The keys to shopping for car insurance online

Allie Johnson

Car insurance shopping can be quite a chore. But it’s much easier if you can compare insurance companies, get quotes and buy a new policy with just a few clicks online.

In fact, if you like to shop for insurance without leaving home, you're in good company – about three of every four consumers visit the website of at least one insurer when shopping for car insurance, according to the J.D. Power and Associates 2012 Insurance Website Evaluation Study. The study found that about one-third of consumers surveyed prefer to buy car insurance policies online.

“Customers are increasingly interested in not only gathering information online, but getting quotes online and ideally buying the policy online,” says Jeremy Bowler, senior director of insurance practice at J.D. Power and Associates, a market research company.

In fact, the study found that more than ever before, an insurance company’s website can be a major influence on whether a consumer buys from that company. According to the study, 55 percent of consumers who were disappointed with an insurer’s website – meaning they gave it less than 550 on a 1,000-point scale – said they'd be less likely to choose that company.

The top performers in the study were Allstate, Esurance, GEICO and Travelers. Other car insurers in the study were 21st Century, American Family, Amica Mutual, Farmers, Liberty Mutual, Nationwide, Progressive, State Farm and The Hartford.

Good website = good insurer?

Some experts caution consumers to look beyond a company’s website, though.

“I definitely don’t think people should judge the quality of the insurance product by the website,” says Amy Bach, executive director of consumer advocacy and education group United Policyholders. “Don’t look at the prettiness of the website – look at customer satisfaction ratings.”

However, consumers surveyed by J.D. Power rated insurers’ websites not just on looks, but also on four other criteria: speed, ease of navigation, clarity of information and range of services they could perform online. Here are four of the problems that some consumers reported when shopping for insurance online.

1. Could not get a quote right away – or at all.

The study found that 18 percent of consumers who asked for a quote from an insurer had to wait for a response, and 10 percent didn't get a quote. When consumers can’t get a quote, they often go elsewhere, Bowler says, “they’ll Google another insurer – they’re not going to waste their time.

2. Had to hunt for contact information.

Some insurers place their toll-free numbers prominently on their landing pages – State Farm, for example, which scored well in the survey. But others make customers find and click on a “contact us” link – and, on some sites, as few as 35 percent of consumers surveyed said the contact information was very easy to find.

3. Had trouble finding information about discounts.

Some insurers – such as Travelers, according to the study – feature easy-to-spot rollover menus with discount information clearly marked. But others do not, requiring shoppers to search and click several times to find the information. In fact, for the lowest-scoring insurer, only one-fifth of consumers said the discount information was very easy to find.

4. Took too long to shop.

Some consumers surveyed complained about how long the shopping process took, but some insurers try to save the consumer time by offering automatically pre-filled vehicle information. However, the study found that the 8 percent of shoppers for whom a website filled in wrong information were just as dissatisfied as if they’d had to type in the information themselves.

Shoppers beware: A sluggish website can offer a glimpse of the type of customer service you might get after you buy a policy, Bowler says. If you’re someone who "lives" online, you might not be happy with an insurer that isn't too tech-savvy, he says.

“The shopping process is a good indicator of how this insurer is going to want to service you,” he says. “If it takes them a couple of days or hours to get back to you instead of minutes or seconds, it’s probably an indicator that they’re struggling to adapt to the new digital norm.”

Smart shopping online

Even though not all insurers’ websites are easy to surf, the Internet can be a valuable tool in the shopping process. Experts offer these five following tips on how to be a smart online shopper.

1. Look beyond an insurer's website.

“Building a great website that is fancy and pretty and delivers information is fantastic, but it does not give the consumer a complete picture of the company,” says Sonja Larkin-Thorne, a consumer representative for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. “What is of most concern to me is that consumers don’t learn (from the website) what the overall experience of other consumers has been, the complaint history and the solvency of the company.”

Also, Bach says, if a company lacks a fancy website, “definitely don’t assume they will be less professional in handling a claim.” Instead, check the company’s consumer complaint ratio with your state department of insurance, she says.

2. Consider what the site tells you about the company.

A car insurance company that primarily sells directly to consumers, such as GEICO, needs a flashy website with plenty of options – but an insurer that sells a lot of policies through a network of agents might not.

“Some insurers make a conscious choice because they have a force of agents they want to drive their business to, and they know agents generally do the best job of offering advice and counsel, helping customers sort of fine-tune their purchase,” Bowler says.

For web-savvy consumers, crossing an insurer off the list because of a clunky website can be both good and bad, according to Bowler.

“You’re reducing the number of competitors, so it’s conceivable that, as a consumer, you wouldn’t get the best possible deal,” he says. “But you might not be a happy with a company that insists on business-hours conversations with a local agent.”

3. Get a clear picture of your car insurance needs.

The study shows that more consumers than ever want to close a car insurance deal on the web, but Larkin-Thorne says they shouldn’t do so without a full understanding of their own needs as well as available products – something an agent can help explain.

“An agent is going to walk you through a series of questions to determine how much insurance you need and whether your needs fit a particular company and products, especially if the agent represents multiple companies,” she says.

4. Remember that a quote is just a quote.

Once you've received an initial quote, the insurance company still must run reports to check for traffic violations and accidents, verify your credit history and assess your risk. “All these factors come into play when determining the final price," Larkin-Thorne says, "and you’re not going to see the final price until the policy has been issued.”

5. Don’t focus too much on shopping quickly.

The speed of pages loading on a website made up 11 percent of overall consumer satisfaction with any site in the J.D. Power study, and that emphasis on speed bothers Larkin-Thorne.

“Insurance is one of the single most important purchases, and it also can be the worst decision you make if you don’t make the right one,” she says.

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