Although insurers' Internet experience is less than a decade old, it quickly has become an important channel for consumers and agents. This month's issue highlights the progress that insurers have made in developing e-business solutions, and some of the shortcomings that need to be addressed.Recent studies by J.D. Powers & Associates and Changes Sciences Group Inc. suggest that leading auto insurance Web sites are doing a good job of satisfying Web consumers' desire for quick, accurate quotes, online support for claims, and detailed product descriptions. However, the report shows there are some big-name laggards that need to improve their online quote-and-rate process, their Web site navigation, and their ability to provide specific answers to auto shoppers' inquiries.

Both studies indicate that carriers' online claims-handling capabilities are an excellent indicator of overall customer satisfaction, retention, and word-of-mouth recommendation. In the J.D. Powers' study, 62% of the nearly 14,000 respondents who have filed claims with their auto carrier say that Web support of claims is the most important factor for customer satisfaction. Carriers should note, however, that more 50% of the respondents to the J.D. Powers' study had contacted their auto carrier in the last year for some reason other than a claim. How carriers handle those customer inquiries has the most influence on overall customer satisfaction, according to the report.

As for insurers' online support for agents, this month's issue notes that there is a stalemate that needs to be resolved before real progress is made: Many carriers are reluctant to develop real-time interfaces with independent agents because they're unsure how much the tools will be used. Carriers contend that many agencies still lack even rudimentary electronic capabilities to maximize insurer e-service offerings.

And, independent agents are still bogged down by dealing with different interfaces for each carrier they work with. One potential solution is for widespread industry adoption of Web services, but experts say that's unlikely because many carriers have invested millions of dollars in developing proprietary Web sites.

The strength of the Internet is that it can simplify insurers' interaction with consumers and agents, and while progress has been made, it appears that the industry needs to address certain shortcomings before it reaches online nirvana.

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