If insurance carriers want their online shoppers to become online buyers, they need to give their customers more respect.That's a warning derived from recent analysis of 70 insurance Web sites that gave the insurance industry an average online Customer Service Index of 6.8 out of 10. Furthermore, the analysis reveals that although 93% of insurers post online privacy policies, 35% of them share customer data without the customer's permission.

These results don't bode well for insurers that plan to reap the potentially significant cost savings associated with online distribution.

Sharing data

"We are certainly cheered by the results of the top several companies in our survey," says Roger Fairchild, president of The Customer Respect Group, the Bellevue, Wash.-based firm that conducted the review for its Winter 2004 insurance industry report.

"But frankly, we are concerned to note that so many of the nation's largest insurance companies are sharing personal data without permission and that responsiveness to online inquiries remains, at best, spotty," he says.

To calculate the scores, the Customer Respect Group assesses each company's site approximately every six months. Its Customer Respect Index (CRI) comprises more than 60 attributes, which fall into six categories:

  • Ease of navigation (simplicity).
  • Respect for customer privacy (privacy).
  • Customer focus (attitude).
  • Open and honest policies (transparency).
  • Quick and thorough responses to inquiries (responsiveness).
  • Respect for customer data (principles).

The highest-ranked insurance company Web site in the Winter 2004 report was Cincinnati Financial Corp., which received a Customer Respect Index (CRI) score of 9.6 out of a possible 10.
Cincinnati Finan-cial's Web site scored high across the board-particularly in the categories of transparency, principles and privacy. "Those categories pertain to how clearly the company states its privacy policy, how easy the policy is to read and understand, and not sharing personal information without users' permission," Fairchild explains.

Cincinnati Financial's site also scored high in attitude, Fairchild adds. "Attitude has to do with the tone of the privacy policy and how easy your site is to read and navigate. It also takes into account how easy it is to contact the company via the Web site," Fairchild adds. "Do they give an online form that you can submit, as well as offline contact information, for example?"

Also affecting a Web site score is the amount of personal information an online visitor must provide in order to receive information or purchase a product on the site. "The fewer the fields, the better it is," Fairchild says. Scores also are influenced by a company's responsiveness to online inquiries.

Timely response

"Many of the sites that scored the lowest were poor in their responsiveness," says Fairchild. "Either they had no contact information available or they provide only an offline method."

Others have no auto-responder technology to affirm the customer's request and furnish an expected response time for a complete answer-or they didn't respond in the expected time. Some (1%) didn't respond at all. Overall, 57% of the insurance Web sites that were analyzed use auto-responder technology, and 74% responded to online inquiries within 48 hours.

"We know that 70% of customers will go to another site if they don't receive a response in what they think is a timely manner," says Fairchild. What's more, studies of consumer Web site behavior also indicate that 77% of consumers will return to a site if it's easy to use.

"That suggests that people who design sites with the user in mind will have higher sales rates and better customer retention," he says.

"Studies show that companies that redesign their site around user needs increase their online sales by as much as 30%."

Note: For a complete list of the insurer sites and their overall scores, visit the Insurance Networking News Web site at www.insurancenetworking.com, and enter the word "winter" in the search line.

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