The Internet is the preferred vehicle of choice among auto insurance shoppers. But some big-name insurers' Web sites aren't designed to entice consumers on the information highway.That's the conclusion drawn by two separate reports, one benchmarking key features and offerings from 14 auto insurance providers, and the other measuring consumer satisfaction of 23 leading auto insurance providers' Web sites. The reports indicate that the leaders' are doing a good job of satisfying Web consumers' desire for quick, accurate quotes, online support for claims, and detailed product descriptions.

Other providers, however, aren't meeting Web shoppers' expectations, experts say. "An outside observer would not have a difficult time identifying the radical differences between how each site handles the rate-quote process," says Neil Markus, director of the insurance practice at Changes Sciences Group Inc., an Irvington, N.Y.-based benchmarking firm which recently released its second-quarter analysis of auto Web site offerings. "There's little agreement within the industry over how best to do this."

Top characteristics

Auto Web sites that have a short, accurate rate-quote process, answer questions upfront, and provide easy access to offline customer service, provide consumers with the best overall shopping experience, according to Change Science's report, "Online Auto Insurance Customer Acquisition: Customer Experience Benchmarks and Best Practices."

Change Sciences uses modeling technology to identify Web site design best practices.

Esurance received Change Science's top ranking for overall customer experience, and it's also No. 1 when rating how it supports the information needs of married couples and senior citizens. State Farm, Allstate, Nationwide and GEICO round out the top five in evaluating overall customer experience.

"The top Web sites have configuration tools that enable consumers to receive specific recommendations for coverage types, features, and amounts that fit their budgets," Markus says. "These sites also are not burying their toll-free customer-service numbers like some sites do, and the agent locator is prominently displayed."

Top five sites based on customer experience criteria

1. Esurance
2. State Farm
3. Allstate
4. Nationwide
5. GEICO

Bottom five sites

10. GMAC
11. MetLife
12. Washington Mutual
13. St. Paul Travelers
14. AIGDirect

Source: Change Sciences Group Inc.

These Web site attributes are important, he adds, because "consumers see the site as a way of reducing the cost of insurance and the time spent receiving information from call center reps."

The top performers also do a good job of explaining policy details and pricing. "Consumers need to have that give and take-'I'm giving you all this information about me, and I expect something in return,'" Markus explains, "so that they feel they're not just spinning their wheels when they're looking for a quote."

The Web sites at the bottom of the rankings make it hard on shoppers to move on to purchasing a policy once they receive a quote, they are difficult to navigate and they don't answer shoppers' questions upfront, he adds.

Customer satisfaction

Customer satisfaction of auto insurers' Web offerings is driven by five primary factors: interaction with the carrier, billing options and information, policy offerings, cost, and claims handling, according to J.D. Powers & Associates' 2004 National Auto Insurance Study, which, for the fifth consecutive year, awarded Amica Mutual with the award for the top site in overall customer satisfaction.

USAA had the highest overall rating in the study, but was not included in the rankings because it only serves U.S. military personnel and their families. Rounding out the top five in J.D. Powers' annual ranking are Erie Insurance Group, GEICO, Auto Club of Southern California and State Farm. Liberty Mutual, Progressive, AIG and Prudential had the lower customer service rankings.

Top five auto insurance Web sites based on overall satisfaction

1. Amica Mutual
2. Erie Insurance Group
3. GEICO
4. Auto Club of So. Calif.
5. State Farm

Bottom five sites

1. Allied
2. Liberty Mutual
3. Progressive
4. AIG
5. Prudential

Source: J.D. Power & Associates

The study, based on 13,944 responses from auto policyholders, also reveals that how an insurer supports claims service on the Web is a good indicator of customer satisfaction, retention and referrals to friends and family. Just 10% of all respondents rate Web support of claims as a significant contributor to satisfaction, but 62% of respondents who have filed auto claims said it was the most important factor.

"Proper handling of a claim is a good way to ensure customer satisfaction," says Kevin Keegan, executive director of the insurance practice at J.D. Powers, Westlake Village, Calif.

More than 50% of the respondents indicated that they had contacted their auto carrier in the last year for some reason other than a claim, and how carriers handle those customer contacts, Keegan adds, has the most influence on overall customer satisfaction. The survey found that policyholders who are using the Internet to check or update their policies have a higher satisfaction than those who contact their agents, talk to call center agents, or are routed to an automated phone system.

Other survey findings include:

  • While only 7% of auto policyholders surveyed use a carrier Web site to communicate with their provider, those who do are extremely satisfied with the experience.
  • Two-thirds of respondents say their provider reviews their needs periodically, and these consumers rate their providers significantly higher than other respondents.
  • Overall customer intent to renew policies with their carriers is at a four-year high.
  • Higher rates are the biggest reason why policyholders shop: more than one-third of recent online auto policy shoppers say that a rate increase prompted them to shop for another carrier.

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