What has become dubbed “the Portwood Letter” raised some very serious issues for the small and independent intermediary. Having spent the formative years of my career in a small brokerage I cannot help but empathise with Portwood's plight, but there is more at work here than big boys and big bucks.

First and foremost, a website is a business responsibility and needs to be treated as such. If you have handed over responsibility to your developers and expect your site to sit there merrily running itself, you need to wake up. As with any other aspect of your business, you must pay it attention at all times.

Expecting search engines to generate a steady stream of leads is akin to using the Yellow Pages as your only advertising source. Once your listing has been made it will only stay there until something better formatted or more popular comes along. With more than 120 search engines accepting submissions from British sites this can be a major overhead, and should only be considered as a part of the marketing plan – not the mainstay.

Assuming you can generate traffic to your site, there is still no guarantee you will win business. Badly organised sites with poor navigation cues and a lack of fresh content will not win the hearts and minds of the prospect. If you come across a site that has not been changed since it was launched, the question, “Is this really a business?” goes through your mind.

The way the page is set out can also work for or against you. Prospects want to know where they are, which business they are dealing with and what happens next. Make it easy for them with navigation at the head and foot of the page (people will scroll down, but often won't scroll back up). Let them know where they are in the quotation process and how much further they have to go. Keep the links to fresh content in their face, not so they abandon the quote, but so that when they do get bored they at least stay within your site and remain candidates for a subscription to your email newsletter.

Have you tested your site fully? Windows machines hold a dominant 85% position, but Apple, internet-enabled TV and games consoles are eating steadily in to that lead. Do all the links work – and if they don't, what happens? In short, are you paying attention to the details or allowing the developers to ride roughshod over issues that affect your business?

You may not be able to provide fully interactive online quotes at the moment, but you can still help yourself. Give customers the opportunity to tell you as much as they can about their needs. The motor quotation form used by Lancaster is one of the best I have seen on the web – clear, easy to understand and with some nice touches that make entering claims and driver information easy.

There is a perception that internet equals cheaper. A lot of intermediaries are not going to be able to win on price alone, but they do themselves no favours with the email messages that come through with quotes. Most are bland and impersonal, or contain annoying mistakes such as “?” instead of a pound sign. And why is it that while not one intermediary that has quoted me by email has set out the reasons why its service is better than a direct writer's, so many are happy to write and complain to Insurance Times? Don't you think the customer ought to have the information?

Of course we could all sit back and wait for insurers to produce products that we can “plug in” to our own sites. Insurer X could provide us with an online motor quote system that, when we add it to our site, immediately negates our claim to be “independent” and creates long-term friction. Put simply, if I could create something that would run itself I would be looking to have it on any high traffic site – diluting the market yet further.

Success or failure isn't about spending huge sums of money. It is about good business and keeping your eye on the ball. Until business people start taking responsibility for all aspects of their enterprise there will continue to be disappointments.

  • Ross Hall is managing director of Garol and can be contacted on 020 8902 0618 or ross.hall@garol.com.

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