Your smartphone may be the latest tool to help answer your auto insurance questions.
Many insurance companies now offer mobile phone applications and streamlined websites that are a breeze to call up.
Thanks to these advancements, you may be able to tap your smartphone for help the next time you:
Almost 30 percent of U.S. consumers own smartphones, according to October 2010 data from the Nielsen Company. Today, people rely on those phones to provide more insurance services.
"We really focus on providing mobile versions of our most popular capabilities," says Kathleen Shear, marketing management senior consultant for Nationwide Insurance in Columbus, Ohio.
For customers of companies like USAA, "it doesn't matter where they are – they have USAA on their hip or in their pocket," says Phil Leininger, the San Antonio-based company's vice president of auto products.
In addition to iPhone applications, many insurers are adding the same for Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7. Mobile sites are accessible from all devices.
Matthew Lehman, mobile business leader for Progressive Insurance in Mayfield, Ohio, says his company was the first in the industry to launch a mobile website around five years ago.
Progressive allows you to use a smartphone to do everything from paying your bill to filing an accident claim and receiving an insurance quote for cars, motorcycles or recreation vehicles.
Immediacy of content is important to smartphone users, and the devices' small size can make them more of a challenge to use than a computer. Progressive has responded to these realities by streamlining the information available on its mobile site when compared to its full website, Lehman says.
USAA started offering smartphone applications as a way to serve its members when they were on a quick lunch or coffee break. The goal was to allow customers to do simple transactions such as pay a bill or add or replace a car on their policy, Leininger says.
Over time, capabilities have expanded. Leininger recounts the story of a friend who rented a Jeep, but needed to show proof of insurance. The friend had forgotten his insurance card, but was able to pull it up on his smartphone.
Smartphone applications and mobile sites also have become important resources when a customer is in an accident.
"When you have an accident, that's when you need help most," Shear says.
With its Accident Toolkit, the Nationwide app offers customers a checklist of what to do after a crash. Tips include:
"Oftentimes it (an accident) is a traumatic experience. The details become a bit of a blur," Leininger says.
The USAA app lets the customer begin the claims process, uploading photos of the accident and providing details of what occurred.
Progressive offers tips to smartphone users on how to do things like fix a flat tire or jump start a car, as well as information on traveling with kids or pets.
Some insurance companies also allow you to use your smartphone to compare car insurance rates for different types of vehicles.
Car buyers might find a particular vehicle appealing, but "they often forget certain cars cost quite a bit more to insure than others," Leininger says.
With just a few clicks, USAA customers can find out what their new monthly auto loan and insurance payment would be if they purchased a new vehicle, Leininger says. They can also use their smart phone to add a new vehicle to their insurance policy.
Using smartphone apps is just as secure as surfing the Internet from a regular computer, according to the insurance companies.
At USAA, for example, members do business from all over the world, so security is paramount. Both the mobile site and the apps use the same secure systems as the company's website, and information like passwords, user names and PINs is not stored on smart phones.
Lehman says that while apps and mobile websites are important for insurance companies, "they're not going to be perfect for everything." Progressive's website, telephone service and insurance agents remain an important part of the picture.
"Each has a role to play," Lehman says.
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