I recently attended an insurance industry conference with the usual mix of attendees from agencies and carriers, two groups that can be described as frenemies. There are deep-seated suspicions on both sides, even though they profess undying love for each other. Culturally they are worlds apart — small, often family-owned businesses on one side, big corporations on the other.

Coming from outside the insurance industry, one question has always baffled me: “Who is the customer?” Only in the insurance industry is this a hard question.

Carriers often view agencies as customers, sending field reps to promote products and improve their “share of the book." Carrier reps arrive, with similar agendas and checklists, and agencies politely respond to them all, providing a verbal equivalent of copy and paste replies. The reps are welcomed as a matter of courtesy and a quarterly ritual dance transpires that involves lots of smiling and handshakes. Agencies care far more about generating leads and nurturing the prospect through the sales process. To characterized the differences: carriers talk about products and agencies care about solutions. And even though it is flawed, in most cases it works.

It could go on like this forever, but social media is threatening to disrupt this unholy alliance. Social media, we are told, is not about selling products, but developing relationships. Agencies look on with some concern as carriers attempt to be “human” by conducting dialogue with real customers — in other words, encroaching on their domain. Agencies, it turns out, quite like the inhuman, autocratic face of carriers; it helps demonstrate agencies’ value.

Carriers are creating content that they want agencies to pass through their own social channels — a process called social amplification. Agencies aren’t especially keen on the heavily branded, product-oriented content, preferring their own local news and updates. Certainly, agencies need help with social media, but they need training, technical help and support. However, carriers lack motivation to stop putting forth the argument that agencies want to use social media to develop the agency’s brand, so what’s in it for the carrier? The “rising tide raises all boats” counterargument only goes so far.

Agencies do need to enhance their own brand; they are people that can develop relationships. Many consumers are shunning the bricks-and-mortar offices of agencies either because they are too busy or simply not in town during the workday. The ability of agencies to develop purely digital relationships is now essential. Carriers, on the other hand, struggle to create true ongoing relationships, as customers see little value. The carrier is far more qualified to deliver on macro issues such as social care, natural disaster updates, community support, promotions and campaigns.

Social media might force carriers and agencies to rethink their relationship and roles, and if that is the case, that’s not a bad thing. Because then we might be able to answer the question: “Who is the customer?”

This blog was posted with the permission of the Customer Respect Group.

Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group, has covered technology issues and innovations in the insurance industry for many years.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Terry using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He also can be reached at terry@customerrespect.com.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Digital Insurance content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access