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A World Wide Web site should be designed for customers, not for the company that owns it, a marketing executive says.

The Web is a powerful took to talk to customers and find out their needs, said Internet marketing consultant Jim Sterne, president of Target Marketing in Santa Barbara, Calif.

"The world has changed," he said. The Internet "is an incredibly inexpensive way to get information back and forth" to customers.

Mr. Sterne spoke at a session during the Independent Insurance Agents of America Inc.'s 103rd annual conference, recently held in Boston.

Properly structured, a Web site can provide information to customers while transacting many activities of an insurance agency, such as updating policies or filing claims. In addition, a good site can attract potential customers who already are familiar with your agency after seeing the Web site.

"The leads that come in over the Internet are much more valuable than those generated anywhere else," he said.

One great but often misused communication tool involving Web sites is e-mail. Too often e-mail messages left with a company are not answered or the answer is not helpful or is untimely, he said.

"If you don't answer your e-mail. . .it looks like you don't care about your customer," Mr. Sterne said. "The solution is to be attentive."

As an example of doing things the wrong way, he cited a Web site for an automaker that turned off the e-mail response feature after receiving numerous complaints about its cars. After a redesign of its Web site, the e-mail response link led nowhere, preventing the company's customers from communicating with it online.

A better policy is to implement a process for sorting and replying to all e-mail messages sent via the Internet, just like an agency has a way for replying to mail and phone messages. After all, these are people who have sought out your company and want more information, possibly leading to a sale, he said.

Another important feature is to personalize the e-mail responses. Sending a generic e-mail to everyone who contacts the agency does not have the impact of a personalized message. Even a computer-generated message should be personalized, giving the receiver the impression that a person is responding to them.

One good strategy is to route each e-mail to a person trained to respond on that topic. So, incoming messages can be sent to sales, customer relations or claims people, who can provide the appropriate responses. Another way is to provide different e-mail addresses on the agency's Web site for each department, allowing the customer to pick the department receiving the message.

Also, incoming e-mails should be saved and tracked, as they contain a wealth of information on what the customers are saying and what questions they frequently ask.

Mr. Sterne also recommends that a Web site provide visitors with as much information as possible. An agency's site can include more than just information on the agency. It should also educate the visitor on topics of interest to them. The goal, he said, should be including enough information so that every visitor finds something he needs. If properly done, it could save money by reducing phone calls to the agency.

"Every time someone comes to your Web site and gets their questions answered, it's one less phone call," he said. "You save money, but more importantly, they are happy," he added.

But the urge to put huge amounts of information on the Web site must be tempered with the need for a site where the information is easily accessible and the costs within budget. Each agency must balance the costs and benefits itself for its Web site, he said.

Although the Internet creates enormous amounts of non-personal communication, it puts a premium on personal contact, he said. For example, if a customer wants to update a policy through the Web site, the agency can instantly recall the old policy, the last changes made and make recommendations on other changes the customer didn't think of. This type of personal service will allow one agency to stand out from others in the fight for customers, he said.

Another great way of receiving customer feedback is by creating a discussion area on the Web site. People like to talk on Web sites, Mr. Sterne said, and they could be talking about you. So, plug into this conversation and monitor what's said. This could provide valuable insight into what people are thinking and could lead to changes in the Web site addressing the frequently asked questions and topics under discussion.