketing and sales for the Leach Agency in New Bethlehem, Pa., and a member of the ACORD User Group Information Exchange governing body, or AUGIE, agrees the pace of change on the issue of data entry has been slow, and in some cases too slow.
"Is there light at the end of the tunnel?" she says. "Yes, there's light at the end of the tunnel. I'm just not sure how long that tunnel is."
Cal Durland, ACORD's AUGIE liaison who talks to agents regularly, says she's not surprised by the lack of change over the four-year period. Four years ago, agents complained of duplicating data on physical pieces of paper. In 2006, the agents are complaining of duplicating data into carrier Web sites using their desktop. "We have advanced but not to the place where the agents want to be yet," she says.
The glacial pace of change on the issue has led some agents to utter delectable ironies about the efficiency of technology in theory and in practice.
"Ease of doing business is no longer easy," says one, whose comments were reprinted in the executive summary survey results. "With each carrier requiring use of its own rating system, it takes four times longer to rate risks than it used to. To be more efficient, the time element needs to be improved for comparative quoting."
Another was quoted as saying: "Ease of use is critical and duplicate entry is killing us. The expenses are actually higher than when we had paper files only. Carriers have to find a way for agents to do this once and be done!"
Mundane data-entry tasks entail their own risks as well. Speaking on the topic at the annual ACORD-LOMA conference, Kim Favreau, commercial-lines manager with the Connell & Curley Insurance Agency Inc. in Natick, Mass., elevated the frustrations of repeating the same data into different software systems to an "E&O issue."
"It's an E&O issue every time I have to re-enter data four or five times," she says. "It's a time-waster and a scary thought of what can happen."
Interviewed later about the apparent four-year deadlock in using technology to eliminate data-entry chores for agents, Favreau said some things had changed but not enough.
THE CLOCK BEGINS TO TICK
Independent agents are clearly saddled with a frustrating amount of data entry, and the AUGIE survey of 2006 reveals little progress on that front in the past four years. But the most recent survey also reveals significant improvement with agent satisfaction when it comes to proprietary programs and software compared with four years ago.
The percentage of respondents who blamed proprietary programs and software products as a "major automation time-waster in doing business today" dropped from 28 percent in 2002 to 12.4 percent in 2006, the surveys found.
Carriers, especially the larger ones, have made great strides in making their systems easier to use, the agents say. Regional carriers are making strides too.
"I've seen a big change in my office, and I've seen more change in the past year on the part of the carriers than in the previous 10 years," says Leach Goth, whose agency's business is 80 percent commercial insurance.
Agents don't have time to get quotes from every carrier, so Leach Goth says many agents are beginning to solicit quotes from their favorite carriers only. "Carriers have started to realize that," she also says.
In some cases technology change has come to agencies in small increments, but these incremental changes are happening much faster than they used to, Leach Goth adds.
Independent agents have remained remarkably consistent over the past four years with regard to favoring carriers with whom they find it easy to do business. In 2002, 70 percent of the respondents said ease of doing business with a carrier would have a big impact on the placement decision (assuming nearly identical price points for comparable products).
Four years later, the response was the same. The 2006 survey found that 70.6 percent of respondents strongly agree with the following question: "Over the last two years, my agency's ease of doing business with a carrier has become an increasingly important factor in my agency's decision to place business with that carrier." Another 27.3 percent said they somewhat agreed with the statement.
"There's been cases where marketing reps of carriers have come into the office and said, 'How come you're not placing business with me,' and they'll say, 'Because you're not making it easy for us to place business with you,' " says Durland.
In some cases the carriers respond quickly. But in other cases carriers ignore the complaints. "It all depends on the receptiveness of the (carrier's) senior management," Durland says.
"It all depends on the person, the organization," Durland also says. "Some of them are going to get it, some of them are going to keep the same position until something else around them changes and they have to change their philosophy."
Web sites have given carriers the opportunity to offer to agents services that 10 years ago would not have been possible--inquiries, for example.
"Inquiries are a positive thing for agents, but it needs to work with the download if they need the data in their agency management systems," says Durland. "It's a way to get to that information you couldn't get to by playing telephone tag in the past."
Leach Goth also says she hopes that, with the softening property/casualty rates and more carriers getting back into the market, carriers would be even more receptive to the technological needs of agents, on whom carriers rely to sell policies.
CYRIL TUOHY is managing editor of Risk & Insurance®.
September 1, 2006
Copyright 2006© LRP Publications