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Blazing trails

As the grandson and son of insurance salesmen, you would think Jeff Roy’s future career was predestined from an early age. And while he’s now CEO at the Clinton, Ont.-based Excalibur Insurance Group, Roy’s route to the family business was not straightforward. As a tech-savvy teenager in the 1980s, the prospect of joining an industry with a fusty and old-fashioned image did not appeal.

“It wasn’t a very sexy business at all,” Roy says.

But, as he worked summers at his father’s firm, he realized things didn’t have to be that way. Putting technology and innovation at the heart of his approach, Roy began building a company he hoped would change the way insurance was sold.

In 1989, his inaugural year at Excalibur, Roy introduced the firm’s first fax machine.

“Since then, we’ve been adding different features year after year,” he says.

More recently, the firm has developed an online bank of video and blog guides for consumers known as Excalibur U, as well as a host of branded comparison tools for web customers in search of a quick quote.

Alongside Roy and his team of brokers and support staff, the firm’s online staff directory also includes AIDEN, an artificial intelligence tool that can answer insurance-related queries at any hour of the day.

“They are at the cutting edge of what the digital space looks like for brokerages in Canada.”

“We are always adapting and keeping ourselves relevant. In this business, it’s not the strongest, but the best adapters that survive,” Roy says.

Despite his personal digital transformation, Roy says the broader insurance industry still too often earns its reputation for stuffiness.

“We’re in the business of protecting risks, but nobody wants to take any of their own,” he says.

Now, as the founding chair of the Digital Broker Alliance (DBA), a collection of nine brokerages on the leading edge when it comes to technology use, Roy is hoping to make an impact far beyond his small Western Ontario base.

“We’re going to be sharing knowledge and working together to push the industry where it needs to go,” he says. “Competition is stronger than ever now, with new fintech companies emerging, and insurers that have their own direct arms. We need to get that much better at understanding the changing landscape, so that the broker channel can continue to thrive.”

It happened—but didn’t stay—in Vegas

Like many other unions, the DBA can trace its roots back to a meeting in Las Vegas. But Roy says its members immediately shared a determination to make sure the connection they made that week would not stay behind in the Nevada desert.

“We quickly realized that we were kindred spirits who are determined to try and change insurance,” he says.

The founding members were invited to the city in February as part of an Aviva Canada gathering of the company’s most digitally aware brokers.

17%

of Canadians make online retail purchases using their mobile phones more than once per week.

Source: PFS

Tom Reid, the company’s executive director of digital broker strategy, admits he got a little nervous when the brokers asked him and the rest of the Aviva delegation to step out while they met among themselves.

“It was a little off-script,” he says.

However, Reid says he has been thrilled with developments since he returned to find they had formed the DBA.

“It’s clear they want to support each other, because they’re all going in the same direction. They are at the cutting edge of what the digital space looks like for brokerages in Canada,” he says. “This gives them an opportunity to bounce ideas off people who are likeminded, and make the outcomes way more powerful.”

Sherif Gemayel, the president of Calgary-based Sharp Insurance, says he and his fellow DBA members lacked a forum for sharing some of their best practices before forming the group.

“There are a lot of great minds at the table doing unique things,” he says. “Rather than everybody doing their own thing, this alliance allows us to chat amongst each other about what works, and leverage a lot without having to reinvent the wheel.”

Having wagered on the broker channel as its major distribution tool in the long term, Reid says it’s in Aviva’s interest to see its most forward-looking partners taking a leadership role in the industry.

“From a selfish point of view, I need the rest of our 1,300 brokers to implement what they’re already doing,” he says. “Someone has got to blaze the trail, and when they have successes, it will lift the stakes for everybody. Then the next generation can learn and take advantage of what they’re doing.”

Adapting to consumer expectations

According to Reid, broker advancements have become all the more urgent due to consumers’ quickly rising expectations as they adapt to technological developments in other areas of their lives.

“When my 73-year-old mother is buying stuff online, you know everyone else has been doing it for a while,” Reid says. “That’s the way the world’s going, and these brokers know that the more digitized the broker channel becomes, the more relevant it will be to consumers.”

At Dartmouth, N.S.-based Cheep Insurance, operations specialist Christy Silvestri says the DBAmember firm is already reaping the rewards from its own digital play.

Barely a year into its existence, Cheep is struggling to keep up with demand thanks to a focus on online quotes and change requests for customers, as well as a mobile app that gives them around the-clock access to proof of insurance pink slips, payment information and policy details.

“It’s so much easier for clients. They love it when they realize they don’t have to come in and sign or wait for anything in the mail,” Silvestri says.

Having smoothed the experience for customers, she says Cheep’s chief roadblocks are now at the other end of the system, when brokers transmit customer information to carriers.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, with more and more that can be done digitally.”

“Because the insurance world isn’t very progressive, you find that each different insurer has their own system, and not all of them talk to each other,” she says. “There’s a lot of redundant work that goes on behind the scenes, which is not very efficient for us.”

Dan Avon, the vice-president of personal lines at Dalton Timmis Insurance, another DBA member, says solving back-end problems is also a priority for his firm. Over the last decade, he says a focus on digital capabilities has allowed his staff to quote and bind customers in as little as five minutes. A more recent innovation allows them to give motorists an extensive quote within seconds simply by scanning their driver’s licence.

The self-confessed techie’s interest in the latest digital developments even extends to his home life, where he has a Control4 automation system that allows him to operate and monitor virtually any feature in his house remotely, including security cameras, floor temperature and even the oven.

“Carriers sometimes like to say we’re in the dark ages because we’re not adopting technology. They blame us, when in fact we’re being handcuffed by them,” Avon says. “All we need are bridges into their systems that provide direct connectivity, so that brokers don’t have to enter information into two or three systems at a time.”

Reid says part of the problem is that insurance carriers have been less successful at imposing industry-wide standards than their counterparts in the banking sector, and supports moves to increase the implementation of the standards developed by the Centre for Study of Insurance Operations (CSIO).

“In the 21st century, when people shop online, they expect instant emails and confirmations, not a 24-hour turnaround,” he says.

Working with insurers

Roy says it’s impossible to separate better customer experience from smooth back-end operations for brokers, and that this has been a feature of the DBA’s early meetings with insurers. And he’s been encouraged by their reactions so far.

“Sometimes they are shocked that brokers want some more advanced things, so it’s been a very useful dialogue for explaining where we want to go as an industry,” Roy says.

He hopes that a new organization that puts brokers with unquestioned digital aptitude at the forefront will help carriers and other vendors in the insurance industry shake their traditional views of the channel, and aim higher with their own new technological developments.

88%

of Canadians aged 28 to 36 do their banking online. 61% of Canadians aged 72 and older do their banking online.

Source: Media Technology Monitor

“A critical problem in the past has been companies going to the lowest common denominator. If they come to us for direction, we can stop them from heading down the wrong rabbit holes and building something that won’t work,” Roy says.

He says the timing is perfect for the group to make a formal launch, with Ontario’s provincial government recently announcing that it would update the law to allow drivers to provide proof of insurance on their mobile phone, rather than printing off and carrying the traditional pink slip in their vehicle.

“I think we’re at a tipping point, with more and more that can be done digitally,” Roy says.

But it won’t be long before a digital transformation crosses the threshold from being a unique selling point to a requirement vital to survival, he adds, especially if a tech giant decides to disrupt the Canadian insurance market.

“You can’t be complacent as an insurance broker in 2017, and we don’t have five years to get our act together,” he says. “People aren’t going to accept excuses about slow systems in the long term. If we don’t figure it out quickly, then someone else will come in and do it, maybe like a Lemonade Insurance or an Amazon from the U.S.”

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Copyright © 2017 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in the October 2017 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine