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Carriers Web Sites For Agents Continue To Improve, Dalbar Says

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Despite cutbacks and other efforts to save costs in some areas of their operations, insurance companies continue to invest in their Web sites aimed at financial professionals and at consumers, according to Dalbar Inc.

For the first time, sites sponsored by four major carriers qualified for Dalbars “excellent” rating, its highest level, in its ratings survey for the second quarter of 2001.

Prudential Insurance Company of America, Fidelity Investments and TIAA-CREF achieved that rating for their consumer sites, while among sites for financial professionals, Pacific Life was the only firm that achieved that rating. Dalbar awards its excellent rating only to companies that score at least 80 out of a possible 100 points for usability, functions available, currency of content and consistency of presentation.

Pacific Lifes professional site moved up two spots to first place from its standing in the first quarter, edging out the first quarters top-ranked professional site, John Hancock Financial Services.

“We gave them high grades for giving financial professionals more control over client accounts,” says Louis S. Harvey, Dalbars president. He notes that Pacific Lifes agents can view their clients transaction history and pending transactions.

Pacific Life also scored highly for its sites online education offerings for professionals, including online registration for classes on financial topics and the availability of webcasts by company financial experts.

Clive Plumb, Internet marketing manager for Pacific Life, in Newport Beach, Calif., says feedback from producers is critical to keeping the companys professional Web site on target.

The annual sales meeting of the companys wholesalers is an important source for information on what agents and brokers want from the site, notes Plumb.

In an environment where its difficult to differentiate products from the competition, Web sites for both professionals and consumers are a way for a carrier to distinguish itself, adds Alyce Peterson, assistant vice president for product merchandising of the companys life division.

Pacific Life also makes an effort to promote the site to agents, notes Robert Hsu, senior vice president of administration for Pacific Lifes annuities division. The site is promoted heavily through brochures mailed to the field force, through demonstrations at the annual meeting, and through contacts with customer service and other people at the home office, who are trained to plug the Web site at every opportunity.

Among other professional sites, the Hartford showed a striking jump from 21st place in the first quarter to fourth place.

Hartford launched a new professional site that includes the ability to view pending transactions, personalized home pages, educational articles and video, illustration, sales ideas and prospecting letters, Dalbar observes.

Provident Mutual also redesigned its professional site during the second quarter, enabling it to climb 15 places to ninth rank.

The companys new site includes account access features such as the ability to view customers balances and transaction histories and the ability to personalize the site to the agents preferences.

Mehran Assadi, executive vice president of distribution, marketing and technology for Provident Mutual, says the company has improved the site by focusing on producers as a primary customer.

“We spend a lot of time talking to producers and finding out whats important to them,” says Assadi. “The agents told us, ‘Give us information and tools to enable us to conduct business from any place and at any time. So thats what we tried to give them.”

Assadi says a successful site needs content that will keep brokers coming back.

“Too many sites are little more than brochureware,” he says. “You need to offer substance.”

A site should provide “stickiness,” he says, meaning the ability to get agents to revisit by making itself as useful as possible.

One way Provident Mutual does that is with the recent addition of daily statements for producers.

“Each time they sign on, a message pops up telling them what their commissions were yesterday, and how much theyve earned toward bonus programs,” explains Assadi.

Among consumer-oriented sites, in addition to Prudential, Fidelity and TIAA-CREF, major enhancements were made by Northwestern Mutual, ranked fourth; Transamerica, in 13th place; and Zurich Kemper, in 19th place.

Despite improvements, some insurers are falling short on promoting their sites, says Dalbars Harvey.

“Both professional and consumer sites have the potential to bring in business and cut costs,” he comments. “So its surprising that many companies dont get the word out about their sites.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, August 13, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.

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