Consumers’ desire to incorporate digital channels as part of their buying process is causing a shift in the role of agents and brokers, still the primary channel for insurance distribution.
Online shoppers expect to learn about carriers, compare products, obtain price quotes and purchase a policy quickly and easily. Some rely on social media to get information and advice about brands and coverage. According to Accenture data, 21 percent of consumers use, or are considering using, social media to perform research on insurance products; 36 percent of consumers under age 34 would consider using social media to perform such research.
Some shoppers prefer to chat online, text or email rather than to call or meet in person. Yet many shoppers who conduct research online will ultimately buy insurance from a human—either a local agent or a contact-center associate. Similar to consumer behavior already widely observed in the retail industry, rather than replacing one channel with another, many insurance consumers are diversifying and using more channels than ever to meet their needs.
In the face of these powerful trends, many agents lack a clear Web or social-media strategy: a branded, feature-rich digital presence; relevant digital content; and robust tools that better connect them with customers and the insurer. Agents generally do not have available or ample funds, skills and time to construct and run their own high-impact, competitive sites—and they do not have adequate marketing budgets to drive traffic to those sites.
With scale and efficiency on their side, carriers can drive transformation of the agency structure into a digitally powered, more competitive engine for growth. Carriers should take four key actions to make it happen:
1. Attract, hire, train and retain digital-savvy agents. The ultimate differentiator in an agency model is the broker or agent’s ability to establish enduring relationships with customers and the local market. Insurers need to improve their ability to attract, hire, develop and retain agents who can successfully build relationships in the digital world. Given that the average age of an agency principal is 51, insurers must empower the next generation of agents—equipping them with the tools and support that help them to be visible, connected, relevant and effective in an increasingly digital and mobile world.
2. Bring the strength of scale and skill to the agents’ digital presence. Carriers can leverage their scale and technology investments to cost-effectively extend high-quality, robust digital capabilities and websites to agents. Fueled by advances in real-time experience optimization and configurability, digital technologies have become more flexible and can enable carriers to personalize a customer’s digital experience and integrate unique agent-value propositions for specific customer segments. Moreover, carriers can extend their digital support to enable agents to connect with customers via social media by providing starter kits, training, best practices, content, as well as seamless access to quoting and other transactional capabilities.
3. Organize around the customer’s preference for “one conversation” across multiple channels. Insurers need to dismantle strong internal barriers, enabling agents, call centers, Internet, mobile, social-media and other channels to work together to meet consumers wherever and whenever they shop for insurance. For most carriers, this will entail an operating-model shift from multiple independent channels to a seamless customer dialogue enabled by a leadership team and organization aligned around the customer. Achieving this alignment typically entails tackling difficult changes to organization design, governance, performance management, incentives, behaviors and culture.
4. Empower agents to deliver a “local” personalized experience online. Insurers also need to take advantage of today’s digital technology to highlight agents’ key value: local presence and relationships. Rather than offering the same experience to all online shoppers, search- and experience-optimization tools can customize the experience based on insights derived from customer demographics such as location, gender and age; customer intent as expressed through search terms; and browsing history. Agents’ online profiles should expand to provide much more insight into who they are, what they do and what their customers think of them, while introducing their market specialties and the value they offer their customers.
A digitally powered agent network can take the consumer buying experience to a new, competitive level and meet consumer needs with a distinctive value proposition that offers both convenience and local relationships. For the agent and insurer, the investment will pay off in ways that grow sales and profitability through both direct and agent-based sales.
Visionary agents and insurers know they need to make a real shift now as part of a modern agenda to support high performance. Agents who adapt to consumers’ digital lifestyles will not only provide the high-value, personalized service that insurance buyers expect, they will compete more efficiently and effectively in a rapidly changing marketplace.