Self-service is a growing strategy for more and more insurance companies. The push has its roots primarily in expense reduction but, increasingly, it has an element of responding to customer demand. However, there is one significant issue haunting the business case for most of these efforts—adoption rate.

Recent studies have shown that durable adoption rates in our industry are hovering around 15%, with some achieving as high as 25%. That is either good or bad, depending on what the going-in expectation was. Either way, it is a long way from shutting down the call center and pocketing that entire expense savings.

So what are the barriers to adoption and what can be done to overcome them? 


A mixed bag of capabilities with varying degrees of usability and complexity will kill adoption. The chaos you often experience as a consumer with Web self-service is rarely a technology issue; rather, it is almost certainly the lack of a single, coherent approach and leadership in the organization that put it together.

Cross-functional process ownership is minimal table stakes for development of an adoptable self-service capability. If the self-service is aimed at producers or agents, ownership across the various functions is even more important. If it is simple to get their underwriting status but impossible to figure out a commission issue, they will default to the phone, where they can have all of their questions answered—even if it takes a transfer or two.

Customer ROI

The organization’s ROI on self-service will never happen until the customer’s ROI is high. Customer ROI is a simple formula—the certainty of benefit has to exceed the anticipated effort; the higher that ratio, the faster and more durable the adoption of self-service will be. That formula has to work with each and every engagement, from sign up to initial use, and through repeated use. Companies with self-service capabilities are getting about one-third of their new customers to sign up, but lose more than half who never move into the user category. At every aspect of the offering, tight focus needs to be given to the customers’ perception of benefit and anticipated effort to maximize adoption.

Cross-Service Channel Consistency

A consistent way to access and use all of your service channels will help self-service adoption, but the consistent way has to be customer-oriented and easy. Requiring a policy number (a 10-digit, random set of numbers) to access services is not customer-oriented or easy. Opposed to completing a transaction over the phone, the Web site requires you to download a form—neither consistent nor easy. Companies with high self-service adoption rates have worked hard on these consistency and ease-of-use issues. For example, at one company, customers can choose their unique user ID and password, which are used to access any service channel. The ease of use encourages customers’ utilization of self-service systems.


One airline made a bold decision when they implemented self-service kiosks. They took people from behind the counter working the traditional long queue of passengers, and moved them out to the kiosks, helping customers learn how to use them. The traditional service lines grew longer, but self-service adoption took off. This airline staffed the kiosk training heavily for over a year after introduction, and as a result, they have the highest adoption rate of any airline and the shortest, lowest-staffed traditional service stations of any U.S. carrier.

Your self-service strategy has to include strong capabilities for providing live help. In the short run, this may drive up call center demand but it is critical to high adoption rates.


Self-service can work but it takes a solid, comprehensive approach. In successful companies, it is not just an IT initiative; rather, it is more about bringing together process management and customer experience management—that is the winning formula.

Ed Fenwick is a SVP for The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.

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