Agent or broker? Agents may be "captive," working for one insurance carrier, or independent and writing policies on behalf of many companies. A broker is, by definition, independent. It's commonly said that brokers represent you while agents represent insurers -- but the line dividing them is blurring. In practice, "a good agent or broker is an impartial matchmaker, finding the right insurer for the client and the right client for the insurer," says Linda Christ of Cryst & Associates Insurance Agency in Fairfax, Virginia.

Find a specialist. Try to find an agent or broker who specializes in your industry. Such a person knows what risks are paramount to you and has a handle on litigation and settlement trends. You might find tailored and cheaper coverage through your trade association.

Don't trust the Web. If you're tempted by an attractive online quote, make sure there are live agents who can talk you through a policy before you buy it.

Resources

The Insurance Information Institute (iii.org/smallbusiness) has links to resources, including professional organizations, and a detailed guide to small-business insurance.

The National Federation of Independent Business (nfib.com) posts articles on insurance in the "tools and tips" part of its website.

The Small Business Administration offers helpful publications on insurance at sba.gov/tools/resourcelibrary/publications.

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners has a useful guide (insureuonline.org/smallbusiness) and links to state insurance department sites.