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How to go direct-to-consumers without ticking off your brokers


December 14, 2018   by David Gambrill


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Are you an insurance company looking to build up your direct-to-consumer capabilities without alienating the broker channel, on whom you rely for your core business?

Here are three tips for you, as outlined by bloggers Ned Calder, Shahriar Parvarandeh and Michael Brady, all three from the growth strategy consulting firm Innosight.  Their blog is published in the Harvard Business Review.

The article, entitled ‘Building a Direct-to-Consumer Strategy Without Alienating Your Distributors,’ is written generally for all companies, but some of its ideas may resonate with carriers and their broker partners. For carriers, it may provide insights into how to balance direct-to-consumer and broker distribution sales models. For brokers, it provides a glimpse into how a carrier might attempt to approach their customers without drawing retaliatory measures.

First, “embrace stealth,” the bloggers advise companies wishing to pursue a direct-to-consumer strategy.

Before the advent of the internet, companies looking to test new business models might start selling quietly in a new geographic territory. Here, they were free from the constraints of distribution contracts that restricted their ability to sell direct in traditional geographic markets.

“But that is harder to do in the digital age, as customers and partners anywhere can easily see what you’re doing online,” the bloggers note.  “Alternatively, the company can operate in stealth mode by targeting customer segments that have been poorly served or ignored by traditional distributors.”

The authors give the example of Verizon, which quietly launched a startup called Visible that offers no-contract mobile phone service subscriptions for a $40 flat fee. Only available for purchase through an app, this model competes mainly with smaller-brand, low-end providers, and therefore is not much of a threat to Verizon’s massive distribution network of company-owned, partner, and authorized reseller stores that are selling higher-margin services.

Second, Calder, Parvarandeh and Brady call on companies to “create hooks” that compel their distribution partners while at the same time minimizing their bargaining leverage. “There are many ways to build hooks, including bundling products, monopolizing a category, or developing features that are indispensable to a subset of customers,” the authors write.

An example is when Microsoft launched its Surface line of tablets in 2012. The move put Microsoft in competition with its traditional distribution partners, including Acer, Lenovo, HP and Dell. However, Microsoft had a monopoly on the desktop operating system market, so its partners, which were already hooked on Microsoft Windows, had little choice but to accept Microsoft’s direct-to-consumer strategy.

Third, the authors call on direct-to-consumer strategies to include a way to minimize their distributors’ pain. “Supporting downstream partners’ business can…reduce the risk of retaliation.”

For example, the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar introduced a vehicle management platform that provides customers with insights on vehicle use, health and location.

“The platform is sold directly to customers, frequently removing downstream partners from the sales process,” the bloggers write. “Ultimately, though, the platform benefits partners because it alerts customers when they need to get their equipment serviced by these local partners — a key revenue stream for Caterpillar’s distributors.”