The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way millions of people communicate, shop and do business. In some ways, it intensified changes that were already happening, including the trend toward online shopping and increased demand for personalized service from insurance customers.
As the pandemic continues, however, customers’ adaptations are becoming habits. Consequently, insurance agents must prepare for virtual communication and other methods of connecting with customers to become the new normal. “Traditional ways of marketing and selling won’t work in the near-term, and maybe even in the long-term as some new behaviors are likely to stick beyond the pandemic,” writes Tiffany Grinstead, vice president of property casualty marketing integration at Nationwide.
For independent insurance agents, expanding their communication repertoire will be essential to building and maintaining customer relationships through the end of the pandemic and beyond.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down offices and other publicly-accessible spaces nationwide, insurance agents found themselves communicating virtually rather than in person. While the availability of vaccines helps reduce the risk of in-person meetings, many agents and customers have become comfortable with virtual communication.
Virtual communication, including meetings, offer a number of benefits. Meeting virtually can help reduce travel costs, for example. Also, virtual meetings make it easier for several people to attend a meeting when scheduling an in-person event is difficult or impossible.
“There’s still an argument for the effectiveness of in-person sales meetings, but the pandemic has opened the lines of communication for the entire organization. Where maybe one or two people might be in an in-person meeting, a virtual meeting allows multiple people to participate,” writes Chad Levine, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Aon Program.
Grinstead recommends that agents start optimizing their virtual communication and outreach with a focus on rethinking and expanding their digital marketing. A strong social media content strategy and personalized communication can also help agents reach customers and build stronger relationships.
Fortunately, agents have allies. Carriers are increasingly aware of agents’ desire to improve virtual communication in order to better reach customers. “Agents want to work with carriers that can help them create a strong digital presence, enhance customer access, provide a better user experience, and assist in reaching customers,” says Beth Riczko, president of P&C personal lines at Nationwide.
Often, this desire to work with digitally-minded carriers is driven by agents’ experience with customers. A survey by Nationwide found that 53 percent of agents and 52 percent of customers agreed that round the clock access to an insurance agent represented a benefit that digital tools and virtual communication could provide to customers. Similarly, 51 percent of agents say digital options are useful in helping them retain customers.
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the way many people carried out their ordinary lives. It changed our approach to everything from buying groceries to finding insurance coverage for homes, cars and businesses.
As a result, many insurance customers were pushed to take a more active role in their own insurance journey. Agents who provide the digital environment to help customers help themselves, and to step in when the customer needs an expert’s guidance, can build stronger relationships in the wake of the pandemic.
As the pandemic continues to influence behavior, customers are more likely to spend time online seeking their own information before turning to an agent.
In one survey, 40 percent of insurance agents expected to spend more on direct online sales post-pandemic, write Gary Shaw and Neal Baumann at Deloitte. Increased spending on digital channels arises from customers’ inability or reluctance to meet with agents in person during the pandemic. Shaw and Baumann predict that turning to virtual first will become customers’ new normal.
In the Nationwide survey, 55 percent of customers who responded said that digital options gave them faster access to insurance information. For agents, this means that more customers are likely to arrive with a basic understanding of their needs, and customers may have more specific questions about their individual circumstances.
Too much information, however, can overwhelm those seeking insurance coverage. “Customers have the lowest attention spans they’ve ever had and are spoiled for choice,” writes Dawnyel Smink at PropertyCasualty360. When customers become overwhelmed, they may forgo seeking information and jump directly to communication with an insurance agent.
Independent agents can improve customer service by preparing for customers who have learned a bit before reaching out and for customers inundated by information and options.
The pandemic forced many agents to move to a digital footing in order to keep doing business. Likewise, customers found themselves embracing digital tools to connect to services and industries.
Agents who worry about losing customers with a switch to a digital approach may find that the tail end of the pandemic is the best time to embrace virtual communication and other digital tools. Customers are more familiar than ever with digital avenues for doing business, and may now prefer them.
To bring customers along on the digital communication journey, let them know what will be changing and how it benefits them. “Customers will do business with you how you ask them to do business if you set the expectation and communicate the change,” says Erin Nutting, owner of Integrity Insurance Services, a digital insurance agency.
Keeping customers informed can build connections, strengthen relationships and ensure that business stays strong as independent insurance agents transition to a virtual environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic moved many aspects of daily life to digital environments. The shift to digital, however, corresponded with a shift in physical movement patterns in which more insurance customers now stay home or limit their travel.
“During COVID-19, home is the center of the consumer’s universe. It is a safe port in the COVID-19 storm. It’s also functioning as a school and office, and a shopping mall,” write Kenneth Saldanha and Todd Staehle at Accenture.
As insurance customers continue to stay home, they develop new connections with their home and a new understanding of their identity. They begin to prioritize security and their individual needs. They have also begun to break down some of the stereotypes that have surrounded digital adoption to date.
“I’ve seen customers of all ages going digital. We’re learning which of our customers want to be self-sufficient, and which ones want us to handle their needs. We have got to be able to manage both,” says Marcus Haith of Dodge Partners Insurance.
To engage customers through virtual communication and other digital channels, independent insurance agents will need to personalize the customer experience. Tools that help agents better understand each individual customer’s situation, risks and needs can help personalize the experience, as can virtual communication options that allow for one-on-one conversation even at a distance.
As in any industry, embracing digital technologies for the sake of technology is not optimal for insurance agents. Rather, agents can use digital tools to create opportunities for more meaningful conversations with their customers.
Capgemini’s Lawrence Krasner says that interactions with customers are meaningful when they occur at “those vital discussion points that can engage the customer and collect relevant information in which the customer shares critical information for an agent or carrier to understand their needs.” Conversations in which agents gain an opportunity to educate customers are similarly meaningful. The right digital tools can facilitate both exchanges, building a stronger relationship between the agent and customer.
The pandemic imposed a number of changes on the way insurance agents do business. Many of these changes are likely to remain past the pandemic due to the efficiency they offer and agents’ and customers’ newfound comfort levels. Agents that focus on building relationships through virtual communication and digital tools can gain access to the best of both worlds post-pandemic.
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