How do you go about putting your business on the web? How much does it cost? Where do you start? And, most importantly, is it worth the trouble? John Hancock reports....

A survey commissioned by the British Insurance Brokers Association (Biba) has revealed that three quarters of Biba brokers (including two thirds of firms with 15 or fewer staff) already have or are developing a website. Mike Williams, Biba chief executive was quoted as being, "very pleased with the findings. It is clear that a lot has been done to bring forward brokers' ecommerce development."

Few would now question the sense of brokers having an ecommerce development programme, but with a quarter of brokers surveyed still having no such programme and with two thirds of existing websites being information-only, there are clearly some issues still to be resolved. In the survey, the greatest concern was cost, closely followed by uncertainty about the respondent's own ecommerce knowledge and, among larger brokers, payment security.

It seems that the main factors limiting web involvement and the capability of brokers is not the capacity of the system which is, to all intents and purposes, unlimited. The main limiting factor is, as Tony Barker, director of marketing and ebusiness at CSC retail and general insurance division explains: "The limit naturally imposed by the level of investment. Any broker with a few hundred pounds can establish a simple web presence." But either a greater immediate investment or joining a co-branding arrangement with income sharing will be necessary to get the full value from a web presence.

The big questions for brokers looking to build or develop their web capability are: At what level to enter the web, what are the decisions and issues to face, how much will it cost, where can I get information or support and what is available?

Make your choice
Brokers can embark on to the internet using two basic models with a range of levels. They can either establish their own internet site as an on-line version of what they already do or customise their own part of a site built and operated by somebody else. In the first model, the site is unmistakably the broker's but its development and functionality will be limited by the depth of the business's pockets. Also, site owners need to make arrangements to ensure regular updating of links, software and content as well as routine maintenance.

With the second model, the site will be part of a network of sub-sites but can be personalised and will be to standards that an individual practice might find expensive. It will be run

by full time IT professionals and will include capabilities and functions that an individual practice could not afford – as well as links to most, if not all, insurers. Also, there is not usually any up-front cost as the system owner's income comes from a share of turnover through the parent site.

Michael Whitfield, managing director of sees it this as offering access to an already developed system (Brokersure was developed for Cox) offering smaller brokers:

"A fully fledged back-office and front-end

system with immediate point-of-sale capability and full cycle operation right down to printing the documents in the broker's office [where insurers' delivery systems support this through Polaris Productwriter]." In the end, a combination of resource availability and preference will decide the best way forward for each broker.

There are also different levels of functionality that can be built into a site. Needless to say, as in most things IT, you get what you pay for:

  • at the entry level, and available for a few hundred pounds upwards are information-only sites – really little more than online adverts or catalogues with contact details
  • further along the capability line, websites can allow email responses for clients or enquirers
  • slightly more developed sites can include interactive quotations and a calculator to assist users
  • for the virtual front desk, sites can include on-line closure of business and a facility to take payments
  • beyond that, sites can allow clients to log in to their own accounts to make changes such as a new address or a notifiable change in circumstances affecting cover
  • the ultimate in functionality will allow clients access to check and make changes to their accounts.

    Also, sites that include most levels of functionality (mainly the shared sites for small and medium brokers) will usually allow the broker to adjust commission and premium levels within the limits set by the General Insurance Standards Council (GISC) guidelines.

    What will it do for you?
    However, the first consideration when planning a website is not what type of site to go for but whether the site will add any real value to the business. As Doug Phelan, business development manager at Quote and Buy puts it: "Before focusing on getting a web presence, brokers should concentrate on why they need to be on the internet." Is it simply to "be there" or is there a business plan that will add value to the service and the business and which can best be implemented using the internet?

    At the right level and used properly, the internet can reduce processing times dramatically, from weeks to hours in some cases. Also, commercial brokers have found that a website with email enquiries allows clients to ask the type of detailed questions that commercial clients ask but without the need for lengthy telephone calls. However, in such circumstances, brokers should remember that internet users do expect fast turnarounds and so the business should be geared to provide those. Email can often include links to other sites where relevant information is stored to add value to the answer.

    The usual requirements regarding data protection and transparency of information apply equally to the internet as to the real world. Also, security has to be a major concern for any site to which users will be entering information. Most websites still do not include secure connections such as Secure Socket Layer.

    Also, any system has to work with the rest of the business. Although it might seem that an own site solution would be more likely to fit in, the reality with modern software is that, as Paul Charles at Misys Interactive explains, it is "designed to provide the tools for others to use to do their jobs in front or back-offices." And, sometimes, a website can impose its own standards on a business, such as the need for immediate response to emails. But often the result is that an office with five back-office staff to support five front desk people can move to one back-office person supporting nine at the front desk.

    Some brokers have even used websites to launch into new markets or to access more potential customers for a niche service.

    Saving time and effort
    Costs vary from a few hundred pounds when a friend who has a branded internet writing package does the job to hundreds of thousands of pounds for a full cycle interactive site. The alternative is to use a ready-made site for a profit share with the site owner. Also, online full cycle processing can reduce costs by as much as 60%.

    So what can going online offer a broker? As Doug Phelan sums it up, by taking a great deal of the time and effort out of processing "a website lets the broker do what he or she does best: maintain client relationships and sell more business."