By Linda Koco
Time was when Jim Ferrell of Colorado Springs believed that today’s mobile agents have access to the Internet just about everywhere they go, so they don’t need to stress when they go on calls at a worksite or in people’s homes.
His thinking was, Wi-Fi will be available in most places and, if not, agents can tap into the net via the portable “hotspot” service they purchase from their mobile providers. He knew connection problems do arise but he was convinced these are localized to small areas and that the problems would go away as technology advances.
But due to an initiative at his company, the vice president of product management at Insurance Technologies has done an about-face.
Ferrell has found that more agents than he originally thought are selling in locations where they can’t plug into the net or their cloud services — even when connectivity is available. For example, agents sometimes work at schools where the Internet restrictions may prohibit outsiders from using the Wi-Fi or any other online connection.
As for hotspots, the devices only provide Internet connectivity in areas where the service’s signal is available, Ferrell said. In some of the outlying locations where agents go to visit clients, the signals are weak or nonexistent, so the service doesn’t work. The same is true regarding access to the net via smartphones and tablets, he said.
Sometimes, agents don’t even learn of the connectivity limitations until they get to the places they are going, he added.
This lack of access forces agents to conduct business in the field the old-fashioned way. They write down vital client information on paper. Then, they follow up on other matters once they are back in the office and have transferred the necessary data to their desktop computers and the servers at the carrier.
Or they enter the data on a laptop word processing file or database file while in the field and then switch it over to the desktop later on, piece by piece.
Both approaches slow down productivity, compared to entering data via the Internet right in the field, he said. Entering data twice also opens up potential for not-in-good-order (NIGO) applications, further hampering effectiveness for both agents and carriers.
Awareness of those problems was what prompted Ferrell’s boss to suggest building a “disconnected mode” for systems the firm provides to carriers. This “disconnected mode” would enable agents in the field to enter data just as they would if they had Internet access, and then, after they return to the office, to sync the data up to the cloud and to the carrier’s servers.
Ferrell initially opposed the disconnected mode idea because of his confidence in widespread Internet accessibility. “I thought that developing this would be a waste of time, but it turns out I was wrong.”
His epiphany came after the company went ahead and developed the disconnected mode. This is essentially a locally installed application on advisor’s laptops. It looks and functions much like what the advisor sees when connecting to their carrier online, complete with electronic signature capability.
On the very first account where the system was put into use, Ferrell said, the agents’ adoption percentages increased. He hadn’t expected that.
The term adoption percentage refers to the ratio of electronic apps a carrier receives versus paper apps. Carriers want those percentages to go up, because greater electronic usage reduces NIGOs and policy issue turnaround time — and, as a result, costs.
The adoption rate increases didn’t happen overnight. Many agents “went through a learning curve or were scared to use the system at first,” according to a brief summary report from the carrier, which Ferrell forwarded to InsuranceNewsNet. Therefore, when the system launched in July 2013, the adoption percentage was 65 percent for that month — down from the month before (77 percent).
But by August, the adoption ratio had jumped to 84 percent. After that, the adoption ratio stayed in the neighborhood of 80 percent, said the report, and today it’s “consistently around 83 percent.”
The issue is change
Some agents, especially in the independent channel, don’t like change, Ferrell said, in reflecting on the turn of events. For that reason, some hesitated to move to the “disconnected mode.” But once they saw the value, he said, “They made the change.”
As he tells it, he had to change too, particularly concerning his initial assumptions about agent access to the Internet wherever they go.
His new understanding is that people who sell insurance “do so in a relationship, and they do it where the relationship is happening. For agents, that location is not typically at the agent’s desk.” If the location is urban, they’ll probably have access and can go online and reach the company or distributor’s servers at will, but in high-security locations and in outlying areas, that is not always the case.
The related understanding that is that technology which does not accommodate the Internet realities that agents encounter in the field “actually hinders their ability to do business.” So, he said, some agents do need a “disconnected mode” that functions like online when online is not available.
Linda Koco, MBA, is a contributing editor to InsuranceNewsNet, specializing in life insurance, annuities and income planning. Linda may be reached at [email protected].
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