Marcus Exall looks at how you can build client relationships by exploiting your database

In business, contacts are everything. And your database of contacts is one of your company's most valuable assets.

But if you are like many insurance companies - big or small - it is likely these contacts are sorely under-utilised. That database can be your pathway to the holy grail of marketing - a direct relationship with existing and potential customers.

Take email. It is an extremely cost-effective direct marketing tool, which can be used to ensure your company remains in people's mind. And your company has probably gathered hundreds, if not thousands, of emails through various means. If these details are not collected, stored and used properly, then they are simply being wasted.

Excuse the 'management speak', but what is needed is a 'customer relationship management' or CRM strategy. This can help you utilise your database and reap substantial rewards.

At its most fundamental level, CRM is literally about engaging with your customers over time in a way that matters to them.

Insurance is an area where people rely heavily on two things - price and trust. The difference in price of similar insurance products from different brokers can often be negligible.

Trust and the relationship can be the key reason for someone to choose one particular insurance company over another. Your CRM is therefore crucial. Every time you have contact with a customer you are undertaking CRM at some level, so be sure to make every communication count.

Other supplier
Have you been contacting them about business that they simply don't think can credibly come from you? What needs aren't being fulfilled by other suppliers, that you can meet? Do they know that you can meet those needs? If not, what is the best way to let them know?

Examine the way that you communicate with people on your database. Do you contact them only when you want to sell them something, or are obliged to pay out?

Consumers these days know when they're being sold to. Therefore, if you say that you value their custom, it is important to demonstrate that. Don't make every point of contact an overt sales tactic. Take opportunities to get feedback from people, and let them know their opinions are important.

This will also benefit you, as the best way to understand your customers is simply to ask them about themselves. Email is a quick way of getting customer feedback.

Find a core group of customers and ask them how they feel about your business and the way you communicate with them.

Once you understand your database better, identify how easily and deeply you can segment it, to enable you to better personalise your communications.

Insurance companies need to understand that the proactive 'non-sell' sell can be highly beneficial in the long run, as it helps you improve that crucial client relationship.

A move away from the 'renewal time' mentality, where people are contacted only when there is potentially money to be had, can reap extensive rewards.

Use your knowledge to find legitimate reasons to contact people and give them something valuable.

For example, to make them aware of changes to the road traffic legislation, or news about pet passports.

While printed communications can make regular communication too expensive for many companies, email makes it possible at a fraction of the cost.

Underlying all of this is the need to centralise all of the contacts that you have, to give you a single, company-wide database.

Have a contact structure, so that all the information held by various people about existing and potential clients can be gathered and stored in a central place. This will enable you to develop a single cohesive approach to contacting people, across the company.

One potential problem with holding information in several places across a company is that two different people could be contacting the same person within days of each other, about the same things, but in different ways. Centralisation ensures a co-ordinated approach.

Legal obligation
You must also be aware of your obligations under the Data Protection Act (DPA), which has clear restrictions about the way that you can store and use data.

So, develop your terms and conditions with the DPA at the forefront of your mind and then ensure they are implemented as standard across all communications.

Getting to know your database of contacts could well be the key to them staying loyal to you and resisting your competitors' advances.

It will also make them much more receptive to the additional range of products and services you can deliver and ensure that you're providing the right offer for their needs.

' Marcus Exall is client services director for interactive marketing specialists blue barracuda.