Looking to upgrade or switch your agency management system?

Looking to upgrade or switch your agency management system?

Doucette, Nancy

The refrain from one of those mellow tunes from the late ’50s queries, “Ain’t it funny how time slips away?” It’s no laughing matter, though, when you acknowledge your agency management system is five or six (or more!) years old. Time does slip away! But should you upgrade or change your system supply because it has a bit of age on it? Automation and management consultants Virginia Bates and Rick Morgan concur: No. It’s best, they say, to upgrade or switch systems when you decide to use technology to solve a particular problem within the agency. Perhaps you’re dissatisfied with your sales or service, your workflows or carrier line up.

“The boost in technology is important so agents can accomplish some of the things they want to do,” Morgan explains. “However, they need to be clear about what their agency needs are and put a plan together that will allow them to do that.”

Getting that plan together requires input from everybody in the agency. It begins with an agency self-evaluation and creation of a wish list of system capabilities. However, Bates says, she delays discussion of system functions with agencies until they tell her what they want their organizations to be in one-to-three years. By determining what problem or opportunity the agency wishes to address–increased sales, better service, improved workflow–she works with agencies to build what she calls “a very specific list of functions that the system will have to do.” From there, she says it’s simply a matter of finding the systems that do that. Then, the agency will be able to concentrate on those systems which conform best to the way it likes to do business.

Predictably, agencies which already have an agency management system are going to have an easier time creating their wish list.

It’s a process that requires thinking, meetings, and discussions, according to Morgan who suggests the effort include vision and “wouldn’t it be nice if thinking. “Think about what’s most frustrating about where we are today (in terms of system functions or implementation) and what would make it better,” he adds.

Morgan points out that CSRs are going to have one set of ideas, management will have reporting and accounting issues, accounting will have a different perspective, and sales will have a different set of wishes. Bringing all this together, though, will give the agency a relatively good idea about the areas of improvement, he says.

For the agency that hasn’t had (or has underutilized) automation, Bates recommends using more outside resources to better understand “what the world could be like in your office with automation.” A big-picture perspective can be gained from a Vendor Comparison Workshop–a forum developed by Bates nearly three years ago. It brings together representatives from major agency management system vendors to participate in a side-by-side comparison of system functions. (Check with your state association to see when they will be sponsoring one.)

But once agents start to understand how they want to operate, they realize that not only does the system have to accommodate them, but their staff has to accommodate them, and their carriers have to accommodate them as well. “What’s the sense of having a computer to do what you want if the other things aren’t the right tools?” Bates asks. “A change of system heralds a whole list of changes–staffing and carrier line up,” she notes.

“In ’90s terms, it’s the whole re-engineering piece,” Morgan adds. “Each agency has to grapple with a different set of priorities depending on what they want to do. For some agencies, download is not a big deal because they don’t have enough personal lines to make it a big deal. Conversion is critical for agencies that have built a database,” he continues.

Seek information from a variety of sources

He suggests visiting other agencies at a point where it makes sense. “You can’t just call and ask ‘How do you like your system?'” he quips. Agents should have some particular situations in mind and talk to people who are doing that process. For instance if the agency has several locations, the issue of response time and communication costs would be relevant. Too early in the selection process, such questions are inappropriate, Morgan says.

Another resource to tap as you prepare for visits from vendors is ACORD. Their Investing in Your Future–1994 Automation and Interface Survey Report can serve as a foundation for the development of a vendor comparison matrix. With charts, graphs and commentary, the Survey Report pinpoints the benefits of automating specific functions. By listing those functions down the left side of the matrix, and the vendor contender names across the top, everyone in the agency can make notations during the demonstration. Bates stresses this isn’t keeping score. “It’s fact finding. It’s learning. If done properly, the system demonstration is the first training session on the system the agency buys.”

To be sure all the points are touched upon during the demonstration, the agency should submit an agenda to the vendors invited to demonstrate their system. “It should be a very organized, logistically planned day,” Bates says. “The agency is in the driver’s seat.”

Morgan recommends agencies tell the vendor how they want the demonstration to proceed and who will be attending. Having the demonstration structured around typical agency workflows benefits the agency and vendor alike. Agency staff members are grouped by department which means the accounting people don’t have to see the things which are of special interest to producers. The vendor representative is able to make a presentation to four or five people at a time–people with interrelated interests whose questions will be helpful to each other. The individual’s full attention is essential during the presentation so interruptions–phone calls especially–should be prohibited.

Bates suggests the agency have at least one person go through the entire day with the vendor to control the pace of the day. She says that person could be the principal, the automation person, the office manager, or someone who may be familiar with the system from a previous job.

Don’t overemphasize cost

Obvious in its absence to this point is the issue of cost. “I encourage agents to look at all the systems as if they have all the money in the world,” Bates explains, “and figure out what system(s) they like best.” System prices can be modified depending on reassessment of training and equipment needs and volume discounts. “Something that costs more in the beginning but gives you tremendous results financially is the best bargain in town,” she maintains.

Delaying the demonstration itself until later in the selection process is necessary, given the number of preliminary considerations there are. “People frequently make the mistake of doing the demo too soon in the process,” Bates points out. “It’s very much like going to shop for a car before you get your learner’s permit. You’re not quite sure if you’ll ever know how to drive a stick or what features of that car are most important.”

When considering the important features of the system, agents shouldn’t stop with just the software and hardware. “There’s the personality of the vendor,” Morgan notes. “There are the constants–the training, service, support, past performance, the strength of the user group.” Once the agency has narrowed the field of vendor contenders, he recommends they visit the vendor’s headquarters to get a sense of their environment and organization.

“This is a long-term partnership,” Morgan stresses. ‘You don’t want to make a decision based on a demo. You want to know the organization you’re going to be in partnership with.” So he suggests agents talk to the service people, talk to head development people, talk to the president. “Get a sense of where their future development is headed,” he says.

“If you just go out looking for something pretty, you’ll have problems,” Bates warns. “Instead, look for features that match your needs,” she concludes.

“Going through the demo process isn’t just looking at features…it’s an education,” Morgan adds. “It’s a way for the agency to prepare itself and everyone in it for the changes that they’ll want to incorporate to take advantage of the new technology.”

ACORD’S STANDARDS CERTIFICATION PROGRAM–ASSURING CONSISTENCY IN INTERFACE ACTIVITY

From the development of ACORD forms in the 1970s to the implementation of electronic standards today, ACORD’s mission is to increase the efficiency of the independent agency distribution system. Important in the success of that effort is electronic data interchange–also known as interface. By whatever alias is used, it means the exchange of data between agency and company computer systems.

ACORD has recently introduced a new service which provides “impartial third-party testing” to verify that software developed for agency-company interface complies with ACORD AL3 Standards–a mutually agreed upon format for exchanging data between agency systems and company systems.

Ellen Jefferies, vice president of products and services for ACORD, explains that the Standards Certification Program consists of software testing, test results reporting, and guidelines for the use of ACORD’s Certification Mark (shown above). For agents, the program is important in that it protects their investment in interface. “ACORD guarantees that somebody can’t make subtle changes to the standards and mess up the (agency management system) software,” she says.

Until ACORD developed its certification program, Jefferies continues, companies and vendors would reprogram their systems to accommodate for “slippage” in their software. The slippage was the result of variations in interpretation and implementation by data processors at the company or vendor.

If its testing identifies a deviation from Standards, ACORD points it out to the company or vendor so it can be corrected. The test results are made available in a “Detail Test Result Report” which includes the results for all lines of business for a particular participant.

The detail report, which is about 1/2″ thick for each vendor, also touches upon the issue of database completeness as not all databases are created equal–something worthwhile knowing if download or transactional filing are important issues in your agency. “It provides details about what data the system accepts during download. That will allow agents to compare systems and whether they will be getting all the data they need in order to run their agency paper free,” Jefferies explains. (ACORD subscribers should contact Theresa Perricelli at ACORD (800-444-3341 ext. 455) if you’re interested in copies of detail reports for vendors you’re considering.)

There are also differences in the data which companies send down to agents. Jefferies says ACORD can provide information on specific companies as well.

Vendor organizations which are charter members of the ACORD Standards Certification Program include AMS, Inc. (PathFinder Plus/Pioneer Plus), Agena Corporation (Agena Premier), Applied Systems (Forms Interface Batch Back Module), Cisgem Technologies, Inc. (Sagitta), and Delphi Information Systems (Delphi Smart System, InFinity, Insurnet, PC-Elite). These vendors are certified for personal auto and homeowners download.

The Alliance for Productive Technology (APT) and Applied Systems have been certified for personal auto and homeowners upload.

Another source of general information on the subjects of standards and download is “The ACORD Status Report” which reports twice a year on companies and vendors which have passed ACORD’s certification testing and provides download implementation status.

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Feb 1995

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