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The E-Business Award Direct Line - Living the dream.

Direct Line wanted to create the most innovative website in the market and, as Andrew Foxwell report...

Direct Line wanted to create the most innovative website in the market and, as Andrew Foxwell reports, it has become one of this year's most successful online stories.

A decade ago, one of Direct Line's most important business factors was the efficiency and speed of its call centres, when the internet was only just starting to develop as a potentially powerful commercial tool. Today, however, a company's website can be the make-or-break between a sale or customers, frustrated by its inadequacy, leaving for a rival. For this reason, Direct Line decided to modernise its website in 2005 using the latest internet and customer-focused technology, including making the site accessible to the disabled.

In planning the project, Direct Line's team conducted extensive research through entry and exit surveys and by monitoring the existing process to identify problem areas, such as the errors made when navigating through quote questions. The team also viewed information boxes to better understand user priorities.

Foviance, a company specialising in website research and usability advice, was employed by the team as they believed that obtaining external expertise would benefit the redesign. The project set out with a number of objectives, such as ensuring that the website was an industry benchmark; that the site reflected growing customer awareness of online technology; that it was disability compliant; and that the aim of raising online quote activity and online sales by 20% in 2006 could be met.

It was also agreed that there were customer-focused areas that needed redevelopment, including simplifying and reducing the number of questions in the 'quote and buy' section by listing them on the one page. In addition, this page was designed to contain further information users need when filling out questions.

While some websites go all-out on graphics and pictures with spinning logos and brash colours, Direct Line decided to take a different approach. In order to prevent lengthy waits for the website to load - especially for users without broadband - the new-look website features minimal graphics allowing users to download information quickly.

One feature - which is still rare for websites to develop - was access for disabled users, including those who are blind or have cognitive disorders. As such, the site was rebuilt for screen-reading equipment, which reads out the site's text to blind users.

In addition, pages constructed for new product benefits were linked into the mainframe, allowing users to receive up-to-date introductory discounts based on their existing claims experience with Direct Line.

To mitigate the difficulties for customers who chose to change channel - from website to phone - Direct Line developed technology so that its call centre workers were able to retrieve data that was originally registered online from the system.

While insurance websites allow customers to purchase policies online, there are often problems that arise when they try to renew their policies and they have to phone up a call centre to do it. As an answer to this, Direct Line enabled car and home policyholders to renew online.

Finally, it was agreed the website should undergo a back-end rewrite of the operating code to further reduce user download time. Although the driving force was to improve the site for customers, Direct Line also used this opportunity to improve the functionality of the website for its employees. Changes were made to allow the website to be updated with ease, allowing a new page to 'drop' on top of the existing pages as needed.

Technology was also introduced that would study the 'path to purchase' in order to better utilise the market intelligence available. For example, it monitored the points that users drop out of the quote process and how they use the website generally. This allowed Direct Line to gain a better understanding of how users interacted with the website so that it could be updated and enhanced accordingly.

As such, the results of the redesign were startling. According to data collated by E-benchmarkers, the website offers one of the fastest quote and buy processes of any UK insurance site. The data showed that the website had one of the fastest downloading times in the industry, and that it was 28% faster following its modernisation.

In terms of business performance - comparing January and February 2005 with the same time period in 2006 - quotes were higher in January by 28% and in February by 48%, with sales rising by the same amount. By the same measurement, individual product quotes were also substantially higher - pet quotes were up by 70%, car was up by 30% and travel up by 25%. Individual product sales saw pet increase by 102%, car by 62% and breakdown cover by 76%.

Needless to say, this dramatic transformation made a big impression on the British Insurance Awards judges. One said: "The scale of the insurer's overhaul and rewriting of its online offering was impressive. While it can be acknowledged that the initiative was more graft than innovation, that does not detract from how well the offering has worked."

WINNING WORDS

Direct Line's Chris Moat sings the praises of the company's online offering and its commitment to customers.

Back on the main floor of the Royal Albert Hall after collecting his company's award, Chris Moat, managing director of Direct Line, was thrilled at the technological success, which the award recognised.

With the sound of Grieg's Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt ringing in his ears, Mr Moat was delighted and glowing at the respect gained from his peers. He said: "We are absolutely delighted to be recognised for the efforts we have made at Direct Line to develop our online offering. Direct Line's clients have received the fruits of our efforts because we have made things better for consumers. When going through the website development process we made sure generating a quote online would be as straightforward and easy as doing it by phone."

He added: "The company has to have a strong brand, and that is key. It's about leading the market - Direct Line is a market leading brand, and part of what this award recognises is our strive to continually revitalise the brand."

Mr Moat said there were three guiding principles used to develop the website from a consumer's point of view, which are also applied throughout the rest of Direct Line's business. "One is making things easy for consumers; the second is being trustworthy in everything we do so we can be the consumers' champion and deliver on our promises; and the third and final principle is reinvesting in price and delivering value to customers in varied ways. Those have been with Direct Line since the outset - this is about expressing that."

Sponsored by Sirius

Finalists2006

- Direct Line

- NIG

- Friends Provident

- HSBC Intermediary Marketing Division.

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