In an insurance technology landscape dominated by sprawling national players, smaller local options are almost unheard of. Almost. Enter Special Agent – mirroring the many independent agencies in Massachusetts, this local, independent company stands out as a homegrown solution designed specifically with their needs in mind.
The brainchild of Christopher Baker, Special Agent is an agency management system built from the ground up to simplify workflows for independent agents. After years of hands-on experience maintaining outdated legacy systems, Baker set out to create affordable, user-friendly software that solved agents’ biggest pain points.
Launched in the 1990s, Special Agent has grown over decades of thoughtful iteration shaped directly by user feedback. Baker’s team relentlessly fine-tunes the system to keep up with emerging industry trends and the latest integrations.
Today, Special Agent’s intuitive interface and tailored integration continue to win over independent agencies across Massachusetts and beyond. As the company expands its geographic footprint, few understand the independent agent perspective better than Baker.
In the following interview, Baker shares the origin story behind Special Agent and his insights on choosing agency technology as an independent agent. For those considering local AMS options, Baker offers an inside look at what makes Special Agent a unique, simple solution for an independent agency.
As CEO and founder of the only Massachusetts-based Agency Management System of independent agents, could you share with us the backstory of how Special Agent came to be? How did the idea for Special Agent come about?
Years ago, when I started in this industry, I was doing software maintenance for one of the original agency management systems. It ran on an ancient minicomputer with dumb terminals. It was only used by a few agents and was horribly outdated. The hardware was failing and required heroic efforts just to keep it going. The machine itself was about the size of a refrigerator, and the disks were like washing machines. By comparison, today’s cell phones are about 4 million times more powerful. One of the last agents who was using this system approached me with the idea of developing a new system from scratch. PCs were still a bit of a novelty, so I created the new system on Unix and then rewrote it to work on PCs as they became mainstream.
What made you want to start your own Agency Management System?
Since I was very young, I’ve had the desire to start a business. Lemonade stands, paper routes, lawn-mowing, snow shoveling – you name it. I have an early memory of someone calling me an entrepreneur, and I had to look up what it meant. I was constantly on the lookout for a business idea. Later, as a computer consultant for agents, I kept hearing the same complaint: ‘Agency management systems are too complicated and too expensive.’ Creating an easy-to-use, affordable management system seemed like the perfect problem for me to solve.
How did you originally find your way into the insurance industry?
It was largely by chance. I was in graduate school for computer science, and a local agency was looking for help to customize their software. By coincidence, my father ran into the owner. They got chatting, and he set up an introduction for me. I think my father was worried he was going to have an unemployed grad student move back into his house.
What is the current makeup of Special Agent’s market share?
We are the most popular agency management system in Massachusetts. The majority of our customers are small to mid-sized, primarily personal lines independent agents. However, we have many agents that focus on commercial lines and/or niche markets. We also have a small number of captive agents.
Where are the majority of your clients located? We’re guessing Massachusetts, but what about New England and beyond?
Over 90% of our agents are in Massachusetts, but we have clients all over New England, plus a handful of other states as well.
Are you looking to expand outside of your current geographic area?
Absolutely. We are designed to work nationwide, so we are happy to work with agents anywhere. However, we are currently focusing on expanding our presence in the northeast.
Turning to your actual product, in your opinion, what makes Special Agent special? In other words, what sets it apart from other agency management systems?
Agents’ biggest complaint about other systems, aside from cost, is that they are complex and cumbersome. In their effort to bolt on every feature that every agent could possibly need, they’ve made simple things more complicated. It can take many steps to do everyday tasks.
By contrast, we put a lot of thoughtful effort into the design. We put the most used features front and center and move more complex features out of the way. We try and make it usable right out of the box without extensive training. At first, most agents who have used other systems are surprised at how streamlined Special Agent is. It is almost too simple. Later, they are surprised again at how much power is hidden under the hood when they have more complicated demands.
Look, nobody gets up in the morning and wants to think about using software. We recognize that it’s not about our software. It’s about a tool to empower agents to serve their clients more easily and accurately. We carefully listen to our users and watch how they use our software. If there is a part of our software that seems to need a lot of explanation, we go back to the drawing board and redesign it to be more intuitive. By making it easier to use, there are fewer requests for support, so we don’t need to charge as much. Ease of use and affordability really go hand in hand.
Special Agent recently completed a major redesign and relaunch. Could you tell us a little bit about why you decided to redesign your AMS system and what the process was like?
The core of our software was 10 or 15 years old; it was built on older technology, and it was becoming more difficult to add basic features that are expected in modern software. The technology and design pre-dated the internet, and from a visual point of view, it just looked old and out of touch. As often happens in the tech world, newer products were starting to leap-frog us, and we knew we had to re-invent our software and move to the cloud.
When dealing with a major overhaul of a product like this, there are basically two approaches. The first is to create a whole new product from scratch designed for the new environment. This method is a bit of a crap shoot. New software products are notorious for new bugs and missing features that worked just fine in the old version. Most companies wind up ignoring the old version while putting all their energy into the new version that initially does not meet the user’s needs. It’s risky, and the software industry is littered with companies that went this route and failed. For example, at one point, Lotus and Wordperfect were two of the best-known software products, and both stumbled while completely re-creating their products.
The second approach is to continue to fully support the existing mature product while redesigning it in place one piece at a time to work in the new environment. It’s a much slower but safer approach that’s kinder to the users as changes take place gradually. For several years, we upgraded one portion of the software at a time until, finally, the entire product was ready to move into the cloud.
We started installing the cloud version for some pilot agencies in 2022, and it was a hit right off the bat. Our meticulous approach paid off, and we had no major issues. We made it generally available late last year, and now hundreds of agencies are using it.
What does version 2.0 now offer that was not available before?
Well, we call it version 5, and it’s all about the cloud. Prior versions could only be installed and used on computers, which had to be physically located in an agent’s office. Version 5 allows us to host the agent’s data in the cloud so they can access it from any Windows PC anywhere on Earth. Correction – anywhere with an internet connection. I recently logged in with a Wi-Fi connection on an airplane. In addition to being available everywhere, the cloud is much more dependable and doesn’t need to be upgraded or backed up like a local office server.
Could you briefly highlight your agency management system’s main features and benefits?
Honestly, most systems have most of the same features, so it can be hard to differentiate. But, as you mentioned, we are a Massachusetts company, and I know most people reading this are involved in the Massachusetts independent agency system, so I will focus on that.
Being local, we have our finger on the pulse of local concerns. We tend to know the regional carriers and vendors pretty well and can be ahead of the curve with local issues. More than once, we’ve piloted integrations and brought new features to our users before other systems. For example, most agents in Massachusetts use SinglePoint from Boston Software. We work very closely with them to import and export data and have shared technology to provide SinglePoint eStamps to our agents. Another area where we are unique is MA RMV forms. We are the only system that has totally integrated with the most common MA RMV forms to pre-fill data and store the completed forms automatically in our system. Having everything in one place is much more efficient.
How do you ensure the security and privacy of your clients’ data?
All of our data is stored in Microsoft Azure, one of the world’s most secure and reliable hosting platforms. It’s used by the US Military.
How do you handle integrations with other software platforms and tools?
It’s largely driven by the needs of our agents. We do lots of integrations and prefer to work with market leaders who support standard technologies. We get requests to integrate with our software on a weekly basis, often from companies we’ve never heard of and never will again. So, it can be tricky to know where to focus our resources. There are some new technologies coming along that are attempting to be a sort of universal translator and operate as a middle layer between software products from different vendors. We are keeping an eye on this space; it really has the potential to multiply the power of any product.
How do you measure the performance and satisfaction of your users?
Constantly. At the end of every support interaction, agents have a chance to rate and leave comments. We do periodic account reviews, concentrating on agents we haven’t spoken with in a while, to make sure they are aware of any new features and are using the system to its fullest capabilities. Pre-COVID, we had in-person user group training sessions with ample time for agents to share their thoughts. Since then, we’ve found that most people are more comfortable with webinars. We recently had an outside source interview a cross-section of our clients to find out what’s working and what’s not. Lastly, we recently sent out a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey to our users. We were pleased to get hundreds of responses and a score that ranks us with the most customer-focused companies in the world.
What features or functions of Special Agent or similar AMS systems can agents utilize more effectively than they presently do, in your opinion?
Off the top of my head, I would name two. The first is Download. Every agency should take a minute to make sure they are taking advantage of downloading everything with every company they can. There has been an explosion in capabilities and quality of downloads in recent years. Not only does downloading save a ton of time, but it also lets you take advantage of having accurate, detailed information under your control without being reliant on specific carrier systems.
The second is Activities. Most systems have an Activity function that allows you to easily track to-do items and easily create a permanent record of communication with clients – both are essential to reducing errors and omissions exposure.
Do you offer any trial runs of Special Agent or demos for interested agents looking to learn more?
I’m not convinced a trial run is a good idea for an agency management system. The power of a management system is in the data. To be really useful, an agent needs to have quite a bit of information in their system. Whether they manually enter it, download it, or convert it from an existing system, it is a big investment of time and resources.
We offer unlimited demonstrations of Special Agent and are happy to spend as much time showing as much detail as an agent needs. Getting a new management system is a big decision for an agency. We prefer an agent to take their time, ask many questions, and talk to many references to be sure about their decision. There is an old saying: ‘Marry in haste, repent at your leisure.’ Like a marriage, an agency should take its time finding the perfect match and plan on it lasting a long time. Happily, we have a very low ‘divorce’ rate. Our customer retention is close to 100%.
What is the pricing structure for an agency interested in purchasing an AM system Special Agent?
There is a small initial startup cost for setup, configuration, and training. Once up and running, there is a recurring monthly fee partially based on the number of users. We have one product and one pricing plan. There are no add-ons or up-sells.
Lastly, why should an agent stop and look at Special Agent versus an AMS system from a national company?
Just as agents value their personal relationships with their clients, we value personal relationships with our agents, which just can’t happen with large national companies. We love what we do, and I think it shows not only in the product but in every interaction agents have with us.
For those agents who may want to investigate Special Agent further, what should be their next steps?
We are reachable in a number of ways: email us at info@SpecialAgent.com, chat or message us through our website at www.SpecialAgent.com, or you can call and speak to a real person at 781-767-2222. This Friday and Saturday, November 3 & 4, we’ll be at Booth #514 at The Big Event – MAIA’s Annual Conference and Trade Show at the Westin Seaport District, Boston. Thank you; it’s truly been a pleasure speaking with you. I really enjoyed telling our story.