This article was first published in Agency Nation on March 20, 2020:

Large-scale disruption is already here in insurance. Youre no longer just up against the agency across town. Your real competition is now the digital startups and direct-distribution players who are leapfrogging ahead in terms of customer experience, efficiency, and technology.
The hard truth is that no agency can survive without futurizing, and you simply cant afford to go forward without a plan.

But heres another truth: its all doable. The tools and technologies you will need to operate as an agent of the future are ready and waiting. And as for your plan, there are really just five essentials you absolutely must incorporate into your toolkit. Start with these, get them right, and you are most of the way there.
Ready? Here are the five must-haves for tomorrows competitive insurance agent:

1. Automation (everywhere)

How much of your typical day is spent on tasks that could be done better and faster with automation? And how much frustration and time could you save for yourself and your customers by automating manual processes? Automation will be the engine of the agency of the future. And dont buy into the automation will replace the agent myth. Automation is about making you more valuable, not obsolete, because when technology can take over the repetitive, monotonous and mundane, you are at liberty to provide the personalized, astute and revenue-driving human interactions and services that set the independent agent apart.

Automation can bring value to every phase of your funnel and policy journey not only by eliminating manual data extraction and data entry, but also by providing the streamlined, fast and error-free experience customers expect. Here are just a few examples:

  • Automation tools can make your onboarding and renewal processes much faster and more efficient, so customers wait less, and you spend less time chasing down responses.
  • Automation eliminates errors by extracting information from carrier quotes and moving that data directly into broker administration systems, quote comparisons, and proposals. It can complete and issue certificates, reconcile accounts, auto-populate forms and remove redundancy from throughout your business.
  • At renewal time, automation moves previous year information up to the current year, so your customer need only verify the data. Auto-reminders mean you dont have to stay on top of every renewal or response.
  • Automated smart forms with e-signatures allow efficient execution without printing, scanning or mailing, even when multiple signatories at multiple locations are involved. Plus, the e-signatures are secure and legally binding.

2. Artificial intelligence

You dont have to be a data scientist to put the power of artificial intelligence, machine learning and predictive analytics to work for your agency and your customers. AI already touches most aspects of life – from navigation apps we use to commute to the fitness tools we wear every day. In insurance, AI is your ticket to easily getting and giving the answers you and your customers need to make good choices.

AI extracts insights from your data to help you make decisions and improve revenue. It drives chatbots that robotic process automation that give customers the information they need and the experience they desire on-demand. AI ensures decisions are based on data, not intuition or past experience. With AI, the agent of the future can:

  • Gain insight into customer intent to identify opportunities and recommend, cross-sell and upsell the right products, coverage, limits and deductibles at the right time.
  • Diagnose and resolve trouble areas, develop new products and services, and enter new markets based on insights into customer trends.
  • Monitor patterns to spot threats early.
  • Use chatbots on websites and social media to provide always-available answers to common questions in a way that is responsive but not dependent on an agent on-duty. Bot capabilities can be as simple or sophisticated as you need, programmed to automatically set appointments, answer frequently asked questions, and/or provide customers support. Best of all, that interaction is tracked to optimize that customers next interaction with the bot.

Again, tools for machine learning such as chatbots are there to make you better at your job, not do your job for you. They give you the time and insights you need to really excel at the aspects of insurance that will always require a human touch, such as explaining complex options, guiding tough choices, providing confidence and reassurance, and being there as a partner and resource through lifes ups and downs.

3. A customer-oriented pivot

Make no mistake, customer-centricity is essential in any business model today, inside and outside insurance. It requires seeing the customer experience as fundamental to driving growth and profitability, not just window dressing. And it requires digitization, communication and every conceivable combination of the two. Keep in mind that your leads and your policyholders expect access, convenience, options and responsiveness at a level unprecedented in our industry, because they have come to expect it in every other aspect of their lives. Pivoting to the customer means:

  • Operating on their hours, not yours, by providing 7×24 digital access via automated portals, chatbots on social media, self-service tools and more.
  • Providing seamless onboarding that respects customers time and rewards them for choosing your agency.
  • Communicating at the right time and in the right way to add value, not inundating customers with your own priorities and agenda. With AI and machine learning, you can be proactive in meeting customer requirements, staying on top of renewals and sending timely reminders that are useful and needs-driven.
  • Limiting extraneous renewal emails and touchpoints with intelligent and responsive workflows guided by AI, yet providing personal human service as-needed by your client, something that will set you apart from digital-only direct insurers.
  • Using e-signatures to eliminate the hated sequence of printing, signing, scanning and sending forms.
  • Using text/SMS and ensuring your website is mobile friendly to accommodate customers who live on their phones.
  • Digitizing the claims process to maintain a smooth and painless experience at the time when a customer is likely in no mood for delays and paperwork.
 4. Master digital marketing

Automation, AI and customer-centricity – all the essentials weve covered so far – must be part and parcel of your agency-of-the-future marketing plan. The point is to do a lot more with your marketing with a lot less effort. Your growth will depend on your ability to scale, automate, personalize and quantify your marketing efforts, and youll need the right technology to make it possible. Heres how agency marketing of the future might look on a typical day:

  • You schedule automated, templatized yet targeted drip email campaigns that automatically launch and engage prospects or policyholders at strategic moments and in a sequence that moves the lead down the funnel or toward a desired action.
  • You leverage automated campaigns to drive referrals, pre-ordaining the frequency to keep referrals coming without burning out your customers.
  • You create and distribute useful and timely newsletters using automated templates and tools that repurpose content and minimize your time burden.

For growth, marketing must be a non-stop activity, but with automated marketing tools, it can be continually running in the background while you focus on the 1:1 aspects of customer engagement and sales.

 5. Leverage open API frameworks

A vital thing to remember about becoming an agent of the future is that the future is a moving target. The new processes and technologies you implement to modernize today (and realize the four goals weve outlined above) you must be flexible enough to adapt to the next wave of change in our industry and the one after that. If you bake in modularity from the start, you will never be boxed in. Open API architectures give you that future-proof modularity by enabling you to plug in new capabilities and services as needed. They also allow you to iterate your growth – adopting new tools (marketing, SMS messaging, eSignatures, chatbots etc.) as-needed and without any lengthy integration required. With the right API framework, your agency can literally gain access to thousands of apps or microservices that empower you to customize a fully interconnected, customer-focused business platform without major IT headaches.

Are you ready to become an agency of the future? Status quo isnt really an option, but you do have choices when it comes to the path you take to automation, the partners you choose, the technologies you adopt and the pace at which you adopt them. Some paths will be simpler than others, and at Elevate, youll have a chance to discover and explore whats out there. I cant wait to see you there!