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Precisely what role transactional World Wide Web sites will play in insurance sales and to what extent buyers will use them remains to be seen, but experts agree that insurers need to position themselves with well-designed sites that will attract customers and ease purchasing decisions.
One suggestion when shopping for someone to design a Web site is to not go for the lowest-priced vendor, said Tim James Higham, vp-insurance services for HomeCom Communications Inc., an Atlanta-based company specializing in developing commercial Web sites for banking, insurance and brokerage companies. According to Mr. Higham, if a Web designer's price quote sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
"Please don't stake your entire strategy for your Web design on some 15-year-old kid that doesn't understand this thing," he said during a session at the 75th Anniversary conference of the Insurance Marketing Communications Assn. recently in Vancouver, British Columbia.
"Sit down and come up with a design document on how you are going to incorporate it into your business. A well thought-out design is absolutely imperative, because if people come to your site and it looks (bad), they will leave. They will not go into your site," he said.
Risk managers are particularly put off by Web sites that have problems, Mr. Higham said.
"They say the biggest problem is if they go to the insurance company's Web site and they are going to place a million-dollar policy with the company and there is some kind of problem with their Web site. It turns them off instantly, because 'if you can't put a little bit of energy into your Web site, how are you going to put energy into serving my million-dollar account?' "
Another important piece of advice is to never forget whom you are marketing to, Mr. Higham said. For example, one insurer operating in 23 countries surveyed agents in South America and Asia and found that many of its producers were using such low-level technology that they could access only simple Web sites. So, in designing its Web site, the insurer had to limit features such as the variety of color used.
"You can use all the bells and whistles and the flying globes coming in, and the little ticker tapes spinning this thing or the other, sounds or a little guy jumping out flashing at you," Mr. Higham said. "You can use whatever you want to. But if your customers can't see why they get error messages. . . .the Web site doesn't have a problem -- you have the problem."
To make a site attractive, two types of interactivity can help: passive and active.
Passive interactivity refers to features that can be placed on a site but do not require access to company databases. There is limited communication between a company's server and the user's computer. Yet such systems can contain features that include search utilities, ticker tapes and calculators for adding up things such as commissions, Mr. Higham said.
"I'm not talking about a back-end system;, it is all done on the front end," he said. "It makes you look good, and it's very cheap."
In contrast, active interactivity takes an existing company database and incorporates it into the Web site. Airlines now use such systems to allow customers to access frequent-flyer account information.
Most insurance companies, however, don't use such systems today because of the expense and security requirements for user identification and firewalls to deter unwanted system penetration.
"However, this allows you to do real-time business processing on line," Mr. Higham said. Companies that want to take their Web sites to that stage should consider in-house data systems to control costs. It is generally agreed that, for quality reasons, it is not a good idea to outsource services that affect customers, he said.
But companies do need to be online, or they will lose customers to other financial services companies that are already picking off the easy business, said Daniel Janal, Internet marketing consultant and president and chief executive officer of Janal Communications in Danville, Calif.
Nevertheless, not everyone will be buying insurance through the Internet, Mr. Higham said.
"A lot of people in the insurance industry feel that insurance products, while they can be sold by electronic media, still have an awful long way to go because of the human interactions needed," he said. "The vast majority of insurance products are sold through insurance agents because people like to have a neck to get their hands around in case the coverage isn't in place when there is a claim."
And he said the Internet will not make agents extinct. Five years from now, 80% to 90% of complex insurance products still will be sold by agents, Mr. Higham predicted.
"However, I do believe if you are my agent and I like you and you are a good guy and you help me with different products, I will buy the product from you and you will use the Internet in some way to consummate the sale and the Internet will then service me if I want to check on a bill or claim. I don't have to call you anymore. You are now free to go sell more policies."
Just as United Parcel Service of America Inc. allows customers to track packages and other companies are making it very easy to have flowers delivered worldwide, so, too, must insurers use technology to better service customers, the experts advised.
"You have to sit down and look at your business and say, 'How can we do something to make it this easy to do business with us?' " Mr. Higham said.