Consumers are eager for a better customer experience, and while things are improving in the insurance space, the gap between the haves and the have-nots is getting deeper and wider. This is an especially pressing issue for insurers because, fairly or unfairly, customer expectations are being raised by Internet retailers, banks and other financial services industries, which seem to have little trouble offering the ability to transact business, self-serve, review detailed account histories and customize communications methods, frequency and detail online.

If only it were that easy, right? Insurers face unique challenges in offering such contemporary experiences, including numerous, complex, geographically specific products, regulatory concerns, enormous customer bases and legacy systems that never were intended or designed to offer meaningful information to "civilians," much less to deliver it to tiny hand-held screens, which essentially didn't exist three years ago.

But it's not all about mobile. Not yet, anyway. Across age groups, customers still want access to a knowledgeable person who can answer questions and offer advice. But they don't want to wait and so even then, technology plays an increasingly urgent role in making those interactions efficient and effective.

So much has been written about "being easy to do business with," and "core-systems transformation" I can practically hear your eyes roll. In reporting this month's feature, as much as possible, I tried to avoid those words, not because they are not important aspects of delivering a positive customer experience, but because there are so many other aspects that lay behind the portal and that figure so prominently in insurers' ability to satisfy customers' expectations. I wanted to focus on the nitty-gritty aspects of doing right by customers and the other technologies insurers are implementing to increase the effectiveness of internal operations and the efficiency of communications to offer better customer experiences to all the different types of customers they support, internal and external.

A lot is at stake, as much as $400 billion per year is up for grabs as consumers shop the competition and more are open to the idea of doing insurance business with Google and companies like Google, Accenture said. And agents have more choices available, too. The vast and growing majority of that shopping and research will take place online and increasingly on smartphones and tablets. The companies that thrive, or even just survive, will be those that can compete, not against their peers, but against the largest, best funded and technology-enabled insurers.

Don't be the company that brought a knife to a gun fight.

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