This week, agency consultant Chris Burand wrote an interesting article published in Insurance Journal. The article discusses the declining role of the agent as an underwriter and the increasing use of data analytics and predictive modeling. It also cites a recent J.D. Powers survey that identifies a correlation between advertising by direct sales carriers and growth and profitability. For example:

“Another nail was driven into the coffin of agency upfront underwriting with a J.D. Powers study reported in the June 19, 2017 Insurance Journal. The study, specific to private passenger auto (PPA), shows a strong correlation between advertising and underwriting profitability. Several companies that spend the most on advertising, and do not have agents, have the best underwriting profits. Furthermore, they have some of the highest growth rates. If then, underwriting profit is high, and growth is higher, with more advertising and less agents, at least in PPA, why should companies focus on agents?”

I remember seeing this study and questioning two things. First, “correlation” is not cause and effect. Second, are there possible reasons for this alleged superior performance other than advertising and the use of direct, rather than agent-driven, sales?

I suspect there was a “correlation” (vs. cause-and-effect) between advertising and direct sales (vs. agents) because that’s all J.D. Powers really considered. I’m pretty sure there are other correlations that can be identified, correlations that quite possibly have far more cause and effect. Advertising no doubt measurably impacts growth, but does direct sales vs. agent sales really improve profitability or is something else at work?

The most notable alternative correlation could be that carriers who heavily advertise and sell direct sell an inferior product and/or “more stringently” adjust claims. Given that the loss side of the combined ratio is the larger component of premium and profitability, that’s where the biggest payoff comes from. Perhaps J.D. Powers didn’t consider this in their “study” because the authors know nothing about the substantial differences among carriers in product quality and claims practices.

As a coverage wonk, for years I’ve seen increasing numbers of coverage-deficient policies being allowed by regulators into the marketplace and I have literally thousands of anecdotal examples of coverage denials on clearly covered claims. Sometimes I can just about predict the carrier(s) involved in such denials.

Whether you’re using direct sales, phone apps, data analytics or whatever to reduce costs, at some point you are probably going to be operating as efficiently and predictively as possible. If you sell on price, as these direct sales carriers almost always do, what do you do then? The only way (and probably most effective way) to continue that downward pricing spiral is to reduce how much you pay on claims. You do that by reducing coverage and/or “tightening up” adjusting.

Developing and selling inferior products and adopting more stringent claims practices is potentially a far more cost-effective way of increasing profits than using agents or investing billions in sophisticated predictive models, especially if your sales strategy consists largely of using technology to churn customers by the tens of thousands. As long as regulators allow the sale and service of shoddy merchandise, this is likely to be an increasingly popular path to growth and profitability for some carriers.

As legendary salesman, Morty Seinfeld, said, “Cheap fabric and dim lighting…that’s how you move merchandise.”

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Bill Wilson

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One of the premier insurance educators in America on form, coverage, and technical issues; Founder and director of the Big “I” Virtual University; Retired Assoc. VP of Education and Research from Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. Reprint Request Information