Zurich Financial Services is developing a computer-generated sales agent able to interact with customers using its Eagle Star Direct insurance website.

The virtual sales person – their sex has not yet been decided – will offer to guide customers through the quotation process for motor, household and travel insurance. It will also be programmed to respond to any queries raised by customers.

A personal quotation is to be sent in reply to each online enquiry and cover can be arranged with immediate effect. Eagle Star hopes providing a quick and easy service will give it a leading edge in the online insurance market. The insurer last year earned £2bn from its internet insurance services.

The animated character or 'bot' is being developed by American software programmers Artificial Life. A bot is their term for an on-screen computer image that is programmed to respond to everyday language.

Ian Owen, managing director of Eagle Star, said: "The virtual customer services agent will create a new and fresh experience for our customers, by making our site not only easier to use but also adding an element of fun."

He added that customers unused to the technology will have the option of speaking to a "real" human being if they prefer.

Rhonda Cook, Artificial Life spokeswoman, said: "The virtual sales agent can be programmed to introduce certain subjects into a conversation, namely to ask the customer for details about the car he drives for motor insurance purposes."

Eagle Star declined to say how much it has spent on the project, but the cutting-edge technology is believed to be expensive.

An industry expert, says: "The technology costs a great deal because it takes a lot of time and effort to customise each bot to the products and services provided by each company"

Eagle Star has been a pioneer in the ecommerce insurance industry. It was the first insurer to sell motor insurance on the web in 1997 and offers a range of products, including, motor, household and travel insurance.