Ipswich, Mass. — Life insurers have a way to go when it comes to pleasing their online customers. So says the Customer Respect Group, an Ipswich, Mass., international research and consulting firm that, for the past five years, has reviewed and measured corporate Web sites using common sets of criteria that reveal how corporations treat and respect their online customers, in findings from its third quarter 2008 Online Customer Respect Study of life insurance industry Web sites.

The criteria used to measure Web sites construct the Customer Respect Index (CRI), and are structured into five sub-indexes; namely, content, navigation, search, trust and dialog. These sub-indexes differ slightly from the firm’s 2007 report, which measured site usability, communication and trust.

The 2008 index reflects overall best practices, online trends, common practices and developments within the corporate Web environment. Each year, more than 600 Web site reviews are conducted to capture possibly the largest database of activity and practices across many industries. These results are aggregated to form the cross-industry benchmark (CIB).

Overall, the life insurance industry scored 5.9 on the 10-point scale. This is viewed against a cross industry benchmark (CIB) average of 6.4 (the leading industries in terms of overall industry averages are retail and retail financial services).

In the 2007 life insurer ranking, the industry average CRI was calculated to be 5.0 on the 10-point scale, which placed it in the bottom 33rd percentile of all sites reviewed in all industries. This was actually an improvement from the bottom 20th percentile in past studies. Much of that improvement was the result of better transparency in privacy policies from life insurers.

The life insurance industry traditionally has scored comparatively low on the CRI, notes the report, stating that this is not very surprising, given that the Web has always been of relatively low direct importance to this industry compared to other industries. This study reaches a similar conclusion, but the study did record a greater range of scores compared to previous studies, illustrating different strategies starting to develop along with the creation of differentiation opportunities.

For the first time, however, a life insurance company has scored in the category that constitutes an “Excellent Rating.” In addition, two other companies, MetLife and Nationwide, scored marginally below that rating.

The top companies in the life insurance industry are:

Western & Southern Life
/CRI: 7.7
Nationwide/CRI: 6.7
Metropolitan Life/CRI: 6.7
New York Life/CRI: 6.4
Principal Financial/CRI: 6.4

The best insurance industry sites are following overall Web trends and innovations, applying some of the lessons and techniques that can be seen in other, possibly more dynamic industries, notes the report, such as:

Interactive and more engaging sites: The study recorded a strong growth on leading industry sites in the use of tools, calculators and rich media applications.

Increased self-service: Self service is becoming a requirement for research as well as account management and leading Web sites are embracing this move.

Cross-channel integration: The study also recorded the beginnings of a strategy to bridge the gap between online and offline experiences. Lead generation to agents and brokers has become more critical as Web site-based research has increased in importance to consumers. Leading companies also have started to extend this process to allow online users to begin the process online with completion offline.

The study also lists the following as its most surprising result :

Speed of innovation: The industry has traditionally moved slowly online, so the pace at which the leading companies have been updating their sites has been a pleasant surprise.

Not enough emphasis on trust: On the negative side, the industry continues to lag behind other industries in the area of overall trust, given the clear message that consumers do not trust online sites. In order for sites to effectively generate good leads for offline business, consumers must be persuaded to provide more detailed amounts of personal data. Overall, the sites make limited attempts to provide necessary assurances of security.

Lack of rate quoting: The industry continues to avoid online insurance quotes, trusting that online users will call agents for such information. Other industries such as travel and auto insurance that have adopted this route have seen market-share lost to rate comparison sites and more progressive companies.

The goal of the studies is to determine to what level Web sites raise unnecessary barriers to desired behavior goals. Barriers result in task abandonment, overall disappointment, and can even adversely affect users’ attitude toward a company itself. As the Web becomes increasingly critical, research has shown that online users become frustrated by poorly designed Web sites, a lack of interaction and any loss of trust.

The report authors predict that life insurance online trends generally follow other industries’ trends and implement logical advances as appropriate. The key online trends are likely to be self-service, demographic marketing, quote engines, lead generation/channel integration and a call for increased overall online content.

Source: The Customer Respect Group, INN archives

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