Chris Cline is the Executive Director – Agents Council for Technology of Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America (IIABA), the premier association for independent agents, representing more than a quarter million agents and their employees. Chris was interviewed by Michael Fiedel, a Managing Director at InsurTech Ohio and Co-Founder at PolicyFly, Inc.
Chris, how are independent agents feeling about the push to digitize in the insurance industry?
“It's all over the board, and this will be a theme that we talk about. There are agencies that are excited about what we've been able to accomplish and the efficiencies they've been able to gain like the ability to drive SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and get better with data. But, I would say there's a level of frustration that probably permeates all of this right now. We're in the middle of a pretty exciting, but yet, very complex time in our industry. Even some of the most promising technical capabilities that our industry is embracing or considering have yet to really realize their full promise.
We're victimized at some level by our own independence in that there are so many independent agencies and carriers, and everybody's tackling some of this stuff in their own unique way. While on one hand we're simplifying things, we're also making things more complex simultaneously. I think it’s probably a natural state in the universe in that the simple and complex sort of equalization over time as things evolve. There's a really unique combination of excitement about what the future can bring, but yet, frustration that we're still very much on the journey. It's rocky, and we haven't fully maximized the potential of any of the tools yet.”
What is the proper approach to building a winning digital strategy?
“I would approach that question by taking the word digital out and start off by saying that it starts with having a strategy to begin with. What I mean by that is digitization, automation and technology, all of those are just tools that can help enable a strategy not the other way around. Technology is not a strategy, so any approach to strategy here is to start off being really clear on what you're trying to accomplish as a business. Then consider how technology can help bring it to life.
What customers are you trying to attract? Do you want to be a personal lines firm? Do you want to be in the commercial lines? What geographies are you trying to serve? Do you want to be a multi-county firm, or do you want to be a multi-state or even a national firm?
Think through how you want to show up in the marketplace. What makes your agency unique? Then start to feed what type of talent you need, what roles you need in your agency, what processes support it and then how to leverage technology to get there. It's the old analogy that if you don't know where you're going, any path will get you there.
You’ve got to have some of these fundamental business decisions laid out, and then you can start to look for technology solutions that enable them. There's no way to have a winning digital strategy unless you actually have a strategy to begin with. That's just fundamental business. I’ve chatted with agencies around the country that have made significant technology investments, and it didn't work.
I think of an analogy from Christmas Vacation. Clark Griswald was going to have the coolest display in his little Chicago suburb, so he bought everything he could find and threw it all over the house. With no thought, rhyme or reason when he plugged it in, none of the decorations worked. That's a really simple analogy to be intentional about what you want and be thoughtful about how it's arranged. There's a lot to that. But, overall, start with the fundamentals.”
How should independent agents hold onto their independence?
“Independence might mean something different to everybody, but to me being independent means being in control and managing your own destiny. If you want to truly maintain your own destiny in the spirit of an independent agency maintaining independence, there isn’t a specific silver bullet. But, I believe a strong component of this conversation is thinking about talent in your organization, continually hiring, filling generational gaps and making investments to attract and retain a quality team. I realize that seems counterintuitive from a pure technology perspective, but you could argue that many large decisions that agencies make about their future are at some level impacted by gaps in the talent conversation.
If independence is control, then you want to have all of the tools and mechanisms in place to make sure that you can make choices that are best for your firm and minimize being in a position where you need to do something instead of wanting to do something. Hiring, being involved in talent, thinking about diversity, investing in data, thinking through how technology can enable your plans, etc. These are types of things that become dimensional rather than true measures of success that are important for helping an agency keep some level of independence.”
What’s your outlook on the evolution of the independent agent? Where do they go from here?
“As an overall statement, I'm incredibly optimistic about the independent agent as an institution. The Big I universe study and market share data that came out this summer supports that there are more independent agents now than there have been in the last number of years, so the number of independent agencies is growing with the market share increasing. In fact, it's at a multiple year high. In a world where some insurtechs targeted the disintermediation of independent agencies while navigating a global pandemic, the independent channel actually has grown with new and emerging models right along with more traditional agencies as well.
But, over the next several years or longer, it will be interesting to observe how/if technology influences the roles and the expectations of the stakeholders in our industry. Perhaps carriers will always be the underwriter and risk bearer while agencies remain in a sales and service capacity. But, who and how any number of individual tasks get accomplished will be very interesting to observe. What new capabilities, changes in market conditions, evolving nature of risk, etc could create scenarios we aren’t able to grasp today?
A lot of this is driven by this notion that there is still just a dollar a premium, and we have to consider how many ways it can be sliced and what it has to be used to invest in. How many slices and how big are the slices? Then you could start to think about how carriers, agents and other third parties interact to provide the best customer experience possible.
An example of that is thinking about claims intake. It wasn't that many years ago where every claim was directly reported through the agent who filled out a standard loss form. Now, we've got first notice of loss activities going directly to the carrier. Some agencies struggled with that. Some loved it. But, the industry could see net promoter scores going up. You take those little things and start to build upon them because who knows what's next? When you start to think about the evolution of the independent agent and how the carriers interact, it'll be fascinating to think about and discuss. Afterall, we are always learning new things about areas of our human existence and universe every day…what is the James Webb Space Telescope for our industry going to be?"