Insurance Firm Uses Web to Drive Inquiries to Call Center

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The direct sales channel now accounts for an estimated 10 percent of Golden Rule Insurance Co.'s individual health insurance business, a figure made possible by consensual database marketing.


A top-flight call center operation as opposed to a jazzed-up Web site was critical in Golden Rule's strategy of making live contact with each potential customer.


"We view the Internet as a great way to attract potential customers today, but it's not a way to purchase a program," said Greg Kohne, assistant vice president of Golden Rule, Indianapolis.


While using the Internet as a key entry point for prospects, Golden Rule focuses on the customer, not the medium. It does not sell via its site at www.goldenrule.com. The site offers only information and invites telephone calls, typically from 30- to 35-year-olds with one or two children -- the Golden Rule customer profile.


The goal is to drive people to its call center, Kohne said. Yet the 63-year-old company with $2 billion in assets had to be wary of certain traps.


"One of the things we were attempting [was] to try to apply an equal amount of energy and effort to all leads," he said. "We were at a point where we hire more people or decide to begin filtering the leads based on a set of data points that was meaningful."


Golden Rule consulting firm Ernan Roman Direct Marketing Corp., Douglas Manor, NY, knew that dealing with an insurer specializing in health policies had unique challenges. Most obvious, self-service is painful for consumers. Health insurance is complex and expensive, and plans vary.


Not surprisingly, Golden Rule's first priority was conversion and then volume. For this, the company harnesses all direct sales touch points available: Internet, public relations, mail, e-mail, associations and partnerships, referrals and advertising.


Inquiries at goldenrule.com are sent to the company's agents. The jury is still out on mail generating a satisfactory return on investment. But referrals from friends, family and business associates are the No. 2 lead generator.


"Referral lists outperform the best prospecting lists by 200 percent," Kohne said.


There are several criteria for its customer channels. They must be highly targeted, with the ability to control lead volume. They must have high volume potential and meet ROI objectives.


But the core of all efforts is a fully opted-in database. Prospects contact Golden Rule by telephone, e-mail or visiting the Web site. They then request the insurer contact them.


Before contacting consumers, there is thorough lead processing. All names are pre-filtered. The leads are scored and sorted. Each lead gets a numerical score per propensity to buy.


"The 'A' leads receive priority treatment, and [from a] budgetary point of view, the database actually drives the allocation of marketing touches and budget per that individual's propensity to buy," said Ernan Roman, president of his self-named firm.


Here is where highly trained call center agents come into play. They are fully licensed, qualified to discuss health insurance issues like HIPAA or COBRA. The agents are key to turning qualified leads into insurance contracts. They undertake needs analysis to gain a grip on the prospect's situation.


The next step is to make product recommendations. Factors include what works best for the client as well as admitting the lack of a fit with a product. They even will be penalized for pushing a plan not right for the consumer.


Questions, too, are encouraged while on the phone for immediate answers. This is even more critical because Golden Rule does not cold call prospects.


"Don't blow people off to the Web," Roman said.


In that same consultation process, the agent tries to close the sale with an application walk-through or a comparison with other plans.


While doing so, the agent sends sales material in the media of the prospect's choice: mail, fax or e-mail. Consumers often prefer mail, but those who request e-mail get a message that can be opened while on the call.


"Each successive touch had to be more knowledgeable and build on the previous conversation," Roman said.


This strategy has paid off since Golden Rule began direct sales in 1998. In the third quarter of 2002, the latest period for which results can be disclosed, the company claimed a rise in sales conversion rate of 57 percent over the base line.


Roman admitted there were "lots of bumps and bruises going through this process." But building an opt-in database was a necessity. In practical terms, this has eliminated "do-not-call" and "do-not-e-mail" concerns.


Overall, Golden Rule's takeaways are worth noting.


It is critical to research where consumers go when searching for an insurance policy or other products. This information shaped Golden Rule's media mix.


The Internet is a great prospecting tool for the company, with 60 percent of customers going online as part of their search. E-mail, while again a neat communication tactic, cannot justify its costs for prospecting. However, 50 percent of requests came by e-mail and the rest via fax and mail. And there is a fall-off in e-mail from consumers older than 50.


Offline, fax is decreasing in relative importance, but remains a relevant part of the mix. Mail is a powerful medium, but questionable as a viable prospecting tool, Kohne said. The phone continues to be the cornerstone of Golden Rule's media mix.


"Inbound callers were our No. 1 priority, converting at a much higher rate," he said.


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