Clients want insurance brokers who can speak their language, which lately has come to include the lingua franca of modern technology.

This stems partly from client demographics - younger human resource staffers who grew up with computers, mobile devices and apps - and partly from the seemingly unending push for greater business productivity. Brokers, meantime, run the gamut of familiarity and comfort level with technology: some embrace it while others are averse to it, and the difference is not always age dependent.

The return on investment in brokers' time spent adopting technology clearly depends on how much the technology adds to business productivity. And that, experts say, varies by individual tools and the background of the users.


Agents' views

Steve Anderson, editor of The Anderson Agency Report, an e-newsletter promoting the use of technology among brokers, says he has heard a range of responses when talking with agents and encouraging them to adopt new technology.

"There are my father's type, who are older but in the business so long that they say, 'I've been successful so far, why do I need this?'" he says. Others, who understand things are changing and try to keep up, claim the middle ground. There are also those who have used technology for a long time and have grown comfortable with its progressive generations.

However, brokers are not necessarily arrayed by age groups, in Anderson's experience. "There are not age-dependent groups embracing technology and convinced that it helps them sell more," he says. "They embrace it, they learn it, and they spend the time and effort to figure out how it can be used in their situation."

However, Kevin Trokey, president and founder of St. Louis-based Benefits Growth Network, a membership-based consulting firm, says that overall the profession is very slow to adopt new technology and many brokers are skeptical that they will gain a true business advantage for using it.

"For many agencies technology is considered more of an add-on bonus rather than an integral part of doing business. They enter the newest technology game reluctantly, most often reacting to the demands of their clients or trying to imitate a more forward-thinking competitor," he says. "Reacting and imitating rarely result in the best use and application. However, because the industry has been so slow to adopt, those agencies that embrace technology and build very purposeful technology strategies not only find it indispensable, but also find it can help create significant competitive advantages."

Trokey agrees that in the simplest terms age does make a difference but the younger person may not be in the position in the agency to make such a decision. "More than age, mindset is a determining factor," he says. "I still see very young producers who keep their prospect lists on a legal pad while watching industry veterans venturing out on technology's cutting edge."

The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America Agents Council on Technology first set up a social Web workgroup in mid-2008 with the purpose of fostering an exchange of ideas on what was working for agents as social media became popular. Those webinars are still some of the most widely attended, says Jeff Yates, executive director of Alexandria, Va.-based ACT.

Agents' acceptance of technology "continues to grow," Yates says. "[I've] been working with individual agents for almost 40 years. ... There is a growing recognition that the agents do need an online presence. That's another one of their storefronts and they need to be offering improving tools."


Changing tools

As technology tools are ever-changing, Anderson believes there are some key applications that all brokers should use. Many of these tools, he says, help improve advisers' productivity. In a paper for the Agents Council on Technology workgroup he outlined some of the following:

* Voice recognition: "A barrier for many brokers to effectively use technology is bad keyboard skills. They never learned how to type well," Anderson says. "Voice recognition allows them to speak and type. They can speak much faster than they can type, allowing them to dictate letters and emails and capture notes from sales calls."

* Easy video e-mail: As everyone experiences e-mail overload, getting a message to your clients can be difficult. But video messages make you stand out. Anderson says. Using an inexpensive webcam, there are software programs, such as one by Eyejot, that allow you to send video e-mail to anyone. You can also brand elements on this software, which allows you to see when your videos have been reviewed.

* Big file services: As organizations continue to restrict mailbox size, sending and receiving large files can be difficult, especially if you need to send a submission to an underwriter or e-mail a large Microsoft Excel document. Use Web-based services that streamline the process.

* Instant messenger added to your website: This allows a client to communicate with you over a new medium, but you must keep in mind legal requirements to record conversations.

Life is a marketing experiment for Kevin Roberts, regional sales manager for SeeChange Health in the San Francisco area. Technology allows brokers to try new things and see if they generate activity for their business, he says.

Roberts acknowledges that while most new business still comes from face-to-face referrals and making appointments, technology tools - including social media - provide credibility and can add to your business.

For brokers who use social media tools, HootSuite is invaluable, Roberts says. The free site allows up to five social media accounts to be combined together, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and FourSquare. Then, updates can be published simultaneously on all of the sites with one button.

"I think you find out what works for you over time. You have to stop and evaluate what you are doing and narrow it down to what works, and that comes from trial and error," Roberts, who Tweets from @BrokerManCA, says.

Anderson agrees that using just one piece of technology does not always work. As an example, he points to smartphones and tablets that utilize multiple applications. People download and purchase mobile applications because they do one thing well, Anderson explains. "Part of the key is testing, figuring out what works, what doesn't. ... Bottom line, it's about productivity, it's about improvement and effectively getting done what they need to.

"There is a cost to learning something new in both time and effort," he adds. "The key, and the trick, is to evaluate whether the time spent learning a new tool will actually save more time later. This can be a hard choice, but often is well worth the effort."


Data security

Keeping up to date with technology also involves keeping your computers modern and, when you dispose of them, making sure it is done properly. With HIPPA and data security, disposing of old hard drives and USB keys has to be done properly. "Any device today could have potentially private information on it," Anderson warns.

Trokey says there is no simple answer for this. "Every employee exposes his/her employer to significant risk every single day. To say this is a huge area of risk for all businesses would be a monumental understatement. Computers, cell phones, laptops, iPads, flash drives, copy machines - anything that stores information and connects to the Internet is a potential opportunity for a data breach," he says.

A company can fall short, according to Trokey, by not conducting a full risk assessment, not having an information security policy in place, not assigning compliance program responsibility to someone, not training employees and not putting physical safeguards in place. Other failures include not testing for areas of vulnerability, not putting technical safeguards in place and not developing a response plan in the event of a breach.

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