Tag Archives: experience

What COVID and 43 Years Taught Me

When I closed my agency offices at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, right away my independent agency team (now working remotely) got an influx of calls, emails and texts from clients about their coverages and concerns related to the lockdown. The team also began to contact customers with group emails through our agency management system as well as one-on-one phone calls, emails and texts.

The first call I got was from the owner of a private day care center in Texas asking what coverage would pay for the center’s loss of income. After quickly reviewing the policy coverages and exclusions, I was able to explain how business interruption coverage would and would not apply in light of a pandemic. I was able to refer my client to the exclusions on the policy forms.

Sounds routine. But it would never have been possible without the education and experience I’ve had over the 43 years of my insurance career. I never sought education specifically to help my agency survive a pandemic, that’s for sure! But I’ve always wanted to educate myself as much as possible on product knowledge, sales, customer service and agency management to be prepared for whatever happens.

This crisis is proof positive of the value of professional education. Knowledge matters. It can only be acquired by experience and education — nothing else. And the lockdown shows, every day, how flexibility is so vital. The business “reflexes” that came out during coronavirus are only possible through “reps” during not-quite-so-hectic times. 

I feel like 43 years in the industry prepared me to thrive during the crisis — and also helped me better position my agency for the future. 

Learn From What Just Happened

This year has shown us that things can change in a hurry. We as insurance professionals are responsible for helping people adapt, respond and recover. 

Even though I had a lot of industry experience going into the pandemic, I soon realized I had to apply what I know in new ways — and keep learning. That’s my biggest takeaway for the future: How can I best blend my experience “B.C.” (before crisis) with what happened “D.C.” (during crisis) so my agency is better off “A.D.” (after disruption)? My safety and comfort depend on getting this right, as do my family, my agency team and my clients.

Help Is a Two-Way Street

My agency is centered in the small town of White House, Tenn., with about 18,000 population. You might expect it’s an ultra-local business with little interest in serving customers outside our geographic area. Not so. 

In fact, once the first rush of pandemic client communications was under our belt, my agency team started fielding queries from the customers of other agencies that weren’t answering their calls. We obliged, but it left me wondering why agency owners would let their customers and their business flounder.

See also: Step 1 to Your After-COVID Future

During the health crisis, some areas have fared poorly while others have had no shortages of supplies, masks and so on. People in one area look to those in another for help.

The same is true for insurance knowledge. Insurance professionals must step up no matter where help is needed. It’s not good enough to hunker down and hope the trouble passes over your agency’s neighborhood. A crisis is a growth opportunity, one where the most knowledgeable, responsive and flexible insurance professionals win the day.

Using Technology to Serve the Customer and Ourselves

Much is said about how technology has changed the industry. I’ve seen my share of changes, some of which were hard.

Technology by itself should not be the driver of change. Leaders’ attention to customer experience and customer value must be the driver. And these kinds of changes are just starting.

As an example, I believe that insurance professionals should be prepared to use whatever communication channel a client or prospect prefers. Our experience throughout the pandemic has confirmed that text messaging is only going to grow in importance for customers. Other communication channels may ebb and flow.

Technology also enables independent agencies to close or reduce office space in favor of remote work over the long term, not just through this crisis. Tools like video calls have been a key part of that transition, but I’m keenly interested of how the entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity in the insurance industry and technology sector will give us even more impressive tools in one, five or 10 years.

Long-Term Rewards of Sales Training

The pandemic has highlighted the value of sales training for client retention at my firm. I’m gratified that my team’s education — from numerous industry groups, including carriers as well as AIMS Society, an educational organization led by agent volunteers — is carrying us through the pandemic.

Case in point: As the effects of the pandemic hit home with our clients, we realized again that empathy, listening and understanding aren’t just nice words. They’re valuable business skills. AIMS Society courses for the Certified Professional Insurance Agent (CPIA) designation include the topic, “how to deliver the bad news.” That comes to the forefront in response to our clients’ questions, when our team was able to provide deep product knowledge while also delivering bad news in sensitive and helpful ways. 

Think of it this way: If a doctor didn’t keep updating her knowledge, how would she know how to treat a new symptom? It should be the same for us as agency owners: Prepare for the future through education.

Sales education teaches us what type of salesperson we are. It also teaches us how to determine the individual personalities and work styles of our prospects and clients and the best ways to reach them. I can’t remain in my own comfort zone and work only with people like me (“huggy, huggy people,” I call us, “who love to be with people and talk”). My delivery of information should be tailored for the individual client.

Continuing Education, the Underused Resource

There’s a whole realm of valuable education available to the IA channel. But it’s underused. As agency owners, we strive to run better businesses. Everything from human resources to legal to managing people to systems is dynamic. So why aren’t we business owners taking optimum advantage of education? 

Here are the big mountains I need to climb as an agency owner. What are yours?

  • Never miss the chance to use change to create new sales opportunities. Education will be the biggest contributor to my future understanding.
  • Be able to identify threats. Leaders need to understand and evaluate coming threats and assess how others are adapting.
  • Minimize disruption and manage a crisis. There’s nothing that bothers me more than disruption or crisis on the HR side, including employee turnover, so I need better preparation.
  • Manage employees effectively. When my agency switched to remote work, team interactions changed in ways I didn’t expect. For example, I realized that face-to-face video meetings had to allow time for some of the casual conversations and catch-up that happened in the office. I’m curious, again, as to what new and emerging opportunities we’ll be able to find.

See also: COVID-19: The Long Slog Ahead

The Critical Question

Will we as independent agents use all our experience (no matter how difficult) going forward? Will we push ourselves to keep our education current and learn to adapt to our customers’ and prospects’ changing needs? If we do, we’ll find a payoff in future situations.

Or are we going to try to forget that this business crisis brought on by the pandemic happened? Hoping it doesn’t happen again isn’t a strategy. Use all you’ve learned, in the past and in the present.

Give Consumers the Experience They Want

Have you heard of the recent shopping trend, that consumers want experiences, not products or things? That’s been the inclination the last few years, and I bet it can even be translated to the insurance world. So whether your consumers are buying a service or a product, make sure the consumer experience is the one they want.

The customer experience is a funnel. Think about the entire experience consumers have with you and the many touch-points along the way. There’s the experience they have visiting or shopping on your website, opening or reading emails and content, as well as any phone calls or in-person communication. All of these points of contact help form the consumer experience.

Aim to optimize each stage of the funnel individually and make each touch-point as seamless as possible. Strive for consistency and ease of use.

How do you go about doing that? Two main methods are personalization and data analytics.

Personalization Is Key

Personalization is essential to a quality customer experience. Use the information you already know about your consumers to personalize each stage of the funnel. This will show consumers how attentive you are and improve their overall experience. You may also be able to personalize touch-points based on the context of location or other known aspects of life.

See also: Checklist for Improving Consumer Experience  

For example, an email may refer to the coming harsh winter season in the consumer’s state and then offer advice on additional home or auto insurance options. A phone call may refer to the last time the consumer called, or the conversation may end with a mention of a coming event largely talked about in the consumer’s city. Your website can be personalized to “welcome back, (consumer’s name)” whenever they log in or visit, or a form can be pre-filled with the type of car the consumer previously entered. Additionally, if you hold local events, your consumers may receive personalized mail or email about the ones located near them.

There are endless personalization opportunities to take advantage of that will help improve the overall consumer experience. Leverage the information you already have to make the consumer experience easier. You can also use data analytics to measure the success of the changes.

Data and Advanced Analytics

Use data and advanced analytics to measure and identify opportunities for improving the customer experience.

One optimal method is to use A/B testing. With this method, you can test a change against a control group to measure whether the change had more successful results. This can be used to measure the success of personalization changes or for testing other opportunities.

To determine testing ideas, take a step back and consider the consumer’s motives and needs. What are they looking for? What would be better for them—a more seamless online to offline transition, a different colored button, a two-page form instead of three? How can you make the consumer’s life easier? Whether you’re at an agency writing policies, working at an insurtech startup or delivering leads, set improvement priorities. Understand the company’s current consumer experience and then identify opportunities for positive change.

Don’t rush to implement these identified opportunities, but do rush to test them. While ideas are great, turning them into assumptions is not. You may be surprised by how one individual’s assumption or way of thinking does not match up when you look at a total set of individuals. Don’t deploy any widespread changes without first testing the ideas on a reasonably small scale, and then on a larger scale. If the results aren’t successful, move onto a new set of ideas to A/B test. As time goes on, and technology and devices evolve, there will be a near infinite amount of improvements to make.

You may find that consumers respond better to a different color form that improves their overall experience as they get in touch with an agent. Or they may open emails more often if the headline language is four words instead of eight. Different language in an email may lead to better results. Look at key data points such as the conversion rate onsite and click-through rate for emails to determine if that is the case. Once results are analyzed and changes are implemented, repeat the process and continue to optimize the consumer insurance experience.

See also: Want to Enhance Your Customer Experience?  

In addition to A/B testing, you can also streamline consumer data so that a customer will never have to answer the same question twice. The information will already be in one place. This will improve ease-of-use for your consumers so that they won’t have to repeat an answer that they’ve filled already filled out online or through the mail. Integrate systems to share data efficiently and securely to improve the customer experience whenever possible.

The Key to Success

The key to success is not a one-time adjustment to improve the customer experience. You need continuous updates and regular changes. EverQuote receives more than 5 million unique visitors per month. That means, based on the data, touch-points of the consumer experience may change month to month. Optimizing the consumer experience continuously and for the majority benefits us. Improving the consumer experience is a focus everyone in the company should know about, and all of the personalization and data analysis should naturally complement your other business practices. You may be surprised by how the profit follows.

Bottom line: The center of success will always be the consumer experience. Everything else revolves around that.

Old-School Maps May Be the Killer App!

Whenever we’re faced with a challenge or an opportunity, we tend to respond with thoughts about what should we do and how should we do it. We seldom think to ask the who questions. Who is likely to be an ally, an obstacle or an unknown? In my decades of studying strategic relationships for return on impact, it’s rare to find executives investing time in truly understanding the flow of influence in their own or target organizations they seek to work with.

The result of overlooking this strategic step can be costly. Let me give you an example.

A few years ago, I flew to Chicago for a meeting with a group of executives. We had done our preparation, in light of the importance of this multiyear, multimillion-dollar project. Reviewing the attendee list, I saw one name I didn’t recognize-who was this individual? When the meeting began, everybody introduced themselves with a briefing on their goals. One person chose not to sit at the conference table, but in one of the chairs against the wall. While everybody else talked, he quietly, very diligently, took notes. I became more and more curious. At the end of the meeting, the obligatory exchange of business cards took place. Everyone else had titles on their cards, VP and EVP and so forth. This one person’s business card was the only one without a title. By that time, I just about couldn’t contain my curiosity. I asked around and learned he was the “special adviser to the chairman of the board.”

Apparently, the project we were working on was not only a priority for the executives at the table, but of interest to the board, as well. The chairman had sent this fellow to the meeting to report back directly to him. Three months later, a number of the people who had been around that conference table were no longer with the firm.

Mr. Special Adviser could be found nowhere on that organization’s org chart, but his political clout is self-evident. The moral of this little story is that you ignore influence in an organization at your peril.

If I’m putting a $10 million project in front of a decision-maker, the last thing I want is someone I don’t know, someone I haven’t even known existed, influencing that project. I’ve learned from experience that, as bizarre as it sounds, too often the greatest political power or influence in an enterprise has nothing to do with the titles on its org chart.

Map the political influence structure

Sample social network analysis (SNA) map – Often is overkill for simply understanding who you need, who you know and how to connect the dots!

 

I’ve developed tools to help me avoid surprises from unacknowledged flows of influence, and I suggest you do, too. Create for yourself, for each organization or initiative in which you invest your relationship capital, a political road map.

Here is the shocker! It’s not an app, it won’t run on your smartphone or tablet, and it doesn’t use a satellite orbiting the planet. In our hyperconnected digital world, we’re losing sight of the fundamentals. Think of this recommendation as learning how to write cursive when everyone else is working with Siri! (By the way, I’ve also researched a dozen or so called “enterprise relationship management” technologies – most are myopic at best, moronic at minimum. They’re so busy trying to give you fancy graphics that their assumptions are flawed, for instance about the quality of a relationship.

Here is what you will need for this exercise: three colored markers, a straightedge, a whiteboard, some index cards and tape. Start by drawing sources of information flow. (For each individual, draw a rectangle the size of your index cards: You will add information here in the next step, using cards to keep your roadmap flexible.) Do not map the explicit power structure, but what you’ve observed about the influence structure so far.

Next, use your colored markers to color-code each relationship on your chart:

  • Green: This person is an ally who has been visibly supportive in the past and “gets” what you are trying to do;
  • Yellow: This person is neutral to your initiatives or is an unknown. Is he on the fence? Could she be swayed? Try to capture some aspect of his or her position from observable behavior;
  • Red: For whatever reason, this person opposes what you are trying to accomplish. I’m also curious here whether he can be neutralized or eliminated to minimize my risk profile with the specific initiative or project.

Use your index cards to write comments and impressions about the individuals you have just color-coded. Note your questions as well as your observations. If something they’ve said gave you these impressions, write their words as accurately as you can recall them.

When done with this step, tape the cards to the whiteboard next to individuals’ names.

At this point, your influence chart should begin to generate insights. Step back and listen to what it is telling you. Who do you need on your side? Who can you ignore? Who is already an advocate who puts wind in your sails? Add index cards with your observations.

This is the time to apply a process I referred to as strategic relationship triangulation in my book, Relationship Economics. For any piece of information critical to your political success with these relationships, you must find three independent sources to verify, validate or void the critical assumptions you are making about each person or piece of information. It’s homework time. Use your relationship network and other “biz-intel” sources to triangulate the assumptions on your influence road map. Rework the position of individuals in relation to each other as new insights emerge or old ones are voided.

Relationship triangulation can help you understand the most influential sources within a team, a department, an organization or an entire industry. Who are the real decision-makers, and who works most closely with them? Knowing this enables you to much more effectively customize how you develop relationships and add value for each individual.

Does this process take a lot of effort? Yes. Is it necessary? It would be naive to think you don’t need to build a political road map based on solid research. Could your time and effort be better spent focusing on outcomes? Only once you have a solid understanding of the relationships you need to help you achieve those outcomes. Don’t treat this task as a “one and done.” The chart need will frequent updates as the situation evolves.

This political roadmap allows you to quickly visualize your relationships and, specifically, your relationship assets and liabilities. Further, it helps you see whether you have enough support to accomplish your goals, or where you need to invest time and effort to build that support. When you can see who is an ally and who is an enemy, you can plan your next steps. “What can I negotiate? What can I exchange? Do I have something of value that they want?” It’s called “politics” for a reason—this kind of “horse-trading” is what our elected officials do.

Any kind of organizational sea change—a merger or acquisition, a large-scale restructure, any new line of business, any succession planning any geographic expansion requires a political road map at this level of detail. These are all highly disruptive events to most businesses.

Frankly, I see too many people blindsided by disruption because they simply failed to maintain an accurate road map of the political terrain they are trying to navigate.

By the way, if you’re looking for the science behind these ideas, Google “social network analysis.” You may be surprised to learn that it has nothing to do with Facebook, Twitter or YouTube!

Nour Takeaways:

  1. Because influence doesn’t show up on org charts, you need to invest the time and effort to visualize that information for yourself.
  2. You are welcome to use my system of color-coding and notes, or develop a system that works for you that shows the flow of influence we call “office politics.”
  3. Rigorous triangulation allows you to trust your insights-which are invaluable when dealing with disruption.