Technology is amazing and powerful--but that shouldn't automatically make it your "default" option, particularly when selling complex or costly products or services.

I was powerfully reminded of the value human beings still provide while coaching the two founders of Argentina's 123seguro at Columbia Business School' through the second half of 2016. They're an online auto insurance startup--the first that I know of--with some 20,000 policies in force. 2017 revenues are increasing 50 percent year-over-year and should hit $20 million by Christmas. In other words, they're doing quite well.

As rosy as things look now for Bruno and Martin Ferrari--yes, they're brothers as well as co-founders--things were thorny on a good day at the outset. Insurance is a complex sale, and buyers need confidence in any type of insurance provider, just as they do with many other complicated products and services like healthcare, enterprise software, and tech/legal/accounting, to name a few.

The team talked to customers and one another nonstop, desperately searching for a solution. Issues they confronted included the "trust" factor, complexities of the product itself, and the newness of online insurance sales to the Argentine market, where e-commerce and online transactions remain far less comfortable than in the US, even five or more years ago.

What's more, 123's traditional competitors--analog insurance brokers--sat across the desk from you, offering coffee, answering every question, and assuming an advisory role as they helped customers choose from policy options, insurance providers, and other questions driving the sale.

Initial sales were downright terrible... and frightening. It took 100 online impressions to generate one project requesting a quote. Whether the clicks were paid or free, conversion stats were frustrating, running at a clearly unprofitable four percent.

Do the math: 100 impressions yields one quote request; four quote requests yielded sales. The result: four customers for every 10,000 impressions.

Martin and Bruno built an intensely data-driven back end for their website, something that's always recommended. In this case, they were able to watch their own demise roll out before their eyes as their self-funded bank balance seemed steadily swirling toward the drain.

After 60 days of frustrating conversation rates and very little selling, the decision was made: Every online quote was to be followed as fast as humanly possible by--surprise, surprise--a live phone call from a real human being. The goal was to build relationships based on trust, explain the options, and answer the flood of questions most buyers have when purchasing an important, complicated product like car insurance.

More important, today, that call is placed within seven minutes of the e-mail's arrival.

The results of the "seven minute follow up call" strategy arrived fast and were impressive. Today, one quotation email out of five results in a new customer for 123seguro. That's a 400 percent improvement in the close rate, before you even look at the improvement in click-to-quote conversions.

The result: year after year, dramatic growth in company revenues, marketing efficiency, and profit, all resulting from this low-tech, hi-touch solution. Yes, it's more expensive to use "flesh-based processing units" to close the deal. But if you can close five times as many deals, the payoff is likely to be well worth the effort.

The 123seguro story teaches a good lesson to many entrepreneurs who say to themselves "we can automate that" again and again--particularly when marketing products that are complicated, unnerving to customers, important to "get right," or all three.

Published on: Apr 25, 2017