Top 10 Strategies Successful Agencies Embrace
In my career I have personally worked with over 700 agencies across the United States and Canada. It has been a blessing to be given the opportunity to work so closely and intimately with independent insurance agents on their agency’s performance. In doing this we have found that there are 10 objectives every successful agency adopts and embraces as part of their agency’s DNA. For these agencies the road to setting these objectives in place may have been rocky, however, they stayed the course, and their agencies and team benefited from it.
In my experience, culture is very difficult to explain. For agency owners that may have limited outside-the- agency work experience, I think understanding culture can be a serious undertaking. Imagine explaining your marriage to someone else – not the socks on the floor stuff, but the really deeply personal stuff. It’s very hard to do (especially if you have only been in one marriage). However, if you have been married previously, you have something to compare it to. Just because it’s a challenge to explain though doesn’t mean that the top agencies aren’t taking it on.
Agency culture is also more than jeans days and unlimited vacation; those are benefits. Culture is how you define your agency’s society. Pretty deep question, right? Your culture can be anything you imagine if you clearly define it and then align your team. Understand though that not all team members may be a good fit in your new culture. (We will get into recruiting in a bit). We didn’t have a great culture when I started my business. As the business grew, and I had the ability to invest a bit more into payroll and different positions, I was able to curate my culture. To do this I had to find people with the same beliefs and work ethic so we would work seamlessly together (most days!).
I had to start by defining what I wanted the work environment to be like. Here are some things you should think about in defining your work culture:
- Ask your team to anonymously describe your work culture in the past 5 years.
- Review their results; remember their perception is their version of reality.
- Use those results to understand where you are today.
- Now identify where you want to be.
- Build a deadline-driven plan on how to get there.
Many agencies we work with through our agency assessment state that there is a negative influence in the agency. If leadership is generally negative and/or you have some overly negative team members, you have to work to amend the situation.
People are every agency’s biggest investment each year. They can often be an agency’s biggest frustration as well. The bottom line is: Owners cannot hire out of desperation. They need to hire out of preparation. Yes, recruiting takes time and investment, but it’s a small insurance policy on the agency’s biggest investment — payroll.
Running a small business is a bit like being on a rollercoaster. You are up, down and sideways all in one day. Having someone leave, having someone become ill or having to hold onto a bad apple all cost the agency opportunity. We actually recommend to many agencies that they go a little overstaffed so they are insulated from the variables of small business ownership.
You can easily go ahead and place job postings on indeed.com or ziprecruiter.com to have them out there. This way, you start warming up a bench of people in your area for when the time is right. If a resume comes in that looks intriguing, call them for an interview. You just simply never know when that next twist is around the corner. If your agency needs help with hiring, take a look at our hiring guide which will walk you through the process.
At the start of most of our engagements with agents, we conduct our agency assessment. In the majority of agencies we engage with, one of the top three strategies we have them work toward is improved communication. Let’s be honest — wouldn’t we all like to have better communication? Clearer goals? Better direction on our priorities? The challenges with improving communication are time and defining what to communicate.
While no one wants “another meeting,” we need to embrace the idea of a place to communicate. Yes, your first routine meeting may start with everyone being quiet and crossing their arms, but take a moment to realize that since you’re starting a new process, it may take a few tries to get it right. We highly recommend that every agency hold a weekly meeting (bi-weekly at a minimum) and that they use the 4 bank holidays to close the office for catch-up, training and more in-depth meetings.
If you’re concerned about the time it will take to prep the meetings and come up with agendas, no need to fret. We have a meeting agenda that covers all your bases and reduces work for you.
One tipping point for smaller agencies is the realization that the agency owner can’t and shouldn’t be the top producer. I know the fear is that you sell better than anyone. Yes, you are the owner, and people love talking to the head cheese. But 80% of what you can produce multiplied by 2-3 salespeople is much better! As the owner you need to be the leader, the visionary and the CEO — not an employee in the agency.
In addition to that, everyone needs to know clearly who they report to. This can get blurry, especially when dealing with multiple owners, and you may get into the trap of team members going to whoever they think will say “yes” rather than the right person. The development of team leaders and/or department heads will help you execute plans faster and make sure that there is oversight on the frontline team.
Each team member deserves to know who is tending to them. Take some time to really analyze your organizational chart. Find the items that you as the owner can let go of and invest in your team’s success.
Detailed, Routine Performance Feedback
In my recent conversations with agency owners, I have found that more and more are concerned about feedback. In particular, I have heard the comment, “I’m concerned they will go on suicide watch.” What a dreadful way to lead an agency! I understand that accountability can be a subject we all wish to shy away from, but having a consistent process that everyone understands for giving feedback is a game changer for many agencies.
Accountability starts with each member of the team having clear job descriptions. According to our agency assessments, a little over half of agency team members feel they have an accurate job description. It’s incredibly difficult to hold people accountable to thin air. Start by documenting and, when necessary, amending the team’s job descriptions.
Now you need to enact routine reviews. There should be a formal, annual review where you go into detail about the performance of the employee. This is also a great time for the team member to review themselves and their performance. In addition, the team leader should meet with every team member each quarter. This is a huge opportunity to get a pulse on the agency and the team. You can hear what’s working and what needs to be addressed. The annual review shouldn’t be a surprise; it should be the culmination of a year of coaching.
From time to time, you may have a bad apple or someone resisting change. When this behavior exists, it’s important to place them on a performance improvement plan. This is a plan that clearly outlines where they are off-track based on their job description. It outlines a coaching plan where the team leader will meet with them routinely to help get them up to the expected level of performance. Finally, it clearly states that failure to adhere to the plan may lead to termination. If the team member feels they can do it, they will get onboard. If not, it’s a nice alert that they should start looking for a new home (and remember, because you are forever recruiting, you have candidates in the pipeline!).
Goals & Incentives
It has been said that without a goal, no one knows where they are going. Goals can make us all very vulnerable. (Hey, I start a new diet every Monday!) However, that doesn’t mean that we should shy away from a little uncomfortableness. We need to embrace certain types of goals that help strengthen us. We recommend every agency work on the following quarterly goals:
- Retention Goal
- New Business Goal
- Special Project Goal (email gathering, quoting over the phone, going paperless — you get the idea)
- One Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal — something that would just be plain epic to hit
If your agency has never embraced goals, start small. You would be surprised at how when you put a little attention on something, you can improve a metric by 10%. Make sure that reviewing goals and where the agency stands is a part of your weekly meeting. When you pay attention to something, the team will as well.
There will be times when you don’t hit the goal. That’s ok; it’s a teachable moment. Take some time to talk through what went right and what went wrong. The agency also needs to have incentives. Trust me, I have seen people get really committed for a jeans day! Each and every agency is different. Listen to your team and develop an incentive plan that works for you.
Maximizing Insurance Technology
Let’s face it: Insurance agents are not known for their outstanding use of technology. However, with increasingly demanding clientele and reduced commissions, we all need to think about ways to be more efficient and effective. We invest a lot of time and resources into our management systems, but all too often we aren’t well versed in all the features and how they can work.
I’m sure you’re familiar with this scenario: You pull a report and, well, it’s wrong. You know in your gut your new business can’t be that high or your cancellations at that amount. You know it’s wrong, so you give up on how to fix it. Well, garbage in, garbage spreads. You need to embrace the technology and learn how to maximize it. This includes workflows and understanding the best use of it.
This includes commercial downloads. I see it all too often — agencies fight commercial downloads because it can wipe out information. This is a classic situation. It can automate 95% of work, but when it causes one wrinkle, we abandon ship! For your agency to survive and thrive, you need to make your agency management system your best friend.
Once you have become a Jedi of your management system, the next leap is investing in technology that helps you thrive: things like the best phone systems, marketing softwares and online review assistance. Technology is our pathway to a ridiculously amazing customer experience, so let’s take it one objective at a time.
Consistent Development & Training of People
We are working on launching a new, on-demand training platform here at APP, and in doing so, we have been conducting research with our followers on training. Here are some interesting facts we have found:
- Finding the time to train is a big challenge.
- Most agencies don’t have a defined training budget.
- There is a fear the training won’t work, so it will be a waste of time and energy.
- Owners aren’t sure the team will embrace the training.
- Leadership struggles with content for training.
All of these are reasons why independent agencies do not commit to consistent training of their biggest investment — their people. By enacting a training program, you can start to open people’s minds and help them deliver the customer experience you desire.
Training can be one of the most frustrating jobs in the world. However, when it works, it can actually be one of the most rewarding. I joke at every agency I arrive at — “who got up this morning and was excited to be in training?” I get the response you are envisioning. No one. But as we get into it and dive into the challenges, we see them turn around.
For most people tackling their next problem is the most important thing they can do, when in reality training helps people stop that problem from happening. If you need some training inspiration, you can always start with our 3 Minute Videos we release each month to get the conversation started.
Investment in Branding & Marketing
Branding, like culture, is also a challenge to explain — but that doesn’t mean we can’t embrace it! Insurance agents sell a promise, and we need to brand ourselves as the experts in the fight. Let’s face it: Most people don’t like insurance (shocker!), but they can love their agent.
Building your agency’s brand should be the foundation of everything you do. It’s not just your look and feel, but also why you exist and how you conduct business. Along with your agency’s brand giving you a consistent online image and approach to your sales process, it’s fantastic for new hires. You can check out some examples of agency brands we have helped design here.
You can’t be everything to everyone. It’s true. We have to clearly identify who we are selling to and how we do it better than anyone else. Even in small town, Main Street type offices you can figure out who you desire to insure. We can’t all be going after the good payers who value coverage. That’s not identifying a target.
What is identifying a target is figuring out that you like empty-nesters, then recognizing their key traits and building the story of why you serve them best. By learning what is important to them, you can customize your service and marketing to speak directly to their biggest needs and challenges. It’s common for agencies to have 5-6 personas they are targeting. It doesn’t mean you don’t sell to the young professionals; it means you are working to attract the people who you serve the best.
Now you may be feeling overwhelmed after reading this, or you may be encouraged that you are on the right track. The most successful agencies didn’t do all of this overnight. They built up to it. As we approach 2020, it’s critical that you make a plan to tackle four of these items next year: one per quarter. If you do, you will start to see the results you are looking for. One last note — this has become a bit of a saying over the past few years — you must outlast the suck. Anytime you launch something new, expect there to be pushback. Brace yourself and keep going. If you roll over, nothing will ever change!
Kelly Piro-Donahue is a game changer in the insurance industry. As the Founder and President of Agency Performance Partners and Co-Founder of the sister marketing company, Agency Appeal, she’s an in-demand speaker at regional and national insurance conferences and a social media and digital marketing trailblazer. In her years of consulting, marketing, training, and public speaking, she’s worked with more than 1,000 insurance agencies of all sizes, as well as with noted industry organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada, earning accolades like “insurance visionary,” “a total rock star” and “the real deal.”
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