Insurance advisors are continually raising concerns about whether their back offices have kept up with evolving technology. While many agencies are working on improvements, the advisors surveyed for the 2019 Insurance Advisors’ Report Card brought up not only the need for firms to invest in administrative and planning-focused technology tools, but also to improve newer elements such as electronic policy applications.

Respondents from across the eight agencies included in the survey (three dedicated sales agencies or DSAs, one personal producing general agency or PPGA, and four managing general agencies or MGAs) once again emphasized that quality back-office technology helps them build their businesses. For example, the category “back office and administrative support for: new business (application processing)” was among the 10 most important to advisors surveyed this year. It was also in the top 10 in last year’s Report Card, as it has been for much of the past five years.

This year, all three back-office categories were among the categories with the largest satisfaction gaps (where a category’s importance exceeds its performance). Out of all categories assessed in the Report Card, the “new business” category had the highest satisfaction gap: 1.8, which was unchanged from 2018. The other two — “in-force policy owner services” and “commissions support” — had gaps of 1.2 and 0.9, respectively, which were similar to 2018. The “technology tools and advisor desktop” category had the second-highest gap among all categories for 2019, at 1.5, up from last year’s 1.3.

An advisor in Atlantic Canada with London, Ont.-based Freedom 55 Financial says the firm should make an “investment in technology to upgrade speed and allow us to keep up with the competition.” The firm was rated lowest in the Report Card for commissions support (7.0 vs 7.2 in 2018), and lowest in a tie with Winnipeg-based Great-West Life Assurance Co. (GWL) for new business support (6.6 vs 6.4 in 2018).

One advisor in Atlantic Canada who works through GWL’s Wealth and Insurance Solutions Enterprise (WISE) network explains that, with respect to new business, “they have simplified things [for insurance], but, on the investment front, there is still work to do.”

“The [technology] platforms aren’t yet fully operational; they aren’t talking to each other cohesively,” says another WISE network advisor in Ontario. Alongside GWL’s poor showing in new business support, the PPGA was also rated lowest in the Report Card for in-force policy owner services (6.8 vs 6.2 in 2018) and its technology tools (6.1 vs 5.6 a year ago).

To help address advisors’ back-office dissatisfaction as well as facilitate business growth, firms appear to be responding to the growing use of electronic insurance policy applications (eApps). The 2019 Report Card found that 82.9% of the 334 advisors who answered the eApp question said they’ve embraced smart applications, compared with 66.9% of 350 advisors in 2018 and 61.6% of 344 in 2015, when the question was introduced.

Even better, 93.4% of respondents said their firms have supported them in this area. That compares to 81.2% in 2018 and 71.8% in 2015.

In 2015, there were mixed reviews on the usefulness of eApps. While some advisors said it was important to be “efficient” and “get with the ages,” others were resistant. One advisor with Toronto-based PPI Management Inc. in Alberta said the applications didn’t permit them the control they wanted, while others blamed tech glitches that made them look inexperienced in front of clients.

In this year’s Report Card, sentiment was more positive. Some — mainly older — cited their own or clients’ ages, as well as compliance, as barriers to adopting the technology. But many others either said they’ve increasingly embraced electronic processing or want to do so.

The agencies with the best 2019 ratings for eApp support (a category not in the main chart) were PPI at 9.4 and Mississauga, Ont.-based IDC Worldsource Insurance Network Inc. (IDC WIN) at 9.3 (both had non-calculable results in 2018 due to insufficient responses), beating the 8.8 average for all agencies. Coming in third was Waterloo, Ont.-based Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc. at 9.2, unchanged from a year ago. (The firms with the most respondents who said they used smart applications were Sun Life and PPI, in that order.)

A PPI advisor in Atlantic Canada says the agency “offer[s] training sessions and one-on-one meetings” about eApps. Another in B.C. says webinars are hosted every Wednesday.

Similarly, an IDC WIN advisor in Ontario says their firm “encourage[s] and host[s] a lot of training for [eApps]. They’re easy to access but not used too much.” But another Ontario advisor complained about new business processing, saying, “It seems there is a delay in information getting from IDC to advisors, and vice versa.”

Regarding Sun Life’s eApp support, an advisor in Atlantic Canada says, “There are always little glitches but our electronic app is great. The next step is web apps.”

The agencies with the lowest — but still decent — ratings for eApp support were GWL, at 8.1 vs 7.7 in 2018, and Woodbridge, Ont.-based Hub Financial Inc., at 8.2 vs a non-calculable rating a year ago. (The firm with the highest number of advisors who said they do not use eApps was GWL, followed by Freedom 55 and IDC WIN.)

Several GWL advisors mentioned new training and tools, including the SimpleProtect app that launched in March, but one advisor in Ontario says, “Thinking of the last two applications that I submitted, it’s still a work in progress. [The process] took a lot of time in the end.”

Most advisors who commented about Hub’s eApp technology said they go through insurance carriers directly instead of through their MGA. A few mentioned that training from their agency exists, however, and Hub’s president, Terri Botosan, confirmed it’s provided: “Last year, we [included] an eApp series in our education curriculum. We had a week-long series where we had a different carrier featured every day,” she says.

Executives at all of the agencies in the Report Card were positive about eApps, and they also mentioned general automation, e-signatures and the power of “big data.” Whether they’re working on in-house tools or planning to leverage third-party experts, digital investment is part of the future.

As Freedom 55 vice president Abbie MacMillan puts it, technology investment has to do with “unlocking potential” in advisors’ books of business. From deeper data mining to highly efficient service and all-in-one online access for advisors and clients, “this is something that’s coming,” she says. “I think this is our next big step.”