A few years ago, Southern States Insurance was at a technological crossroads. We had grown to include several offices around North Georgia and were beginning to form a centralized service center. But the acquisitions we had made up to that point still had their own local versions of Applied Systems’ TAM and they were T-filing documents. Each branch office was also still using its own email and phone provider. In other words, we had amassed a hodgepodge of systems and processes among our offices.
We had a decision to make. Do we continue our effort to grow using contemporary technologies? Or do we embrace this new concept of “The Cloud” and open the door to faster growth opportunities? The more research we conducted, the more we realized there was no better solution for continuing our expansion than cloud computing. What follows is our agency’s journey into the cloud.
Problem #1: Locally Hosted Agency Management System
Out of the gate, we knew we had to get everyone in our agency using TAM on one central server. Here’s why:
- It would create a cohesive “family” of staff across all offices.
- It’s the only way we would be able to have a true service center where a group of CSRs could support producers from multiple branch offices.
- From a disaster planning standpoint, it would allow one office to pick up the ball and run should another office face some sort of natural disaster, like a tornado.
Applied Systems was just beginning to offer TAM Online as a solution to this problem. However, after years of being in control of our own servers, we were reluctant to allow Applied to completely control our client data.
So we opted to host TAM with a local third party vendor on their servers. BIG mistake! Not only were they not as well-versed with TAM as they lead us to believe, the speed of their server left our staff on the verge of mutiny.
Solution #1: TAM Online
After a short time, we bit the bullet and moved everything to TAM Online hosted by Applied Systems.
- MUCH faster speeds!
- Better vendor support.
- Happier staff.
- Not sure why we ever resisted in the first place.
Problem #2: No Central Document Management System
As I said earlier, each Southern States Insurance office was still T-filing its own documents a few years ago. In case you’re new to the insurance scene, here are some of the inherent problems with this archaic system:
- Every time a document needed to be filed or retrieved, you had to leave your office, find the right filing cabinet, find the right folder, and risk your dominant hand from being lacerated with paper cuts while you manually flip through stacks of pages. (Did I lose you, Gen Y and above?)
- Clients could not be serviced efficiently this way. (Lots of “I’ll have to call you back in a minute after I grab that file.”)
- Impossible to ever establish a service center supporting remote producers.
So we looked to the new trend of scanning documents and digitally filing them. Our natural first step was to try scanning documents into TAM Online, since they had just begun offering that service as part of their software. It turned out, however, that scanning was literally a 12-step process to file each document in TAM. NOT what we were looking for.
So we signed up with a 3rd party vendor to scan all of our documents into the cloud. It worked, but there was a lot of dual entry when it came to naming files and creating activities of our actions. It didn’t integrate with TAM to be able to create activities, which quickly became a point of contention among our staff. We used this vendor for 3 or 4 years before we finally got fed up with dual entry.
Solution #2: Filing Documents in TAM Online (Take II)
We finally took a second look at what Applied had to offer in terms of document management. To our surprise, their process for scanning and filing documents had drastically improved:
- It now only required a couple of quick steps to scan documents in and make activities in one fell swoop.
- All of our documents and client data were in one convenient place. No more switching browser tabs or minimizing TAM just to go document hunting.
- Added Bonus: The cost for these scanning and electronic document filing features were already included in the price we were paying Applied Systems! We saved about $30,000 per year for firing our 3rd party document management vendor.
Problem #3: Multiple Email Vendors (With Slow Connections)
Need I say more? If you don’t have one email vendor for your entire company, you face:
- A lack of branding with one domain name.
- Inconsistent speed and quality of service.
- Headaches for your agency’s email administrator (me, in our case) in terms of support and troubleshooting.
Solution #3: Gmail (Plus Google Apps!)
They may be a behemoth that makes some businesses nervous, but when it comes to Email and document sharing, in my opinion, Google invented The Cloud. After a lot of online research and viewing some live case studies, we transferred all of our email domains and users to the Enterprise version of Google Apps. One of the best decisions we’ve ever made! Here’s what we got out of it:
- Lightning fast email through the use of Google’s native Gmail and their plugin for Outlook, Google Apps Sync.
- Easy online administration of our user accounts.
- The ability to create and share documents in the cloud through the included add-on, Google Docs (now Google Drive).
- Even more disaster planning: I have since synced all documents on my work computer to Google Drive. If my computer gives up the ghost tomorrow, all I have to do is go buy a new machine, and I’m back in business. All of my documents (Word, Excel, PDF, Image Files, Audio Files, you name it!) are in the cloud ready for me to access them from any computer, iPhone or iPad.
- Ability to share Google Drive documents with anyone in our insurance agency so we can collaborate in real time. Plus, if I want to see what a particular document looked like last Tuesday, I have instant access to all of its past versions.
Problem #4: Multiple (Expensive) Phone Vendors
The last piece of daily operations to bring into the cloud was our telephone system. The problems we faced with multiple vendors were:
- Expensive land lines.
- One receptionist for each office.
- No inter-office extension dialing.
- No recorded calls for documentation purposes.
- No way to pick up calls for another office during a disaster.
In our search for a solution, we discovered that telephones could also be brought into the cloud through VOIP. The first VOIP provider we tried worked okay for some of our offices. But it was practically unusable in our more remote offices with weaker Internet service and local monopolized telephone companies. In some cases, we still had to use a local hard line phone company to forward our calls to our VOIP phones. Ridiculous!
The first VOIP vendor was also not truly cloud based, we later discovered. We depended on their local servers to route calls, and if something happened to their servers, there was no fallback.
Solution #4: A (Truly) Cloud Based VOIP Vendor
The false start we had with our first VOIP system finally got turned around when we found a better solution that was truly cloud based, Atlanta based Vocalocity. Even though we saved thousands of dollars a year when we moved from land lines to our fist VOIP vendor, we saved several more thousand by switching to the new company. This time (with the exception of one office who’s local phone company just won’t play nicely), we managed to get everyone on a much more stable VOIP platform. Some of the perks we enjoy today include:
- One receptionist for all of our offices
- 3-digit dialing among all of our staff from any office
- Voicemail is received via email (easy to file in TAM!)
- All calls are recorded and stored online for instant access replay.
- Easily re-route calls from an entire office to another during a disaster.
- Loads of cost savings!
What Can We Do Now That We Couldn’t Do Five Years Ago?
So we’re in the cloud now. So what? Well, for one thing, we have fewer moving parts that can break (ie: in-house servers, multiple versions of TAM, multiple phone systems, etc.). But what can we do now that we couldn’t do five or ten years ago?
- Make quicker acquisitions: As soon as the ink is dry, we can have a new office up and running on our systems in days, not weeks or months.
- Get more work done with fewer employees (receptionists, IT staff)
- Load far less software on each computer (Praise God!).
- Keep operating during a disaster.
- Serve our clients with much greater speed and accuracy.
- Focus more time on writing new business than on overcoming inefficiencies.
Given the chance to do everything over, I still think we would have arrived at The Cloud for most of our solutions. We’re still evaluating our systems and processes, and I do see room for improvement. But we’re much better prepared to take advantage of future opportunities than we were before.
What kinds of things are you doing to take your own business into the cloud? What tools are you using?