Tips To Reviewing Agency Management Systems And Choosing One -The Right One- For Your Agency

This article is not being written to walk you step by step through the process of choosing a management system. Instead, I’m going to share some key pointers that will make the process a lot easier, along with sharing with you some of the tricks sales reps use. My desire is to help you be able to make the best decision possible for your agency without getting “sold”!

Setting The Stage

Here you are, looking for a new agency management system, or maybe your first agency management system.

Agency Management Systems Are Not Created Equal … Each Has Their Strengths & Weaknesses

You first need to realize that management systems are not created equal. Each has a personality, a characteristic about it. If you can tap into what it is you can learn very quickly if it’s the right system for you.

You’re also going to find that no one system is perfect for all of the areas of your agency. Therefore, you have to weigh out their strengths and weaknesses. You want to choose the one that has the most strengths in the areas that are most important to you fully knowing the system will also have weaknesses. It just is what it is.

The point is, every system has their strengths and their weaknesses.

Here are a few areas that I’ve found really separate systems …

  • Commercial lines … very hard to design to work effectively and single-entry
  • Accounting … most aren’t that good
  • Not having integrated ACORD forms … Sure sign you’ll have a poor workflow when working with policies and will have a lot of double entry.
  • The number of steps and windows to process your work

Price.

Price, upfront, should NOT be a consideration! Don’t let the price cloud your judgment!

I’ve watched many agencies sadly choose a system based upon a low price and then end up with 50-200% more CSR’s of an alike agency because of how inefficient the system is.

Price is the minimal part. How productive the system makes you is what will determine the true cost of the system.

In fact, a productive system should be an investment, not a cost! Think about it… how much does it cost in salaries, taxes and benefits per CSR in your agency?

Analyze Your Agency And Your Needs.

When I’m consulting with an agency helping them review systems the first thing I do is get to know the agency. Before you can get started, there are a few things you need to know. (ACORD offers a much more thorough automation worksheet. I’m just pointing out some of the core areas.)

  • What’s important to you and your agency?
  • What is the focus of your agency … commercial lines? Personal lines?
  • What’s the break up of your book of business? % Commercial Lines, % Personal lines, % Life & Health … Percentages based upon policy count and premium.
  • How many CSR’s do you have for PL? CL? Life & Health?
  • Are you maxed out with work for your CSR’s or do they have spare time in the day?
  • Do you have specific requirements for your automation? If yes, what are they?
  • How many agencies do you have? If more than 1, do clients have the option to go to any office for service and/or making payments?
  • Do you have a preference between a network version or internet based system? Why?

There’s a lot more to know, but this article isn’t a step by step guide. Instead, I’m just trying to give you tips that will save you a lot of headaches and problems. The most important point I’m trying to make here is for you to know your agency design (PL to CL, etc.) and then analyze management systems based upon your type of agency.

If you have no system currently, you have the advantage of no data conversions, but you have the disadvantage of no experience on a system so you’ll want to look at the training options.

It’s been my experience that agencies who’ve been on a system before are better equipped to review the next system they’ll purchase because they’ve learned what they like and don’t like from their current system.

Comparing Agency Management Systems

Still to this day agencies are asking for my help in reviewing agency management systems. It’s not easy to wade through the different systems trying to figure out which one will truly provide the greatest financial advantage to the agency. That’s because there are so many things to consider.

When I help an agency review systems I look at a lot of things. Once I understand the agency, what they sell, their market place, their goals and a number of other things I then analyze the agency management systems and their ability to meet the needs of the agency.
Now, you’ll notice, my primary focal point is on areas that deal with a CSR’s day to day workload. I don’t spend very much time reviewing “whistles and bells” (those extra’s) because when it comes to automating your agency it’s the system’s ability to effectively and quickly handle your staff’s day to day work that will make the biggest difference, the biggest impact in your agency.
I also look at how the system will help the agency owner ‘work on’ his agency and how the system supports the sales agents.
Here’s are some of the things I’ll look at …
* The database the system uses. This could be Access, Paradox, Omnis or SQL to name a few. Believe me, the database used is very important. Access, for example, has a limit to how many records it can handle. Just ask your IT person how important the database is.
* The data-entry windows and how they’re laid out … do they flow fluently? Does it make sense? Is doing the data-entry easy?
* How users navigate the system to find what they’re looking for. Navigating the system should be common sense. I found Agency Systems Newton system to have one of the more difficult navigation menu systems.
* The ability to service more than one client and one policy at the same time. Because the average CSR will be servicing more than one client at the same time, or will handle more than one process at the same time, can the system accommodate this?!
* How easily (and effectively) does the system manage outstanding work and help the CSR make sure it gets completed.
Outstanding work like Follow Ups to questions, or endorsements you’ve submitted, or renewals you’re working on but are waiting for someone to do a task before you can finish it, does the system give you the ability to stay on top of these items easily? With all of the different areas of a system that tracks “work in progress” items, does the system help you stay on top of all of these areas and make sure things don’t slip through your fingertips?
Too often the agency just accepts that the system handles follow ups and staying on top of different tasks, but it’s not until you actually see exactly how the system manages outstanding tasks that you can establish if that systems methods are acceptable to your agency.
* How complete the system is for capturing information needed by the CSR.
* Tools to help the CSR do their job faster.
For example, when you call the carrier do you have all carrier follow ups at your fingertips so you can handle multiple client issues with the carrier at the same time? Or when submitting policies to multiple carriers does the submission process give you the ability to send them all at the same time with the right information being included for each carrier?
This is just 2 examples of hundreds of ways a CSR’s job could be improved upon and done faster. What task are you doing many times a day that could be automated?
* Can the CSR easily find what they’re looking for? When the user needs to find a record or a policy, how easy is it to do that? There are so many ways a CSR or staff person will be searching for a record. Can the system find the records in all of these ways?
For commercial lines, can I search by the contact name? Can I search by the policy number, or even just a partial policy number, but have the choice of either pulling up the client record or the policy?
In the same respect, you’re constantly adding notes, follow-ups, attachments, correspondence, etc. to the system. If you need to find a specific note or a specific attachment, how easy is that done?
* I spend a tremendous amount of time analyzing the workflow (the steps to process a task) because it’s here where the rubber hits the road to increase an agency’s productivity.
This is also one of the areas where you separate the “glorified database systems” from the true “agency management systems”. It’s the difference between a feature driven system and a productivity driven system.
* I analyze how easy the system is to learn and use … is it common sense? Does it flow with the task? Are menu’s easy to understand? Can I quickly find the information I’m needing?
According to our survey, easy-to-use is the #1 request of the agency, and for good reason! That’s because, for starters, it takes agency resources to train someone how to use a system. Some systems are so complex it’s taking CSR’s up to 9 months to effectively use the system … that’s just down right unacceptable!
Along with analyzing how easy a system is to learn and use, I analyze the training the vendor offers. Some methods are far better than others, and certain types help the staff retain the information better which reduces the overall cost to training.
* Is the system single-entry?
My experience has been that the more single entry the system the more expensive the system because of how much more programming is required and because it’s cutting costs to the agency. Not being single-entry is a huge factor in how many CSR’s you’ll need due to the wasted time of re-entering information already in the system into the system again in another area. That’s not good!
If a vendor isn’t building into the system workflows and the ability to carry data to other areas of the system so you’re not re-entering information already in the system, all you’re going to have is a glorified database system, and there are quite a few of these on the market today. These are the low-cost systems.
* I review the steps it takes to process different tasks like doing a renewal or handling an endorsement.
* Going paperless. If the agency is paperless (or wanting to go paperless), I carefully analyze the systems ability to allow the agency to accomplish this and what the process is to accomplish this. You’d be surprised how different the systems are in this area.
* I also review how the system handles downloaded data … does it update policy information, for example.
There are quite a few areas I analyze here because if the system doesn’t handle the downloaded data properly then it’s going to cost you a lot of time fixing the problems created.
* I analyze how the system handles personal lines policies, commercial lines policies and packages. It’s truly amazing how very few systems properly handle commercial lines forcing the agency to hire more commercial lines CSR’s than necessary.
* Then there’s the accounting of the system. How easy is it to take payments, handle sweeps, reconcile with your carriers, pay commissions, and the list goes on and on. Insurance accounting isn’t like retail accounting and requires a specialized design and features to handle it properly.
And all of this is just the beginning!
It’s quite a process to help an agency review automation systems, especially when you do it thoroughly and do it right. It’s about time the agency is educated on how to compare the differences between systems so the agency can make a good decision on an agency management system.
Unfortunately, because agencies aren’t educated in this area (and this industry seems to be very biased) and because of the complexity of management systems along with all of the areas you really need to analyze to make a good decision on a system, it doesn’t surprise me to see agencies simply buy the cheapest system. Many figure that this will at least get them started and then down the road they can upgrade to a better system.

A Few Short Case Studies.

1) The Over Sell #1. I was in competition with another vendor. The other vendor rep told the agency his system could do things it couldn’t actually do. Because the other system was less money and could do what he needed (per the rep), he purchased it.

During his 2nd day of training, he learned that the system couldn’t actually do what he needed it to do and was frustrated with the steps to do his work. He cancelled his order and purchased the system I recommended.

Points:

1) If something’s important enough to you, have the rep “show you” how it’s done in the system.

2) You’ll get a more direct and honest answer from a vendors training team and support staff than their sales reps. And,

3) If you purchase a system, if you learn it’s not all that the sales person said it was or establish after training that it’s not going to do the job for you like you thought it would, while you may lose some money if you cancel your order you may be better off to cancel so you can get the right system for your agency.

Use your common sense when working with sales reps.

Walk-Throughs: Don’t Tell Me, Show Me

I’m a strong advocate to walk-throughs. Here’s why … sales reps can say anything, but a walk-through shows you the reality of it.

If you’re a multi-line agency who’s also needing an insurance specific accounting system I’d suggest you have 3 walk-through’s …

  1. One specifically on personal lines policy management,
  2. One specifically on commercial lines policy management and
  3. A thorough one on accounting.

This keeps the walk-through focused to a specific topic and allows you to get more details on the specific area. If the rep tells you they only have time for either a personal lines or commercial lines demo and can’t do both, always go for the commercial lines one. It’s far harder to create proper workflows and policy management for the commercial lines package policy than a personal lines policy.

Remember, it’s not just whether the system can do what you want it to do, but how it does it … the steps to get it done.

While overview demo’s are nice to get an idea of what the system is about and to hear what the sales rep thinks is important, you can’t beat a detailed walk-through of each key area.

When it comes time for the walk-through, most agencies will let the sales rep lead the way and show them the system. What the rep will show you is all of their really cool features. That’s because features “wow” agencies and they know this.

What you want to see is how the system will help you do your day to day work. In most cases, to see this you need to take control of the walk-through and not allow the rep to do hip-hops. Keep the rep focused on the task at hand.

Because a number of systems have a poor workflow and quite a bit of double entry, reps of these system will try to avoid a workflow walk-through.

Have the rep show you step by step how to process a renewal, an endorsement, and other tasks that are important to you. If you’re a commercial lines agency, make sure they show these same tasks for a commercial lines package policy.

Be careful not to get “sold” on features. While features can “wow” you, it’s the systems ability to handle your day to day processing of work that makes you productive and profitable.

If You Want A Straight Answer, Talk To …

If you want straight answers, talk to the vendors customer support team or trainers. Neither will misdirect you or give false information because they’re the ones that have to work with you after you become a customer.

Just make sure you ask the right questions.

However, to get access to a support person or trainer could be challenging and difficult. That’s because they are already very busy serving existing customers and simply may not have the time to talk to “prospective” agencies. It doesn’t hurt to ask, though.

Games Sales Reps Can Play …

Each vendor has their own approach to sales. Some vendors like AMS have people who only sell and other vendors have account managers.

What my experience has been is sales people who only sell and then turn their customers over to the support team to service from there forward are more likely to over sell their system.

Account managers, on the other hand, continue to work with their clients. Because of this they’re generally a lot more careful with not over selling the system and providing accurate information because they want to create a positive working relationship with their clients.

You just have to remember, the sales persons job is to sell their system.

Some sales reps are, shall we say, shroud. They may make claims about another product that aren’t true to attempt to create concerns in your mind about the other product or may over exaggerate their own system.

Or another tactic they’ll use is telling you about another agency that had the competing system that moved over to their system. They’ll make it sound very traumatic. Just be aware that every vendor can tell a story like this.

Here’s some realities you need to know …

  • No one vendor is perfect for every agency
  • No matter how hard a vendor tries, they can’t please everyone
  • Every vendor has agencies who love them and agencies who don’t
  • Choosing a management system is personal to YOUR agency. Just because a system didn’t work for another agency it doesn’t mean it won’t work for your agency. Find out specifically why it didn’t work for the agency and decide from that if that’s an issue for your agency. (Example, it didn’t work because it didn’t download with a specific carrier, but since you don’t have that carrier that’s not an issue to you.)
  • It’s not uncommon for an agency owners to justify their buying decision, even if they made a bad decision. Nobody likes admitting they made a bad decision. That’s another reason why you want to talk to the CSR’s.
  • Look at the odds. For example, if you’re looking at product “A” and “B” and just a few agencies switched from “B” to “A” that doesn’t say anything. But if there are quite a few agencies that switched from “B” to “A”, that leaves a trail and you should probably talk to a few of those agencies to find out why and what the differences are. If possible, you should see if you can talk to agencies who switched from “A” to “B” as well so you can get both sides.

Sales reps love trying to create doubt about other systems on the market. They have very subtle ways they do this to minimize the other systems you’re considering and to make their system look even better. While there are times when a product comparison is helpful (when done tastefully), there are times when the rep has stepped out of bounds with the comparison.

For example, I know many of the systems on the market so if I know an agency is looking at system A and system B and know a certain functionality is important to the agency I will explain the differences between the two systems. I always encourage the agency to confirm what I shared by having the other sales person demo that area to the agency.

For the most part, you want the sales rep to simply stay focused on discussing and demo’ing their product. If product comparisons are important between two systems talk to users on the first product that converted from the other system, and then talk to users on the second product that converted from the first product.

The other thing you really want to watch out for is them “over selling” their product. The best remedy to this is what I have said for 20+ years … “Don’t tell me, show me!”

Have them show you how their system does what they said it could do. Here’s a few examples of why …

  • A system on the market 5 years ago (may still be true today) offered downloading so when they got asked if the system downloaded policies they’d say yes. BUT, what the download didn’t do is update the policies. What good is downloading if it doesn’t update your system?

It should put the old policy in history and create a T-History record for that and a T-History record for the new updated policy from the downloaded information. The download should’ve updated your system!

This particular system required the CSR’s to print out the download page and then manually update the policy information. Talk about massively increasing the CSR’s workload!

  • An agency asked a sales rep if the system offered Agency Bill accounting. The rep said it did. The fact is, it did, but the amount of steps it took to handle agency bill accounting was atrocious! Yes, it handled it but not very well at all.

The point here is while a system may do something, by having a demo of it you can see the steps to doing it and make sure those steps and the processes to do the task meet your approval.

What You Need To Know About Referrals!

Always get referrals. And when you call agencies to discuss the system they’re on you need to be very respectful of their time. Agencies are in business to sell and service their policyholder clients, not sell software.

I’ve had agencies who were great referrals because they invested in training and really knew how to make the system they were on work very well for them and could provide some real world knowledge that would be helpful to prospective agencies, but because of all of the calls they got about the system and agency owners rambling and just taking up their time they had to request to no longer be a referral agency.

The point is, have your questions ready when you call and be very respectful of the agency’s time.

When you ask your sales rep for referrals, vendor reps generally only give out agencies they know will give them a glowing testimonial. That shouldn’t come as any surprise.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for the rep to use the same agencies over and over again because in reality they may not have that many agencies who would give a glowing testimonial.

I remember a vendor I worked with back in 1993. Even though they were growing in leaps and bounds, there were very few agencies they could use as referrals because most of the agencies weren’t really that happy with the system. Sales reps for this vendor used the same agencies over and over again. That’s because they found it hard to find agencies who really liked the system.

Another vendor I worked closed with in the early 2000’s took a different approach. Because they had a ton of very happy clients they would send a list of referral that were similar to the prospective agency. For example, if the prospective agency was 70% commercial lines they’d send agencies who were 70% or greater in commercial lines.

This is how you should get referrals … based upon the type of agency you are! If you’re predominately a commercial lines agency, you want to talk to predominately commercial lines agencies on the system. Commercial lines management is a whole different beast compared to personal lines policy management.

If accounting is important to you, then you want to talk to agencies who are using the full accounting system similar to how you’d be using it.

If you want to increase your odds of getting good referrals and not just the canned referrals the rep uses, make it very clear that you want to talk to alike agencies (70% CL, 70% PL or whatever). You can even tighten them down even further by asking for agencies in your state.

However, if it’s a new vendor you do need to give them some latitude of location.

If the rep from an established system can’t get you alike agencies in your state, that should send up some serious red flags.

A good system with lots of happy users should have no problem providing you with the types of referrals you request.

With the agencies that you call, you want to talk to the CSR’s because they are the ones using the system. Most owners delegate work to their staff and don’t have nearly the experience that a CSR has on the system.

If the agency has personal lines CSR’s and commercial lines CSR’s, be sure to talk to the appropriate one, or both.

If the accounting is important to you, talk to the agency bookkeeper.

The point is, to get accurate input about a system you need to talk to the right people.

In addition, based upon what’s important to you, you want to have a list of specific questions you’ll ask. The conversation may open up other questions, but you should have initial questions that are specific to your agency and what you need in the way of an automation system.

Do not simply rely on the agency owners comments … hear how it works from those actually using it.

Ask them what they like best and like the least about the system for what they do.

Another place to get referrals is through your association, such as the IIA or PIA. Just call your association and ask them if they know of agencies on the system you’re considering.

What’s great about this is you’re not talking to an agency that’s been prepped by the sales rep and are able to get a more non-biased testimonial of the system.

Finally, I need to share one more important thing about talking to other agencies about a system you’re interested in. One of the questions you should ask them is, “How much training did you have on the system?”

The reason this is important is another consistent thing I’ve found over the years is how effective an agency is at using a system is based upon how much training they’ve had. If you talk to a CSR who isn’t happy with the system it may not be the system at all but instead the CSR’s lack of training on how to effectively use the system.

It’s can be tough to discern between the two. For this and other reasons an agency will hire me to help them wade through the growing pool of agency management systems.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to the process of deciding on which management system you’ll use in your agency. Because your agency management system is the most important tool you’ll use in your agency to service your customers, count your money, manage your accounting, run reports and create a productive and profitable agency (to name some key benefits), this is not a decision you want to take lightly.

Know your agency. Be methodical. Ask good questions. Use your common sense.

Filed under: Agency Management Systems