What’s your first reaction when you get the resignation letter from one of your customer service representatives?

Do you reach for the antacid to fight off the anticipated heartburn of the whole hiring process?

Have you gone through the time and effort to hire a CSR and then had them quit or have to fire them within the first year? First 90 days?

Are you struggling to just find a job seeker with a pulse?

You are not alone.

With unemployment at the lowest levels currently since 2001, and hourly earnings 2.5% higher in 2017 than the prior 12 months*, the ability to find and keep good employees is a challenge.

Fewer candidates are looking and possibly happier where they are. A new hire doesn’t have to stick around when it’s a job seekers market. Or they may be less motivated to work hard if they can find a new job tomorrow.

I’m going to challenge you by saying I don’t think the real problem is the job market.

I think the problem is us.

I think most of us are looking in the wrong places, asking the wrong questions, and failing new hires with unclear expectations and lousy on boarding.

These issues aren’t necessarily unique to insurance agencies. And yet if we admit that as an industry that many of our agencies are suffering from “business as usual” struggles in the marketing and sales departments there is certainly bleed over into human resource functions.

We are still hiring and onboarding like we did ten and twenty years ago.

Here are the three reasons we are not hiring the right CSR’s that will stick… and twice as many solutions to fix them:

            We’re hiring other agencies’ rejects.

You’ve seen the resume – the CSR candidate you’re considering has worked for all the biggest and best insurance agencies around.

Maybe that impresses you because that means you won’t have to train them on your agency management system, since they’ve worked with all of them. Maybe they’ve got both personal and commercial CSR experience and you’re a small agency that needs that versatility.

There can be a lot of appeal to hiring an experienced CSR.

You just need to be extra cautious because of the baggage this brings.

Warning Signs a CSR Won’t Stick

When you ask about the reasons for joining or leaving each agency, they could have really good explanations. However if they cite that each of their former employers were a bad fit, in whatever terms they describe, the reality could be that the common denominator is actually the person.

Another concern of hiring a CSR that has worked for a host of other agencies is that it’s possible they will have picked up less than desirable work habits or assumptions along the way.

I once hired a CSR who had been taught by a former employer that earthquake insurance was expensive and unnecessary so she had talked several clients out of considering before I overheard her.

Even if they are a good CSR this “love them and leave them” job history could indicate they are not the sticking kind.

How to Find a CSR that Sticks

1) Find your next CSR by referral.

Instead of another newspaper want ad or association job postings consider first asking your current employees if they can refer a good quality CSR candidate from their circle of influence.

If you are hell-bent on getting the experienced CSR this option can provide some peace of mind that your employee won’t knowingly recommend a dud. The best practice here however is to have your employee make the contact to the potential candidate.

The world of insurance is small and poaching a good CSR from a competing agency can definitely cause friction, so here’s the other suggestion:

2) Seek a candidate based on personality not experience.

Have a super friendly and efficient barista in your local coffee shop?

Could they be trained to be the next awesome CSR in your office? By placing the net farther afield and also choosing based on the person’s attitude you may be able to recruit a CSR that stays.

Part of what insurance agencies are trying to master is improving the customer experience.

What if you could find a CSR from a different background where they already have training in providing noteworthy service? If someone can learn how to make a chai latte half-caf extra whip, then they can learn what options are available on an auto policy.

We’re asking potential new CSR candidates the wrong questions.

How to Ask Better Knockout Questions

In order to make sure we’re weeding through the work ethics of the candidates and making sure we hire someone willing to show up regularly, without drama, there are some basic questions we are overlooking.

However we all know there are certain questions we are not allowed to ask so we sometimes avoid asking good preliminary questions.

We may also be asking questions related to skills and not personality.

Do you need a CSR that is willing to cross-sell a current client on other lines of business or do you need a CSR that can work directly with a producer that serves very large detailed commercial accounts?

Although it sounds like I’m describing skill sets those are actually more dependent on personality types. Asking deeper questions to get deeper answers may be necessary.

1) Know What You Can and Can’t Ask, Legally

Make sure you avoid the questions that will land you in legal trouble but make sure you can tell a real candidate from a fake one.

To get the scoop on this I enlisted the help of my trusted advisor in the hiring realm, Stacey Lorber, Human Resource Manager of Catawba Staffing in Marion, NC.

Catawba Staffing specializes in helping organizations find temporary and permanent hires so Stacey has seen her share of winner and losers.

The guidelines she provided said to avoid include:

  • All mentions of age, including questions related to graduation.
  • No questions regarding marital or family status are allowed.
  • Do not ask about disabilities or illnesses.
  • Do not ask about religion.
  • Do not ask about nation of origin.

You can ask if an 8:30 am workday start is doable if that’s your office procedure and if any obligations prevent the candidate from working overtime or travel (such as to conferences or continuing education classes if that is expected).

Here is a good post from Monster on Legal Interview Questions to start. Also consider referring to your state and the federal guidelines for more specifics.

Effective CSR Candidate Qualifying Questions

Here’s her top 3 ways to determine if a job seeker is serious:

1) Ask what the quickest way to contact them is – email, cell phone – call or text. It’s a bad sign if they hesitate to give alternate methods of contact.

2) Ask them to walk you through their last 5 years of work history so you can clarify any gaps in work history.

3) Ask if they have anything scheduled in the next ninety days that would affect work? She said they may volunteer information about upcoming doctor appointments, court appearances, or other details that you should probably know.

2) Personality Assessments Work

If you really want to make sure the candidate has the right personality for the job opening consider giving them a personality assessment like Caliper or Omnia.

These evaluations are not inexpensive but you have the ability to be very specific about the person you are looking to hire.

In my almost a decade as a personal lines team leader I found the tests were more accurate than we liked. On several occasions we hired individuals who we had good gut feelings about that didn’t pan out and almost all of the issues were evident on the personality assessment.

Instead of trusting the tool, we chose to ignore the warnings or felt they were surmountable.

The initial expense of the assessments for one or two possible hires is small compared to the time and effort to train someone for the wrong seat on the bus.

Even if you don’t utilize personality assessments we can be asking better, open-ended questions during the interview process:

  • Ask how they deal with conflict.
  • Ask what they think excellent customer service looks like.
  • Ask them to solve a problem (real or fake) and see how they respond.
  • Have them describe an experience where they made a wrong decision and what they did to correct it.

Ask more questions about the work they’ll be doing and really listen to their answers.

Also pay attention to the questions they ask about the job. If they aren’t asking very much it may be a sign of lack of interest or it could be they don’t know enough about the job to ask.

Which brings me to my final point on what is going wrong with new hires.

We aren’t providing clear expectations and have weak on-boarding processes.

If the new hire is packing their desk early on then it could be the position wasn’t what they expected.

Are we detailing the pace and environment of our agency?

Are we clear about how much authority or supervision the position will entail?

Are we sugar-coating any realities of the position in hopes to lure the best candidate into joining the team?

Are we omitting these details in the hiring process?

In addition to murkiest expectations,  the biggest complaint I have heard amongst CSR’s in my years of managing and consulting is lack of training.

The on-boarding process is more than just signing all the benefits paperwork and watching tutorials on your agency management system.

It is giving adequate time for a new hire to understand your agency’s procedures and learn how to navigate daily tasks.

Setting Expectations for Your New CSR

1) Discuss expectations of the position during the hiring process.

Prior to the final offer of employment go over a “roles and responsibilities” checklist.

This checklist should be part of what all the CSR’s live and die by each day.

Current CSR’s can help shape the list and management should be in agreement on what constitutes grounds for dismissal based on the checklist. Making sure both present and future staff is clear on these expectations helps minimize confusion or let down in a new hire.

The other part of this pre-hire process should be reviewing the employee manual unless there are details in it that are proprietary knowledge.

Stacey Lorber, Human Resource Manager for Catawba Staffing, says that all of her candidates understand attendance and tardiness policies of the job openings they are being interviewed for prior to hiring.

For most jobs the first 90 days are considered probationary and even less consideration is often given for conduct during that time. It’s fair to be firm on this.

2) On-Boarding is Key

Have a real on-boarding process that provides a reasonable training schedule and resources for the new hire.

Gather all the information that is needed on a daily basis in a notebook or put in computer desktop home screen. Cheat sheets are a great way to help them navigate the overall agency.

Who can they refer a personal lines client who wants a quote on life insurance or a commercial business owner who is buying a new home and is not a current personal client?

Making sure they know who all the players are and face to face introductions if possible.

Since most insurance agencies lack a separate human resource department they also lack a full time trainer. Take advantage of your company market reps and hook the new hire up with training from the carriers (Ryan Hanley suggests Travelers New Producer School). Utilize your state associations and connect the employee to appropriate classes.

I am not suggesting you send someone new off to start designation classes right away but do let them know what the long term training looks like as well.

Being an independent insurance agent means learning so many different websites and internet resources beyond just the agency management system. Even the most tech savvy new hire will need adequate time to learn where to go for the information to get the job done daily.

Making the management system the least daunting thing to learn is important since it is the glue that everything else sticks. If the AMS vendor offers individual training it could be well worth the additional cost to make sure your employee gets it directly and ironically they may end up training current employees tricks that they never knew or shortcuts that have developed since you first got your system.

The Rub

The reality is that finding a CSR that sticks is a commitment beyond ramping up your hiring and onboarding process.

It means continually looking for new talent.

Even if you have an incredible agency to work for there will always be CSRs who retire, move away or change careers.

The point is to know the solutions that will help you be ready not just dread it.

Thank you,

Tracy Cotton

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