Independent agents are being challenged like never before to find
ways to sell more with less. The prolonged economic downturn
has made competition for sales tougher than ever, even as business
partners have curbed support staff and resources for agents.
But top producers aren't sitting back. They are using tools and
approaches that help them attract, sell to and serve clients, no matter
what the economy is doing. In today's marketplace, self-sufficiency is
king, and independent agents are taking technology, proactive service
strategies and entrepreneurial acumen to the max. Here is a look at
how this is playing out.
Save Time, Make Money
Pure and simple, agents want "services
that save them time and make them
money in terms of more sales and better
customer retention," says Mary Art,
director-technology research at LIMRA.
The Windsor, Conn., firm has been
researching agent and consumer preferences
in this area for the past couple
Faster, more efficient issuing of policies
can save everyone time and result
in a more satisfied customer, she says.
Joe Astalos, principal of the Astalos
Insurance Agency, Encino, Calif.,
couldn't agree more. Delays of whatever
kind can create problems for both agent
and client, he says.
"If I am in the field with a client but I
cannot get answers to the client's questions,
the client might say, ‘I'm not comfortable
with giving you a check right
now. When you get the information, let
me know,'" says Astalos. "But that means
I must make an appointment to go back,
and if it's a high-profile client, it might
be several weeks before there is an open
time slot for another meeting."
Delays like that put the client at risk
because the coverage is not yet in force,
he says. In addition, some clients may
just decide not to buy "because something
that appeals to them today might
be less appealing tomorrow."
LIMRA's research has also found that
"agents like service and functionalities
that make them look good in front of the
customer," says Art.
Many agents agree. Phillip Harriman,
founding partner of Lebel & Harriman,
Falmouth, Maine, is one of them. "For an
independent agent like me, who represents
12 or more insurance companies, my reputation
and integrity are at stake," he says.
Offering superior service "is also a
matter of personal pride-that I won't let
down the people who trusted me [with
their insurance]," he adds.
So, what are agents doing to get what
they need to stay out in front?
Lean on the Technology
For one thing, they are increasingly leaning
on technology. This includes more
than online access to pending business
status and client account information,
and phone access to the company.
Agents are also showing more interest
in having the ability to complete and
submit applications online and to use
e-signatures, says LIMRA's Art.
Not all independent agents want to
use more technology, of course. After
all, many prefer to provide the service
to clients themselves because, as Art
puts it, "The contact is always a chance
for another sale." Still, many agents have
told LIMRA that they are willing to
have their customers go online for services
that they want and expect, such
as online bill pay. In those cases at least,
they want their carriers to meet customer
Some agents are also looking to carriers
for assistance with marketing suites,
prospecting and client builder systems,
points out Chris W. Ford, an independent
agent and advanced markets specialist
for CapitalCare America Inc., Big
"They want access to telephone support
for in-force policies too," Ford says.
Some agents are crafting their own
technology solutions. For example, Harriman
says his firm has taken to downloading
key pieces of policy information
(values, no-lapse status, etc.) on cases
for high-net-worth clients at least on an
annual basis. The contracts are often
policies that have a specific purpose in
an overall estate or business succession
plan or trust.
The agency needs to have that information
close at hand, Harriman says, so
staffers can respond immediately if the
client or the client's financial team calls
about making a policy change-such as
a policy loan or premium payment change
on a universal life (UL) contract.
Changes like that could affect
performance of the policy
and of the overall plan of
which the policy is a part,
he explains, so he needs
to review current policy
data in order to provide
The agency does try
to obtain the data from
the issuing company,
Harriman says. But those
inquiries often get stuck
in telephone hold or trigger
responses that are incomplete
or not suited to the case particulars,
he says. That is why his
firm developed its policy update
process; it's a workaround that
enables staff to at least start working
on the client's inquiry, even as it
waits for the desired information from
As an aside, Harriman says it would
really help agents if carriers were to offer
what he calls an "advanced help line."
These would be customer service hotlines
for agents to use in advanced cases. Today's
customer service reps at carriers often do
not have sufficient expertise or resources
available to meet advanced support needs, he
says, but an advanced support team-somewhat
comparable to an advanced sales team-could do
In recent years, insurers have made strides in streamlining
and reconfiguring processes to focus on the revenue
side of things, Harriman allows. "They are always
in continuous pursuit of improvements. They are aware."
He points to trial initiatives with electronic applications
and tele-applications as examples. In addition, some have
leveraged today's greater underwriting knowledge and
actuarial acumen to make further cutbacks on requiring
blood work, EKG results and physician reports.
Such efforts can make things easier for the client and
cheaper for the companies, he says.
But because the existing block of inforce
business "is the fountain of future
behavior," Harriman adds, "it's important
to focus on post-issue services too."
In other words, he says, "When clients
write their checks, it's not the end of the
process. It's just the beginning.""
Push the Technology
Some large, multiline agencies have
taken it upon themselves to push the
technology envelope in order to stay
competitive with pre- and post-issue service.
One example is Althans Insurance
Agency Inc., Chagrin Falls, Ohio. This
is an independent agency that does a lot
of property-casualty and employee benefit
business, but also some life insurance
on the group side as well as for estate
To provide round-the-clock service,
the firm uses a telephone and email system
for after-hours calls. Each night, the
firm uploads an up-to-date client list to
its after-hours answering service, says
Tom Arnold, vice president-operations.
When a call comes in from a customer,
the answering service verifies the client's
name, address and agent's name against
the client list and then takes down the
caller's information. If the inquiry is routine,
the service shoots an email to the
agent, who gets back to the client the
next day. If it's an emergency, the service
notifies whichever agent is "on call"
that evening and that agent gets in touch
with the client immediately.
The arrangement is "not cheap,"
Arnold says, "but it enables us to respond
The Althans agency also uses document
imaging for all documents, so the
workflow is entirely paperless, Arnold
says. Whether it is an application,
endorsement, contract or other document,
it's all online and staff can access
it remotely if necessary. If a document
arrives in paper form, the staff scans it
into the computer and then destroys the
Because of this system, "the information
is always at our fingertips," says
The paperless system has enabled
fewer people to handle more clients
and it has helped the firm's agents to do
more, he says. "We can pull the information
quickly, so we can answer questions
faster. Often, there is no need to
Arnold estimates that his agency's revenue
has increased by 30 to 40 percent
since 2003, the first paperless year, with
no increase in staff.
He reiterates that life insurance is a
small part of the business, but adds that
life insurance documents and call-ins-
whether for individual or group cases-
are handled the same way as all the others.
"The insurance companies are relying
on agents to do more, so this is how we
are filling the gap," he says.
Ask the Distributor
Independent agents are also asking their
distributors for increasing amounts
and a widening array of help. Distributors
include brokerage general agents
(BGAs), field marketing organizations
(FMOs), independent marketing organizations
(IMOs) and, in the case of registered
products, broker/dealers (B/Ds).
"Agents are turning to these outlets
for traditional distribution services, as
well access to multiple carriers, products,
specified rates, commission levels
and quick turnaround on applications,"
says Bill Zimmerman, president
of LifePro Financial Services Inc., a BGA
from San Diego, Calif.
They are also using distributors for
assistance with needs-based selling and
case design, he says.
In addition, they want constant communication
on the status of submitted
cases. Some distributors provide this
manually, but Zimmerman says technology
is helping here too. For instance, his
firm is using an automated system that
tracks cases and sends out "status check"
emails to case managers if a case goes
beyond the range established for the particular
Independent agents are looking for
before-the-sale assistance too, says CapitalCare's
Ford, who is an FMO as well as
an independent agent. Examples include
help with leads, mailers, preset appointments,
marketing materials, applications
and illustrations. They want post-sale
support as well; for instance, for policy
reviews, beneficiary receipt of funds and
tax assistance related to a policy action.
In today's market, fast turnaround is
extremely important, Ford adds. "The
agents often need help from the distributor
right now, not in three or four hours,
so they can get the policy in force as fast
Astalos, the Encino-based agent, has
additional requirements. The distributor
must have expertise, experience and
industry connections, he says. One distributor
he used to deal with regularly turned down his requests for flexibility
in underwriting an overweight applicant,
he recalls. There were so many
noes that Astalos says he decided to
search for another distributor.
Now, he says, things are better because
his current distributor responds quickly,
is up to speed on current underwriting
approaches, does follow-ups to be sure he
and the clients are satisfied, and searches
out alternative solutions.
The distributor also has critical connections
at the insurance companies;
this is a major asset when a sale hinges
on accurate-and prompt-answers to
certain questions, Astalos says.
Example: One of Astalos' clients, an
attorney, had raised some legal questions
about a life insurance plan. Astalos didn't
have the answers. But instead of calling
the insurance company's 800 number, he
called his BGA. The BGA not only provided
some of the answers himself, but
he also set up a conference call with the
expert at the insurance company who
answered the rest. The result? The client
signed the application.
Agents look to distributors for compliance
support too. Take Marc Silverman,
founder of Silverman Financial, Miami,
Fla. He does a lot of investment work,
which must be in compliance with the
rules of the Financial Industry Regulatory
Authority (FINRA). He says he depends
on his B/D to be sure his firm is doing
things right from a compliance standpoint.
"Even though we believe we are
doing things right, we want to make sure
we are in fact doing them right," he says.
Get Help with Business
To stay competitive, agents also need help
with business development, says LifePro's
Zimmerman. This includes assistance
with meeting client needs, office management,
staffing, partnering, brand awareness,
peer-to-peer networking, mentoring
In the old days, most agents worked for
career agency companies that provided
these services, he says. But today, many
producers are independent, small businesses.
They still need business development
services but "their needs must be
filled in a different way."
Some larger BGAs and B/Ds are stepping
into the breach, Zimmerman says,
citing his own firm as an example. So
some independent agents are turning
to these distributors for this kind of
But many BGAs do not provide business
support, so other agents are hunting
around elsewhere for business development
In some cases, third-party providers and
entrepreneurs are organizing to meet insurance
agent demand for insurance-specific
services, says the Falmouth-based Harriman.
"For instance, I've heard of at least one
emerging third-party company that says it
will provide various policyholder support
services to agents and trusts. One of the
services would help agents ensure that their
customers' UL policies are on track to perform
Independent agents would need to pay
for such services, Harriman concedes.
But if they can't get services they need
elsewhere and if they view their insurance
business as their career, "they might
find this to be very appealing."
The bottom line: the economy continues
to be tough, budgets are tight and
independent agents are operating in what
might well be the most competitive market
they have ever seen. One way they
have found to stay ahead of the pack is
to pursue services, technology and alliances
that provide the support they need.
The alternative is not an option. As one
agent told InsuranceNewsNet, "We're
doing all this because, if we serve people
better, we keep growing our business."