As e-commerce continues to grow rapidly, a new survey from Lifesearch shows that some protection product companies are vastly outperforming others on online services.This is the first survey that Lifesearch has carried out focusing on the online services of protection providers. It has been heavily involved in the development and high-volume use of each system in the past five years. Lifesearch graded each provider in 10 different categories, including interaction, flexibility, incentives, navigation, stability and pipeline tracking. The best provider in each category was given a 10 and all other providers were graded in comparison. Higher marks were given to providers with more user-friendly services and systems that made life easier for the IFA and client, in terms of speed, flexibility, cutting out mistakes and clarity. Sometimes this is as simple as being able to navigate backwards and forwards through an online form. The survey found that some providers do not allow this which can be time consuming and irritating to an IFA completing a form for a client who wants to amend a previous page. Friends Provident comes out on top with a score of 86 out of 100. Until recently, L&G has been the leader in this area but the advances made by Friends in the last 12 months have put it on top of the pile, just above L&G on 74. Lifesearch senior technical adviser Kevin Carr sees this improvement as evidence of a more competitive approach to online services among protection providers. He says: “It is good to see Friends Provident competing so well. It has arguably overtaken L&G. The speed of growth has been rapid and shows that e-commerce is the future of the protection industry.” Friends Provident head of protection marketing Peter Hamilton says: “We are delighted to have been voted as having the best online services for IFAs. Developing our online offering is a huge area of growth for Friends Provident. “We believe strongly that we can support the adviser by not only ensuring the products are right but also by putting service and control back into the hands of the adviser and his client through the use of electronic processes.” Liverpool Victoria and Scottish Provident came bottom of the survey with scores of 47 and 49 respectively. Ahead of them were Scottish Widows with 57, Standard Life on 68, Norwich Union also 0n 68 and Royal Liver with 69. The survey did not include Axa, as its system was laun-ched in late 2004, and Scottish Equitable. Abbey media relations executive Nicola Thomson says: “Naturally, we are very disappointed with the Scottish Provident results and we have been working hard on making improvements to our online services in the last six months. We are confident that the imp-rovements we are making now will be reflected in the next survey.” In terms of companies that performed badly in the survey, it is obvious where improvements can be made. For example, Liverpool Victoria and Standard Life do not provide any pipeline tracking, an online feature that allows the IFA to keep track of the underwriting process when medical reports are required. It enables the IFA to be more proactive in terms of informing clients when the process will be complete. This led to them both receiving 0 out of 10 in this section. Carr says: “In six months, the survey could change dramatically. There is room for rapid improvement within the lower-performing prov-iders as it is clear what needs to be done.” Carr also believes this survey reveals the need for more regulation and standardisation of the industry due to the increase in e-commerce. Some firms insist on signatures to complete an application while others rely on recording phone calls or other methods. This can lead to confusion over liability if a mistake is made. Who is responsible – the life office, the intermediary or the client? Another problem area is client background checks where the systems used by providers differ significantly. Some use computer checks, some insist on passport/ paper ID being sent and some use other internal decision systems. There is no industry standard and that needs to be addressed.