What does Coronation Street have to do with the future of selling insurance? Well, just after "the Street" is screened is the most popular time for people to use interactive television (iTV). And iTV is one of the newest mediums available to reach potential customers.

But it is probably wise not to get too excited about it just yet according to Malcolm Booth, Eagle Star's internet and electronic distribution manager. Speaking at an Internet Marketing Advisory Board conference, he said: "If you are expecting to get fulfilment at the moment, forget it."

Booth pointed out the major drawback to iTV as it is presently – a lack of keyboards. Having forked out for the TV sets, many people seem loathed to pay for a keyboard as well, hence when they are asked to submit details to their set they do not have the means to do so.

And as iTV only comes into one TV set in a house, there may, understandably, be some reluctance among housesharers for one person to be sitting pricing their insurance when there's a good programme on the telly. So getting online through the PC still looks like it has some mileage left.

Eagle Star was the first insurer to sell directly on the internet. To make the operation viable it had to be more cost-effective than selling through call centres. The company analysed its calls and found that 40% of calls were not sales-related and tended to be about social niceties such as the weather.

Getting warmer
Booth said the need for such "warm contact" online could be reduced by looking at emails and phone calls and addressing any common threads that appeared. And to deal with frequently asked questions and to guide people through common procedures a virtual operator called Catherine is being developed and will appear on the site soon.

Catherine will provide "warm contact" online and has been given a background and interests to make her seem like a human operator. She is married, supports Fulham and owns a nice car. Booth said: "It is about taking what helps in the real world and transposing some of that on to the net."

And he pointed out that customer service levels had to match the best on the web, not just the best in the insurance industry. "You need to look much wider in terms of who you are competing against," he said, citing Amazon as an example.

Customer service has to extend across the business. Booth pointed out that it was no good having a wonderful website if a customer decided to find something out from your call centre, but couldn't get through. "You can have a really, really slick service to lure them in," he said, "but can your other channels deliver at the same speed?"

Customer expectations these days can be high Booth said, giving the example of a customer who sent an email followed by one a few minutes later asking why he had not had a reply yet and a final one a few minutes after that saying that as he had not received an answer, he was taking his business elsewhere.

As well as high service, customers have other expectations. In a survey by Fletcher Research the most valued thing was variety of choice with 79%, followed by security of sensitive information 78% and ease of placing orders 75%. Finding the lowest price came in sixth place.

Booth stressed that the website needed to be functional and that the fewer questions asked the better it was. Although he did concede that "fewer questions means you get some selection against you as you can't target your questions to one person". Targeting could, however, be done by identifying the type of customer you want and developing a virtual site for them, Booth said. "We want to get to our target customers rather than to everyone."

Eagle Star has developed Just for Teachers, which offers resources for teachers such as an online staff room and education news and at this time of year, downloadable Christmas figures which can be coloured in by children.

Getting the lowdown
As well as identifying your target market consumer behaviour online needs to be examined. Those buying insurance online obtained an average of three quotes, although some people looked at significantly more quotes. People spend twice as long on the web when at work than at home and users often visit the site and then go away and think and compare prices, before logging on again to make the purchase.

Eagle Star found that the peak times for internet use were the afternoon, particularly around lunchtime and between seven and ten in the evening. Mondays saw the heaviest internet use, followed by Sundays.

Breaking policyholders down into type and age, the results weren't really that surprising. Those in social groups B and C1 were most likely to buy online, with the 25-29 age group the keenest online buyers. Therefore it makes sense to think closely whether a targeted product such as one aimed at retired people would really benefit from being sold online.

Another consideration is whether potential users can actually access the site successfully. This means catering for around 85% of people on Explorer and 13% on Netscape and making sure the people using Explorer Version 4 aren't excluded from vital parts of the website.

The case of the faltering Boo.com illustrates the point. It had wonderful advanced graphics on its site. Too bad that most people's systems weren't advanced enough to appreciate them.