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Insurance distribution channels

Factsheet

Publication date:

06 June 2017

Last updated:

28 October 2018

Author(s):

Daved Sanders

The aim of a distribution channel is to allow customers to access and purchase products in the most efficient way for the business. We compare the various distribution channels and consider how insurance companies may use direct or indirect channels, or a combination of the two, to distribute their products.

 

Fact file authored by Daved Saunders April 2017.

Contents

Summary

This fact file considers how insurance companies may use channels to distribute their products. We start by looking at the different types of distributions channels available to insurers. These can be divided between direct channels, which give the insurer direct contact with the customer, and indirect channels, which contain a break in the link between the insurer and customer that is filled by an intermediary. Examples of direct channels include call centres, insurance agents and appointed representatives, while indirect channels include insurance brokers, independent financial advisers and managing general agents.

Each distribution channel brings its own costs and benefits, and insurers must analyse these when deciding which to use. The number of distribution channels available to an insurer depends on the types of product, service and customer that it deals with. There is a six-step selection process that insurers can use to help them choose between distribution channels. The insurer should begin by defining a customer segment to target, identifying customers' channel requirements and assessing its capabilities to meet those requirements. It may then benchmark its channel against those of competitors, create the channel solution for customers' needs, and, finally, evaluate and select channel options.

Once the insurer has selected its distribution channels, it must manage these effectively. This is particularly important where multiple channels are used as there is a risk that they could compete against each other causing 'cannibilisation' (Verhoef, 2012). The insurer may prevent this by ensuring that each channel targets a different customer segment and by maintaining positive relationships with intermediaries. Ongoing resources will also be needed to monitor intermediaries' progress.

Distribution channels

Insurers and underwriters need to decide on the way, or channel through which, their products are distributed. The aim of a distribution channel is to allow customers to access and purchase products in the most efficient way for the business.

A variety of distribution channels are available, and the business's choice will be determined by its structure, strategy and position in the market. Each channel requires different resources to be effective and will impact the pricing structure.

Distribution channels can be divided into two categories:

  • Direct channels- these give the insurer direct contact with the customer. The business employs sales personnel with the skills to provide the product to the customer.
  • Indirect channels - these contain a break in the link between the customer and the business. The break is filled by a skilled intermediary with a customer base that is the insurer's target audience.

We will now look at the different types of direct and indirect channels available.

Direct channels

Call centres

Call centres provide insurance companies with an efficient method of transacting insurance with customers. Their sales activities are focused on achieving specific targets, such as defined sales volumes, call queuing times and numbers' of customers purchasing. The popularity of call centres has grown out of the competitive market as their efficiency reduces the transaction costs of policies.

Call centres can be located in any place where employees may be trained. This includes countries such as India where employee costs are much lower than in the UK. However, some customers now prefer call centres to be operated in their own country as a result of poor past experiences.

When a business is considering how much investment is necessary for the operation, it is important that it takes the design and cost of the technology which will be used into account. To reduce the call centre's set-up costs, the business can operate a virtual call centre, where employees are home based and calls are routed to them from a central point. These can be set up quickly using secure networks.

Employees, who are often referred to as agents or operators, are guided by the software through a series of question prompts to ask customers. Telephone calls are held in a queue until one of the agents is ready to handle the call. The process is automated with the caller hearing an introductory message before the agent begins the conversation.

Call centres may collate data that can be used to improve the efficiency of their operations. For example, this could help the business to provide ways of ensuring that the centre has a sufficient number of employees available in peak times. Another way of increasing operational efficiency is to use computer-based, rather than paper-based, records when answering customer queries.

In addition to making new business sales, call centres are often used to support and develop the customer relationship. Outbound calls can promote the benefits of alternative products to existing customers; for example, motor insurance customers usually require home insurance as well. The more products that a customer buys from a certain organisation, the more likely they are to remain with it. Customers are also likely to become less price-sensitive as they associate themselves with a brand. Where insurers provide white label products (i.e. products provided by an insurer that are promoted using the branding of another organisation), call centres often divide themselves into different teams representing the different brands.

Insurance agents

An agent is an individual who acts on behalf of another person or group. For example, a call centre employee. Some insurers use external sales employees to act as agents and visit customers; they are paid a commission based on sales in addition to a basic salary. In Britain, insurance agents were a popular method for selling home and accident insurance, and life assurance. However, with the introduction of other channels, such as the internet, the administration costs of using agents were too high in the competitive market and customers began choosing other channels with lower priced offerings. This is partly because customers are now better educated in insurance products as a result of the discussions often had across various media, such as magazines, radio, TV and websites.

Lloyd's agents

These agents are appointed by Lloyd's as marine service providers to supply local shipping and casualty information. They also carry out pre- and post-loss marine cargo surveys, so are specialists in hull and machinery surveys. They perform a number of claims activities as well. There are approximately 300 agents worldwide in major ports and commercial centres, with a similar number of sub-agents, and they carry out around 100,000 surveys each year.

Appointed representatives

An agent can be appointed to provide advice and sell insurance products for a particular insurance company, but be independent of that company. These agents are referred to as appointed representatives, and may be an individual or a business which is representing another Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) regulated business. The appointed representative is only able to operate within the regulated activity of that insurer. If it carries out any other activities outside of its appointed representative status, it must be registered directly with the FCA. The insurer that grants appointed representative status is known as the 'principal' and is responsible for the activities of the appointed representative. The principal must monitor the appointed representative's activities to ensure that it acts in accordance with the regulations at all times.

Mutual organisations

In the past, tradesmen grouped together to form mutual organisations which provided protection for the risks that insurance companies were not willing to cover. For example, risks such as liability insurance or accident and injury benefits may be too high for an insurer's portfolio. Members own the mutual organisation and receive a variety of financial benefits, so it is in their best interests to support the organisation that represents them.  Examples include the following:

  • P&I clubs - offer marine liability cover
  • National Farmers' Union - represents the agricultural and horticultural industries; provides a variety of financial services products
  • DG Mutual - originally formed to provide injury and accident benefits to dentists, now represents most professional persons.

Indirect channels

Insurance brokers

Insurance brokers are independent of any insurance company and therefore able to provide advice and products to the customers from a variety of companies. Brokers select a panel of insurers they would like to represent and which meets the needs of their customers. The FCA requires brokers to have access to a sufficient number of insurers on their panel so that customers can make an informed choice. Some markets may be limited as a result of their specialist nature with few insurers offering cover. In these circumstances, the broker will advise the customer on why only these insurers may be approached.

Brokers may specialise in a segment of the market that they have knowledge and expertise in. This is attractive for customers, as they feel more confident that the broker will be able to identify their risks and source an insurer to provide cover. Brokers are responsible for collecting premiums from customers and have a credit agreement with insurers. As part of this agreement, brokers receive commission from insurers when placing risks with them. Some brokers charge customers a fee for their services in addition to or instead of the commission received from insurers. For example, when a customer, such as a manufacturing business, has several insurance policies arranged through a broker, the broker may charge a fee for placing the risk with a number of insurers instead of receiving a commission. Larger risks attract competition from other brokers and so the broker may charge customers a fee instead of receiving commission to keep the overall insurance cost at a competitive level.

Some brokers offer additional services to customers, such as business continuity planning or risk management advice. As no insurance product is provided with these services, the broker charges a fee for their use so that they create an additional revenue stream. Offering such services helps the broker to negotiate terms with the insurer, as the additional details supplied by customers can be used to help the underwriter understand their risks.

Large groups of people, such as a car club, are attractive to insurers because they offer a high premium volume and are more likely to be retained by a broker. The insurer benefits from the broker's knowledge, relationship with the group and processing of documents.

The insurer can reduce the cost of providing and administering the product further when it delegates an agreed authority to the broker. This is where an insurer gives the broker the authority to carry out certain actions; for example, relating to the types of risks that the broker can accept without referral to an underwriter, or to the premium rates and limits of cover that it can authorise. Whether the insurer chooses to delegate an agreed authority depends on the broker's expertise and the profitability of the scheme. The insurer will receive a monthly bordereau of the risks placed, premiums collected and details of any claims made. The broker benefits from having a stable and loyal customer base that it can cross-sell other products to, such as home insurance in the example of a car club. Some schemes may be available to another broker on a shared commission basis, creating a new link in the chain between the insurer and the customer.

Reinsurance brokers

An insurer may place a proportion of its risk with reinsurers in order to reduce the possibility of it suffering a major loss or catastrophe to its own account. Spreading the risk in this way allows the insurer to write higher limits of cover. Reinsurance brokers have specialist knowledge of which reinsurers an insurer may share its account with or place one-off risks with under a facultative facility.

The amount that can be reinsured depends on the account and the risk, and the cover may be proportional or non-proportional. Proportional reinsurance can be provided on a quota share basis where the insurer and reinsurer share an agreed quota of the premium and claims. It can also be provided on a surplus basis where the insurer requires reinsurance above a set limit, known as a 'line'; the reinsurance is arranged on the basis of a number of these lines which add up to the overall limit required by the insurer.

Non-proportional risks can be covered on an excess of loss, stop loss or catastrophe excess of loss basis:

  • Excess of loss basis - the reinsurer is responsible for any claim amount above an agreed limit
  • Stop loss basis - applies across the account and stops account loss at an agreed level, so that the reinsurer is responsible for losses above that limit
  • Catastrophe excess of loss basis - provides protection when a catastrophe occurs on the account as a result of an event which has caused an accumulation of losses, such as storm damage.

As well as having a risk management team, major corporations often appoint a captive insurer. Captive insurers offer a number of benefits; for example, they can provide wider cover than that given by the risk management team and retain premiums that would normally be passed to the insurance market. They are usually based in regions with lower tax rates, such as Bermuda. A reinsurance broker may then help to provide the captive insurer with reinsurance cover in order to protect it from catastrophic loss. 

Independent financial advisers (IFAs)

Independent financial advisers (IFAs) provide advice to customers and businesses on life assurance, pensions and investments, and are regulated in the UK by the FCA. IFAs may also offer products that contain no investment element, such as personal accident insurance, permanent health insurance and medical insurance. They may belong to an insurance broking firm and use their specialist knowledge to provide non-life insurance products in addition to financial advice. Broking firms can also refer their customers to IFAs for financial advice. 

Financial organisations

Financial organisations, such as banks and building societies, provide insurance to their customers in various ways. For example, a bank may have its own insurance broking firm. If a bank has provided a loan for premises or equipment, it will have an interest in making sure that adequate cover is arranged to protect the item. The bank's broking team will be able to assist with arranging insurance to protect both the customer's and the bank's interests. 

'Bancassurance' refers to when a bank owns an insurer or works directly with an insurer through an affinity group. When a bank incorporates an insurance company into part of its group, this creates a direct relationship between the customer and the insurer.  Not all banks have their own insurance company or broker; some have an affinity group, discussed later in this fact file, which are operated by their employees or white label products provided by an insurer for the bank.

Managing general agents (MGAs)

According to the Managing General Agents' Association, a managing general agent (MGA) is 'an agency whose primary function and focus is the provision of underwriting services and whose primary fiduciary duty is to its insurer.' As an underwriting facility, MGAs focus on the small medium enterprise (SME) sector of the market. They provide either a package of cover or specific insurance such as property owners' liabilities and professional indemnity covers.

MGAs are operated by experienced underwriters with underwriting knowledge and expertise of risks, who have the authority to write risks. This underwriting capacity may have been given by one insurer or a panel of insurers, which wants to enter the market but does not have the resources to do so. For example, this could be appealing to an overseas insurer which would like to enter the SME market by using another organisation's brand and management, or to an underwriting team which has chosen to leave an insurer and start its own underwriting agency. MGAs also have claims authority, and act as a link in the chain between the insurer which is providing the capacity and the customer. They seek business from insurance brokers.

Retail organisations

When a customer acquires a retailer's loyalty card, the retailer gains information about the customer which enables it to target them with other branded products. Customers are more likely to buy products, such as insurance policies, from brands they trust. Retailers selling insurance policies offer white label products that are administered by an insurer through a call centre. The call centre may either have a team which is dedicated to that insurer or answer calls in the name of the retailer, having identified which is being used by the specific telephone number that callers have been given. Selling insurance in this way provides the retailer with an additional revenue stream in a short period of time, without the costs of setting up an insurance company.

Affinity groups

An affinity group is a group of people with similar or common interests. It may use its customer buying power to obtain insurance cover through a broker. For example, members of a car club are likely to support its promotions, as the commission that the club receives when they place insurance through the scheme will provide it with a revenue stream which supports members' interests. In addition, sports organisations can use their membership volume to arrange cover for particular risks that may not be available to individuals. This cover is then received by members as part of their membership; it could include liability cover for injury to another member. An affinity group can use a broker to obtain specific wording in their cover which is underwritten by a specialist underwriter. The group handles the scheme's administration, adding another link between the insurer and the customer.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) groups

Peer-to-peer (P2P) group insurance is a recent innovation which has created interest in the USA, UK and Germany. It aims to save money by removing inefficiencies and the conflicts of interest that arise between the insurer and customer at the time of a claim. A P2P group is made up of people who share similar characteristics; its premiums are calculated by assessing a number of factors that are common to all members. A motor insurer, for example, will consider a driver's age, location, car and experience, and then add them to a group of similar motorists, or peers.

Half of the premium paid by the group's members contributes to its management and the other half is injected into the premium pool. Claims made during the year are paid from the pool; if funds become depleted, they are topped up by the group's fees. Any premium in the pool that is not used will be carried forward to the next year, when the group's members will pay premiums to top up the pool again. The group's members have an interest in keeping claims low so that they will benefit from lower premiums.

Broker networks

A broker network is made up of predominantly small, independent insurance brokers who join to form a club. The network uses its collective buying power to obtain terms of cover, premiums, facilities and commissions that are normally only available to larger broking organisations. The network requires its members to commit a level of premium to a panel of partner insurers. This enables members to demonstrate their support for the panel and network without compromising their customer relationships. 

Additional services provided by broker networks include marketing advice and business planning support, which can help to increase brokers' incomes, and regulatory support and advice, which helps brokers to remain compliant. Insurers may review their agency network with the aim of reducing their overall operating costs; however, broker networks are protected by their collective relationships with insurers. Networks charge a fee to brokers for the support they provide, which may be based on either the volume of premium income arranged with the insurers or an agreed fixed charge for services.

Aggregators

Aggregators are online quotation services that can calculate premiums in minutes from a number of different insurers on to one website. Customers are prompted by selected questions to enter the details of their insurance requirements, and the aggregator website then calculates and displays a range of premiums and terms. Aggregators compete with each other, relying on their technology systems to provide fast quotations from a variety of providers. The premiums are displayed in ascending order, allowing the customer to select a quotation based on price. Quotation terms are also shown to help the customer in their comparison. If the customer selects a quotation, they will be transferred to the insurer's website for confirmation of the quotation and processing of documentation. To complete the purchase, the premium is paid online and the policy documents are sent electronically to the customer.

An advantage of aggregators is that they are available at all times, so the customer can make their choice at a time convenient to them. The aggregator is paid a fee for each customer purchase. Quotations are available on motor, home, personal accident, travel, van and tradesman liability insurance, but aggregators' systems are adaptable and other financial services, utilities and communication quotations are sometimes provided. However, not all insurers are quoted by aggregators; some choose to promote their products directly so that they can control the purchasing process without being compared to other insurers. These insurers encourage customers to make decisions based on the services provided and other benefits, rather than on price.

Channel selection

We have seen that there are a variety of distribution channels that insurers and brokers may choose between when deciding how best to reach customers and that each comes with its own advantages. Not all customers are reached by one channel and insurers often use different channels to reach the widest audience possible. In doing this, insurers compete with brokers who also attract the same customers. 

Costs and benefits

The number of distribution channels available to insurers depends on the types of product, service and customer that they deal with. For example, motor insurance is provided through aggregators, brokers, agents and banks. However, the number of insurance distribution channels available for high value, vintage vehicles is likely to be limited because specialist insurance knowledge and cover are necessary. The target audience for insuring such vehicles is small and so insurers need to have a targeted approach in place to ensure they use resources efficiently. Specialist risks that require a detailed understanding of the subject, such as kidnap and ransom cover, are usually requested by corporate and high-net-worth customers through brokers.

Each insurer's underwriting team has knowledge that allows it to compete with similar businesses, and it will use its time and resources to increase the value it provides to the customer. Insurers may choose to reduce costs by using a direct distribution channel and removing the 'middleman' represented by commission payments. Insurers that go direct need to invest in other resources, such as a sales force which promotes, educates and delivers its products. The cost of providing low value products to customers is a significant portion of the total cost. However, using a direct channel via technology means that products are delivered efficiently. 

Channel selection process

There is a six-step selection process (Hutt, M.D. and Speh, T.W. 2012) to help insurers choose between distribution channels:

  1. Define the customer segments that you want to target.
  2. Identify and prioritise customer channel requirements by segment.
  3. Asess the business's capabilities to meet those customer requirements.
  4. Benchmark the channel offering against those offered by competitors.
  5. Create the channel solution for customers' needs.
  6. Evaluate and select channel options.

We will now look at each step in more detail.

Define the customer segments that you want to target

Looking at previous research on customers may help the insurer to identify certain characteristics which it can use to define target customers with. For example, a firm providing motor insurance to families may consider customers' age groups, locations, vehicles and driving experience. It would then identify a broad segment covering the country, but excluding inner cities, which includes drivers aged over 25 with family saloons. In contrast, it may also identify a smaller segment of young drivers with high performance vehicles and poor driving records. The segment size that the insurer chooses to target will affect the channel resources that it requires and has available to use.

Identify and prioritise customer channel requirements by segment

In the above example, the broad range of drivers, vehicles and areas identified in the family segment would require a channel that attracts a wide audience. There are a number of options available, such as using a direct channel through newspapers and TV or an indirect channel through intermediaries, aggregators and banks. Insurers with a given budget will need to decide what proportion to spend on each channel and the return they expect on their investment. Using a direct channel such as promotion through TV will have an immediate impact on the target audience, but significant resources will be required to create and show the advertisement. The production costs involved in making advertisements for TV are much higher than those needed for creating radio or newspaper advertisements.

Assess the business's capabilities to meet those customer requirements

Attracting a wide audience with a successful campaign can bring an influx of enquiries from potential customers. However, the campaign needs to be handled efficiently to prevent resources from going to waste. When preparing a campaign, the insurer should identify its volume target and review its capability and flexibility to handle this volume. The campaign budget should not only cover dealing with customers' enquiries but also any additional resources that may be required, such as IT or personnel. 

Benchmark the channel offering against those offered by competitors

If the insurer's competitors are using certain channels to run an aggressive campaign, it should consider the alternative options available which will help it to make the best use of resources. For example, a home insurer could use brand advertising to deliver its message, rather than promotional selling which provides price-related offers. Reviewing opportunities and methods by using a different approach may provide a better way of using resources with the same channel. This leads to the next stage in the process. 

Create the channel solution for customers' needs 

Different customers use different channels for their purchases according to their various needs. This has been made evident with the growth of online purchasing, as many customers now prefer to use this method. For example, a motor insurer's competitor may focus its message on the price of its products. To compete, the insurer could focus instead on the support provided in the event of a claim, such as collecting the vehicle from the scene of an accident. While customers often think of price when buying insurance, a different approach may remind them of their latent needs when accidents occur. Providing an alternative solution to customers' needs that they may not be aware of can prompt them to move away from price to the value offered by the product.

Evaluate and select channel options

After considering a variety of channels, the insurer must decide which one it will use to achieve its objective. Each channel brings advantages and disadvantages, which must be considered before a campaign. The insurer may find that two channels are expected to deliver the planned sales target. In this case, it should evaluate each channel in more detail to help it decide which one is more likely to achieve the target.

Channel management

Some products may be delivered through a variety of channels. An insurer could provide motorcar insurance directly through its website, call centre or branch office, as well as indirectly via intermediaries and aggregators. However, internal friction may be created within the business as a result of 'cannibilisation'; this refers to when a business uses two or more channels which compete against each other for the same customers, leading to a conflict that reduces sales in one or both channels. For example, the insurer's call centre and intermediary may compete with each other by offering different prices. The intermediary may think that it will lose business if customers are able to go directly to the insurer by communicating with its call centre for a lower price. This could result in the intermediary changing its placing strategy by deciding to place customers with other insurers who are not competing directly against it. Therefore, the insurer needs to manage its relationships with each channel and reduce the potential for conflict by targeting different customers to the intermediary. Insurers which use a number of channels should consider the risks associated with using each one, and communicate with the channels to ensure that they target different segments of the market (Wicks, B. 2017).

An intermediary may sell products under a scheme that it already promotes through another channel. For example, a Lloyd's broker and a regional broker could find that they are competing separately to sell insurance to a large manufacturing business and place the risk with a Lloyd's underwriter. However, the two brokers may already have an agreement in place for other risks, where the regional broker uses the Lloyd's broker to access the Lloyd's market. This channel conflict may make the regional broker reluctant to place its customers' risks with the Lloyd's broker, causing it to select a different Lloyd's broker to use instead. This can create a difficult situation for the original Lloyd's broker, as it wants to grow its market share but risks losing the support of the regional broker.

Insurers should integrate a multi-channel model to organise their channels (Hutt, M. D and Speh, T.W. (2012), so that customers are contacted with a minimum of clashing and the cannibilisation of the channels is less likely. This can be done by having clear and distinct segmented markets, and making sure that where there is scope for potential conflict, solutions are provided; for example, an insurer may offer different products to show that it is targeting different segments. Furthermore, insurers should communicate with channels about their activities, as this helps to demonstrate support for those that are already supplying risks and maintain relationships.

Where an insurer chooses to engage an intermediary, it must carefully consider which intermediary to use. The cost of using this channel may include commission and administering a broker. The insurer requires ongoing resources to monitor the progress of its intermediaries, and assist with particular relationship issues.

Key facts

  • The aim of a distribution channel is to allow customers to access and purchase products in the most efficient way for the business.
  • Direct channels give the insurer direct contact with the customer, while indirect channels contain a break in the link between the customer and the business that is filled by an intermediary.
  • Direct channels include call centres, insurance agents, Lloyd's agents, appointed representatives and mutual organisations.
  • Indirect channels include insurance brokers, reinsurance brokers, independent financial advisers, financial organizations, managing general agents, retail organisations, affinity groups, peer-to-peer groups, broker networks and aggregators.
  • The number of distribution channels available to insurers depends on the types of product, service and customer that they deal with.
  • There is a six-step selection process to help insurers choose between distribution channels.
  • Internal friction may be created within the business when different channels compete for the same customers and resources.
  • The insurer must manage its relationships with channels and communicate with them to ensure that they each target different customer segments.

References and further information

Useful websites

Reports & other useful publications

  • Dibb, S. Simkin, L. Pride, W.M. and Ferrell, O.C. (2006). Marketing Concepts and Strategies. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Gascoigne, C. (2016). "Can Lemonade be the toast of the industry?" Future of Insurance: pp 6-7. Raconteur.net
  • Hutt, M. D. and Speh, T. W. (2012). Business Marketing Management: B2B. Delhi: Cengage.
  • Kotler, P. (2003). Marketing Management, 11th edition. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
  • Priddle, P. and Wallace, M. (2017). Underwriting Practice 2017-18 (study text). London: The Chartered Insurance Institute.
  • Stephenson, R. (2005). Marketing Planning for Financial Services. Aldershot: Gower.
  • Verhoef, P.C. (2012). "Multichannel Customer Management Strategy". In Shankar, V. and Carpenter, G.S. ed., Handbook on Marketing Strategy.Cheltenhem: Edward Elgar Publishing.
  • Wicks, B. (2016). Marketing insurance products and services (study text). London: The Chartered Insurance Institute. 
  • Zimmerman, A, & Blythe, J (2013). Business To Business Marketing Management: A Global Perspective. New York: Routledge. Available to CII members as an eBook
  • The contribution of insurance brokers to the UK economy (2011). London Economics. London: BIBA. (London Economics was commissioned by the British Insurance Brokers' Association (BIBA) to conduct research into the value that the general insurance intermediary sector contributes to UK plc.)
  • London Company Market Statistics Report 2013. International Underwriting Association. London, IUA, 2013.

This document is believed to be accurate but is not intended as a basis of knowledge upon which advice can be given. Neither the author (personal or corporate), the CII group, local institute or Society, or any of the officers or employees of those organisations accept any responsibility for any loss occasioned to any person acting or refraining from action as a result of the data or opinions included in this material. Opinions expressed are those of the author or authors and not necessarily those of the CII group, local institutes, or Societies.