Tag Archives: captive agents

6 Burning Questions on Field Reorganization

Insurance carriers have a long history of tweaking their field organizations and compensation plans to make the captive agent channel more effective and efficient. But the stakes have become higher and the moves bolder in the last several years. Faced with stagnant agent counts, declining agent productivity and elevated expense ratios relative to direct players, carriers are taking sweeping action to ensure the continued viability of the agent channel. From Allstate to Farmers to numerous regional carriers, timid steps have given way to massive reorganizations and wholesale redesigns of compensation programs.

As we advise executives at national and regional carriers active in the agent channel, the most frequent question they pose to us is: “How do we know if it’s time to go big (or go home)?” Although good agents tend to welcome change that makes a carrier more competitive in the marketplace, others may resist it. For the insurance distribution executive, agency transformation is difficult, time-consuming, risky and potentially controversial.

We’ve laid out a set of diagnostic questions that executives can ask themselves to determine whether the juice is worth the squeeze and whether the time for real transformation has arrived.

To gauge whether a large-scale reorganization is worth pursuing, ask
yourself the following six questions:

1. Do your field leaders have multi-channel or multiproduct responsibility?

If they don’t, you are behind the times. Other carriers are aggressively breaking down channel and product silos in their field leadership. Whereas previously only top agency executives were responsible for decision-making across channels and products, more recently middle management such as directors and AVPs are being deployed across multiple channels (e.g., exclusive agent, independent agent and retail) and products (e.g., auto, home, life, commercial and financial services).

This deployment is not only more efficient but also more effective. It increases channel and product coordination, allows field leaders to optimize across channel and product efforts and eliminates counterproductive competition for agent attention. It also provides an abundance of career path options for leaders on the rise.

2. Are your district or agency managers able to focus on coaching and sales performance management?

The days of “jack-of-all-trades” district and agency managers are numbered. Historically, these managers were expected to recruit agents, train them, provide them with marketing support and coach them on sales. In an optimized field organization, these managers are liberated from lower-value recruiting, training and marketing duties so they can focus on their core competency of sales management and sales coaching. This shift is enabled by centralizing recruiting, training and marketing functions at home office through centers of excellence that support the field.

3. Are your spans of control current relative to best practice?

The rules of thumb are changing. While carriers used to assign one agency manager for every 20 to 30 captive agents, new guidance is 40 or even more. This evolution is based on analytics that reveal a lack of correlation between coverage and productivity: Fewer agents per manager doesn’t necessarily lead to more production.

We are aware of carriers pushing the envelope even further, such that the average manager span of control will grow significantly over the next two years. Increasing familiarity with video-based technology and virtual meetings in the context of COVID-19 will only accelerate this trend as “windshield time” constraints become less relevant.

The move toward larger spans is happening at the director and AVP levels, too. In lockstep with their increasingly cross-channel and multi-product approaches, carriers are rolling up more and more premium and agent count to these field leaders.

See also: 4 Keys to Agency Modernization

4. Is your field leader compensation sufficiently variable and tailored geographically?

The emerging best practice is for nearly half of field leader compensation (for director roles and above) to be variable. Those with a significantly smaller variable portion may fall into maintenance mode rather than gunning for growth.

Ideally, variable compensation is paid through periodic (e.g., quarterly) bonuses based on the performance of the field leader’s geography relative to targets. Avoid making field leader bonuses a function of individual agent outcomes, lest they spend too much time catering to low performers.

Target-setting for bonus purposes should be driven by an analytically savvy team at the home office and should reflect differences between growth markets vs. mature markets in the weighting of various criteria in the bonus formula.

5. Are there more than three or four layers separating your top distribution executive from your agents?

More organizational distance between your top distribution executive and your agents generally means less clarity of field roles, less accountability for outcomes, slower issue escalation and resolution and reduced visibility for top field leaders.

The ideal number of layers in your field organization depends on how many channels you have – you can imagine a carrier with EA, IA, retail and direct requiring more layers compared with a carrier that is agent-only. It depends, too, on the geographic scope and amount of premium overseen by the distribution function, with smaller, regional carriers often requiring one less layer relative to large, national players.

Right-sizing layers is a powerful reorganizational tool that not only reduces unnecessary expense but also streamlines field effectiveness when done right.

6. Are your field management roles consistent across your geographic footprint?

Some carriers have extensive geographic variation in field roles across states or regions. This can result from mergers of carriers with different field structures, or from a well-intentioned effort to empower local leadership to experiment with new or modified roles. In the long run, though, this variability muddies the waters and harms field effectiveness by undercutting role clarity and accountability.

Field reorganizations represent an opportunity to clean up the proliferation and inconsistency of roles by standing up an optimal set of standardized roles in all geographies. Although the allocation of time to various activities within the role description (and, by extension, the relative weighting of criteria for bonus determinations) may rightly vary to reflect geographic nuances, the roles themselves should be uniform in all locations.

If you answered “no” to at least two of the previous questions, you are likely to unlock significant value from a larger-scale transformation of your agency management structure. If you answered “no” to three or more, it’s definitely time for change. Like going to the dentist, the longer you wait, the more painful it will be.

Even if you answered “yes” to every question, your work is not done. Leading carriers regularly revisit these topics and perform at least bi-annual check-ins of field structure effectiveness in the spirit of continuous improvement. They do the organizational equivalent of flossing, brushing and occasionally undergoing a corrective procedure to keep things healthy.

Pivoting to agency compensation, consider the following four questions to find out how much room you have to improve your agent compensation plans:

1. Are your agent retention and agent productivity on par with competitors?

These key performance indicators vary dramatically. Agent retention after 18 months can be as high as 90% and as low as 35%. Average monthly agent policy production ranges from two to 25 for auto and from one to 15 for home. Similar gaps apply to commercial and life production. If you’re trailing the rest of the pack in these key metrics, it’s likely that your agent compensation plan is a big part of the problem.

Modern compensation plans use an aggressive pay-for-performance approach to create significant dispersion between top and bottom performers. Carriers can choose to vary commissions based on growth (and other factors), or to use a large variable bonus to create the spread of agent compensation outcomes. Either way, the idea is to maximize the incentive for agents to grow, while minimizing the amount of enterprise resources directed to agents who aren’t producing (many of whom should probably exit the agency force).

Contemporary compensation plans enable a variety of entry points for different types of recruits and match compensation mechanics to their cash flow realities to boost retention. For example, the proper plan design is quite different for an agent with no experience than for a well-capitalized experienced producer who is switching carriers.

2. Are your agents cross-selling effectively?

Many carriers have a shockingly low rate of cross-sell, even when their business models are based on the premise of increasing account density among acquired customers. Cross-sell must be a foundational element, not just an add-on, in a modern compensation plan. This means building cross-sell requirements into the core of a compensation plan (e.g., a variable commissions grid or bonus schedule).

Importantly, carrier comp plans should be agnostic to how their agents achieve their cross-sell ambitions. Agents should be rewarded for cross-sell whether they do it themselves, enlist specialist sub-producers or engage the assistance of line of business specialists in a team-based selling model.

3. Are tenured agents still growing rather than plateauing?

Some carriers allow tenured agents to “dial it in” regardless of whether their agencies are growing or shrinking. Even if a carrier has rolled out an improved, pay-for-performance compensation plan, it may have grandfathered long-time agents on outdated plans. Growth-oriented carriers avoid these practices.

See also: Crowdsourcing 6 Themes for 2021

4. Have you enabled economic interest for your agents to foster the business owner’s mindset?

Numerous carriers provide a payout to departing agents that is calculated as some multiple of renewal commissions over the prior 12 months. The concept has different names at different carriers (e.g., fallback, termination benefit, contract value) and may be tied to different requirements (e.g., non-compete or non-solicit clauses), but the core function is the same: to make running an agency more like owning a business by growing long-term economic value alongside the growth of the operation.

A handful of carriers have gone even further, enabling agents to sell renewal commission rights to third parties, subject to approval by the carrier. Farmers, Allstate, Auto Club Group and Horace Mann are among those that have enabled this enhanced form of economic interest; several other carriers are considering doing so or are working on their programs.

We consider this enhanced economic interest a win-win for agents and carriers. Agents are likely to find an external buyer willing to pay more than the enterprise’s fallback amount. It is not uncommon to see transactions close at multiples of two to three times prior 12-month renewal commissions. Carriers, for their part, get the benefits of more motivated agents, sophisticated and well-capitalized buyers joining the agency force and lower enterprise payouts due to third-party sales. In addition, carriers may find that enabling enhanced economic interest is a popular “win” for agents that aids change management efforts during a broader revamp of the agency compensation plan.

Some misconceptions have kept more carriers from embracing this concept. As more carriers understand that enhanced economic interest does not cede enterprise ownership of customer relationships or eviscerate any non-competition or non-solicit constraints, we expect a rising tide of adoption.

If you answered “no” to two or more of these on agency compensation, it is probably worth pursuing a significant overhaul of agency compensation.

Agency transformation work is not for the faint-hearted. It can be tempting to defer meaningful change to field organizations and agency compensation plans in the interests of avoiding disruptions and maintaining harmony. However, if the exercise outlined above suggests a significant gap between your current state and best practice, your agent channel is unlikely to remain viable against direct channel competitors. Ultimately, all parties are better off when carriers fearlessly tackle transformation and find ways to enhance both efficiency and efficacy.

Who Owns the Customer Experience?

Who owns the customer? For insurance companies that work through intermediaries, it’s a controversial question that often stirs spirited debate between carriers and producers. But there’s another question that’s even more important: Who owns the customer experience?

Regardless of who insurers think owns the customer, the reality is that key parts of the policyholder experience are shaped by external parties—the agents, brokers and financial professionals who distribute insurers’ products.

This presents a difficult challenge for insurance companies, many of whom have kicked off customer-experience improvement initiatives in recent years. After all, how do you holistically manage the customer experience when you don’t control it in its entirety?

Some carriers skirt the issue by focusing on what they do control—customer touchpoints such as billing, correspondence, 800-line interactions, etc. That’s a reasonable approach to start with, but it has its limits.

Consumers don’t always know where the lines are drawn between carrier and agent, where the handoffs occur between the two parties. Their experience, and overall brand impression, is shaped by a wide array of touchpoints spanning pre-sale to post-sale, field office to home office.

For this reason, it’s neither practical nor prudent for carriers to ignore those elements of the customer experience that are administered by their field producers.

But how can a carrier insert itself into aspects of the customer experience that are clearly overseen by the producer? How can the insurer propagate customer-experience best practices beyond the walls of its headquarters and into its field offices, where so many significant consumer interactions occur?

Whether the company works with captive agents or independent brokers, this can be a thorny issue. Many financial professionals consider themselves to be entrepreneurs, and they have strongly held opinions about how to run their businesses.

Overcoming that sentiment requires some diplomacy. If producers sense that the carrier is encroaching on their territory, dictating the “right” way to do business, then friction will ensue, and the insurer’s customer-experience improvements will be relegated to the home office—a poor outcome for carrier, distributor and their shared customers.

So, if you’re an insurer looking to engage your field force in a constructive effort to improve the customer experience, consider these five tips:

1. Acknowledge shared ownership

Disarm territorial sensitivities by readily acknowledging that you don’t own the whole customer experience. Neither the carrier nor the distributor can claim such ownership, because each plays an instrumental role in shaping policyholder impressions.

Such an admission by carrier executives sends an important signal to the field, opening the door to a more collaborative approach for shaping the customer experience, from pre-sale to post-sale.

2. Make the case for action

Demonstrate to field partners, in a vivid and compelling way, why focusing on an improved customer experience is smart business.

The field may acknowledge that happy, loyal customers are good for business —but do they truly grasp how powerfully the customer experience can influence the top and bottom lines? Particularly in the insurance industry, given the economics of up-front commissions and long product tails, small improvements in retention can have a surprisingly significant impact on profitability. Even just from a sales standpoint, an increase in qualified referrals from positive word-of-mouth can be a game changer for any insurance agent/broker.

Perhaps one of the most convincing illustrations of how a great customer experience drives business results is an analysis of stock market performance for customer-experience “leaders” and “laggards”: For the past six years, customer-experience leaders generated a total return that was three times higher on average than the S&P 500.

This is the kind of head-turning data that insurers should put in front of field producers who are skeptical about investing time, energy or money into improving the customer experience.

Whether you’re a public or a private company, the message here is clear: A great customer experience pays off, paving the way for higher revenues, lower operating expenses and better overall financial performance.

3. Educate and equip

Given their entrepreneurial disposition, most agents and brokers won’t take kindly to having the mechanics of their organization’s customer experience dictated by some far-removed insurance company.

Instead of prescribing solutions, carriers would be better served providing tools and education to their field offices. In this way, the insurer can help equip its producers with the knowledge they need to effectively diagnose, and then differentiate, their organization’s customer experience.

That’s a much better solution over the long term, as it helps the field office embed customer-experience management best practices into its operations, as opposed to just tweaking a few isolated customer touchpoints.

Note that this is about more than just traditional “customer service” training. It’s about giving the field office a strategic understanding of the operating principles that customer experience legends rely on to create raving fans.

What great companies like Amazon, Apple, Disney and Costco have in common is an ideology around the design and delivery of their customer experience (see the sidebar that follows). Help your field understand and embrace a similar ideology, and you’ll influence their business practices for years to come.
4. Open the feedback spigot

One example of an ideological component that customer-experience legends share is a commitment to soliciting and acting on customer feedback.

Oftentimes, there is an arrogance in organizations— a belief among executives that they know what delights and what frustrates their customers, what will strengthen their brand experience and what will weaken it.

But as J.C. Penney learned during its recent meltdown, businesspeople can have a myopic view when it comes to understanding what truly makes customers happy.

Help your field offices avoid that pitfall by supplementing internal views with external ones. Carriers can use their purchasing power to bring robust “voice of the customer” survey programs to their affiliated agents and brokers. At the very least, they can offer field offices tutorials about feedback instruments.

Armed with these feedback instruments, your field offices can cultivate customer insights that will help them first shape, and then continually recalibrate, their experience improvement efforts.

5. Co-create the experience

For some parts of the insurance customer experience, field and home office interactions are so intertwined that it makes sense to tackle them with a united front (application and underwriting being a classic example).

This is perhaps the highest step on the customer-experience management maturity curve, where manufacturer and distributor work together to shape an experience that’s impressive and seamless.

Assuming all parties have been educated in the same customer-experience engineering principles, it can be valuable to bring field producers and home office representatives together to dissect, diagnose and redesign a particular piece of the policyholder journey.

By incorporating field and home office perspectives up front, a joint experience design effort is likely to yield a better outcome for all involved.

In today’s social media-connected, information-rich marketplace, customers are more empowered than ever. Nobody truly “owns” them.

But ownership of the customer experience is a different matter altogether. Great companies do take ownership of that, by very deliberately managing the many touchpoints that shape customer perceptions. Great companies even seek to influence parts of the experience that, on first blush, might seem out of their scope. (Consider how Amazon famously obsesses over the experience of physically opening a package once you receive it from their shipping partners.)

For insurance companies that don’t sell directly to consumers, the path to a differentiated customer experience must cross through their field offices—hence the importance of involving and influencing that key constituency. By deftly engaging distributors in the customer-experience improvement effort, insurers can make progress on two important fronts—creating a more positive impression not just on their policyholders, but also on their producers.

The 'Secret Sauce' of Customer-Experience Legends

Companies that do customer experience well tend to use a specific set of operating principles to help shape their customer interactions, from sales to service. The principles that elicit customer delight are remarkably consistent across industries and even demographics.

Below are three examples of such principles, which fans of Amazon, Disney and Ritz-Carlton are sure to recognize:

1. Make it effortless

Be it at point of sale or point of service, the less effort customers must invest to accomplish something with your company, the more likely they are to be loyal to your firm. Look for opportunities to minimize the amount of physical and mental effort that people must expend to, among other things, understand your value proposition, navigate your product portfolio, interpret your customer communications and secure post-sale service. (Case in point: Amazon’s patented One-Click purchase button, which makes it absolutely effortless to buy from them.)

2. Capitalize on cognitive science

Customer experience is about perception, and there are proven ways to leverage principles of cognitive science (i.e., how the mind works) to improve people’s perceptions about their interactions with your business. One example of this is giving customers the “perception of control,” because it’s human nature that we feel better when we’re in control of things and ambiguity is removed from our lives. Something as simple as clearly setting expectations for customers can make all the difference—e.g., how long will I be standing in this line, how many steps are in this purchase process, when will I next hear from you? (Case in point: DisneyWorld’s FastPass, which lets park guests avoid standing in line for popular attractions, making them feel like they’re more in control of their vacation.)

3. Be an advocate

It’s rare that people see companies paying more than lip service to the concept of putting customers first. For this reason, when people come across a company that truly advocates for its customers in a very tangible way, it cultivates stronger engagement and loyalty. One decidedly low-tech but highly effective way to accomplish this is by fostering a workplace culture of exceptional ownership. When your front line—the people actually delivering the customer experience—take personal accountability for owning every request that comes to them, it projects a refreshing sense of advocacy that will distinguish your firm from the “not my job… pass the buck” mentality that customers typically encounter. (Case in point: Ritz-Carlton, whose staff, when asked for directions within the hotel, will refrain from pointing guests in the right direction—instead, they personally escort them, to ensure the guest gets exactly where they need to be.)

This article first appeared in LOMA Resource.