Recognizing that an advisor may deal with as many as a dozen suppliers, insurance companies are constantly searching for ways to distinguish themselves. For many companies, gaining that competitive edge comes down to how they use the Web to reach out to advisors.

The 2003 Insurance Advisors’ Report Card indicates that Clarica Financial Services Inc. and State Farm Insurance Cos. lead the pack in Web support. Each firm earned a score of 8.0 out of 10 from their advisors. The two companies also topped the category last year, with scores of 8.3 and 7.8, respectively.

Most companies already have Web sites aimed at advisors that offer marketing tools, client statements, policy-status tracking tools and product information. So how do the good ones make their Web support stand out?

One way is to minimize the cost for advisors to access the Web. Clarica, for example, charges no technology fees. “It’s the other way around,” says president Jack Garramone. “We give them technology credits to make sure they keep their hardware up to date.”

Personalized service is another way of attracting advisors. Manulife Financial Corp., for example, houses secured information about all of its advisors in an “in box” in RepSource, its advisor site. RepSource delivers a personalized e-mail to each advisor every morning notifying them of waiting compensation statements and events such as company seminars and training.

Tim Traill, director of e-marketing with Manulife, says the company plans to introduce an “opt in/opt out” marketing element to the e-mail notification. Based on what products the advisors indicate they are interested in, they will receive updates through e-mail.

State Farm, which led the “advertising/marketing support” category in the report card for the second year, also has a dedicated in-house system, which includes online marketing materials and allows its agents to select an advertisement and have the marketing department customize it.

Insurance companies are also using the Web to raise the level of service to their advisors.

“In circumstances in which we can’t be all places at all times for brokers’ needs, we have a sales resource centre that provides the latest product information and concepts and, more important, information around ‘sweet spots’ in terms of what’s hot in the market right now,” says Kathryn Giffen, president of RBC Life Insurance Co.

Manulife has a similar marketing tool on its site: online video testimonials that show individuals relating their insurance stories. “We have a very compelling story of an advisor who was critically ill. We captured that story on video and created a Webcast,” Traill says. In the Webcast, the advisor gives his personal account, showing how he could have benefited from critical illness insurance. “We used that as a way to draw reps into the marketing content, the support material to the product.”

Insurance companies are constantly upgrading services to stay competitive and maintain their advisors’ interests. Standard Life Assurance Co., for example, recently introduced a feature that gives advisors the option to look at all the details surrounding their commissions. Meanwhile, UnumProvident Corp. has plans to provide a quote and proposal system on its advisor site by 2004.

Many companies are also opening up their Web sites specifically for prospective advisors to learn about the products and services offered. Andrea Hampton, vice-president of individual insurance and product development for Canada Life Assurance Co., recognizes the need to market to this audience. “If brokers are interested in dealing with us but don’t have a contract, how are they going to learn about our sales tools and marketing?” she asks.

Not all companies rely solely on the Internet to do business. For some, such as The Co-operators Group, call centres and regional field offices are still important tools. “Co-operators is definitely more about face-to-face contact than online service,” says Jim Wingrove, director of agency for Co-operators. “Our site helps the client to gather information on products and services and do research on specific products.”

But most insurers are integrating the Web as much as possible. “We use the Web in any way we can,” says Manulife’s Traill. IE