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May 3, 2000

Farmers' Internet strategy takes shape

By Joe Frey

Farmers Insurance Co. quietly slipped into InsWeb's marketplace on April 11, 2000, by initiating a pilot program of online insurance leads for its agents in Indiana. That was the beginning of a year-long plan by the company to make itself more Internet-accessible to consumers and its agents.

By the week of May 8, residents of Colorado, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Washington will be able to contact a Farmers Insurance agent through InsWeb. But Datta Nadkarni, vice president of ebusiness at Farmers, says the company has no intention of offering instant quotes online. "Our whole Internet initiative is to enable the agent," he says.

Through InsWeb, consumers in the five test states can request an auto or home insurance quote from a Farmers agent by filling out a form at the online insurance marketplace that includes your name, address, and phone number. A Farmers agent in your area will then contact you to give you your quote.

Nadkarni says Farmers' relationship with InsWeb is a three-month trial. The results will be evaluated to determine whether the company will expand its online leads for agents.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. pulled its similar program from InsWeb on May 1. Nadkarni says there was "absolutely no relationship" between Farmers starting its program with InsWeb and State Farm pulling out of the online insurance marketplace.

"Operation Restore"

Sometime in the third quarter of 2000, Farmers will start a program it internally calls "Operation Restore." In a nutshell, it's an online and offline program designed to expedite the claims and claims-making process. Nadkarni says that initially, consumers will call in their claims to an 800 number and let Farmers handle the "policyholder restoration process," which includes dealing with contractors and making sure the repair of your home or auto is appropriately completed.

In the fourth quarter of 2000, Farmers will begin a trial period of allowing policyholders to make their claims online. Farmers expects that consumers will have full-blown claims-making ability online by early 2001. Nadkarni says the delay in rolling out the online claims-making ability is tied to what Farmers has found its policyholders do most often: When they have a claim or want to know the status of their claim, they call their agent.

Also, Farmers will officially unveil its new agent "extranet" site the week of May 8 at its annual sales conference in Memphis, Tenn. The extranet is for agents only and will provide them with application forms and company brochures that they would otherwise have to make copies of, Nadkarni says.

Farmers intends to substantially redesign its public Web site, as well. "The site has been there for the last three years and other sites have surpassed it in functionality, but we're going to redesign it," Nadkarni says. Don't expect that anytime soon, however. "There are a lot of [redesign] ideas currently being thrown around, and [a redesign] is at least three to four months away."


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