Insurance companies that sell policies online are walking a tight rope. The elimination of agent commissions is a high price to pay compared with the potential backlash from their bread-and-butter agent force.That explains why many traditional carriers still are hesitant to sell policies on their Web sites and instead have opted to beef up the customer service capabilities of their Web sites.

The Prudential Insurance Co. of America in August unveiled several new enhancements to its Prudential Online Account Access program, which was launched in March. The program enables customers of the Newark, N.J.-based carrier to view their consolidated account data covering life and property/casualty insurance, variable annuities and mutual funds.

The upgrades enable Prudential's customers to log on the carrier's Web site, www.prudential.com, and review coverage, account balances and investment allocations for variable universal life policies.

Also, mutual fund customers can transfer funds among their Prudential accounts.

"Our philosophy is that customers should get information anytime and anywhere they choose," says Denise Weiner, vice president of marketing for Prudential Online Account Access. "Customers can receive information from agents who sell the product, from our teleagents in our customer service centers, and on the Internet."

The information at all three points is consistent, Weiner says, because customer data is pulled from back-end systems by the same platform. Agents can access the information remotely through Prudential's LaunchPad service, a PC-based program that enables agents to use the Internet to retrieve customer information (see "Laptops Help Agents Who Are On The Run," May). The same system is used to display information on the Web and at a call center agent's workstation.

"We do not use a central database that retrieves and stores customers' information," Weiner says. "A request is made and the information is pulled off the appropriate system in real time. This allows us to quickly integrate new products and data associated with these products."

Although Prudential has an electronic mail capability on its Web site, the company does not believe that technology can duplicate the level of customer service provided by its agents.

"We never expect to replace the person-to-person kind of interaction, because financial services is a personal business," Weiner says. "You need that collaboration with a licensed agent."

Prudential has viewed product demonstrations of Web chat and Web collaboration technologies, and Weiner acknowledges that the company "will probably go that route someday.

"I would expect in the near future we'll deliver statements and forms over the Internet, but we haven't deployed that technology in a big way."

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