The internet as we know it didn’t open to general commercial use until the late 1980’s.
JupiterResearch’s “Worldwide Online Population Forecast 2006-2011” claims that the internet population is growing at a compounded 6.6% annual rate and that 22% of the earth’s population will be regularly surfing the web by 2011. The North American population is, by far, the most prevalent users and 2011 will see 76% of all people in North America with on-line access.
But what does that mean to insurance agents and their relationships with their clients?
To answer that question I would like you to refer to your own changing use of the banking system over the last ten to fifteen years.
Only fifteen years ago most of us were still making paper deposits and withdrawals at our local bank branch between 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM weekdays (when they were open) and were writing checks by the dozens each month and mailing them to our creditors. Today fewer people than ever “visit” their bank, choosing their ATM for cash needs and automated deposits for their paychecks. The banks that provide exceptional customer service are open every night and weekends for the convenience of their customers. Most banks have a 24/7 customer service telephone number through which a live representative can answer most of our questions. Balances and transactions can be routinely handled over the internet and more bills are paid electronically every year. The banks are looking forward to a more efficient paperless atmosphere in which customers who insist on paper transactions will be charged for the privilege.
Ten years ago I compared the Personal Lines industry to the evolving Travel Agency industry (“The Facts of Life About Personal Lines”). The continued evolution of the internet and airline automation systems has forever changed the travel agency business. Today only the boutique travel agents are still succeeding and even their business is struggling.
The Internet and carrier automation is changing the face of the insurance agency industry as we speak. But most agents don’t recognize the change. Why?
If you were to try to place a frog in a pot of boiling water it would immediately jump out. It’s survival instincts are strong. However, if you put the frog in a pot of cold water and turned up the heat, it would stay in the pot as the water heated and, eventually, it would boil and die. Why? Because it doesn’t notice the gradual change in temperature until it is too late.
Similarly, if we were to view the impact of the internet today compared to 15 years ago we would be scurrying to create interactive websites with portals for customers to manage their accounts and to pull other value-added benefits from our agencies’ websites.
Websites as Billboards
While no statistics exist regarding how many agents have websites, we are certain that more of us are on the internet each year. However, most of the websites we encounter are either simple or very complex “billboards”. A billboard describes the agency and provides information about its services and staff. This is a fine thing if our clients and prospects want to know who we are and what we do. But, don’t most of your clients already know who you are and what you do? Aren’t you responsible for telling your prospects this information in face-to-face meetings?
If the answer to these questions is yes, then what is the reason for your informational website? For most of us the answer is, “We felt that we NEEDED a website! Everyone told us we had to have one.”
Do you NEED a website? MUST YOU HAVE ONE?
The answer is NO unless you are established in such a way that your website supplements your marketing plan and adds a dimension to your agency.
Here is another circumstance in which Planning should precede implementation. Planning is a function that should be done formally and in writing every year. Every agent plans. But some plan toward a success path while others plan to survive. Of course survival is necessary. But survival is to planning as mediocrity compares to a success track. No one would publish a plan that says “We intend to be just like every else.” Similarly, no one should publish a plan that says “Our goal is to survive.” If you haven’t started your Strategic Planning cycle yet, call us (800-779-2430) and we’ll lead you through it.
If you do Plan, you should include your website development as a part of the formal plan. Your website should become an ever more important tool to keep your clients in contact with your agency. It can begin as a billboard, but it should improve several times each year to provide information and make client contact with your agency easier.
Eventually the industry will create portals through your website through which the clients can access their policy information, billing information, request changes, ask questions and report claims directly to their carrier. Why is this preferable to providing a list of telephone numbers on your site and asking clients to call their carriers for information after business hours? Because if that’s all you do to serve your clients, why do they need the services of an agent at all? If you have a client placed with multiple carriers for different coverage needs – or if you want to change carriers at some point in time, control of the client by the agent instead of through carrier systems is preferable.
These agency portals are still years away. In the meantime, your website can be a “Window on the World” for your clients. You need to make the website interesting and changing on a frequent basis in order to draw clients to view it more than once (or at all). And this information sharing does not have to be insurance-based. Examples that I have seen of agency websites that are interesting enough for clients to tune in regularly include posting local high school and college sports, school and extra-curricular activities, schedules and scores. Along with those scores and local weather reports and school closing notices, the home page should always have some catchy articles linked of interest to your general insurance agency clients. www.Insurancenewsletters.com ,and www.imms.com are just two of the many sources of newsletter content and linking content that can keep your website fresh.
Automated linking from your website to your carriers is beneficial today. Your client would still have to access YOUR website to reach the carrier and some carriers are establishing their automated systems to permit direct access by clients. If the clients are going to contact the companies direct, wouldn’t you still want them to do so through your website as opposed to their accessing the company directly?
As the primary agency management systems mature and give you the potential of secure access to client data, those links can be easily altered with the client gaining their information from either your database or from the carrier (depending on where the information resides).
So the answer to whether you should have a website is “only if you plan properly for it”. It should be interesting, fast (remember not everyone has broadband and graphics could take a long time to load) and content-rich. There are content providers out there, so you don’t have to write and edit your content yourselves. Information on your site should be interesting to your clients, provide ever-changing information about your services and allow for interaction by your clients. This means every page should provide a link to e-mail to you for client questions. When possible provide links and live information (with security) to your clients about their insurance programs.