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A 38-year-old marketing consultant just bought a book and some music CDs at a popular online retail site. Taking less than 10 minutes to search for and buy exactly what he wanted, this guy had a great online shopping experience. Now, hes headed to your agencys site to purchase insurance.

This is good news, except for one thing: He probably expects a similar experience to the one he just had, and hasnt considered that comparing apples to mangos may not be fair. All he cares about is getting clear and concise information, and the opportunity to buy coverage in an expedient manner.

He is todays typical online consumer, who is motivated, impatient and often unforgiving.

You are an extension of your online customers service experience. How your company communicates and facilitates the process will greatly impact your ability to close business. Its important to leverage your current business practices, and combine them with new components without compromising the speed at which you serve your customer. Anything short of this may erode your online customers expectations and result in a significantly smaller close rate for the division of your operation that is focused on Internet-influenced sales.

Keeping in mind that many online insurance shoppers want to bind offline, heres a basic example of how an efficient online-offline system can work in todays environment.

Your online customer takes approximately 10 or 15 minutes to input initial information, and two minutes to review quotes and submit a request for coverage. The agent receives the customers request and, within eight minutes, replies via automated e-mail to the customer. Following the e-mail letters instructions, the customer phones the agent to confirm all the data. Fifteen to 20 minutes later, the agent has validated the information, retrieved a motor vehicle report, credit score and Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange report, bound coverage, accepted payment for the policy, and faxed a proof-of-coverage certificate and, in this case, a vehicle ID card to your new customer.

To enhance your ability to succeed online, consider these four important factors: responsiveness, expectation management, online-messaging, and effective selling.

The Internet has redefined access to information, and customer service is now measured in hours and seconds. Since the online consumer wants instant gratification, its critical that response mechanisms are in place to distribute information quickly.

Whether youre quoting or simply acknowledging requests for coverage, responding within seconds is critical to meeting your customers expectation that your service is fast and interactive. Unless otherwise specified, the successful, physical-world practice of initiating your response during evening hours is not an effective tactic with your online customer. In fact, many are online from late morning to early afternoon.

On the technology side, enable your system to fully accept customer data so that inbound sales calls and real-time e-mail responses can be easily performed. Also, avoid having to re-capture data by making sure that all current and historical records are accessible to your agents. Redundant conversations about previously submitted information can frustrate your online customer.

In your online communications, set clear expectations and state specifically what your customer needs to do to complete the policy-buying process. Buying insurance online is new for many consumers, and, due to the offline components of the process, its important to explain precisely what needs to happen to complete the transaction. This may include a reminder to retrieve essential informationsuch as VIN, drivers license number, odometer reading, lien holder records, and credit-card numberin order to expedite an upcoming sales call. Help your customer anticipate and be prepared for each step in the process.

E-mail is efficient and productive, but no one wants to read too much text. So keep your instructions simple and to the point, and use a subject line that clearly identifies your purpose.

Comparable to communicating to your customer by phone, be proactive and take the opportunity to briefly write about additional products, coverage options or other topics that address your customers specific needs. You are the insurance expert; be sure to convey your personal value in writing.

Be sure to include your companys toll-free telephone number, operating hours, and other fundamental information in all mail you send electronically. Just as you do with traditional form letters that you may use, create and save a core of e-mail templates.

Responsiveness, expectation management and online messaging all contribute to the sales process. Through guidance you have already provided, your customer knows what to expect, and now you have an opportunity to close the sale.

Agents are experienced sales professionals who can demystify the complexity of insurance. With your customers information already provided, leverage your product knowledge and sales skills to educate and deliver the right coverage, and to complete the transaction.

A number of solutions can make inbound calling more efficient and simple for your customer. Overall, your phone system must feel like an extension of the process your customer began online. More advanced agency operations may automate customer-tracking and routing to ensure that leads are sent to the right agent. They may also automatically direct calls to the next available agent to reduce wait time, and establish lead-routing rules that match online customers with specially trained agents.

Applying the same level of technology for outbound calls will help you to effectively reach your online customer. Develop a queuing mechanism in order to track customer contacts, and prioritize outbound calls based on your companys success profile, such as leads submitted or policy expiration date.

Also, develop a contact “tickler” system that prompts agents to follow up on outstanding information, and make calls during optimal time periodswhich are not necessarily evening hours.

Outbound phone calls are not your only option. Using e-mail as a follow-up to non-responsive customers can be a time-efficient alternative or additional method for stimulating interest. Use e-mail management technology to trigger personalized outbound letters based on defined rules. Write templates that address lack of contact, incorrect contact information, and upcoming policy expirations. Here, too, incorporate advice on coverage options and other matters as you might do by phone.

One of the most important benefits of integrating all your online and offline technologies is the ability to measure your performance from the time you originate an online lead to the time you close a sale. By tracking lead submissions and origin, reasons for declinations, inbound and outbound calling activity, and metrics within a range of other categories, youll be able to more accurately assess specific areas of your operations and further improve your online customers experience.

Technology alone will not propel your online business efforts. While it is important to leverage your online customers information through technology integration, the keys to success are service quality and value-added agent support, which appreciates the behavioral differences between customers who approach you online and offline.

By being responsive, successful in setting proper expectations, clear in your communications, selling effectively, and comprehensively measuring your integrated operations, you are strengthening your companys position for continued success in the physical world and for strategic, cost-effective growth on the Internet as it continues to evolve.

Scott Stevens is senior vice president, insurance operations, and Thomas Gebhart is manager, consulting services, for InsWeb, based in Gold River, Calif.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, October 8, 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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