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Do you really need a car insurance agent?

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CarInsurance.com

Car insurance agentDo you miss travel agents and bank tellers?

If you don't, you may not miss your car insurance agent, either.

The 2012 U.S. Insurance Shopping Study by J.D. Power and Associates found that more than half of auto insurance shoppers started the process online, with 73 percent visiting at least one insurer's website at some point. About one-third of shoppers obtained their quotes online only, and a similar proportion say they would most prefer to buy their new policy online.

Of course, shopping online doesn't mean you'll buy a policy online.

While many self-service shoppers use online quote comparison sites and buy a policy without ever speaking to another person, others go to insurance company websites to gather information and price quotes -- and still wind up dialing a telephone.

A June study by the Customer Respect Group found that most insurance companies don't make online research and shopping easy, their websites crippled by poor navigation, insurance industry jargon and improbable search results. Judged by how successful consumers would be in completing a set of 35 tasks, the study named Esurance the best of 20 corporate insurance websites.The authors discount the role of agents in sealing the deal. "The agent for many people provides that very valuable and essential service," they write, "but consumers that make the effort to go to a company website have made their channel choice, and this must be respected." (See their whole list below.)

Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for Insure.com, agrees. "Most people just want a quick way to compare prices or to have a single simple question answered quickly," she says. "A phone call with an agent can add pressure to the experience."

Customer Respect Group's auto insurance company website usability ratings

Company

Rating

Company

Rating

Esurance

8.6

American Family

4.5

Liberty Mutual

8.0

USAA

4.3

GEICO

7.4

Unitrin Direct

4.2

Progressive

6.8

Auto-Owners.com

4.1

Allstate

6.7

The Hartford

4.1

Erie

6.7

MetLife Auto

3.7

Nationwide Insurance

6.1

Mercury Insurance

3.4

State Farm

5.8

Farmers

3.2

Amica

5.8

Auto Club of So. Cal

3.1

Travelers

5.7

Sentry Insurance

2.0

So, who needs an agent?

Yet a world in which the insurance agent is a lifelong family friend still exists.

One goal of an agent is to create a long-term relationship, increasingly important as insurance companies ramp up ad spending to lure drivers into switching carriers. About 43 percent of those who go shopping for coverage wind up switching, according to J.D. Power, the highest rate since the study began measuring retention in 2008.

What can an agent do that an insurance company website can't?

Answer your questions more quickly and clearly, says Cristofer Pereyra, an agent for Farmers Insurance in Phoenix. "It's very, very nonpersonal when you do it through the Internet or just over the phone."

The agent probably will know the specifics about state laws, for example, and be able to walk a shopper through the different types of car insurance to decide which and how much to buy.

"If you've never had a policy before," Gusner says, "an agent can answer questions that might seem obvious to everyone but you."

And though insurance claims go through an adjuster, not the agent, an agent can help a nervous customer after a car accident.

"The adjustors are not really meant to be good with the public," Pereyra says. "They speak in really technical terms."

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