It's incredible how quickly technology, and the accessibility of the Internet and Web-enabled devices have evolved-even in the past few years. With these rapid advancements, both society and insurers are forced to adapt. So now that anyone can check claims status on their iPod, laptop or PDA from anywhere in the world, there's no excuse for carriers not to ramp up their online customer service offerings in an effort to better serve their Web-savvy client base.To many people, upgrading online customer service may seem the next logical step in the development of the Internet as a whole. However, many insurers may not be keeping pace with competition that is offering services and tools that not only attract new customers, but also address client's needs.

SERVICE 1.0

Traditionally, customer service for carriers has been based around the call center, or individual agents who field queries, claims and all other customer needs. While advances can be made to reduce this reliance on person-to-person interaction, doing away with this type of service altogether will never happen.

"Historically, in insurance, customer service has been provided by an agent," says Mark Gorman, strategic research adviser with Needham, Mass.-based TowerGroup Inc. "Now, organizations are recognizing that if they want to grow their relationships with the customers, they're going to have to take a more active role in the service of those customers and increase the number of interchanges they have with them."

Despite the fact that no amount of circuitry or slick interfaces can ever fully replicate the human element, which is still desired by many customers, increasing service interaction with customers on the Web is one of the best ways for insurers to build that relationship.

"There are certain market segments that are still looking for human interaction, because the process of insurance is viewed as an information exchange-they want that information exchange between humans to help them clarify their understanding," Gorman says. "There are other market segments-younger market segments-that are so comfortable with the Web as an information exchange source, and are relatively self-directed in its use, that they are looking to avoid that human interaction and actually want that interface."

The latter is particularly evident with San Francisco-based online auto insurer Esurance, which offers consumers the opportunity to complete transactions online as opposed to over the phone.

"Most of our customers start the process online, and many finish online," says Lisa Ward, director of customer experience, Esurance. "Some decide they'd like to speak to an agent midway through the process, or at the critical point where they need to input their payment information."

Designed to be a complete self-service solution, Esurance allows customers to speak with an agent at any time over the phone by clicking a link accessible from any page on the Web site. Then, contact between the user and agent can occur in one of two ways: users can either have the agent call them, or they can call the agent.

SERVICE 2.0

In order to address this increasing demand for customer service capabilities on the Web, carriers are constantly upgrading and redesigning their sites. Not only are companies looking to streamline processes, but also to add as many additional tools and services as possible to draw in customers and non-customers alike.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based BlueCross BlueShield of Florida (BCBSF) is redesigning its online services to be task-driven, where users log on and the site self-identifies what the person is looking for based on the links they click. According to Drew Thoeni, vice president of market intelligence and e-commerce, the site redesign, to be launched in Q3 2008, will automatically put users on the right tasks, and display the most helpful tool for that task, making it easier for users to flow through the site's features without having to figure out how to find things themselves.

Esurance is in the process of implementing a new customer sales interface. The result of extensive real-time usability testing and feedback from customers and participating insurance companies providing quotes, the platform refines the online sales process.

"For about the past year-and-a-half, we have been designing and developing a new sales interface that has rolled out live in five states," Ward says. "The platform has a whole new look, the user interface is updated, the pages and questions are revised to make the flow more streamlined and we've incorporated additional tools to make use easier."

This redesign is part of Esurance's purchasing platform, which allows new customers to log on and purchase a policy on their Web site. Customers can receive a quote, have the quote finalized, purchase the policy and print an actual ID card all in the same session.

The whole process, start-to-finish, takes about 10 to 15 minutes-all without needing to receive a follow up call from an agent the next day. Customers can opt to leave the Web site and speak to an agent at any point, but it's not required.

Like BCBSF and Esurance, Highmark Inc. also is redesigning its site. First launched in 2000, the company's member-secure site has regularly added functionality over the years to make it more robust for the members.

"We hadn't redesigned our site since 2002 or 2003, and the array of functionality had grown dramatically," says Kim Bellard, vice president of e-marketing and customer relationship management for Highmark, which is based in Pittsburgh. "Our old site had become crowded to the point where it was overwhelming to the consumer to find what they needed. Now, we've laid things out by major categories with tabs related to customers' coverage, spending and health, to name a few, and then arrayed the functionality in logical groupings under each tab. We also changed the look-and-feel, and the navigation to make it very clear to people what is on the site."

TOOLS AVAILABLE

While improving previous functionality is important to attract and better serve customers, companies aren't just focusing on redesigning their sites. Carriers continue to deploy new online tools to aid existing customers, and lure new ones.

Care Calc, an online health cost estimating tool already in use by providers through the BCBSF portal, will soon be available to customers as part of BCBSF's new site. "Members will be able to go to the Web prior to going for an office visit and know ahead of time what to expect the visit to cost," Thoeni says.

In addition, BCBSF is planning new Web tools, including: a device to facilitate finding and making appointments with doctors, a financial instrument to help users to track their health costs, enhanced health risk assessments, free informational Webinars and hospital comparison tools, among others.

Highmark recently released a tool that offers customers an idea of what will likely happen under each health plan available to them. Customers input information about their health conditions and their costs per-paycheck, and the program calculates their expenses under each plan. "It's a modeling tool to give customers a preview of how they would fare under the different plans available," Bellard says.

The leading use of the Highmark site, Bellard notes, is for its provider directory. "We try to steer people to the Web for that information now," he says. Highmark also offers customers information about their claims status, health habits appraisal questionnaires that recommend helpful programs and activities, and the ability to print an ID card.

SERVICE 3.0

While improvements to online customer service have been made, there is still room to grow. In the life and annuities sector that relies mainly on brokers as the base of contact for consumers, the Internet is currently only a source of information, according to Rachel Alt-Simmons, senior analyst, insurance, TowerGroup. Because of this, improved service tools would be welcomed.

"Something that would be valuable in the life and annuities market is a comparison tool that lines up the different options to help consumers make a more informed choice about a very complex product," she says.

Despite this specific void, improving online customer service has become a priority for many carriers as they continue to employ new tools to attract new customers and aid their existing clients.

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