Agency Web Sites Must Be More Than E-business Cards

By

Todays consumers now have the highest service expectations ever seen in history.

We all know some of the reasons: The explosion of the Internet, cellphones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) that can download pictures and data without even needing to plug into a phone line, and 24/7 services that can be accessed in real time through many different communication methods.

I can access my bank account online, pay my bills, check the status of my order for a new pair of shoes, and send a picture of my child to a friend in a matter of minutes.

What does this mean for insurance? Our industry is beginning to get it. Sure, insurance is still about relationships–between the company, the agent and the customer, the latter of whom trusts that all of us will provide peace of mind for their most important assets.

But here is the kicker–service expectations. Before and after the sale, we must recognize that consumers really want access to services and information any time they want it. That is the critical part of building and keeping our relationship with the customer.

There are obviously many agency and carrier Web sites out there. The quality is all over the map. Ive seen a steady, if sometimes slow, understanding of the business value to providing consumers the services they have come to expect from their relationships.

Agency Web sites can no longer be electronic business cards. We cant forget that busy person–restaurant owner, contractor or return-to-work mom–who after a long day at work, helping a child with homework and getting dinner ready needs to be able to have access to our services.

One agent in Massachusetts now provides forms that can be filled out online or printed as a PDF file to request changes to a policy, file a claim or get a quote. Another agency in Florida provides a weekly opinion poll on its Web sites and provides the results and opinions of their insureds directly on the site, including how the agency intends to handle those issues.

Many agents are providing links to useful services such as the state motor vehicle division or other insurance-related services. Others are providing an easy way for their commercial accounts to access, print or e-mail certificates of insurance.

The technology now available using the Internet has advanced our capabilities even more. The key is providing customers with their personalized data in real time. Some agencies provide clients with direct access to their own data via password-protected encryption. Consumer access to information and the ability to do some transactions online, such as paying their bills, is what will satisfy todays client expectations.

So, how do we take the next step? Agents, insurance companies and their agency management vendors need to create a seamless approach to the relationship provided to the consumer.

One approach is to provide customer access directly to their Web sites. Yes, it does provide access to information and transactions. But is that enough? The reality is that, on average, consumers identify with the agency that sold them the policy more than the company. We also must help the agency to maintain that relationship. That means providing agencies with customer data that enhances the agency relationship.

One way to do this is to provide links from an agents Web sites to the data of the company, using secure passwords and mirroring the agency so that it is seamless to the customer. Another is to use data from the agency management system in a Web-enabled format so that with secure access, consumers can see their personal information.

These and other uses of electronic data interface will allow independent agents to move to the next level of services consumers have come to expect. Automation and technology are really just tools and can never replace the personal relationship an agency has with its customers. But we can use these tools to provide consumers with what they expect: “Give me access anytime, anywhere.

(manningg@msagroup.com) is director of Agency Desktop Solutions and oversees the Web sites for Keene, N.H.-based Main Street America Group. He is a member of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT).

(The Agents Council for Technology is a group of agents, companies, vendors, user groups, and associations assembled by the Alexandria, Va.-based Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America to promote and facilitate the use of effective technology solutions and business processes within the independent agency system. Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and should not be construed as an official position of ACT.)


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, March 3, 2003. Copyright 2003 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.