ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

The Keys To The Kingdom: Sales --- Service --- Financial Administration

IS THAT EVEN THE QUESTION (butchering, more than paraphrasing, the bard)?

Most insurance agents have no idea what the World Wide Web (that’s what WWW stands for) is; let alone how it is best used. Yet all of the computer-heads (and consultants) out there tell them they HAVE to be on the web. WHY??

You don’t HAVE to have a display ad in the phone book. You don’t HAVE to advertise at all. You don’t HAVE to target market to a focused customer group. You don’t even HAVE to have signage for your agency. You only need these forms of marketing media if you are seeking to draw prospects to your business. Similarly, you don’t HAVE to have a website if you currently don’t use display ads, if you currently don’t have any advertising campaigns including target and focused advertising, and if you are in a building that minimizes signage that would otherwise draw public attention. Believe it or not, there are a fair number of independent agencies that meet these marketing minimums. Some are small agencies that serve a specific and dedicated customer base. Others are the agencies that insist that their only advertising is ‘word-of-mouth’ referrals. Whether these agencies remain stable or slowly shrink (they certainly can’t grow substantially), they don’t particularly need a Net presence.

But if your agency seeks new customers from specific or general sources, the Internet is as important to your business as a telephone number. The only problem is that the WWW for local independent insurance agencies is as useful as having a telephone book delivered to your area containing the names, telephone numbers (no addresses), and some display information for EVERY insurance agent in the world. Who could use a listing like that?

So before jumping on the bandwagon every agent must educate him (or her) self on what they want a web presence to do for their business.

1. The web can be used as an identity builder (like the yellow pages). For much less than you spend on your yellow page display ad, your identity could be available to anyone who cares to read about it anywhere in the world. But which Chicago agent wants a lot of inquiry action from Indonesia? And who in England cares that your agency writes auto and homeowners insurance in Maryland? Available, yes. Useful and easy to find? Hardly likely.

2. The web can be used to educate your customers and prospects about your agency. This is a strong and primary use of the web. The reason that your customers use you for some lines of insurance and another agent for other insurance products is that they don’t KNOW everything that you can do for them. A website lets you tell them in words, pictures and sound in almost unlimited space.

3. Communications can be enhanced through the Internet. E-mail is one of the most user-friendly ways to transmit information. No envelopes, no stamps and no waiting for the postman. Once you hit the “enter” button, the message is delivered to the addressee – 24 hours/day, 7 days/week, no holidays. And e-mail makes it so much easier to send responses. When the message is read, click respond and you are ready to type your answer. Hit ‘send’ again and it’s already in the recipient’s mailbox, waiting for him to open it. Pretty neat, huh?

4. Interaction with prospects and clients – This may be the greatest long-term benefit of having a website. Imagine being able to complete applications, endorsement requests, quote requests and claims forms from the comfort of your own home, without the intrusion of salespeople, any time, day or night. Now imagine a client using his personal password to review his own policy, test rates for different cars, pull his own MVR and check his payment status – 24 hours/day and 7 days/week.

Whether you just want to have your name and address available to that local web browser looking for an agent without a copy of the phone book handy, or whether you want a totally interactive web presence that lets the client manage his own account anytime of the day or night, a web presence is a requirement.

Basic Minimums

Every agency association member probably already has a web presence. Whether you know it or not, your name and telephone number is probably listed within your state association’s website. Maybe the associations assume that potential insureds will go to the Independent Insurance Agents website (http://www.independentagent.com) or the Professional Insurance Agents website (http://www.pianet.com) and seek a member to represent them. I think it’s time for a Reality Check!! No one outside the industry is well acquainted enough with the associations to use them as a gateway.

The Domain Name

If you are ever going to have a web presence, at least register your domain name NOW. The domain name is your (owned) name on the Internet. Independentagent.com is the domain name of the Big I. Pianet.com is the domain name of the PIA. Agencyconsulting.com is our (Agency Consulting Group, Inc.’s) domain name.

The problem is that many domain names are already taken and more are being registered at the rate of 22,000/day. Don’t even bother with Insurance.com and it’s like. They are long gone. The best you can hope for is a domain name related to your agency name. Anyone seeking Agency Consulting Group, Inc. can easily remember agencyconsulting.com. Domain names are centrally registered and coordinated by Internic.com but must be registered through a web host. Take a look at http://www.internic.com if you want more information.

By the way, since so many good names are already taken (some folks have registered hundreds of common names, then sold them for thousands of dollars) a move I afoot to create new extensions (i.e. .com) to permit the same names to be used with alternative extension names.

The Basic Website

Tells the surfer (a web surfer is someone who looks for things on the Internet) who you are and what you are about. Agency history, specialties, biographies and pictures are used to inform your current customers and those prospects that you can influence to view your website by other means. Any website presence requires you to publish your website address on everything that you may send to your customers or prospects (i.e. letterhead, business cards, memos, brochures, any advertising, even on the info slips that you send to clients with policies or endorsements.

The Extended Website

Combines information with e-mail. Permits your client free communications to you without leaving messages and allows them to contact you with information (attachments to e-mails) as an alternative to visiting you or sending you mail.

The Interactive Website

Here’s where the website becomes really interesting (and a lot more expensive - see Cost section below). Many agents have begun adding quote forms to their websites. This has both benefits and drawbacks. First of all, unless you can satisfy the instant gratification urge of most web surfers, not many people will complete all of the data needed to quote. Remember, if they are visiting your site, they are shopping. If they are shopping they are seeking quotes from other sources, as well. They will have to complete the quote information for EVERY website offering quotes. And since there are some (heavily advertised) quote machines that will provide prospects hundreds of quotes with one entry how likely is it that the prospect will complete the quote form on your website?

So why would a customer (or prospect) interact with your website? The best reason is for existing customers to check the cost of insurance when they buy (or exchange for) that new car? If they go shopping on weekends, they can’t call you for a quote, can they? But they can call their friendly direct writer. If you provide an interactive quote device with password availability of their existing policy information, the customer has a way to find the cost of insuring that new car any time they want. You become as convenient as the direct writer and they can visit you a lot easier. They can also fill in a Policy Change Request that is date and time stamped when it arrives in your office mailbox (thereby allaying the fear that they add the car AFTER the accident). E-mail is also available that sends an acknowledgement that the mail was received (more E&O protection). As usual, the most useful web features are also the hardest to implement and the most expensive. We have not yet seen a successful interactive quote device (but we know that a number of companies are working on it).

BTW (that’s web-speak for “by the way”), many agents are providing Claim Reporting Forms on their websites. That’s a nice bonus, but, realistically, most people who have an accident will want to report the loss to a human being (at the agency or at the company). There’s a phobia that if they just drop you a note, that the claim process will not be pursued as quickly as if they report it directly (even if the report is to an insurance-ignorant answering service that simply takes the information and routes it to the agent or company).

In the long run, the winners in the interactive Internet insurance industry will be the agents or companies who find a way for clients to interact with their own file for billing and payment history, quoting and information management (i.e. changes). The second benefit to this process will be a reduction in agency and company staffing as the customers, themselves, manage their own insurance program from an administrative standpoint. The benefit of the agent will continue to be his knowledge and recommendations for risk management for the clients.

Talk to your customers – One of the features that Agency Consulting Group, Inc. uses to get agents to return to our website (http://www.agencyconsulting.com) is the addition of our newsletter to the site. Not only are our archive files maintained (by subject) on the site, but we will soon have a ticker tape offering new, highlighted articles of importance to agency owners and managers every month. You, too, can talk to your customers if you can find published or original articles that will be of interest to your client base. This point highlights a critical issue in website management:

CHANGE THE WEBSITE FREQUENTLY IF YOU WANT REPEAT VISITORS!

I can’t reiterate this enough. Websites must be proactive, not stagnant. I don’t need to visit your yellow page ad more than once. It doesn’t change during the year. Your goal is to have your clients and prospects re-visit the site as often as needed to keep your identity bright in the clients’ view. The best way to do that is to give them information that they find useful. If you can’t think of insurance related items that will draw their attention (after all, not many of us rush to the computer to look up insurance information), you can easily link to local news and weather, something that may very well give your clients a reason to “hit” your site every day.

Cost – CAVEAT EMPTOR – I have seen beautiful websites established by 16-year-old children of agents for nothing. I have seen similar, beautiful websites created by website development companies for $20,000. And I have seen both good and bad websites costing from one extreme to another. Some web hosts will provide you basic websites for nothing for signing up with them to host your site (for $25 to $100/month). You will need a host for your site anyway (a computer that hosts many websites commercially). These hosts are maintained to keep them from crashing. Software exists that will permit you to take canned sections and put together your own website. If you are a ‘CHIT’ (Computer-Head In Training) with time on your hands, this may be your best route. That which you teach yourself is never a mystery to you.

Whichever way you choose to go, set up a website NOW if you ever intend to establish yourself on the web. Get live even if the site is not yet perfected. Agencyconsulting.com is still under construction but we get many hits and e-mails from agents who access it. Establish an Internet Strategy that evolves your presence on the web as the web, itself, develops. Like the Merry-Go-Round, if you want to ride, you’ve got to get on.

If you have any questions visit us at http://www.agencyconsulting.com, e-mail us at acg@mail.com or, if you want to hear my dulcet tones, call us at 1-800-779-2430.