The nation's largest insurers together received a mediocre score for online customer respect. But the good news is: The banking and securities sector, as well as Fortune 100 firms overall, didn't ace the test either.This assessment comes from The Customer Respect Group Inc., a Bellevue, Wash.-based research company that studies the Web sites of Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 companies. The group gave insurers among the Fortune 1000 a 6.8 overall customer respect index (CRI) for their Web sites, while financial services firms scored 6.7 and Fortune 100 firms scored 7.0.

One factor that contributes to the lackluster marks is 30% of companies didn't respond to inquiries made at their Web sites. Overall, Amica Mutual Insurance Co. scored highest among insurers for online customer respect (9.1), Minnesota Life Insurance Co. placed second (9.0), and Old Republic International ranked lowest (2.4).

Tracking 25 attributes

"Amica's responsiveness was very impressive," says Thorsten Ganz, vice president of research at The Customer Respect Group. "Amica scored a perfect 10 by responding very quickly to our inquiry, and by having auto-responder technology to let us know that indeed the inquiry was received, and for providing us with a timeframe for turnaround."

The Customer Respect Group tracks 25 attributes to evaluate the Web sites of Fortune-listed companies. Those attributes fall into the following six categories:

* Privacy: How a company collects and manages personal information.

* Transparency: How clearly a company describes its privacy policy.

* Principles: How well a company protects personal information.

* Responsiveness: How quickly a company responds to customer inquiries.

* Simplicity: How easy a site is to navigate and use.

* Attitude: How a company treats visitors to its site.

The treatment of customers' personal information is a key element in a company's customer respect index (CRI), according to the report.

Minnesota Life received a perfect score of 10 for a friendly and easy to understand privacy policy. The Commerce Group came in second with a privacy CRI of 9.6, followed by AFLAC and Pacific Life, which both scored 8.9. The sector average in this category was a disappointing 6.8, the report states, leaving much room for improvement.

Nine percent of insurers evaluated did not post a privacy policy on their site-and of those that did, many statements were convoluted and difficult for the average person to understand, says Ganz. "We were surprised that this industry didn't do better in the privacy area," he says. With Gramm-Leach-Bliley mandating privacy disclosures, "we were expecting insurers to have a huge focus on that."

Minnesota Life shares the top spot for how clearly it states its privacy policy on its Web site, scoring another perfect 10, along with Erie Insurance.

Also receiving high scores of 9.5 for "transparency" were Prudential Financial, Principal Financial and The Commerce Group. Six insurers received a 9.0: The Allstate Corp., ALFAC, Torchmark, LandAmerica Financial Group, UICI and Amica Mutual.

To achieve a high "principles" rating from The Customer Respect Group, an insurer must protect data submitted online and provide customers with options for how they want their information to be used.

For principles, the insurance sector received a 6.0, compared with 6.8 for the Fortune 100. The low overall score for insurers was affected by the fact that 19 companies (30%) did not respond to inquiries submitted at their Web sites. Furthermore, only four companies ranked above an 8.5 in this category: Pacific Life and Minnesota Life (9.5), and The Commerce Group and Radian Group (9.0).

Automatic response

Of the 70% of insurers that responded to inquiries, 60% responded within 48 hours, 5% responded within 72 hours, and 5% responded after four days.

Also on the positive side, 12 companies acknowledged receipt of online inquiries by sending an automatic response, with e-mail follow-up within 48 hours.

Automatic response technology is an easy-to-implement and inexpensive way to improve online customer respect, says Ganz. "It's very helpful to customers because sometimes they send an inquiry and they don't know if it was received. A company can add a lot of value (by using automatic response) without adding a lot of cost."

Simplicity is the category in which companies scored highest. Insurers overall received an 8.0 and the Fortune 100 scored 8.2 for easy-to-use sites.

Companies focus their online budgets on the "look and feel" of their Web sites, according to the report. But too many still make the simple mistakes of not clearly identifying which fields are mandatory and by asking too many questions.

"Attitude" is the only category of online customer respect in which insurers outperformed the Fortune 100-with a 7.3 attitude CSI vs. a 7.0 for the Fortune 100.

The attitude index is influenced by how a company treats visitors to its Web site-the tone of communication on a site, how it protects personal data, and the quality of customer service.

Ohio Casualty and Minnesota Life earned perfect attitude CSIs of 10, closely followed by Progressive and UICI, which both scored 9.9.

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