Back to the Future: Erie Family Life SVP Sees Technology Reviving Traditional Sales Relationships

Mike Plazony recalls the era of debit agency life insurance sales and talks about how Erie Family Life Insurance Company is using technology and product innovation to leverage existing strong relationships with auto, home and business clients.

The age of debit agent life insurance business is long gone, but Mike Plazony, senior VP of Erie Insurance Group’s (Erie, Pa.; over $5 billion in direct written P&C premium) Erie Family Life division, likes to bring it to mind. One reason is that his mother worked in Prudential’s debit policy division many years ago and regaled him with stories that helped to lead to his own insurance career.  The other reason is that he believes that the way debit agents maintained customer relationships in the past may hold important lessons for the future of individual life insurance sales.

“Those agents went from house to house collecting premium from people, maybe collecting 5 cents a week,” Plazony relates. “But they got to know their clients and became trusted advisors.”

Mike Plazony, SVP, Erie Family Life.

Mike Plazony, SVP, Erie Family Life.

Achieving that kind of trust could make a big difference in a more impersonal age, where only 44 percent of American households have individual life insurance, according to LIMRA.  As Erie Family Life aims to make headway in the middle market space, it has the advantage of belonging to a company that already has solid independent agent relationships with a large auto, home and business customer base. Erie’s promise is “We’re above all in sERvIcE.”

“As a company Erie has strong customer retention,” Plazony notes. “We want to leverage our existing P&C relationships and help our independent Erie Agents to recreate that trusted advisor relationship approach for life insurance with technology.”

Erie Family Life currently processes business with the iPipeline iGO e-App® solution including electronic quote, application and e-signature. With straight-through-processing, the data goes directly into the Dell Services LifeSys™ life insurance administration platform, Erie’s back-office mainframe technology managed through an outsourcing relationship with Dell Services.  Erie can also deliver a near “Instant Issue” capability on its ERIE LifeSenseSM term life policies with amounts of up to $90,000.

“The agent can interactively ask questions in person or on the phone,” Plazony explains. “Our point-of-sale underwriting engine enables them to find out whether the applicant qualifies by the end of the interview.”

Paperless Policy Delivery

In February 2014, Erie Family Life went live with Paperless Policy Delivery. “The policy is now delivered electronically the day after it’s issued, and customers have the ability to view it online, and e-sign for delivery requirements,” Plazony says. “Agents who may otherwise have had to drive a long distance can now collect outstanding premiums due and place the policy in force in a single online session.”

Erie has also created a life insurance customer website that makes all correspondence available online. “They can view all correspondence online and pay premium,” Plazony relates. “We think these capabilities are a baseline for doing business today and especially important for serving the Millennials or Generation X customers.”

Plazony stresses that Erie’s improvements in service to the end customer are undertaken in such a way to simultaneously reinforce the carrier-agent relationship.  “Erie values the Agent’s role in providing the kind of service you cannot get from a computer and we never want to lose that human touch.”

“In the case of Paperless Policy Issue, we’re actually electronically delivering the policy to the agent first – then they review it and send it on,” Plazony clarifies. “We have a special relationship with our independent agents and see this as an opportunity to help them build a digital agency capability so that they can interact the way they want to with customers.”

Products Suited to Customers’ Needs

One of the most important things Erie Family Life can do for its agents is to develop and package the kinds of products today’s customers need based on their lifestyle, according to Plazony.  “When buying a car it is pretty obvious what options are important to fulfill customer needs –  do they need room in back for kids? – it’s not that clear with life insurance.”

Erie Family Life recently implemented its first customer-centric Life Easy Quote options to make it easier to identify and fill needs with easy-to-understand product names.  These simple, intuitive quote options ask questions the way top life agents sell and, ultimately, the way customers buy life insurance, by satisfying a particular need:  final expense, mortgage protection, business loan protection, etc.

“We’re creating products that really fit our middle market target,” he says. “The way we view product development is to create life insurance solutions rather than products in a more traditional sense.  For example, our Erieflex4 guaranteed universal life product with a single pay feature has opened up a new inheritance and wealth transfer market that we previously could not compete in.”

The Road to Customer-Centricity

Plazony sees all of Erie Family Life’s technology-related efforts as serving a larger transition to customer-centricity whereby Erie is shaping its service offering from the outside in. “We’re thinking more like our customers – both our traditional auto, home and business clients and the agents we’re trying to serve,” he elaborates. “Our agents already have P&C customer relationships similar to those the old debit agents had; the question is how we can use technology to better meet their service needs and offer them the type of life insurance product that might interest them, and that they are more likely to qualify for?”

Anthony R. O’Donnell // Anthony O'Donnell is Executive Editor of Insurance Innovation Reporter. For nearly two decades, he has been an observer and commentator on the use of information technology in the insurance industry, following industry trends and writing about the use of IT across all sectors of the insurance industry. He can be reached at [email protected] or (503) 936-2803.

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