Are we ready for agents again?

It was October, but the Spanish sea was warm enough to swim in. So that’s what I was doing until my husband came running down the beach, waving his arms to tell me to get out of the water. There was a big problem with our train home the next day: French railway staff were going on strike, which meant the sleeper between Barcelona and Paris wasn’t running.

The train journey between London and Barcelona is one we do regularly, to see my husband’s parents. In the past, it’s been a pain to book because of the need to book the different legs of the journey separately. But this time, by a huge stroke of luck, we’d booked through a newish company called Loco2. (Full disclosure: this company is run by a former colleague of my husband’s.)

Loco2 rang my husband to tell us about the strike. Otherwise, there’s no way we would have known about it. There’s no way in hell the train company would have contacted passengers itself. If we hadn’t had that warning, we would have travelled, oblivious, from his parents’ village to Barcelona the following day, only to be faced with a cancelled train and nowhere to sleep. As it was, we made a wet-haired dash to the local station, got there just before it closed and bought new tickets to Barcelona. Meanwhile, Loco2 re-booked us on the next available sleeper and helped us sort out our Eurostar for the Paris-London leg.

Without Loco2, the whole thing would have caused us unimaginable stress: dealing with several different bits of two different train companies, both with crappy websites, and switching between French and Spanish. But the help of Loco2 meant it was sorted fast and we went on to enjoy our extra day of holiday.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I thought about it when I was trying to book travel insurance and the online comparison sites left me confused and frustrated. In the end, I used the broker A-Plan, which worked out quicker and cheaper. I thought about it again last week when my husband was trying to buy a new mobile phone, and he said “I would happily pay someone a tenth of the price of the phone, just to help me find the right one.”

Around ten years ago, there was a backlash against agents, intermediaries or whatever you want to call them. When launched the first car insurance price comparison site in 2002, it felt like a revolution. We were cutting out the middleman and making our own choices! Now, for many people, online comparison sites are the default way of buying all kinds of insurance. It’s a similar thing with holidays and other big purchases: surf the web and compare the deals yourself.

But now I wonder if the pendulum is swinging the other way. Maybe we’re starting to see the value of intermediary services. You see,“choice” isn’t the issue any more. My husband’s problem with picking a mobile phone wasn’t a lack of options: it was the dizzying variety of options, presented in a (probably deliberately) confusing way. That’s why he was willing to pay someone to find a phone to match his requirements: because it’s hard, annoying work.

It’s also hard, annoying work to find a travel insurance quote if you have any pre-existing health conditions, even if they’re non-serious ones like my mild asthma or well-managed RSI. The reality is that even if you give exhaustive details of your medical history to the comparison site, you’ll still have to phone each insurer to get medical clearance from them before you can get a definite quote to compare. I spent 90 minutes doing this before giving up. A-Plan, on the other hand, got me full cover in about half an hour. And I was dealing with someone in an office 15 minutes’ walk away from my house, not someone in a call centre on the other side of the world.

And as for the trains: you’re not a consumer who can pick and choose between different options. You’re just someone trying to piece together a journey in a fragmented landscape where there’s little choice but a lot of confusion. Until Loco2 came on the scene, it was – you guessed it – hard, annoying work. (I wrote a blog post for Sustainable Witney about all the options for booking the Paris-Barcelona sleeper train; what you’ll notice from reading it is how few real options there are.)

I wonder if more businesses will spring up, offering to do that kind of hard, annoying work as a service. I don’t know if “agent” is the right word for them; it summons up a picture of the bad old days when agents could offer a mediocre service because they knew they were your only option. Now it’s a completely different picture.

My hunch is that many people will pay for a service that saves them time, stress and sometimes money. I think many people will pay for a service that gives you advice and help from a clued-up human being. Enough people to make this kind of business a growth area in the economy over the next few years. Whether or not I’m right, I’m looking forward to finding out.