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Property/casualty insurance agents—across all age groups and specializations—say their relationships with carriers are more valuable than the technology that carriers put in place to help them, a survey for Carrier Management reveals.

Executive Summary

For carriers thinking about putting money and resources into technology for agents, policy servicing may be the place to invest, according to a survey conducted by Deep Customer Connections and Wells Media’s Insurance Journal for Carrier Management. But carrier-agency relationships matter more than technology to agents, who generally say that is where carriers should focus.

This is especially true when it comes to technology for servicing claims, according to the Independent Agent Survey conducted by Deep Customer Connections in conjunction with Carrier Management’s media partner, Insurance Journal.

When agents were asked to rate the helpfulness of carrier technology on a scale of 1-7 (1 for “not helpful” and 7 for “very helpful”), carrier technology for claims service scored a 5.0, on average, for roughly 450 respondents.

Not a bad showing given the range for the scale. Still, it was actually the lowest “helpfulness” score for eight categories DCC asked about. Querying agents about the current state of affairs, DCC asked Insurance Journal readers to score the helpfulness of carrier technology for four functions: prospecting and generating sales leads, writing policies, servicing policies, and supporting policyholders with claims. The agents were then asked to score the helpfulness of carrier relationships for the same four activities.

Here are the results:

Su Version Helpful Overall

“Overall, the relationship scores range from 5.7 to 6.0 on a 7-point scale. So they’re reasonably high,” noted Nort Salz, CEO of DCC.

“If we look at technology, however, the first thing you notice is that the scores all drop. The highest technology score is lower than the lowest relationship score,” Salz pointed out. “It’s interesting that in both technology and relationships, the lowest score is in supporting the agent when he or she is working with the policyholder on a claim.”

Does a 5.0 mean that P/C carriers should be investing more to build better technology to help with claims servicing?

Probably not. More than half of the agents surveyed (roughly 55 percent) said that carriers should be putting their efforts into improving relationships rather than technology build-outs, when asked to choose between the two alternatives strategies for improving claims support. (See chart below.)

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“The thing that stands out [for agents] is that it’s an emotionally charged situation” when a customer is facing a claim. “So it requires more of that personal attention,” Salz said, drawing from his consulting experience interviewing agents on behalf of individual carriers to explain the result.

“When my customer has a claim, I want him to feel your arm around him,” he said, expressing the voice of the typical agent.

DCC Vice President John Zurich added that agents understand there are rules to be followed in determining payouts and that their most valued carrier partners “know how to say no” to a claim in a way that makes customers feel they were treated fairly.

The takeaway for carriers should be “I need to teach my claims people to empathize,” said Salz. That’s different from a more typical carrier mindset that might be “when my customer has a claim, I want all the boxes checked, I want all the pictures taken, and I want all the forms filled out”—or wanting to make the process more efficient with technology.

The responses to questions in the DCC survey about where carriers should invest in the future were similar for the other activities except for policy servicing. Here, nearly two-thirds of agents (63 percent) said that carriers should focus on improving technology for agents more than on relationships. And the greater desire for more carrier technology investment for servicing policies was consistent across age groups, agency sizes, lines of business and the different roles of respondents—although surprisingly, customer service representatives (CSRs) were somewhat less likely to choose technology over relationships.

invest service role

The overall split—63 percent in favor of improving technology and 37 percent favoring relationship-building—makes intuitive sense to Salz. In fact, carriers that started beefing up technology in this area decades ago were right in their thinking that agents would rather do the servicing themselves, he said, sharing commentary he’s heard during the course of his consulting work. “Give me the tools and stay out of the way. I’ll take care of it,” agents say, expressing the worry that more possibility for error creeps into the process of making policy changes when more hands are involved.

While many of the results of the survey were predictable, as Carrier Management and DCC drilled down through the responses to explore patterns, some unexpected insights emerged. Case in point: While hardly a representative sample, 15 of the 465 respondents who answered a question about the “helpfulness” of carrier relationships and carrier technology when they are writing policies were under age 30, and these young respondents gave their carrier partners a 6.3 out of 7 score on relationships—the highest score for any activity/age group combination.

helpful ageYounger respondents “are much more positive about the relationship” in all parts of the survey, Salz said. “We saw this coming through in the comment section in a striking kind of way,” he noted, referring to a portion of the survey that sought open-ended comments to questions about problems agents have with carrier relationships and carrier technology. (See related article, “Is Anybody Listening?“)

One commenter in the under-30 group prefaced his positive view of carrier relationships with a gripe about underwriters who “hide behind their email.” Expanding on the comment, the agent wrote: “I feel face-to-face meeting and in-agency quoting [are] a nice personal touch.”

Another young agent commented: “I can’t say that I have any issues with creating relationships with carrier personnel. Most of them are very willing to help in any way they can.”

“We didn’t see this type of comment for older groups of agent,” Salz said. Older agents expressed the more negative part of the first younger agent’s comment in a more forceful manner, proclaiming, “Technology is getting in the way of relationship.”

In every age group above 30 years of age, there was at least one agent who said that “there is no relationship anymore.”

DCC’s Zurich has a different read on the high helpfulness scores for relationship from the youngest respondents. To them, the term relationship may include the use of social media. “When they say the relationship is helpful, they may also be talking about technology,” Zurich said. “They don’t think about technology. It’s just ubiquitous. It’s just the way it is.

“The younger people might have more facility in using technology to support relationships. The older people may see it more as a barrier to relationships,” Zurich reasoned.

Zurich also suggested that the more positive tone emanating from younger comment writers about relationships, in some ways, is a reflection of how many of today’s younger generation tend to operate in work and play—gathering opinions from a community of peers on everything from dating to solving a customer’s problem.

John Zurich
John Zurich

“The younger people might have more facility in using technology to support relationships. The older people may see it more as a barrier to relationships.”

John Zurich, VP, DCC

While the under-30 group was only a small percentage of survey respondents, the largest, most representative group by sample size—around 300 respondents—is the 1-20 employee size group. These small agencies are feeling the least amount of love from carrier relationships, and they’re not as keen as midsize agencies about carrier technology.

Average “helpfulness” scores for the smallest agencies ranged from 4.9 (technology “helpfulness” for claims support) to 5.9 (relationship “helpfulness” on policy writing). Compare that to larger peers with 76-200 employees, where scores ranged from a low of 5.5 to a high of 6.5 for the same activities.

The largest agencies—those with more than 200 employees—gave the lowest average technology “helpfulness” scores for every activity (ranging from 5.2 to 5.5) while awarding scores above 6.0 for relationships.

One reading of those numbers says employees of larger agencies truly value their carrier relationships. Another is that the largest agencies are “less patient with carrier technology,” Salz noted, without making a judgment about which interpretation is correct. The largest agencies may be saying, “We have good technology. What is wrong with you?”

In related articles, Carrier Management presents results for each activity, highlighting differences in respondent characteristics where noteworthy and also presenting insights from written comments to open-ended questions agents were asked about their biggest problems.

Bottom line: Relationship trumps technology, according to agents, whether they’re opining on the current state of affairs or looking ahead.

“If the technology is getting in your way, how do you solve that? It’s the relationship,” Zurich commented, suggesting that agents typically connect with carrier personnel outside of the IT department to get problems resolved.