Chase Manhattan Bank will have an uphill fight selling small-business insurance on the Internet, observers say.
Last week Chase said that next month it will start offering such products on its Chase.com site through an arrangement with InsureZone Inc. of Fort Worth, Tex.
Customers will receive quotes and policy contracts in one business day at the start and in 15 minutes after several months, Chase said. The service is designed for companies with 50 or fewer employees; coverage plans include business liability, workers compensation, umbrella liability, and commercial auto insurance.
InsureZone and similar companies already sell such insurance online, but no other major bank does or has announced plans to do so, at least one expert said. Neither have smaller ones, as far as she knew. But she and some other observers expressed doubt that the Internet would ever become a successful distribution channel for commercial insurance.
Small-business owners do not know enough about commercial insurance to feel comfortable buying it on the Web without assistance, said Val Jordan, president of the consulting firm Jordan & Jordan Associates in Belchertown, Mass.
Small businesses arent going to be able to answer the detailed questions, Ms. Jordan said. An agent can help calculate workers compensation. Can a small-business owner? What is the building youre in made of? Whats the fire rating? Is it a high-wind area or in a flood zone? The average small-business owner is going to need help.
Rusty Reid, president and CEO of InsureZone, agreed that many small-business people would need such help but he said his company provides it.
Licensed InsureZone agents advise customers over the phone, through instant Internet chats, and by e-mail and fax, he said.
You have to provide advice and counsel, Mr. Reid said. Thats an important part of our strategy.
Financial Keyosk, a newly formed online company , also hopes to sell small-business insurance through bank sites, but its chief executive officer said their complexity will make them hard to sell online.
The biggest problem is no one has made it simple enough, said the executive, John Dawson, whose company is based in Schaumburg, Ill. At this point, I dont see people going online and completing the process of buying commercial insurance.
The unique buyer that wants to buy everything on the Internet might use such a service, he conceded, but for the most part, people arent going to buy complicated products without talking to a trusted agent.
Mr. Dawson said Financial Keyosk is in talks with a few banks to offer commercial insurance online but has clinched no such deals. The company also intends to provide personal insurance products for banks and other financial services providers to offer online.
InsureZone said a second commercial insurance agreement between it and a bank will be announced shortly.
One bank interested in the idea is Peoples Bank in Bridgeport, Conn. Taking care of our business clients on a face-to-face basis is expensive, said Barbara Johnson, its senior vice president for insurance services.
I think the concept of a Web-enabled sales process has legs over time, she said.