Editor's Note: This article originally published in June 2013. Dates and ages have remained unchanged from the original piece.
Want to do business with agent Brian Greenberg? Drop that telephone. Don’t bother blocking out an afternoon appointment. No need to Google Map his office.
Greenberg’s clients can find him (or, at least, his services) online, 24/7, at CompassQuote.com and TrueBlueLifeInsurance.com. There, customers can learn about life insurance products, compare quotes and fill out an application — without ever coming into contact with another human being.
In fact Greenberg hardly speaks to, let alone sees, any of the hundreds of clients he serves each year. And that’s fine by him.
“I made the MDRT this year and I didn’t meet with one client,” the 36-year-old Phoenix-based producer says. “I didn’t have to drive to any appointments, go to anyone’s house, convince anyone they needed life insurance.”
Greenberg is one of a growing number of agents and carriers venturing into online sales and turning long-held life insurance sales beliefs on their head. Chief among them? The idea that potential life insurance buyers need to be goaded by an agent.
“I don’t believe insurance should be sold,” Greenberg says. “I believe insurance should be bought.”
Greenberg didn’t always think that way. He worked as a traditional agent with MetLife right out of college and did well for himself. “It was a good experience,” he says. “I was a good agent.”
But Greenberg still suffered his fair share of client objections and dead-end sales. “It was a lot of rejection, a lot of trying to convince people to buy life insurance,” he says. “You ended up just trying to get in front of people, no matter what, even if they weren’t interested in life insurance.”
Certain there was a better way, he set out in 2003 to create a website that would let customers come to him. Greenberg took CompuLife quote software and, with his web skills, customized it to boost user-friendliness and collect additional info.
The result? CompassQuote.com and TrueBlueLifeInsurance.com, which have sold roughly 1,400 policies in the last three years.
Greenberg says the sites’ success is due to a couple of things: a constant focus on search engine optimization (90 percent of his clients find him through search) and a lack of sales trickery. For example, Greenberg built his site so prospects don’t have to enter any contact information in order to get an insurance quote — a notable distinction from the lead generators disguised as online quote tools offered by other agencies and carriers.
“They can get all the information they need, and they don’t have to be contacted by anybody,” he says. “I didn’t want to use the site to just collect email addresses and contact people later. I wanted to be the polar opposite. I wanted to be the ethical and honest guy.”
And the invisible one, too. Once prospects run a quote on one of Greenberg’s sites, they can select their desired price and start filling out the application right then. The mostly complete form is then shipped to the customer, who is contacted by a paramedical examiner to set up an appointment. The client keeps track of the entire purchase process from an online dashboard, and in an average of three weeks, he or she is covered — usually without ever coming into contact with Greenberg.
That’s the point, says Greenberg, who stays in touch with existing clients using occasional emails but does little to try to up-sell them on other products. “My goal is to issue life insurance as quickly as possible, without any agent interaction” he says. “It’s not so much about selling.”
In fact, Greenberg spends almost no time on selling activities these days. His wholesaler handles all of his case management, and his one employee answers the chat requests, emails and telephone calls that come through the websites. “I sold 500 policies last year for the same amount of work that a traditional agent would sell 50 … maybe less,” he says.
Greenberg admits that what he sells — mostly simple term and universal life products, nothing that has an investment element — isn’t a good fit for all clients and their needs. But he sees his market continuing to grow all the same. “Everyone’s got an iPad; everyone’s got high-speed Internet,” he says. “They’re going to go online.”
The online trend
Experts tend to agree with Greenberg.
According to an analysis by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), 61 percent of consumers between the ages of 18 and 54 find purchasing life insurance online attractive, and 8 in 10 life insurance purchases these days start online. It’s a trend that will likely accelerate as younger generations — self-service aficionados who are among the most eager to purchase online — continue to come of buying age.
“Younger generations want information to be interactive, and they want it in bite-size pieces,” says Anand S. Rao, principal, Insurance Advisory Services, at PwC. “They don’t necessarily want to meet face to face.”
And as medical information becomes increasingly digitized, they won’t have to. “One of the biggest impediments [to buying online] is this notion around medical underwriting,” Rao says. (Greenberg agrees. The majority of his customers opt for non-medical products even though they’re more costly.)
But health care reform has pushed providers to adopt electronic medical records, giving more people access to their health information — and the ability to share that information with insurers. “As that takes hold in the next two to three years, then people will have the option to basically have all the info online and make it available to the insurance carrier,” Rao says.
Term insurance will likely lead the online sales charge — PwC estimates $9 billion of the $14 billion term market has direct-distribution potential — but other products, simplified for the online marketplace, will follow, Rao says.
“Right now, you have so many different riders and add-ons that you end up confusing consumers and then they push off their decision,” he says. “And this is more or less how the industry has been justifying the need for agents and advisors. It’s a sort of vicious cycle, and we think, more and more, we’ll see carriers offering something more simple for the consumer, and that will move more sales online.”
Carriers vs. agents?
Forecasts like Rao’s don’t necessarily bode well for agents — and even web-savvy Greenberg admits he’s a little worried about the future. “My biggest concern is just more people using the technology I’m using, more competition from other agents and carriers,” he says.
Who would win a battle for online insurance dollars? It’s anybody’s game at this point, but Rao’s betting carriers will have the upper hand in the United States, noting that U.S. consumers continue to buy their online auto insurance from insurance companies while customers in the U.K. almost always go through aggregators.
“My bet would be more life insurance carriers here will start offering [price comparison programs and other tools] online, so as not to give up the business to the aggregators,” he says.
Greenberg won’t prove an easy foe, though. He plans to continue growing his website — offering more non-medical options and adopting technologies that speed the underwriting process as soon as they become available.
“The insurance industry is very antiquated, very paper-dependent,” he says. “So whenever someone comes up with a technology to make it easier or faster, I’m always going to be a first adopter in that regard. If it helps, I’m going to use it.”
For more on direct sales, see: