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Carrier Websites: From Company Centered to Agent Centered

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Independent Agency System carriers that rank high on the Gomez insurance Web site index probably congratulate themselves on their achievement - the result of hard work, creativity, and spending in the nine or ten-digit range. But what if these high-ranking carriers are scoring well in the wrong game?

Suppose Gomez and other Web ranking services have no idea what they’re talking about? What if they base their evaluation criteria on an implicit misunderstanding of the insurance business? What if "winning" means embracing a bankrupt business strategy?

To the extent that Gomez and others assume that carriers who sell through independent agents should create elaborate direct sales or customer service Web site functionality, I believe they’re totally off base. Independent agent carriers, who achieve a top ranking or aspire to one, might also be far off the track.

Why don’t Independent Agency System carrier sell direct? It’ll never work. Consumers won’t buy that way. Why not provide online customer service? Because it confuses the customer and disintermediates agents - the carriers’ key distribution arm. Why do site-ranking groups use faulty criteria? Why do carriers embrace these useless rankings?

THE PROBLEM: COMPANY-CENTERED SITES

It’s possible that ranking services don’t understand the realities of the insurance business - the psychology of insurance buying, the necessary flexibility of the market, the complex role of the independent agent, and so on. They don’t realize that carriers’ best strategy isn’t to promote themselves and their connection with the insured, but to help agents strengthen their relationship with the customer.

Of course, if carrier Web sites truly weren’t that important, how would ranking sites develop their brands? By ranking agency sites? Who would care? Ranking creates a need to be high on the list, and (if you’re a big company) at the top. Ranking creates the anxiety that motivates action and funds budgets.

Who wins? The ranking services conduct studies and make recommendations. Then consulting groups receive contracts to bring the sites up to high-rank specs. Or carrier Web site departments find themselves with substantially higher budgets. And CEOs can tell their boards about their high rankings or concerted efforts to achieve them.

Everyone wins - well, not everyone. The stockholders lose because the corporation is betting resources on the wrong horse. Agents lose because their carrier partners are working to weaken agents’ local brands. Consumers lose because carrier-centered Web strategies will make their lives more complicated, not more convenient.

It’s all too easy to get caught up in this system. When reality intrudes and business success doesn’t track a high Web-site ranking, the solution might seem to do more of the same - which means throwing good money after bad.

Site ranking groups use faulty criteria because they have nothing else to sell the insurance industry. Carriers go along with the game because they lack a clear business strategy and because site rankings provide a simple and definitive metric in a murky world that gives everyone something to do.

THE SOLUTION: AGENCY-CENTERED SITES

If Web-site ranking services and consultants are leading carriers off into the wild blue yonder, what’s the answer? What should these insurers be doing to leverage their Web investment?

As I see it, Independent Agency System carriers need to adopt an agency-centered - rather than carrier-centered - Web strategy by helping consumers find agency sites and providing background services for these sites and the agency automation systems that support them.

This solution involves a number of elements:

Agency Web Site Locators

Although carrier Web sites usually have areas for the press, stockholders, employees, and suppliers, they leave customer service and relations to their agents. That means they need to provide the public with an effective agency-locator service.

The carrier’s home page should feature an agency locator that allows site visitors to home in on an agent by location (ZIP code, area code, or state/city) and product (Auto, Home, Life, Main Street, and so forth). Search results should include general information about each agency (name, address, phone, fax, and e-mail address), together with links to the agent’s Web site, a locator map, and driving instructions. The search and link functions must be user friendly, with rapid response.

A few months ago, I spent some time looking at 20 agency locator functions and was appalled at what the two largest carriers had done. In one case, it took some real sleuthing even to find the agent locator on the carrier site. This might have been intentional because the carrier was also trying to sell direct. The second carrier had probably spent $1 million to develop an agency locator that was incredibly slow, virtually impossible to operate, and yielded little useful information. It was clearly a case of unmanaged techies over-engineering something simple.

Perhaps a more serious problem with agency locators is that they often do a poor or non-existent job of providing a link to the agent’s site. Although it can be a hassle for carriers to keep up with agency URLs, they can eliminate the problem by giving agents the capability to update their locator information directly from the carrier’s site.

Carrier Background Information

A consumer friendly carrier Web site should provide such background information as ratings, history, focus, and value-added products and services - together with details on special products or business partners. Companies need to provide this information - perhaps the same page(s) in a slightly different format - for their agents to link to from their sites.

Although many agents want their customers and prospects to know with whom they write business, they’re probably not up to writing a background piece for each of their carriers. Carriers should create these background pages and have their agents link to them.

When the consumer links from the agency site to a carrier’s background page, the process should appear "embedded" - as if they’d never left the agency site. The agent’s branding should dominate.

If a carrier offers niche market products, it should provide product background pages to which agents can link from their sites. Both carrier and agent will benefit from this focused-use content.

General Insurance Information

Some carrier sites include a library of consumer insurance information that can add value to younger buyers or people with specific questions. Insurers would do well to make this type of third-party content available for agents to add to their sites. Again, although the carrier should get credit for providing this information, it needs to be "embedded" within the agent’s brand.

Insurance and Related Links

Agents can build the value of their sites by including links to other sites their visitors are likely to find helpful (such as the State Department of Transportation, Department of Motor Vehicles, Insurance Commissioner, and insurance consumer sites). For comprehensive listings that you can install on your Web site, go to Ultimate Links and Useful Links on the IMMS.com Members Page.

Because carrier marketing departments already have these lists, it would make sense to put them into HTML format and make them available for agency Web site linking. This is a great way to leverage a small amount of work across hundreds or thousands of agencies.

CONCLUSION

To help integrate agency Web sites into the Independent Agency distribution system, carriers need to add content on their sites for direct consumer use and on agency sites for indirect consumer use. Even though these recommendations are easy and inexpensive, few carriers have done a good job with agency Web site locators, let alone considered providing content that their agents’ site can link to and brand as their own.

Why not? Maybe because it wouldn’t do much for the carriers’ Web site rankings?
The goal of the CompleteMarkets editor is to bring valuable content to the CompleteMarkets members. Providing content to insurance professionals to enhance their sales process, increase revenue streams, understand their clients and provide value to their agency. 
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