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In Search Of Agent Locator Excellence

Since most casual online insurance policy seekers and rate hunters do not buy insurance products online, insurance companies must create a satisfying marriage between online and offline insurance services and offerings, according to a recent report from Gomez, Inc.

By Greg Davies

Here's some encouraging news for insurance carriers: roughly one in five U.S. adults (18.5%) who actively* use the Internet went online the last time they needed to obtain personal vehicle insurance, according to recent consumer research.

But there's more work to be done if insurance carriers want to turn potential policy purchasers into policyholders. The reason: a very small percentage of surveyed users (15%) attempted to buy a policy entirely online, according to our report, Online Vehicle Insurance: Reevaluating Purchase Behavior. What's more, the vast majority of those polled intend to purchase a policy offline, planning all along to use a call center or insurance agency to complete the transaction.

Clearly, then, if auto insurance carriers want to turn casual policy seekers and rate hunters into customers, they need to create a satisfying marriage between their online and offline offerings. One way to do this is to deploy online agent locator tools, which help users neatly find and/or communicate with local agents, to seamlessly bridge the physical/virtual world gap. Here's a look at some of the better implementations.

Multiple search methods. At State Farm, prospective customers get five options for searching an agent, including street address, zip code, city/state, agent's name and telephone area code. The site returns a summary of agents' contact information, as well as a list of the products each is licensed to sell.

User-centric design. A look outside the insurance industry, at Salomon Smith Barney's site, reveals a more intuitive search mechanism. Site users can easily find a link to a feature appropriately labeled "3 ways to find a financial consultant" that deserves note for helping identify an advisor that matches an individual's specific investment objectives. As with State Farm's tool, users can also search according to an agent's location, product specialty or name, as well as numerous contact options.

Interactive mapping. Another growing trend is for agency writers to offer links to maps of individual agents' or agencies' offices. Some also contain driving directions. An even more useful feature is a summary map containing references to all agents falling within a given user's search parameters. Nationwide offers such a feature (powered by Vicinity Corp.), as well as a link to driving directions to each listed agent's office.

Agency Web site links. A number of carriers, including SAFECO, John Hancock and Northwestern Mutual, offer links to individual agents' or agencies' Web offerings. SAFECO and Northwestern Mutual take this relationship a step further by "pushing" content and functionality such as quoting and self-service capabilities, available on the corporate site, out to their agents' Web sites.

Integrated quote/e-mail request forms. Some carriers, such as Allstate, offer brief bios on their agents, which include languages spoken, office hours, links to e-mail addresses and an option to submit a quote request to an individual agent via the Web. Users can also request instant online quotes directly from an individual agent's page. Upon receiving an online quote and clicking "contact Allstate," Allstate automatically renders the previously identified agent's contact information.

No matter which approach carriers take, they must build a solid bridge between the online and offline worlds. Without the transactional conduit that effective agent locator tools provide, it will be difficult for carriers to transform the lion's share of online insurance browsers into buyers.

Greg Davies is a senior analyst at Gomez, Inc., a Waltham, MA market research and advisory services firm that focuses on online usability, utility and performance. He can be reached at [email protected]

* U.S. adults who have used the Web in the past month; includes e-mail if the e-mail is through a Web-based browser.

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