If you’ve had a client meeting interrupted by the insistence of a smart phone, you know how ubiquitous they are and how intrusive they can be. If you’ve ever used one to find a restaurant in an unfamiliar area, you know how unexpectedly helpful they can be. Insurance companies are capitalizing on the abilities of smart phones with applications—“apps”—that are helping to increase customer satisfaction even as they enable policyholders to get rate quotes, make payments, contact agents, report accidents, and even find approved repair shops or medical care in the area in which the need occurs.

A Celent report, released at the end of November, takes a look at the app phenomenon as it exists within the property/casualty insurance industry, specifically by reviewing the apps available from 10 major insurers.

Health insurers, for instance, are doing some innovative things with apps, such as allowing policyholders to find a doctor in their plan even when they’re traveling. And that is just the beginning; doctors are launching apps to keep patients on track with medications and diet, refill prescriptions, pay bills, and ask questions. Other fields have their own apps, and the public has a seemingly endless appetite for them. More functionality can’t be far behind, as smart phones and people’s dependence on them become more pervasive.

The study says that the adoption of mobile apps is not following the route of e-commerce adoption. If it were, it says, “at this stage in its development there would be a mix of insurers with brochureware or information-only apps and early adopters with transactional systems that were clearly communicating with back end systems.” Insurers would be categorized, more or less, as laggards, cautious investors, and early adopters. There would also be by now a set of key functionalities that most would have agreed upon.

However, this hasn’t happened. Instead, the study says, most insurers have made “a quick leap forward,” with transactional capabilities, “across a wide variety of functions.” The function most desired by users, it found, is the ability to make payments through an app. Lack of a payment capability was the most common reason for insurer apps to be scored poorly by their users.

The study also said that the features found in apps suggested that the mobile channel was being accepted and leveraged far faster than the Internet channel. “In our conversations with insurers,” it added, “we note that in the 18 months following Nationwide’s release of a mobile app, it has become necessary to have an app presence.”

Apps, the study said, began as marketing tools. Now they can help reduce customer defection by “decreasing transactional friction,” and customers are able to use them for practical purposes: reporting the details of an accident onscene, for instance, with photos and audio, as they file a claim. It is a race to see which insurers will provide the most functionality able to woo consumers, even as they break new ground and test the limits and capabilities of existing functions.

If insurance companies and medical groups are developing their own apps, what about advisors? From scheduling client conferences to allowing clients to review their portfolios and encouraging clients to take regular actions (such as scheduled savings), it would appear that advisors may soon be telling their clients, “I have an app for that.”    

Marlene Y. Satter can be reached at msatter@sbmedia.com.