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August 16, 2020

What COVID and 43 Years Taught Me

Summary:

This crisis is proof positive for agencies of the value of professional education and of experience. Nothing else matters.

Photo Courtesy of Pexels

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.

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About the Author

June Taylor, CPIA, CIC, CPIW, DAE, owner of Wilkinson Insurance, calls herself “insurance goddess, entrepreneur, Mom and wannabe grandmother.” Taylor is also a board member of AIMS.

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