There’s a tremendous amount of confusion about auto insurance agents. What exactly do they do? How do they differ from brokers, and from online car insurance services? What are the pros and cons and working with an agent? How can you find one you trust?

In this article, we’ll walk you through the basics of car insurance agents. You’ll learn how they can help you, how they can’t, and how to find one you can trust.

Auto insurance agent or broker?

The first thing to note about insurance agents is that they are not brokers. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, brokers and agents work very differently.

Insurance agents work for insurance companies directly. They’re paid a salary by a specific company to sell that agency’s insurance policies. They might be paid some kind of commission for each sale, but - generally speaking - they’re not as dependent on sales as insurance brokers for their income. (We’ll return to this shortly.) Because they represent only one company, these auto insurance agents are often called “captive” agents.

An insurance broker, on the other hand, doesn’t work for any one company. It’s more like they work for you. The broker’s role is to find a policy that meets your needs - whichever carrier happens to offer it - and help you purchase it. Brokers get a commission from these sales, and are wholly dependent on them for income.

Note also that some insurance agents are called “independent” agents. They represent multiple companies as well, and are very similar to brokers in all respects. But generally, when you hear people talking about insurance agents, they’re referring to old-fashioned captive agents who represent a single insurer.

Why work with an auto insurance agent?

Working with a car insurance agent comes with a variety of benefits. First, because the agent works for just one company, they’re essentially an expert in that insurer’s products. They know the ins and outs of their agency’s products, and may be able to help you find exactly the right policy.

Insurance agents may also be able to help you identify discounts that their company offers. Most insurers offer a huge range of discounts, meaning they’ll knock a few dollars off your monthly premiums for everything from AARP membership to electric vehicle ownership to high GPAs. Again, because agents are experts in their company’s offerings, they might be able to help you suss out these discounts and save money.

Personalized service is another big reason to work with an auto insurance agent. When you purchase a policy through an agent, they become invested in your business for the long haul. It can be easier and friendlier than buying a policy online. And if you someday need to make a claim, you’ll probably work with that same insurance agent to process it. That kind of responsive human assistance is becoming a rarity in today’s economy, and some people prefer it.

Finally, if you’re interested in buying another type of insurance (e.g. homeowner’s insurance) from the same company, you might need an agent’s assistance. Multi-policy arrangements often come with a nice discount, but they’re usually too complex to purchase online.

What are the drawbacks of working with an insurance agent?

While agents can offer you deep expertise and a human touch, they’re often limited by their job structure in several different respects.

First, as we discussed above, agents represent only one company. (They’re “captive,” remember?) That means they’re not trying to sell you the best insurance policy on the market - they’re trying to sell you the best policy offered by their agency. One of their competitors might offer a much better product, but you won’t hear about it from the agent.

Second, working with an agent makes it much harder to compare prices. Shopping quotes from multiple auto insurance companies is the best way to find a policy you love. But if you’re doing things the old-fashioned way, getting nine different quotes means talking to nine different agents. And that, of course, will take a lot of time. It’s dramatically easier to search multiple car insurance quotes using a web service like Online Auto Insurance.

Third, although insurance agents don’t exactly work on a commission system (compared to brokers, as we mentioned above), they’re still paid by the insurer to sell you policies. That’s why most insurance companies offer slightly lower premium rates if you buy their products directly. That means searching for your new policy online will typically turn up lower quotes than buying through an agent.

And finally, some people find that buying online is a lower-pressure experience than working with an agent. As we discussed above, working face-to-face with an agent brings a personal touch to the insurance-buying process. But the downside, of course, is that you may feel pushed to buy something you’re not quite sure about. Buying online means less pressure, less stress, and a making a purchase you can be confident about.

Finding a nearby auto insurance agent you love

If you do decide to work with an agent, there are a few crucial steps to take. Start by asking for referrals from people you know, such as friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, etc. Even in the era of online reviews, there’s no substitute for a trusted word-of-mouth recommendation. You can also check local listings via trade association listings and services like Yelp. The goal here is to cast a wide net, then start narrowing down.

Once you have a short list of agents you’re interested in, check their background. Make sure they’re properly licensed in your state. Investigate their credentials (i.e. the extra certification letters after their name) and see if any complaints have been filed against them or their agency via the Better Business Bureau.

If an agent passes all these tests, have an initial “interview” chat with them. Do your personalities click? Do they seem professional, friendly, and trustworthy? Ask open-ended questions and see how helpful their answers are. And finally, ask for references. Any good agent should be able to direct you to satisfied customers.

The Bottom Line

Working with a car insurance agent comes with certain benefits, such as a deep proficiency in their company’s products and direct, personalized service. It also has definite drawbacks compared to finding car insurance online. If you do decide to work with an auto insurance agent, do due diligence to find someone you can trust for the long term.