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Insurer Web Sites Improving, Study Finds

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Insurance company Web sites for consumers have generally become much more interesting and useful in the past year, concludes a study by Andersen, the Chicago-based consulting firm formerly known as Arthur Andersen Inc. But insurers still lag most other financial services in the depth and breadth of their sites, Andersen concludes.

In a follow-up evaluation to one it did last year, Andersens business consultants assessed the Web sites of about 150 insurance, asset management, banking, brokerage and lending firms between April and May 2001. It used a scoring system that evaluated each site for its sales and marketing tactics, ability to take applications for products or services, transaction processing and fulfillment, and customer service capability.

Since its first study in April 2000, Andersen finds that insurance firms improved to 41% on its scoring system, a 15% increase. Banking improved to 44%, also up 15%. Brokerage firms improved to 58%, a 17% increase, while lending institutions scored 44%, up 14%. Asset management firms remained at 33%.

The consulting firm notes that all the improvements were even more significant in light of the fact that it raised the bar this year, by applying more stringent criteria for measuring the effectiveness of financial firms online presence.

For example, account aggregation and wireless account access are two metrics not measured in the 2000 study but included this year.

Most of the improvement by the insurance industry occurred in property-casualty sites. Many introduced the ability to conclude sales online, often even collecting the customers initial premium payment via the Web site, Andersen found.

Kathleen G. Shear, an Andersen consultant who wrote the companys report, notes that, except for annuities, life insurers cannot readily handle applications online in light of their need for medical exams before closing a sale.

Still, there are some areas where life insurance sites in general could do better, says Shear.

“Life-health companies did not have much self-service online, compared to property-casualty,” she says. “They fell short in allowing consumers to review existing policies, make changes and pay premiums online.”

Improving these areas saves costs by freeing up agents time for sales and service, Shear explains.

Life insurance sites generally improved their ability to provide online quotes. But many need to offer more help to customers in choosing the right product for their personal needs, Shear notes.

“John Hancock Financial Services does a fantastic job of merchandising products and providing consumers with financial planning tools,” Shear says. “For instance, they offer a Portrait Planner that helps the consumer plot a comprehensive financial plan.”

Other life sites ranked highly by Andersen include GE Financial and Nationwide.

Another key conclusion was that Web sites established by bricks-and-mortar financial institutions were more effective than pure dot-coms.

This is because consumers want a proven brand or local presence in addition to the low cost, convenience, and speed of online sales and service, Andersen says. Companies that have only a Web-based presence lack the necessary market breadth.

In banking, Andersen notes, Wingspanbank, Compubank and other strictly dot-com services have merged or closed. Meanwhile, more successful dot-coms have established a real presence, such as E*Trades alignment with an ATM network and CSFB Directs establishment of investment centers.

At the same time, many financial companies are acquiring virtual firms to strengthen their own online product offerings, Andersen notes.

Andersen concludes that basic transactional capabilities are no longer enough to sustain a long-term competitive edge on the Web. To attract and hold customers, firms are scrambling to provide online customers with greater choice in accessing and managing their accounts through e-mail, call centers, online chats with customer reps and wireless devices.

Andersen finds that many insurance company Web sites now provide online claims filing and tracking.

The consulting firm sees other opportunities for online growth in providing planning and advisory tools and personalized solutions based on major consumer goals and life events, such as college education and retirement.

It sees further online growth opportunity in financial alliances, such as between banks and insurance companies, so banks can stock their Web sites with attractive product offerings that keep customers coming back. This allows them to cut the time and cost of building new services while strengthening their service quality, customer satisfaction, brand value and site traffic, Andersen says.

Another workable tactic is increasing the depth of self-service transactions and account access flexibility.

New account processing remains a critical issue, Andersen finds. Most financial sites still require customers to write or phone the institution for at least part of new account processing and fulfillment requests.

Insurance companies improved their processing scores from 6% last year to 26% this year on Andersens scale. P-c sites accounted for most of that increase.

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 10, 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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