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Linking Up Online

Travelers reaches out to online customers through partnerships with independent agencies, including Commerce Banc Insurance Services.

In an effort to offer increased value to customers and stay competitive in the marketplace, Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Banc Insurance Services ($1 billion in annual premium) has launched a new service that allows customers to get instant automobile insurance rate quotes and initiate their purchase of coverage online. The insurance agency, a subsidiary of Commerce Bancorp, offers the new service through a partnership with Travelers, a business of St. Paul-based The Travelers Companies ($113.76 billion in total assets).

Travelers has similar partnerships with other insurance agencies, relates Peter Crichton, director of partnership marketing at Travelers. "We're trying to reach those customers whose preference is to shop online and who might normally only be exposed to direct-writer companies," he says. "Here, we can go into that segment of the marketplace and bring them to Travelers through an independent agent."

While Travelers' "cobranded sites," as the company calls them, are capable of handling purchases entirely in an online environment, the Commerce Banc Insurance Services site doesn't offer that option yet. According to Crichton, however, even if they initially begin the process online, most customers prefer to speak to an agent before actually purchasing coverage.

If visitors to the Commerce Banc Insurance Services cobranded site indicate they are interested in purchasing policies after reviewing their rate quotes, the prospective customers' contact information and quotes are uploaded onto Travelers' processing system, and Commerce agents are notified via e-mail. "We actually go into the Traveler's processing system -- we see your quote and we can call you up and talk to you about it," explains Rosalie Grosso, Commerce Banc Insurance Services' vice president of personal lines. "If nothing has changed, we just hit 'issue' and it's done. It's a very quick process," she says. According to Commerce, an agent will contact interested consumers within two business days.

"For both the distributor and the carrier, the economics are much more favorable when consumers initiate the purchase process online," Traveler's Crichton adds. "It expedites the process and takes costs out of the acquisition."

Easy Integration

According to Timothy Casey, CIO for Commerce Banc Insurance Services, Travelers was chosen as a partner because the carrier issues policies in all the markets within the agency's footprint and was willing to work on a special program basis. Emphasis on streamlining and expediting the policy-issuance process steered Commerce away from a multiple-carrier online presence, he adds. "The day may come when we actually do get more involved in providing online, multiple carrier rating pieces," Casey says. "But the technology is such today that to do that is a cumbersome process."

The cobranded site essentially is "a Web-linking integration" from the Commerce site to the Travelers site, Casey explains. Potential customers access the instant rate-quoting service from a link on the Commerce site, but the service actually is hosted by Travelers and uses the carrier's software and tools, he continues.

The instant rate-quoting service launched in October, but Commerce refrained from marketing until February, when it was comfortable with the service's functionality, according to the agency's Grosso. "We started out very, very slowly, but now we're getting there," she says. "We've received about 200 to 300 contracts [via the service] so far."

In all, according to Crichton, more than 2,500 people have visited the site, and he calls the early returns "favorable."

In the future, Grosso adds, Commerce will consider "buy now" capability for the service and similar partnerships in other lines of business. Eventually, she says, the online channel will be a bigger part of the business. "It will be significant, but it won't be the only channel of distribution," Grosso relates. "In order to get a good response, you need to have presence with your customers in multiple ways -- that's what we're working on now."

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