By James Robbins GAZETTE-JOURNAL
Filmmaker Woody Allen once depicted a criminal locked in a room with an insurance agent as being the worst punishment that could be doled out by the prison system.
The debate over whether the reputation is deserved aside, Dan Wager of Reno's Wager Financial insurance agency has devised a way for prospective customers to get rate quotes on-line without ever meeting a salesperson. Wager and others are quick to point out that this doesn't mean agents should or will disappear. They have their place, in the eyes of many consumers, and on-line alternative is meant to be just that, an alternative.
Wager, wife Debra and partner Bruce Patras have developed a site on the Internet for Quickquote Insurance Agency, where agents and customers can find the best prices for term life insurance and annuities.
Subscribers to on-line computer services that offer access to the Internet's World Wide Web can call up the Quickquote homepage (http://wwwquickquote.com), fill out the questionnaire and wait for the top five comparative rates for life insurance and/or annuities to pop onto the screen.
The questionnaire requires name, age, height, weight, smoking habits and general medical information.
If you like the quotes you see on the screen. Wager said, you can follow up with his company through electronic-mail to purchase the insurance or arrange to meet with an agent.
Wager's database of 200 "A-rated and above" insurance companies is housed on a computer at Incline Village's Sierra Net, an Internet access provider.
The database soon will be moved by Prodigy on-line service to computers in five key cities, Wager said, but it will still be accessible to all on-line services.
Wager said he also will have about 500 insurance companies on-line in a short time.
Companies being compared by Quickquote include several of the nation's largest carriers, such as The Midland, North American, Federal Kemper and USG Life.
The Internet site also includes quotes on annuity rates, comparing about 60 companies, and features a glossary of such insurance terms as beneficiary, conversion privilege and double indemnity.
Since going on-line with the system this month, QuickQuote averages 800 hits a day (Internet parlance for the number of times someone looks at any given homepage on the World Wide Web).
Quickquote also electronically arranges a medical service with the consumer that sends a medical worker out to collect blood and urine samples before the policy is issued.
The actual policy transaction is handled through the mail, Wager said, because regulations prohibit electronic signing of documents. Some consumers may choose to use Wager's electronic means of buying insurance, industry officials say, but the day of the human agent is not over yet.
Although the service offers competitive benefits for consumers who purchase less than $ I million worth of life insurance, there will still be plenty of work left for agents, said Barry Wolfe, president of Centrestone Life and Annuities, one of the nation's largest general insurance agencies.
Centrestone is one of the companies compared on Wager's service.
"Consumers still like to talk to agents," Wolfe said. "When they're estate planning, they really need to talk to someone."
"The agent won't disappear," agreed Les Duriand, chief marketing officer for The Midland. "A lot of people still need help" with insurance.
But Quickquote is a good "alternative distribution source," he added.
Wolfe compared the Quickquote service to the advent of discount stock brokerage houses, which everyone predicted would be the demise of stockbrokers. That hasn't happened, and
Wager said his service isn't based on replacing agents but in aiding them.
The new Internet service can be useful to consumers, especially those uncomfortable with talking about life insurance, Wolfe said.
"Who wants to talk about their death?" he asked rhetorically.
Quickquote also adds another dimension to insurance sales, Wager said, because consumers and agents will be able to compare hundreds of companies' premiums, as opposed to the typical independent agent sometimes has access to a handful of companies' rates.
As the number of home computer users continues to grow, Wager said, so will the market.
In northern Nevada, nearly half of the adult population of 260,668 has a computer at home, according to a Schulman, Ronca, Bucuvalas Inc. study for the Reno Gazette-Journal.
Of those who said they own a computer and a modem, 19.4 percent (12,759 people) said they use an on-line service every day, and 15.9 percent (10,488) said they use a service at least a few times a week.
The Quickquote service also will raise some regulatory issues, once it is offered nationwide, Wager said.
He has spent much of the past year getting licensed in every state which cost an average of $350 per state.
"We are trying to meet the needs of electronic consumers," Jeppson said, although with the rapidly changing on-line environment, it takes a lot of work.