As financial and competitive pressures grow ever greater, the insurance industry is increasingly turning to market research techniques to monitor customer opinions.

Thanks to the use of web-based reporting and the emergence of innovative market research consultancies, it is now possible to undertake and complete a project and have management information available within just 24 hours of its commission – giving management powerful and immediate information with which to impact on company performance.

Many changes in recent years have left intermediaries and the public alike unsure of their status and situation – demutualisation, mergers, regulation changes, new product launches and rebranding have all played their part in making many organisations uncertain of market reaction.

Uncertainty has led to numerous issues raising their heads, which, in many circumstances, need addressing within a short space of time. Key issues include benchmarking to measure current and future performance, your own and that of the competition; gauging customer opinion on change or current working practice; efficiency of communication channels; and monitoring the viewpoints of intermediaries.

While many companies use the skills of their in-house research team, independent consultancies are also called upon to not only add extra resource but bring up-to-the-minute techniques of information dissemination and collection. Independence also means research can be carried out free from bias, allowing those taking part to speak freely. Outlined below are several examples where the two parties have worked together to achieve results.

Managing broker relationships is often likened to the search for the Holy Grail. A syndicated quarterly study looking specifically at intermediary satisfaction has been used for many years. But, as with much research information, it has faced questions over speed of delivery between research collection and management dissemination and also about methods of information presentation.

Broker tracking
In recent weeks, a new broker tracking study for a syndicate of the UK's leading insurance companies has been launched to look at the current state of play. The new study makes use of the latest technology to enhance the speed and quality of information feedback to syndicate members from the research team.

The views of more than 300 brokers are being tracked each month, with initial results available on a dedicated website within just 24 hours of collection, and a detailed management summary is available within four days. It is expected that this study will become the benchmarking model for the industry.

This project marks a new way of working for those companies already used to tracking the views of the general insurance intermediary market.

Using internet technology, syndicate members are provided with independent data, in an easily interpreted format, within 24 hours of collection. Besides generic information, syndicate members can also access their own specific information page.

While traditional techniques are being used to collect information, the use of web technology looks set to transform the way the insurance industry undertakes its research and manages its relationship with intermediaries. The aim is to give immediate analysis and feedback, which means the results will become an extremely important management tool in an increasingly competitive market.

The Friends approach
Benchmarking has also become an issue at Friends Provident. A research programme has recently been undertaken to benchmark satisfaction with the pensions administration service among both IFAs and end clients.

Since the purchase of London and Manchester Pensions (a move that doubled the size of Friends Providents' pensions portfolio), considerable initiatives have been put in place to consolidate the administration of the two companies. The research was undertaken to identify the extent to which intermediaries and end clients were happy with the outcome of this conversion process.

For Standard Life, customer communications have been of special significance. A programme of work was completed in just five days from start to finish, which looked at what members thought of a proposed member's magazine

Initial findings showed members wanted clear and concise information in a reader-friendly format. Amendments to proposed content for Standard Life's first magazine, Update, were then able to be made straight away. Follow-up research on the first issue, published earlier this year, has now demonstrated that the company's new style of written communications is working.

These examples show that the key to getting good management information is a function of getting the right information linked with speed of information gathering and assessment, and the simplicity, or user friendliness, of the final report.

Gone is the time when research projects were commissioned and took weeks to complete, with lengthy reports full of jargon and complicated graphs the end result. Results can now be clear, concise, relevant and appear within 24 hours.

In one instance, a substantial piece of work had a report submitted on just two sides of A4. The result was a clear and extremely powerful report, ultimately bringing about substantial business change.

Used correctly, research can make a significant difference to business performance. However, it is important to recognise that there are a wide variety of techniques now available to obtain information from customers. It is the forward-thinking manager who allows free creative rein to their market research team who will be rewarded with high-quality feedback.

Questionnaires, focus groups and telephone campaigns are all accepted techniques, but don't rule out ethnographic-based campaigns where the lifestyle and opinions of customers are obtained over a continuing time period through close interaction with researchers.

Times are changing, and changing rapidly. It is a brave organisation that does not continue to look at its customer relations in detail. The opportunities are increasing and, used with flair and vision, a research project could just change your corporate life.

  • Clare Bruce is managing director of Nunwood Consulting.

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