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02:25 PM
Tim Attia
Tim Attia
Commentary
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Going Direct: More Than a Portal

Any condition that might occur when the consumer is determining the path they'll take in their insurance buying process needs to be taken into consideration.

As consumers increasingly move to the Internet for their insurance shopping experience, insurers are hurriedly looking for an effective response. Early consumer desire to connect online for insurance transactions spawned the popularity of the first portals. While a nice first step, portals alone fail to deal with the complexity of the buying experience online shoppers have come to expect. Customers want a choice of product and an easy to navigate omnichannel experience with the flexibility to address their individual buying preferences.

Portals may still play a role, but there are many more necessary ingredients for going direct. Any condition that might occur when the consumer is determining the path they'll take in their insurance buying process needs to be taken into consideration -- even if it means opting out of the online process in search of an expert's ear. A comprehensive going-direct strategy includes a variety of technology, simple to navigate processes, and the right products and people resources.

Predicting the process
Moving to an online channel will only be successful and profitable if much is automated. Automation is typically associated with repetitive and predictable processes, yet consumer behavior is not always repetitive, and even less predictable.

Omnichannel processing and seamless movement between channels are now table stakes when going direct. You never know what path a consumer will take in the shopping process. You can, however, increase your chances of attracting the consumer's attention and influencing their path by knowing the customer. The combination of big data and predictive analytics technologies can do a lot to better understand the consumer and their potential behavior.

If your process isn't easy or your brand isn't present when the buying decision is being made, the consumer will take their business elsewhere, and it will most likely be a long time before they return. If they stay because you've kept them engaged during the process, the experience was pleasant, and you addressed their needs with simplicity and the right products (more on that later), chances are good that you will earn the sale and build brand loyalty, translating to a potential lifetime of business.

The human touch
Agents, underwriters, and call center representatives are all key in a direct distribution model. Insurers need to take into account what happens when the consumer transitions from the online process midstream in search of human voice.

[Previously from Attia: Lessons for Insurers from Wayne Gretzky]

Rather than disintermediating the agent, their role will be increasingly critical as online product offerings, including commercial lines, become more and more sophisticated and complex. While technology helps automate and simplify the insurance research, selection, application, and buying processes, there will be those times when the buyer wants to connect with a knowledgeable person.

The consumer will develop their opinion of your brand based largely on the service provided, whether online and automated, person-to-person, or a combination.

Product preferences
The best technology, people, and processes won't make much difference if you don't have the right products -- products that the consumer is looking for and that lend themselves to being sold through a direct online channel. Online products need to offer simplified application and underwriting processes to keep things quick and easy.

Consumers often need multiple products and small business owners, thinking like consumers, have both commercial and personal coverage needs. Once you are engaged in an online dialogue with the buyer, you want to keep them within your going direct channels -- even partnering with competitors to offer products not in your portfolio.

Product choice is key. Consumers don't like a "choice of one." Coverages, deductibles, and price may vary, and consumers want options to choose what they feel best serves their personal preference, needs, and budget. Even if you have the product or products the consumer desires, presenting your options side-by-side other carriers is giving the customer their preferred experience along with broad product choice.

While these suggestions might be considered radical by some and definitely buck the traditional insurance sales process, today's consumers rule. They are in the power position to tell insurers what products they want to buy and how they want to buy them. Yes, as Bob Dylan said, "The times, they are a-changin'."

Technology beyond portals
Obviously no going direct strategy would be complete without technology. Portals are still a valuable component, and I've already touched on big data and analytics. Still others to consider include all things Internet (e-signature, e-applications, e-delivery), social media, mobile, gamification, and automated underwriting -- just to name just a few.

The reality of insurance sales today is that there is no turning back the hands of time. Buying insurance online is the undeniable direction being driven by consumers. While portals might have been all the rage five years ago, consumers are now expecting a more sophisticated online buying process. It is incumbent on insurers to respond with a going direct omni-channel approach that combines people, process, products, and technology.

Tim Attia is the Executive Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Bolt and brings over 20 years of experience in the IT and insurance industry. Prior to joining Bolt, Attia was the Worldwide Vice President of Sales for Exigen Insurance Solutions, a San Francisco-based ... View Full Bio

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Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Author
10/28/2014 | 11:58:57 AM
Re: Going direct
A smart house buying its own insurance - now there's an interesting implication for the Internet of Things! Good point, though, and your situation illustrates a perfect example of the kind of experience that customers don't want. Sounds like your old insurer has some work to do on its customer service strategy. 
Tim Attia
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Tim Attia,
User Rank: Apprentice
10/28/2014 | 12:19:47 AM
Re: Going direct

Thanks for your comment Kelly. Yes, human contact is key – people will buy the way they want to buy.  However, if the human at the other end of the call does not know you are already a customer and has to ask you basic questions that can (and should) be collected through analytics and data, then it could lead to an even worse customer experience. A good example... I've been a client of my home & auto insurer for over two decades.  I recently called them for a quote on another property after an exasperating experience trying to figure out their web portal.  They asked me how many claims I've had in the last 6 years and I asked myself "shouldn't they already know this?" – then I purchased the insurance from another carrier.  Maybe the Internet of things or connected devices will help. My house can go shopping for insurance without my involvement.  It knows how far it is form a hydrant – I don't. Now, THAT would be interesting.

Kelly22
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Kelly22,
User Rank: Author
10/27/2014 | 4:01:28 PM
Going direct
Interesting insight, Tim. I like your point about the importance of human contact. Oftentimes, so much focus is placed on technology that we often forget how important a role people play in delivering optimal service. Of course having the right technology is crucial, but the more complex a product is, the more that customers will want to talk about it before purchasing. 
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