When you're running an insurance company with a business model based on Internet distribution, you need to develop a top-notch Web site. That was management's goal when online insurer Esurance Inc. was launched in 2001 at the height of the dot-com bubble, and that's still the company's intention today.Esurance has implemented two new Web technologies over the past year to keep its Web site running smoothly and enable customers to effortlessly contact a service representative when they encounter a problem.

"We're a technology-driven company," says Gary Tolman, president and CEO of San Francisco-based Esurance. "We're an insurance company, but we're based on technology. Everything we do is based on leveraging technology to be a low-cost provider. We're trying to do it faster, better and cheaper."

Faster, better, cheaper are the results of a Web monitoring application Esurance installed late last year. Developed by San Francisco-based TeaLeaf Technology Inc., the software, called RealiTea, sits on a server outside the production environment, monitoring every keystroke and mouse click on Esurance's Web site.

By capturing each user session for later review, the application has enabled Esurance to recoup an average of six policies per day-policies that otherwise would have been lost due to an application or transaction failure. If those policies sell for $1,000 apiece, Esurance is earning $2 million more in revenue this year as a direct result of using this tool.

"We probably recouped our costs for TeaLeaf within three months of purchasing the software," says Marj Davies, director of Internet operations at Esurance. "Our Web site is a highly technical site," she says. "There are a lot of moving parts. It used to be a huge task for our production support team to determine which part wasn't moving appropriately."

Ordinarily a nightmare

Now, however, the team can quickly identify a problem and find out how many customers are affected. That's because the software encapsulates each session into an executable file, which production support staff can replay if necessary-"like watching a movie," Davies explains.

"If you're on our Web site going through a transaction and you get an error message, you can call our call center and say, 'I was just on your site and I got this error message,'" Davies says.

Ordinarily, troubleshooting a problem like that is a nightmare, she notes. But with RealiTea, an Esurance technician can locate that session in the database--using a customer's e-mail address or other identifying information-and analyze and fix the problem much more quickly.

"We watch what the customer did when they entered the site, where they clicked, and what pages they went to," she says. "We see the entire session. So we see exactly what happened when they got the error."

For example, some Esurance visitors were bouncing back to the home page after they entered their vehicle identification numbers (VINs)-near the end of the application process. "We couldn't duplicate the problem to save our lives," says Davies. But after replaying one of those sessions on RealiTea, production support discovered the customer had inadvertently entered an invalid VIN, which triggered the setback.

To find out how many customers were running into this problem, Esurance technicians set up an alert on the Web site. The software enables Esurance to set up alerts to inform staff when an error page is served a specified number of times. This way, the company can prioritize errors that impact new sales and affect customer service.

"We found (the invalid VIN problem) was happening to enough visitors that we had to get the defect corrected and deployed immediately," Davies says. Being able to determine which errors are significant is an important feature of the software, she notes.

"With a site as large and complex as ours, there is a lot of 'noise,' and you can waste valuable time chasing issues that turn out to be inconsequential," she says. "We're dealing with the customer-facing problems first, and the noise as we go along."

Bailing out

One recurring problem that Esurance was able to quickly address was temporary busy signals (TBSs), which many Web sites encounter. "That was a big hit we had immediately after we installed the software," Davies says. "We worked to eliminate all of our TBSs--because they frustrate a lot of customers and they bail from our site," she says.

Speaking of bailing out, the company also uses RealiTea to find out where customers leave the site, and on what pages they're spending the most time.

"We have nearly 1 million visitors on our site each month," Tolman says. "Approximately 35% of those people actually initiate a quote and 67% of them complete the quote. We're paying to get people to the site, and we want to make sure they get the quotes."

As a result, Esurance's marketing group spends a lot of time figuring out how to optimize its site.

For instance, the company added check boxes to the Web site to remind people of the items they would need to buy a policy: their VIN, their driver's license number, their Social Security number, and payment information.

Although the checkboxes were added to make the process easier for the customer, the marketing group discovered that more people dropped out after this change was made.

"You have to be very careful about the questions you ask and how you ask them," Tolman notes. With TeaLeaf, "we can see what words and questions are working," he says. "It allows us to test-with different colors, phrasing, images, things like that."

That's important because the online insurer is always concerned with yield-how many people are getting through the site. "Now we can see: This is a page where a lot of people are leaving," Tolman adds. "And by changing words, the look and feel of the page, we can understand which pages are working."

At press time, Esurance had been using the Web monitoring software for about a year. More recently, it also has been beta testing a new feature-a report card that monitors site metrics, such as page load times. "We get a report that shows green if everything is good and red if it's not, and we can drill down on the red portions to see where the problems are," says Davies.

"We want to continue to be the fastest (insurance) quote on the Web," she says. "So if our pages aren't loading quickly enough, or if our customer service application isn't loading quickly enough, we need to know that."

Click to call

The company also wants to know when customers on their site have questions. To that end, it recently deployed another tool-a "click-to-call" service from eStara Inc., Reston, Va. The voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) service enables visitors on Esurance's site to simply click a button on the Web page to speak with the appropriate customer service representative directly through their PC or via a telephone.

"We want to get people to our site, quote them, and sell them a policy," says Tolman. But the company also realized that getting people on the phone is important too-especially if they have a question while they're online in the purchasing process.

"After customers get a quote, our online conversion rate is 5%," he says. "However, if we get them on the phone, our conversion rate is greater than 12%. So we're using the online capability with the offline capability. It's a blend, and it has been a big success for us."

The company actually completes 40% of its sales through its telesales operation. "These are people who have come to the Web site, generally have received a quote, and then have questions along the way," Tolman says.

Before implementing click to call, those customers had to stop the process and call the service center. Now, when they click to call, they can talk to a representative immediately through their PC-if they have VoIP capability-or they can schedule a time for a rep to call them back on a telephone. "It's more efficient--and it keeps that person in the store, so to speak," Tolman adds.

In addition, the click-to-call service automatically routes customers to the appropriate telesales representative, and places them at the front of the queue, where they're less likely to abandon the call. "Our abandon rate for people who use click to call is around 4%," he says. "That's about 50%, maybe even 100%, less than our usual abandon rate."

So far, click to call has increased purchase inquiries by 30%. And, "many customers have let us know that they think the click-to-call technology is really cool," says Tom Capp, director of telesales at Esurance.

They appreciate the fact that they're routed immediately to the right person versus having to keep dialing to get the appropriate person through an interactive voice response system, he says.

"We have an award-winning Web site and some of the highest customer satisfaction ratings in the industry," Tolman says. "To sustain such excellence, it's imperative that we continue to innovate online, particularly in ... offering features that represent real benefits for our customers."

Customers appear to notice. Approximately 90% of visitors to Esurance's Web site rate their online experience as "excellent" or "good." Plus, more than 80% of Esurance customers would recommend the company to their friends and family, almost twice as many as other auto insurers, according Esurance research.

In addition, the company's site has received several awards, including one this year from Change Sciences Group Inc., an Irvington, N.Y.-based benchmarking firm (see "Customer Satisfaction Drives Auto Web Sites' Traffic," October 2004, page 6.)

Finally, the company has grown- from $17.5 million in premium revenue in 2001 to $200 million this year. "And we're making money, which we weren't doing in 2001," says Tolman.

Web Monitoring Tool Passes The Test

Production support staff and marketing specialists at Esurance Inc. use a Web monitoring application to correct errors that deter customers from purchasing insurance online and to improve the overall performance of the company's Web site.

But the San Francisco-based direct-to-consumer auto insurer is finding the technology useful in software testing as well. "We use (the Web monitoring application) to identify problems that might otherwise go undetected during our testing process," says Marj Davies, director of Internet operations at Esurance.

The software-called RealiTea from TeaLeaf Technology Inc., San Francisco-enables Esurance to set up error alerts on its Web site. As a result, when the company releases updates to the site-for compliance and new functionality-it uses TeaLeaf to set alerts in the test environmen-alerts that it plans to set on the live site. This way, "we find problems early on," Davies says.

Since Esurance has been using TeaLeaf for testing, the company is issuing cleaner releases, with a higher percentage of on-time release dates and fewer temporary busy signals in the production environment, according to Davies.

In addition, the application enables developers to be more productive because they don't have to recreate defects when they're assigned to fix them. That's because the software encapsulates each user session, which can be retrieved and viewed later.

The relevant encapsulated file is attached to each assignment in the company's defect tracking system. Then, when developers are assigned a defect, they simply click on the executable file and the error is recreated for them.

Esurance uses the application for other testing as well. Specifically, its uses RealiTea to test its online transactions with its partners, which include ComparisonMarket and AnswerFinancial.

The company uses XML to transfer data between its site and its partners' sites. The production team can see problems with the XML transfer of data in real-time and quickly resolve problems. "We've been able to bring more partners online, more quickly, with fewer errors," Davies says. "And we've been able to do that without increasing our headcount."

TeaLeaf will also be invaluable when resolving claims, according to Gary Tolman, president and CEO of Esurance. "Believe it or not, we have claims situations where the customer and the company do not agree on what has happened," he says. "We've had a number of cases where customers have an accident first, then they go in and buy the coverage an hour later and file the claim."

Because RealiTea records every session on the site, Esurance can verify those contractual agreements. "We had an issue with a claim early on and ended up in court," Tolman says. "The judge wanted to see what the person actually did on the site. And we didn't have this technology back then. It would have been extremely helpful. The judge would have seen this person didn't do what they said they did."


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