There is a doughnut shop I like to visit in the Fremont neighborhood of Portland (OR). While the doughnuts are delicious enough to draw a major line on the weekend, I am more drawn in by the philosophy of the person behind the operation. Nate Snell established Pip’s Original Doughnuts in 2013 and through it promotes the motto of “Community, Not Competition.” Nate is an expert on the doughnuts of Portland (a city obsessed with doughnuts) and frequently encourages his customers or social media followers to dine at his competitors’ shops. He also gets together with his fellow fried dough sellers to discuss how to better run their businesses. On the Sounds Good podcast, Nate explains that the reason for this is to “bring people together to be enriched and benefit from [our] experience.” He continues, “we focus on the thing that matters to us, which is serving our customers well...Take the competition out of it.”
A sampling of Pip's Original Doughnuts
Nate Snell’s words and philosophy were on my mind as HawkSoft attended the 2019 AUGIE Group Meeting and the IVANS Connect 2019 event in October. The AUGIE Group and IVANS Connect both embody the idea of “Community, Not Competition” as collaborative events aimed at bringing together agents, carrier representatives, technology vendors, and other insurance professionals to focus on moving the independent agency channel forward. We often see ourselves relative to our competition— vendors squaring off to win new customers, agents wary of the grand plans held by carriers, or even agents eyeing their local competitors with concern. At these annual meetings, however, we leave all of that at the door. By leaving our hats at the door, as Paul Hawkins (HawkSoft’s CEO and co-founder) describes it, we are all able to benefit from our collective experience and expertise.
HawkSoft took away several key lessons from the 2019 AUGIE Group Meeting and the IVANS Connect 2019 event that happened the day after. Below, we explore the takeaways.
This article at a glance
2019 AUGIE Group meeting
The AUGIE Group (formerly known only by the acronym AUGIE) is a think tank and advocacy group designed to act as a three-legged stool. Independent agents, insurance carriers, and technology vendors (“solution providers”) are the legs that support the independent agency channel. AUGIE Group has numerous working groups that meet regularly, and there is a monthly conference call for all members. Twice a year, generally in line with the IVANS Connect event or other large gatherings of agents and tech vendors, the AUGIE Group gathers in person to discuss major initiatives and share knowledge.
Image source: AUGIE Group
AUGIE Group initiatives (see all initiatives here)
Cal Durland, Director of the AUGIE Group, touched on the growing need to get brokerages and managed general agencies (MGAs) to adopt the practice of sending carrier downloads to their agents. Without carrier downloads, brokers and/or MGAs are less convenient to do business with than traditional carriers. This makes them less competitive, even when they provide better access or risk coverage. AUGIE Group is planning a campaign to motivate brokers and MGAs to set up downloads for their agencies.
Kitty Ambers, Chief Growth Officer of AVYST, outlined the beginnings of a project to map out the ecosystem of digital solutions available to independent agents.
Donna LaGoy, veteran independent agent and a manager with Acrisure, discussed the history of advocating for carriers to adopt Claims Downloads and their return to the Claims Download project to address needed changes. It took 20 years to establish the Claim Download as it is today, but carriers still need to be lobbied to further or better implement the standards.
Cal’s and Donna’s presentations both touched on the need for agent advocacy with their insurance carriers (or brokers/MGAs). Industry insiders and technology vendors do not hold the same amount of influence with carriers as the agent does. As the source of much of their profits, independent agents’ voices carry weight with insurers. If you are interested in joining the discussions on MGA Downloads or Claims Downloads, let AUGIE Group know here.
Agency management system vendors’ panel
Steve Anderson, President of The Anderson Network and an authority on agency technology, moderated a discussion between eight representatives of agency management system vendors. On the panel was Steven Mejdrich (COO, Agency Matrix), Brent Sheppard (President, Xanatek), Bruce Dickhoff (President/CEO, NASA), Ken Butler (Owner, eVo), Alex Deak (CEO, SIS), Doug Mohr (VP, Vertafore), Doug Johnston (VP, Applied Systems), and Paul Hawkins (CEO/Co-founder, HawkSoft). The conversation represented the best of AUGIE Group’s mission. The eight vendors account for over 81% of independent agencies and a span of experience that goes back 35 years in the industry (a statistic provided by IVANS during a presentation the following day).
Having set aside their competitor status for the afternoon, their responses to Steve Anderson’s questions were genuine and insightful. HawkSoft benefited from several key takeaways that we’d like to share here, with gratitude to our community of vendors for the experiences they shared with the AUGIE Group.
Underutilization of the tools available in a management system was a problem expressed by each vendor.
- One vendor has introduced a special series of short training videos as a Did you know? campaign, highlighting existing system features. The effort has reduced support calls on those features by double digits.
- One vendor encouraged his peers to invest in a teach-back program. His company spends resources on providing education to reduce customer attrition because of a perceived lack of features.
- Paul Hawkins discussed his frequent encouragement of customers to hold regular office meetings. Not only does it reinforce company culture, but it offers the opportunity for peer education on tips and tricks in the management system.
As vendors introduce portals, mobile apps, and text messaging solutions, they all saw an increase in customer concern around legal issues. The panel’s consensus was that vendors have a responsibility to be well-informed on relevant laws and should share that expertise with their customers.
- HawkSoft makes a point to share our legal research whenever applicable to our customer base, such as our blogs on NY CRR Part 500 or the regulations surrounding text messaging.
All vendors see the importance in introducing API access to customers and to other solution providers (like Insurtech companies).
- Paul Hawkins emphasized that clean, consistent databases will be necessary for agencies to get the most out of APIs and other integrations. The HawkSoft User Group (HUG) dedicated their fall meetings to this initiative. A vendor echoed this sentiment by stating that good data is key to being a digital agency.
- One vendor has been slowly increasing the number of required data fields to cut down incomplete records. (HawkSoft enables agencies to turn on required data fields in the General Configuration settings)
- One vendor spoke to their efforts to think in both directions with respect to APIs: integrating with solution providers at the agent level and integrating with insurance carriers as well.
Vendors were split on their most underutilized features. Nearly half pointed to deficiencies in how agents use carrier downloads, with the other half pointing to their reporting or business intelligence features.
- One vendor categorized carrier downloads as the most underutilized feature that is a missed opportunity for agencies. The efficiencies gained through carrier downloads (reducing data entry, improving data accuracy) save an agency time and money, and not using them to the fullest is leaving money on the table.
HawkSoft benefited from this discussion and has plans to put the shared experience into practice soon. Specifically, the idea of Did you know? videos resonated with our push to improve training through HawkSoft Training Videos. We are also discussing how to incentivize a formal teach-back or HawkSoft expert program. These takeaways are the result of the AUGIE Group allowing vendors a space to work as a community, and not as competitors.
IVANS Connect 2019
The day after the AUGIE Group meeting was the annual IVANS Connect event (which itself is always the lead-in to the AppliedNet conference for users of Applied’s various software offerings). As the industry standard in carrier downloads and a jewel in Applied’s crown, IVANS Connect offers the organization an opportunity to bring together all their consumers for an annual update on the service. IVANS Connect 2019 featured a state of the industry presentation with enlightening statistics, an address by Applied System’s new CEO Taylor Rhodes, and many great discussions between agents, carriers, and technology vendors.
The future of IA
Thad Bauer, vice president and general manager of IVANS, started IVANS Connect 2019 with a state of the industry presentation. As a neutral third party that offers services to all carriers and all agency management systems, IVANS sits at a unique vantage point to offer statistics and insight on the industry as a whole. From Thad’s and IVANS’ point of view, the independent agency channel is strong and growing. Over the last five years there has been a 26% increase in agency employment, reaching 825,000 agency employees in 2019. Despite the perceived gains by Insurtech direct writers, independent agents still write a vast majority of all Commercial Lines (83.7% of CL Premiums in 2017) and nearly half of all Personal Lines (46.6% of PL Premiums in 2017). In the face of direct writers, competitive carriers, and the Insurtech boogeyman, independent agents are still growing and a major force in the market.
Nevertheless, there are trends that independent agents must be aware of to ensure they remain relevant. Thad cited a study by Celent that predicts only 8,000 to 9,000 “relevant” agencies will exist in the independent agency space by 2030. What will make an agency “relevant”? Comments and facts shared painted the picture of a tech-friendly attitude:
- Agencies that meet IVANS standards for “Best Practice Digital Agency” grew their profit margins from 12% in 1993 to 27.6% in 2018.
- A survey of independent agents found that 83% of agencies see an automated interface with their insurers as very important, meaning a streamlined integration between the agency and their carriers.
- Thad observed that the best digital agencies have used technology to change how they research risk and carrier options. While this could be seen as a pitch for IVANS Appetite search engine, it also points to the growing use of technology for marketing and acquiring new customers.
For IVANS, the agencies most likely to remain relevant in the coming decade are those that focus on the efficiencies gained through technology and automation, and embrace new avenues for earning business. While HawkSoft agrees that embracing technology is certainly an important factor in maintaining relevancy as an agency, we would add that there are additional crucial areas of focus that should not be ignored, such as differentiation and specialization.
The direction of IVANS: new CEO, same industry commitment
Taylor Rhodes became the new CEO of Applied Systems in June 2019, and his appearance on the stage at IVANS Connect 2019 served to introduce him to an industry-wide audience. Rhodes spoke at length about the urgent imperatives facing the independent insurance industry: the exchange of data, the ease of doing business (between agency and carrier, and agency and insured), and the ability to offer the right products.
Strength of our industry
Reflecting on the time spent with fellow vendors during the AUGIE Group meeting and at IVANS Connect 2019, the strength of our industry is apparent. For two days competitors in the agency, technology vendors, and carrier space put aside their differences to share knowledge. As Nate Snell of Pip’s Original Doughnuts observed about his own collaboration with his competitors, by gathering to focus on the customers (agents and their insureds) we can enrich each other. The success of direct writers or other existential threats to IAs will rely on a fractured ecosystem too inwardly focused to address the outside forces that really matter. By regularly gathering together as a community, our channel remains competitive and relevant as a whole.