What Independent Agents Should Know About Customers Digital Expectations

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  • In January 2017, Guardian reporter Alison Moodie spoke with a New York City resident about his experience with renter’s insurance — or, more specifically, the reasons he had previously never purchased it in the past.

    “[D]ealing with insurance companies required filling out ‘endless paperwork’ and took too much time,” Moodie reported. “He also didn’t trust that insurers would treat him fairly.”

    Clunky signups and issues of trust are holding consumers back from seeking insurance. While Moodie’s piece was actually about Lemonade, an InsurTech startup focused on renters and homeowners, the same lessons apply to everyone in the insurance business, from well-funded tech companies to independent agents.

    Consumers today struggle to understand why buying insurance requires a byzantine process of phone calls, office visits and paperwork. After all, they can handle doctor’s appointments through an online portal, banking through a mobile app and Amazon purchases through a voice-activated cylinder on their kitchen counters.

    Maybe it’s a little early for independent agents to be thinking about making their auto insurance products available for purchase via Alexa or Google Home. “I don’t believe customers are yet ready to get or service their insurance this way,” writes Deloitte partner Nigel Walsh. But you should be meeting your customers halfway by making that auto insurance available for purchase online.

    That’s what we mean when we talk about digital experiences — using tools that are already familiar to your customers to make it easier to sell your insurance products.

    Here is what you need to know about creating a digital experience that is in line with your own goals as an independent agent.

    Digital Tools Allow Customers to Lead the Conversation

    The Boston Consulting Group, which studies the insurance industry intently, argues that the consumer experiences that have emerged in the last decade (e.g., one-hour delivery times when you order from Amazon) have set certain expectations for consumers that every industry today grapples with to some degree.

    For the insurance industry, these expectations include:

    • Seamless interaction. Customers expect you to meet them wherever they are, whether that’s in their email inboxes, on Facebook or via text message.
    • Understandable, personalized service. People want to understand what’s in a policy’s Terms & Conditions well before they make any purchase decisions. For independent agents, this means having someone who can explain to prospective buyers — who are still window shopping — what exactly a policy will cover and what it won’t.
    • Shorter response times. Customers expect that you won’t put off their questions until tomorrow.

    These aren’t short-term trends, either, but long-term realities that every industry is facing. As Denise Garth at Majesco points out, internet-native generations like Millennials (all of whom are legal adults) and Generation Z (who are in high school and college) will only further demand that their insurance agents meet them where they are comfortable, engaging online.

    This trend leads us to three important conclusions that we will explore below.

    1. Your Customers Want a Single Digital Storefront Where They Can Shop

    It’s easy to make the case that a business should become a one-stop shop for their customers. Walmart rode that lesson to success in the 1980s and 1990s, and Amazon is doing the same today, just in a digital world rather than a brick-and-mortar world.

    But insurance products are more complicated than consumer goods, so it’s not simply a matter of adding “Buy Now” buttons to your website. An agent needs to understand a prospective client’s specific needs, provide comparative quotes and anticipate what objections they might have about a product.

    It’s possible to do this online, says Microsoft insurance industry director Dennis Vanderlip, but your business must have the right technology in place. “[I]f the broker can have a rich conversation and gather all the information around the customer’s requirements, and can use an online portal to tweak the product to the right price point or search the market and provide comparative quotes while they’re talking to the customer, that can enable them to conclude the business there and then.”

    There are a variety of examples from other industries where companies have discovered how to have these rich conversations with potential customers.

    Outdoor gear retailer REI built activity-specific apps where customers can ask experts gear questions before they buy. The company that helped build those apps, New Relic, says even being able to answer a customer’s query about whether a specific climbing route is open allows REI to build and nurture ongoing relationships, which can turn curious climbers into lifelong customers.

    Imagine the goodwill your business could build if you could walk first-time homebuyers in your community step-by-step through that process via a simple app.

    Airbnb, whose software combs a massive inventory of short-term rental properties, built its entire business around the idea that it can meet any traveler’s price point. This allows the company to build relationships with everyone from backpackers to families to “sophisticated customers who are ready to pay more for experiences in some of the world’s most unique homes,” CX Network’s Sofya Bratus writes.

    Could you capture a larger local market share if prospective customers could browse all of your available products to find the one that meets their budgetary needs?

    Santander UK, a major bank in Europe, was able to connect its social media presence to both its marketing and customer support teams. Sprinklr, the company that integrated those efforts, notes that the bank receives about 3,000 messages on social media per week, and having that single landing point for both prospective customers and existing customers needing support allows the bank to be more responsive to everyone’s needs.

    If your customer support could nimbly and publicly attend to the needs of everyone who reached out to you, how many referrals would that be worth each year?

    2. Your Customers Want the Buying Experience to be Seamless and Easy

    Some of the biggest consumer-facing companies in the world are exploring the frontiers of artificial intelligence and trying to understand how this technology will let them connect with their customers.

    This sounds futuristic, but it’s actually happening in the most mundane way: via text messaging. As software designer Tony Aubé points out, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel with customer communications. One of the most effective ways to respond to a potential or existing customer is by text.

    Dr. Robin Kiera, who advises and mentors tech companies, argues that Lemonade, mentioned above, has proven this in one of the hardest-to-crack markets in the country: New York’s housing market. By using chatbots to help process customer communication via text message, “Lemonade showed that it’s technically possible to build a radically customer-centric sales and claims process.”

    For an independent agent with a 2-person team, however, chatbots powered by artificial intelligence might not be a reasonable fit. But there’s plenty of technology on the market that can smooth the edges of any customer communication process.

    A customer management system, for example, is already a massive improvement over a system built on Excel spreadsheets and handwritten Post-Its to remind agents to follow up with someone. And as certified insurance counselor Steve Anderson points out, you can easily integrate a text management system so that when your CMS tells you it’s time to follow up with a prospective client, that follow-up message can automatically go to the prospect’s phone.

    3. Your Customers Have Learned to be Suspicious of Insurers

    Let’s pull back a minute for a glimpse at the bigger picture.

    When consumers grow accustomed to easy price comparison and easy-to-follow T&Cs, they begin to take that transparency for granted. And so when they run into an opaque, process-dense buying experience, they immediately feel suspicious.

    They don’t trust what they cannot verify.

    Dylan Bourguignon, CEO of London-based company So-sure, says that one of the big challenges the entire insurance industry faces today is regaining customer trust — not just because of the buying experience, but because plenty of customers have felt burned by administrative processes that they don’t understand.

    “When you buy a policy, it’s hard to actually figure out what you’re buying,” Bourguignon says. “And so you always feel there’s small print there to trip you up when you file your claim. The process to claim is painful.”

    Your digital channels give you plenty of room to clarify the terms of each policy — in clear language, stripped of legalese — so your customers know exactly what they’re buying. Further, those channels will let them graduate from curious shoppers to paying customers without the friction that comes from moving from channel to channel and having to restart the process again. Customers guide that process themselves when the digital experience is seamless and well-designed.

    Now, let’s put this all together.

    What Does a Better Digital Experience Look Like?

    As consumers, it’s easy for most of us to tell a good digital experience from a bad one. A good experience gives us all the information we need to make a purchase. That might include a website with customer reviews, a Frequently Asked Questions page, maybe a pop-up chat window.

    A bad experience is opaque and confusing. “When hailing an Uber with your phone, you know exactly where it is on the map, what it looks like, who the driver is and when it is arriving to the minute,” Tim Angiolillo at user experience design firm Cake & Arrow writes. “Agents and customers want similar transparency into what is going on with applications and with claims.”

    At the end of the day, a digital experience isn’t about stylish apps or intelligent chatbots. It’s about giving prospective customers the information they need when they need it. Today, “when they need it” is earlier in the buying process than it was just a few years ago.

    And that’s OK. Consumer expectations tend to shift as technologies and new generations come of age.

    If you can recognize the opportunities these shifts present today and build your buying processes around customer-centric digital channels, you stand a good chance of rising above your competition.

    images by: dolgachov/©123RF Stock Photo, gaudilab/©123RF Stock Photo, sifotography/©123RF Stock Photo

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