NU Online News Service, Aug. 24, 2004, 5:02 p.m. EDT

A consulting firm is giving Western & Southern Financial Group and The Phoenix Companies Inc. high marks for online customer service.[@@]

The Customer Respect Group Inc., Bellevue, Wash., has rated more than 30 life and health insurance company Web sites for a new study.

Western & Southern, Cincinnati, was the highest-rated mutual life insurer. It earned a rating of 7.6 on a 10-point scale.

Phoenix, Hartford, led stock life companies with a 7.4 rating.

Customer Respect says it compiled the ratings by looking at Web sites, interviewing insurance company personnel and interviewing “a representative sample” of adult Internet users. When the firm rated Web sites, it considered factors such as ease of navigation, responsiveness to inquiries and respect for customer privacy.

Only 48% of the insurers responded to all of Customer Respect’s Web queries, but 69% of the companies that responded answered the queries within 24 hours.

While Customer Respect was conducting the study, its researchers found a surge in the number of insurance companies that share customer data with allied businesses: 60% of the insurers included shared personal information of customers with their affiliates, subsidiaries and business partners without permission from users, up from 35% in a similar study published in 2003.

Although 93% of the insurers studied have privacy policies on their sites explaining how customers’ personal data is being used, 12% of those companies should be more explicit about how they use personal data, Customer Respect says.