The Best Advice is Personal

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30 November 2016
Karlyn Carnahan

Much discussion has happened in the industry portending the inevitable elimination of the insurance agent as consumers move to purchasing insurance direct and online. Disruption of the agency model seems to be a foregone conclusion judging by the amount of recent investment in InsureTech startups focused on transforming the distribution model. The increase in insurers offering commercial insurance direct may be seen as an inflection point not just in terms of commercial lines sold direct, but in terms of a shift in momentum from the agent to technology, across lines of business. It’s not surprising that both insurers and consumers are interested in a shift in channels. It promises to be less expensive for an insurer to go direct, and consumers are clearly showing a shift in preferences for accessing coverage

However, consumers use agents for very good reasons. Prior to direct purchase on the internet, consumers needed agents to access different markets. There was no mechanism for a consumer to purchase directly from an insurer. With the advent of digital agents, aggregators, and direct-to-consumer insurance insurers, this reason is less important than it used to be. However, replacing an agent isn’t as simple as simply automating access to markets.

One of the primary points of value provided by an agent is personalized advice. Although access to markets is more readily available, consumers still need advice and guidance. Insurance is a complicated product. Understanding which coverages they should purchase, what limits and deductibles are appropriate, and whether additional terms or endorsements are relevant is one of the key points of value that an agent offers.

Consumers are more financially literate than ever before given all the information available on the internet, yet still want transparency in the choices available, and value guidance and advice as to what options are appropriate and why they are appropriate. 58% of consumers surveyed say that when choosing a financial services provider, they are looking for a personalized offer, tailored to the individual firm or person.

Until an insurer can accurately and appropriately provide advice it is unlikely we’ll see a wholesale shift of the channel. Some insurers focus on giving consumers choices by providing price comparisons with other insurers. Others have tried to provide choice by labeling side by side choices with titles such as “less coverage”, “standard coverage”, and “more coverage”. But these choices don't usually have any relationship to the actual risk profile of the prospect and don’t offer any suggestion as to why one option is better than another. Consequently, consumers aren’t confident enough to make a decision.

Want to know how to improve online conversion? Provide actual advice to a prospect with an explanation as to why a particular limit, deductible or coverage is relevant. Anecdotal conversations with companies who have implemented a feature like this indicate potential conversion improvements of 20-30% or more.

Automated advice comes in a variety of permutations that vary depending on how much automation is utilized and how much personalization is provided. Insurers can assess their capabilities and determine how to proceed down the path. Even small amounts of advice seem to have an impact on conversion.

Automated advice can range from very simple parameter driven advice, to incredibly sophisticated advice-for-one backed up with sophisticated analytics. It can be delivered via simple online suggestions, or through a guided journey using a chat bot. Each successive generation of advice engine seems to bring increasing benefits when it comes to conversion.

Yet automated advice also carries potentially significant risks. The customer is relying on the technology – including the assumptions and methodologies that underlie it. For example - did the system ask the right questions; did the prospect understand the questions adequately to answer accurately; did the algorithms act as intended, were the underlying business rules appropriate?

Using third party data can mitigate some of these risks, but raises other issues including the accuracy of that data. On the one hand, consumers are more financially literate, are looking for more transparency and control, and expect insurers to utilize technology in an online environment. However, insurers also have to be careful not to be creepy when using third party data.

Insurers can overcome creepiness by not overreaching, and by clearly communicating how they arrived at their conclusions. In this transparent world, the path to the recommendation becomes nearly as important as the outcome.

Interested in learning more about automated advice engines? Check out my newest report “The Best Advice is Personal: Robo-Advisors v. Agents”.

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