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12:25 PM
Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter
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How Traditional Carriers Can Integrate Agents Into The Online Experience

Seamless integration of the agent into the online presence is critical to the success of the Internet channel, but traditional carriers have failed to get agents to promote the Internet channel's utility.

According to our latest consumer research, 14.7 percent of agent-bought policyholders who attempted an online policy change cited confusion over how to enroll as a reason for failing to complete the change via the Internet. Interestingly, none of direct-bought consumers surveyed did.

Possibly more significant is that 11.3 percent of agent-bought policyholders who attempted to make policy changes online didn't because they didn't want to spend time enrolling for online access to the secure site. A far lower percentage of direct-bought policyholders cited this as a reason for failure.

This commentary will examine how and why traditional carriers have failed to get agents to promote the utility of the online channel using findings from our July 2003 study that surveyed over 2200 auto policyholders with Internet access. Key to this analysis are several initiatives under way at Allstate Insurance (Northbrook, Ill., $118 billion in assets) that involve the agent in the registration/enrollment process. These activities should be viewed as best practices given Gómez's belief that seamless integration of the agent into the online presence is critical to the success of the Internet channel.

Agent-Bought Customers' Needs

It is clear that this customer segment requires more hand-holding in terms of online enrollment. Agent-bought policyholders are used to individual service from a known representative, and enrollment assistance represents a great opportunity for agents to be of service and provide value to their policyholders by acting as a resource that can take enrollment requests over the phone.

However, it is extremely rare for agents to have any capability related to involvement in the enrollment process (1 of 18 Scorecard carriers). This is very different than other intermediary-based businesses, such as full-service brokerages.

Not coincidentally, the full-service brokerage space has seen far greater promotion of the online channel to clients by intermediaries and greater adoption by customers. Of course, the full-service space has made strides in online interaction and communication for advisors; the insurance industry has minimally involved its agents in the online experience of its customers.

Carriers must first sell the value of the online channel to their own employees. Once employees are enthusiastic they will then turn and encourage online behavior among their clients.

The relationship between online promotion of the agent and his/her promotion of the online channel is of paramount importance to the success of the online channel. So it is of no small significance that a significantly smaller percentage of insurance carriers provide personalized Web presences for their agent force than do brokerages for their advisors. Allstate is one of a handful of carriers that have put in place a program whereby agents are enabled to enroll clients, by request, for access to online policy information and services.

Carriers Begin To See Web Site Value

Nationwide (Columbus, Ohio, $24.5 billion in assets) has long provided its agents a presence, one that is integrated nicely and is highly accessible within the policyholder self-service area. On the other hand, firms such as Prudential have stumbled: they deliver agent Web sites that are really only an individual page within the carrier's Web experience.

MetLife (New York, $286 billion in assets), meanwhile, offers only agency sites, where agents are grouped together; unique content is not offered beyond bland contact information.

Allstate, meanwhile, has launched individual Web presences for its entire agent force of 13,000. Notable is the carrier's agent locator, which returns a local map where prospects choose amongst locations and are introduced to the agent's site. Allstate first meets the needs of agents who desire to market themselves, listing contact information within a couple clicks while also providing for customers who want to research agents before calling one.

Allstate's new site uses simplified URLs that can easily be re-called or printed on business cards (e.g., Sites are focused more on core insurance products and can promote targeted services more applicable to their businesses. Core functionality of the carrier's site (e.g., online quoting and saved quote retrieval) is accessible within a framed environment. Agency hours, location, directions, maps, staff information, contact information and agent background information are provided; branding of the representative's name and phone number is persistent across products, planning tools, policy and agency information tabs.

Seamless Agent, Online Promotion Takes Shape

What may be most unique about Allstate's new agent sites is the extent to which the carrier markets enrollment for online policyholder services. Second-person messaging is used, as the agent speaks directly to the policyholder in terms of how these services fit into the relationship and help simplify busy client lives. Allstate understands the clout agents have in relaying to customers that online registration and use of the password-protected services is appropriate behavior within the relationship.

This is a rarity and suggests that Allstate has made strides in messaging to its distribution force the importance of the online channel in serving customers going forward and exactly what agents' roles will be, both in terms of online involvement and support. Agents are given their own customizable and branded environment to which they can easily promote and drive leads (e.g., online quotes). Suddenly, agents have a vested interest in making the online channel work for them.

And that is what much of this conundrum has come down to. Carriers' Internet strategists must ask themselves first if they really have their fingers on the pulse of how supportive agents are of their online initiatives. Second, they must ask themselves if they have correctly conceived where the agent fits into the online relationship (both today and tomorrow) for each carrier/customer interaction.

Lastly, if this vision of the agent's role is fully developed they must ask themselves to what extent they have been successful in getting this message out beyond the Internet group and executive suite and into the call-centers and agent sales forces where it can have significant impact.

Tim Carpenter is an insurance industry analyst at Gómez, Inc, an Internet benchmarking and improvement strategies firm in Waltham, Ma. Tim can be reached at [email protected].

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