Ask Sean Graham about his background in technology, and he may laugh as he mentions he snagged third place honours in the City of Hamilton for a Grade 8 computer fair - the great computer caper.
Third place is nothing to sneeze at, true, but Graham is no longer in Grade 8; nor is his current effort around customer service as much of an individual pursuit.
As principal broker for Toronto-based KTX Insurance Brokers Ltd., the approach to customer service is often advanced through strong partnerships, which these days is likely to include use of different forms of technology.
In line with the approach used at KTX, it is Graham's view that customer service can be realized through a mix of old and new: traditional, one-on-one service that brokers have always provided married with the use of cutting-edge technology.
KTX Insurance Brokers deals with some of Canada's largest insurers, having formed specific partnerships with some of them. One key partner has been Kanetix Ltd., which offers the insurance quote comparison website Kanetix.ca, and has been very active of late:
• The company acquired InsuranceHotline.com from subsidiaries of Torstar Corp. Kanetix.ca and InsuranceHotline.com, which also includes ComparaSave.com, will continue as separate brands managed by Kanetix since there is not much overlap among sites and keeping the brands intact can help satisfy more of the market. The idea is to combine online knowledge and marketing efforts to support insurance partners by helping grow that channel even faster and, therefore, provide all partners with more new business from the online channel.
• Partnering with credit reporting agency Equifax and Invis-Mortgage Intelligence, Kanetix has expanded its mortgage rate comparison services to allow Ontario consumers to lock in rates and get pre-approved online. After comparing rates, users can call in to connect with a licensed broker. The move follows input from consumers who come to Kanetix's sites for insurance, but once there, may branch out to other financial needs.
• The company launched a mobile app that allows users to scan and compare auto insurance quote estimates for their iPhones, a move that, in light of the popularity of smartphones, is regarded as the logical next step in evolving customers' experience.
In a partner, Graham says KTX is looking for a combination of product and pricing that adds "the service element" to a distribution model; for Kanetix, which has a large mass of online shoppers asking for various types of products, the idea is to match consumer needs with those of insurance company or financial institution partners to assist them in growing their businesses.
Instigated by KTX, another partnership has emerged among KTX, Kanetix and Gore Mutual Insurance Company.
Kanetix.ca has expanded its site's commercial quote service to make it available to commercial insurance customers in Ontario and Alberta.
"We felt (Gore) had a great offering for our clients and that could be brought online. It just so happens that Gore was looking to do something in the commercial space online, so it was a great fit," Graham says. Kanetix agreed about the fit and completed a technology build on the site to give the effort some visibility with online shoppers.
"Business owners are looking for new ways to purchase and manage their insurance," Kevin McNeil, president and CEO of Gore Mutual, comments in a statement.
And it is in these new ways that Graham sees great potential for insurers, brokers and customers. Kanetix, for its part, suggests that if one looks specifically at mobile, growth is faster than the younger generation is growing up, indicating there is adoption by a wider swath of ages.
With regard to the market for commercial online, Graham comments it is very young. Consumers "may be a little wary in terms of insuring their business online as opposed to their home and auto, because they're just not used to it," he says. "That's where we know we have to add value in terms of our brokerage model," by allowing people to easily get a quote online, but also "holding their hand to make sure they're comfortable with the transacting."
An online approach should never remove the potential for contact. With the online channel and the use of mobile devices growing, the best online experience demands allowing those who want to transact completely online to do so, but to make information available (from a live broker or agent) when desired.
"Different consumers are looking for different types of service levels and they have different comfort levels with the interaction with technology. So what we're really looking to do is help those who are tech-savvy, and already buying online in other sectors or other industries, but we're looking to add that personal touch of a brokerage," Graham says. "We're using technology to fulfill those demands from the most technologically savvy people to those who are less comfortable," he adds.
"The next few years are going to be really telling for the brokerage distribution channel. Brokers are behind the technology curve. We're always talking about wanting to compete with the direct writers for clients, and if we're going to do that, we need to compete on technology," Graham contends.
Plenty of things can and should be done, he suggests, including having broker connectivity, E-docs and online quoting capability, or at least the ability to access the online market through lead generation sites. "There are a lot of things brokers need to do to catch up because, as it is, we're losing market share, in part, due to the fact that we're behind on technology."
Graham suggests looking at the rates of online and mobile adoption. "If you don't go down that path, you don't go where the market is going, you're really going to miss out. And you really need to start thinking about where your business is headed."
Graham sees places like KTX and Kanetix headed forward. "We're sort of cutting-edge in terms of where the industry is going, so there's a lot of opportunity there."
A rare bird in the insurance industry at the time, Graham attended insurance studies at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario right out of high school. "It was a really high placement rate through the college and I kept hearing great things about how the industry is always looking for good people."
He originally worked for a direct writer as a sales agent, but has been part of KTX and Kanetix for about nine years. "You get the sense that we're doing something new and exciting."
Graham says he enjoys the personal interaction inherent in being a broker, but also allowing customers to use technology to amalgamate the whole experience. "It's having those traditional sorts of relationships, but also adding something new," he says.
Graham suggests that the industry looks to be "coming toward the tipping point in the next few years in terms of adoption of online by consumers and the adoption for insurance."
And that's likely going to be even better than hitting it big at the great computer caper.