For some people, cheap auto insurance isn’t good enough. These individuals want excellent customer service, and they may even be willing to pay more for it. Of course, in the best world, companies would have both excellent service and low prices, and it is certainly possible to find companies matching that description.Whether you’re filing a claim, changing coverage or simply paying a bill, good customer service can make a big difference when choosing a provider. Insurance is an intangible good, and it’s often hard to justify paying for something that you will never see or might never use. Good customer service can make those payments easier to make, while bad service can turn you away from even an otherwise high-quality product.

How is Customer Service Measured?

Insurance companies are always interested in keeping an eye on their service. Because insurance is such a competitive field and all companies provide similar products, service is one of the only things that can make a company stand out. Due to this, there are a number of surveys and polls designed to track customer satisfaction.

Some of the most popular ratings are those released by J.D. Powers. This is a global market rating company that provides ratings for all sorts of companies in many different industries. For some people, a J.D. Powers rating is the preeminent stamp of success.

Insurance companies also keep track of customer satisfaction through an assortment of surveys. Any time you take a phone survey at the end of a call to your insurer, the results are recorded and go toward making changes in the company. There are five major components of customer satisfaction for an insurer:

— Customer service
— Claims service
— Value for price
— Percent of customers who will renew their policies
— Percent of customers who will refer friends to the company

These latter two factors make up the company’s “Customer Loyalty Index” and are coveted for their ability to grow and maintain business. Companies strive to gain new clients and retain those they already have. While low cost insurance can attract new customers, only good service can keep most of them coming back or earn referrals from friends.

Which Companies Have the Best Customer Service?

J.D. Powers divides its ratings into three broad categories: claims, purchase experience and overall provider ratings. These categories then report ratings for multiple sub-categories.

— Claims Satisfaction

This category includes a customer’s experience filing a claim, having the vehicle assessed and repaired, and satisfaction with the settlement process. Perfect overall ratings for claim satisfaction were given out to USAA, New Jersey Manufacturer’s, and Auto Owner’s Insurance, which was the J.D. Powers award-winner for 2011. Several other companies scored with high ranks in claims satisfaction, including Amica, State Farm, and The Hartford.

— Purchase Experience

This category assessed a company’s prices, ease of purchasing a policy, website design, agent support staff and call center staff. J.D. Powers awarded The Hartford with the best purchase experience award this year. Other high-ranking companies included USAA, which had a perfect score, and State Farm, Nationwide, Liberty Mutual, Amica and Erie, which all had four out of five stars.

— Provider Ratings

This category looks at the big picture of an insurance company, including policy offerings, pricing, ease of contacting the insurer and billing and payment. The 2011 winner in this category was Wawanesa. Other high-ranking insurance companies included GEICO, State Farm, The Hartford and USAA, which once more had a perfect rank.

Overall, many insurance companies offer excellent service, and customers are largely satisfied with their policies. Based on the data from J.D. Powers, it appears that USAA is unanimously the best insurance company from a consumer point of view. This makes sense: As a company that services only military personnel and their families, USAA has a tight niche market and is able to offer many things that other insurers cannot due to its size.

A clear runner-up in terms of service is State Farm, which consistently ranked four out of five stars in nearly every category. Considering this company currently holds the greatest market share of any insurer, it must be doing something right to keep so many satisfied customers.

It’s interesting to note that most of the major insurance companies, such as Progressive and Allstate, rated as consistently average across all categories. Notably, some companies also scored quite poorly in most categories. For example, 21st Century insurance ranked two out of five stars in many categories, as did Nationwide and Farmer’s.

Of course, J.D. Powers is not the final word on insurance quality. If you have a company that doesn’t rank well but are satisfied with them, there’s no reason to change; similarly, a high rank by J.D. Powers does not necessarily guarantee optimal service. Nevertheless, insurance companies take these rankings seriously, and they are a good way to judge how much you will like working with a company. Before choosing a company based solely on policy cost, it might be worthwhile to check its ratings to see if it will provide a suitable customer experience as well.