When I ask you to quickly describe the stereotypical insurance agent, what comes to mind?
As a whole, the industry is pretty conservative, buttoned up, slow to change, and, dare I say it, boring. I know there are exceptions out there, but this is basically what a prospect who is meeting you for the first time is expecting, whether they are meeting you in person, via social media, or on your website.
And, I have been in this industry long enough to know that as accurate as the first stereotypes I mentioned might be, most in this industry are not boring, at least not when they are letting their personality come through. And the power of letting that personality come through cannot be overstated during the sales process.
I was reminded of this recently when I spoke at a conference of independent insurance agents. However, the reminder didn't come from the agents themselves, but rather from the hotel at which the conference was held.
The hotel was the Hotel Palomar in Chicago. While it is a part of the Kimpton network of hotels, it very much has an independent, boutique feel. The décor is just enough on the trendy side to feel sophisticated. The hotel staff are all ready to serve and very professional in their demeanor. The meeting facilities are clearly meant to help those using them be productive. I immediately liked the hotel, but it wasn't until I had a chance to experience its "personality" that it really kind of stood out for me. And that personality came through in a slightly unexpected place.
As I was trying to connect to their Wi-Fi, I saw they offered two options. The first was to pay for the service, and the second was to enroll in their loyalty program and get the Wi-Fi for free. I opted for the latter.
As I signed up for program it was clear they wanted to collect information about my preferences to make future stays as pleasant as possible. They wanted to know what newspaper I like to have delivered, what type of pillow I prefer, my ideal room location, etc. Not unexpected, except this is where their playful personality came through.
The options they offer for a pillow:
For room preference they ask, "How you would answer? I prefer a room that is . . ."
Yes, it was a little thing, but I appreciated the humor and the personality they put into their questionnaire! For me, it was a great example that professional and fun don't have to be mutually exclusive.
Insurance agents don't have to be boring. Don't be afraid to let a little personality come through. Sure, you need to be professional, but have a little fun on your website, when your participate in social media, and even when you're meeting face-to-face. I think being able to do so actually shows a level of confidence, makes you more real, and will put your prospect/client more at ease. And when they are at ease, that's when they will open up and discuss honestly how you might be able to help them.
Photo by Jukka Zitting.
A leader's job is to instill confidence in his/her team that there is a future worth working and fighting for. If the future looks bleak, people will seek that confidence elsewhere. Maybe there is a vivid future ahead, but if it's not being talked about, then it may as well not exist in the eyes of your staff.
The leader needs to help the team see the light.
People want safety of knowing that there is a plan and that they'll be okay. Universally, when a person's safety feels threatened, they react. In the office, that reaction is to retreat, rebel, or leave. None of these is a good situation for the employee or the employer.
Why have employee disengagement rates been so incredibly high these past several years? Because there appears to not be a future worth working and fighting for.
Want to change those rates in your agency or in client companies? Then start with a vision and some positive communication about a future of possibilities.
Photo by Sam Howzit.
Is it just me, or does anybody else get frustrated with the state of business communication? I am convinced it has to do with new technology and a resulting informality of how we communicate.
Don't get me wrong; I appreciate e-mail, texting, and social media as much as anyone. However, I don't think that using these great resources should be a license to forego common courtesies, protocols, and a professional manner.
Here are a few of my communication pet peeves.
I hope that this hasn't become our new normal, but even if it has, think of your chance to stand out from the crowd by not being a part of that new norm. I can tell you that, for me, someone with great writing/communication skills stands out from the crowd and gets my attention in a very positive manner.
As much as I try not to, I realize I am guilty from time to time. I really do try to catch myself. But, if you catch me in violation, please point it out to me. But do so in a kind, gentle, trying-to-help-you-out kind of approach. A nasty, mean-spirited email will just result in a quick delete.
Photo by Anne-Lise Heinrichs.
Strong leaders drive the organization with unified vision, sense of purpose, and common set of values. Without a strong leader, you simply have a group of individuals working in the same office.
The leader of the organization sets the tone for everything to come. The type of leader you have and the behaviors and actions they display will determine the type of behavior and actions seen throughout the organization.
The power of the leader is a lesson I learned very early in my career, and it's one that I use all the time. I had my daughter not long after starting my career and learned an incredibly valuable lesson shortly into the new life of balancing career and motherhood.
My daughter was in a childcare center where a friend worked and who also had an amazing director. This director was young, but she knew right from wrong in dealing with the kids, the parents, and the teachers. She made decisions and took swift action. There was never a question about how things would happen around there. I had such confidence in leaving my daughter there every day because I knew things were taken care of in the best interests of the children.
And then this amazing woman moved to another school.
And the new director was weak. Weak in appearance, weak in speech, weak in actions. My confidence waned. After only a few weeks under the new director, and a noticeable difference in the feeling of the school, I arrived after work and was met with a very odd feeling among the staff. Something was off, and I could just sense it. I asked what was going on, and got no answers except odd behaviors and looks from the teachers. When I came in the next morning, the director took me aside and told me that the day before a teacher had pushed my daughter (1 year old) and knocked her into a table.
I was stunned. Not by the teacher pushing (that was a whole other set of emotions), but by the way this situation was handled:
There was no plan. There was no communication. There was no action.
I left in a bit of shock just trying to figure out what I was going to do. I went to work for about an hour and knew that I couldn't leave her there. It was a relationship that was over: my trust in the leadership was completely destroyed.
As I drove back to the school, the answer came to me: I needed to go find the previous director. She was the only place I felt safe at that moment. She would have handled everything 100% differently from the way the new director handled it.
So I moved my daughter to the other school that was a 45-minute drive out of my way. Because I trusted her.
This gave me time to figure out what to do while feeling safe (if not a little frazzled!). I searched for a new school and eventually found one close to my office that was a perfect fit, and we stayed there for a few happy years.
When I found this new school, I knew it would be great because I used the criteria of the director as the primary focus on the assessment:
People who work under a strong leader like this know that it's energizing to come to work because you are pushed and challenged to try new things and are given the support to continuously achieve and look for new ways to raise the standard. Strong, talented people are drawn to organizations like this. These companies get to choose among the best when hiring.
If you've got leadership who waits until the next day to handle critical issues, pushes communication to the bottom of the priority list, and doesn't make the people in their care their top priority, then look around at the behavior of the staff. How many of those similar behaviors do you see displayed toward co-workers and clients? People who lack motivation and conviction are willing to work places like this. And these types of organizations are willing to hire these weak people.
The staff is able and willing to change and work hard. But it won't happen with a weak leader.
See, we spend our days thinking about insurance agencies from sales to operations to results and the behaviors that get you where you are and can take you where you want to go.
All that thinking and discussing gets turned into a lot of ideas and resources we like to share. One way we share our ideas is here, through our blog. Another is through a newsletter we send out about once a month.
Mainly what we do with our newsletters is focus them around specific topics. We include a variety of information about each topic like articles explaining a new way of thinking about an old topic, specific how-to articles, ideas for creating structures or processes, exercises to practice new behaviors, and sometimes we include download tools to help you get more in-depth.
We have raving fans who never miss an issue, and tell us they wait with anxious anticipation for the next issue. And, in fact, we have enough of these fans that Constant Contact gave us this nifty award for being an "All Star".
Do you appreciate focused information delivered to you one topic at a time to inspire you to spend some quality focus time working "on" your business? If yes, then the newsletter might be a great fit for you.
We've just sent out our February issue about rethinking traditional views on Customer Service. Previous issues have included Networking/Centers of Influence, Sales Process, and Agency Culture. If you'd like to see what's included, you'll find them all in our Newsletter Archive. Take a look around: read some articles; download some resources; sign up to have it sent directly to you.
And if you've got a topic you'd like to know more about – let us know! Have some feedback you'd like to share? Let us know that too. The more we know about what you like, the more targeted we can be when we create our materials.
Always be learning!
Continuing in a series of posts that touch on 10 challenges for you to consider as you embrace a 2012 that is more productive for yourself, as well as for those around you. As I do so, I am borrowing from a book I read last year, The First 90 Days: Critical Success Stories for New Leaders by Michael Watkins.
Read previous challenge articles:
First Challenge – Promote yourself
Organizations tend to border on dysfunction in the way they approach new roles for their people. The reality in most organizations is that people are thrown in to the "deep end" of new roles and responsibilities. Not only do most organizations not create a plan to help ensure success, in many instances survival seems to be a test in and of itself. The best companies are those who foster a healthy competition to reach the top, but who provide a level playing field complete with rules, regulations, and support. The key is to institutionalize the transition process, not just preventing those in new roles from failing, but for the organization to also find massive gains by moving everyone along the learning curve faster.
A common language makes everything make more sense. The needs for a common language are many, but the following areas of common language are required at a minimum:
Type of transition – Have ways of identifying and communicating the unique circumstances of the transition under way. (e.g., Is this a turnaround, realignment, start up, or is the goal to sustain a current success?)
Agenda for the types of learning required – What are the technical, cultural, and political learning goals that are required?
Progress – Specifically with the new boss in the five areas of situation, expectations, style, resources, and personal development.
Priorities and goals for behavior change
Priorities for strengthening their advice-and-counsel network
The individual with the new role is almost never the only one affected. Address the team as a whole. Start by providing your team an overview of the acceleration framework. Include the entire team in a situational diagnosis. Push them to clarify the key challenges and opportunities. Then move onto alignment issues – strategy, structure, systems, and skills. Next, focus on how the team will define its priorities and secure early wins. Finally, explore the kinds of coalitions the team will need to build.
It is healthy to bring in people from the outside. Among other things, they bring new ideas and energy. Unfortunately, they often have the cards stacked against them because there is no plan to help them move from being the outsider to becoming an insider. Develop an overview of the company culture and expose them to the success stories of other outsiders who have successfully made the journey from outsider to insider.
Photo by Outi-Maaria Palo-oja.
If you follow me at all, you probably know that I’m a big fan of LinkedIn for the professional. I’ve written about it a time or two, offering some specific ideas on how to properly fill in your profile. Plus, there is a lot of good advice peppered throughout many publications and blog articles on tackling it. I’m not here to add to those details; I want to give you something to think about regarding the messaging on your profile.
People who are looking at your profile are usually doing so because they have some kind of business issue, and they want to know if you might be able to help them in some way.
Since they're looking to you for some possible help let's be sure your profile gives them the answers they need. Obviously this profile is about you, the individual, but to be more precise, it's actually about what you can do for the client/potential client – the person viewing the profile.
What I mean by this is when clients/prospects read your information it should be apparent to them what that they'll gain by working with you. Do you offer something by way of knowledge, areas of expertise, or skills they need?
Take a look at your Summary and the descriptions you've written for your Experience (current and former jobs).
If any of these describe what you've got written on your profile, then it's time to re-write it. Put some personality into it and let people know what it would be like to work with you. Let them know what they'll get, what you'll bring to the table, and how you'll be able to help them in their business. Do this by explaining what you've done at your jobs that helped the company or its clients. Were you responsible for managing and implementing programs, driving growth, managing financials, coaching teams? Let us know what kind of an impact you had while you were there.
Your profile is there to speak on your behalf, and let people see how you could be a good fit for them. If you're not telling people about yourself as an individual or you're making the same promises every other broker makes – great service, free quotes, lots of experience – then you're not getting much value out of your profile beyond it being just a contact page for your connections.
Looking at your Experience or your list of Skills, is it all focused on the tactical things you do in your job? Or are you also thinking from the client perspective and describing what you offer? Are you sharing what kinds of things you've accomplished that a reader could project forward to see how you might be able to help them?
You may know every insurance product under the sun, but I would expect that of a broker. As a profile viewer, my question instead is something along the lines of -
These are the things that are going to catch my attention if I'm a CEO or an HR/Risk Manager because these are things that are going to directly affect my business. I want to see up front that you think about these things first and foremost. That's what's going to entice me to call you.
Here are a couple of great summaries that do exactly this. As I read both of these examples I have a really good idea of what I'm going to find when I meet with each of them. And knowing both of them, I can vouch that these are spot on - great examples of how you can use LinkedIn to represent yourself well and with personality.
Excerpt from Jennifer Lincicum, Fickewirth Benefits Advisors
"I can't stand inefficiencies. My natural drive in life is to find the most effective solution to any problem that comes my way. Whether it be how best to organize my closet so that I can put my laundry away the quickest, or how best to communicate with employees so they feel informed enough to make the right decision and also appreciate what is offered; I find the optimal solution. And, I enjoy doing so.
When a company dismisses the strength and potential that can be gained from utilizing its HR department in a strategic way, it causes major inefficiencies throughout the company. My passion and skills energize me to find the most effective way to take an under-utilized HR department and turn it into a strategic powerhouse for the long term growth of the company."
Excerpt from Lori Crandall, Wick Pilcher Insurance
"As a mother of 2 young children, I use the word "no" on what feels like an hourly basis. Yet somehow I find that word does not exist in my professional life. My natural inclination is to find a way to help people accomplish their goals and objectives. There is always a way to get to the desired goal and there is no room for negative attitudes. I believe the biggest challenges result in our best accomplishments.
Whether is it communicating with employees to increase their understanding of the benefits package (resulting in greater employee satisfaction and retention) or strategizing with a CFO on financials, experience or compliance, I know there is a way. There is a formula, if you will, for every client, which will allow them to reach the company bottom line goals while taking care of the employees' wellbeing. The word "no" has little value in my professional life; I know if I simply dig deep enough, there is always a way to accomplish the goal."
Think different. Be different.
Photo by Coletivo Mambembe.
Election season is chock full of opportunities to talk about candidates, parties, platforms, and issues. Unlike anything else, politics stimulates emotionally charged responses and debates. People like to jump on board and support their party and their favorite issues, which is part of our great American system.
Politics requires us to review the issues, form an opinion, and take a stand for what we believe. The same goes for being a consultant. Being able to review multiple options, make an informed decision, and offer an opinion and advice is a critical part of being an advisor to clients. It's definitely a skill that needs to be honed to be successful, especially as we're moving to a knowledge/advice-driven model.
The tricky part of this as it relates to politics is being able to understand and distinguish between personal beliefs and the role your business plays with clients and prospects. Getting on your political soapbox or using your company messaging platform as a bully pulpit is where the tide turns from being an active political citizen to creating a sense of negativity that surrounds you and your company.
It's important to recognize that as a business owner or a broker, you are likely working with clients across a broad spectrum. As such, you and your clients may not hold all of the same views. Understanding this and responding appropriately can go a long way in securing business.
On the flip side, if your opinions and communication are passionately and consistently "us vs. them" and your recommendations are overtly based on a strong political bias, you run a couple of risks for your business.
The first risk is offending or alienating those clients with differing beliefs or those who prefer to leave politics out of the office. Clients or prospects who disagree with you, or feel pressured by you, may chose to take their business where they feel more aligned or just don't have to deal with the pressure of the politics.
The second risk, and perhaps the most critical, is that you may inadvertently be demonstrating to clients that you are unable to objectively approach a situation. If they see your belief system as being so rigid that you have blinders on and are not open to differing opinions, the message they might be receiving is that you approach everything with a bias. Clients may feel that with these preconceived beliefs you tout so openly, you are unable to review and assess their needs without prejudice.
As brokers are becoming more reliant on their own knowledge and advice to earn and retain client business, being able to demonstrate the balance of objectivity, along with opinions and sound advice, is critical for business growth.
Make sure the message you and your employees are sending on behalf of the company is what's going to best serve this future growth. Be sure that what you're saying speaks to your audience in a way that resonates positively with them: it makes them want to ask for your opinions and advice; and it makes them want to do business with and refer you.
If you speak more passionately and more consistently about your political beliefs than you do about your company and how you help your clients, the politics are going to overshadow the company message and that, instead, becomes your brand.
Prospects who don't agree, or are turned off by the continuous ranting, dismiss you as being a relevant business option. Clients don't necessarily want their situation always put though your political filter.
There are costs associated with these choices and not ones that can even be measured. For all the clients who leave, they will likely not say it's because of your message. And for all the prospects you don't turn into clients, or the ones you never even talk to because of the brand that precedes you, you have no idea what that potential revenue could be. If the message you're sharing is their reason for not doing business with you, it's probably the last thing they'd ever tell you. So just because you're not getting negative feedback, doesn't mean people aren't listening and forming their own opinions.
Photo by jaydensonbx.
When you look around a company and see a common set of behaviors, you can usually tie it back to the behaviors of the leaders.
Positive, focused, driven behaviors by leaders set an example for the team, and it's very common for the team to generally behave in the same way and have similar attitudes. It's contagious. And people tend to rise to the level of expectation or standard.
And the same is true for the negative behaviors displayed by leaders. When the team regularly sees poor behavior, they begin to see it as acceptable and respond accordingly. People also tend to lower their output to the level of expectation or standard.
Poor behaviors that are demonstrated and tolerated are morale busters. Lack of effort, inspiration, courage, and follow-through by the leader can deflate even the most positive of people. Here are some behaviors you might recognize in your leaders or the team:
If this sounds all too familiar, then it's time to do some evaluation to understand the real cause for these behaviors. Is it just an individual or two in the company behaving like this (performance issue)? Or is it pervasive throughout (cultural & leadership issue)?
A common element in small businesses is often family. Hiring children, siblings, cousins, spouses, and even close friends is the norm. And when this is the case, it is absolutely critical to have company values and behaviors formally outlined. It becomes much too easy to make exceptions to every rule because you have to see this person at home or at family gatherings. When you've got family relationships in the office, keep a fair balance with both family and non-family staff alike by making decisions using the same criteria for everyone.
Outcome: When family members are allowed to skirt the rules such as not meeting goals or attending meetings, it creates an environment of animosity, which might not have otherwise been there. These things tend to take on a life of their own, so it can easily and rapidly spread throughout the company, creating a whole culture of resentment and entitlement, rather than focusing on the collective company goals.
Sometimes lazy behaviors get started as a result of distractions and lack of focus. I worked at a company where there was a "hurry up and forget it" attitude. Bright and shiny ideas would come along and everyone would stop what they were currently working on to focus on the new item. After putting in significant work, leadership would have forgotten about it altogether and then question those working on it as to why they were spending time that way. Huh?
Outcome: The team learned not to respond when a new idea was proposed and developed very lazy attitudes: not following directions and only putting forth minimum effort. This eventually led to a general lack of respect for management and a cynical attitude about new initiatives, regardless of the sincerity.
I worked with a leader who routinely didn't show up for scheduled meetings, walked in late, and didn't participate in team practice sessions.
Outcome: The members of the team regularly scheduled other "more important" meetings during team meetings, felt no urgency to show up on time, and always opted for those "more important" things other than improving their performance. It showed in the team results and resentment built among different areas of the company due to this self-important attitude.
I had a boss who was developing a side gig – on company time. He kept himself locked in his office on the phone and having secret meetings. He paid very little attention to the efforts of the team and any behavior became acceptable.
Outcome: The team began showing up late, taking extra long lunches, and leaving early. Results? What results?
If you've got a leader displaying negative behaviors, the only way you can turn the organization around is to address it.
If you're the leader, then ask for an honest assessment from your leadership team, and ask for help and accountability to make the necessary changes.
If you're not the leader, then it's going to take someone in the company willing to have a potentially difficult conversation with the leader, pointing out the behaviors and the negative impact they are having on the organization.
If you're a position where you can't be that person directly influencing the leader's behaviors, you have a couple of choices depending on your role.
None of these things are easy for anyone, but if an environment is not healthy and does not provide a beneficial situation for you and your team, you should try to change it. And you should be prepared to recognize that the best decision may come down to removing yourself from it.
Photo by DavidSpinks.
Benefits Growth Network recognized for achieving exemplary marketing results.
July 13, 2012 – St. Louis, MO - Benefits Growth Network, a membership-based consulting firm for independent insurance and benefits agencies, has received the 2011 All Star Award from Constant Contact®, Inc., the trusted marketing advisor to more than half a million small organizations worldwide. Each year, a select group of Constant Contact customers are honored with the All Star Award for their exemplary marketing results. BGN’s results ranked among the top 10% of Constant Contact’s customer base.
Benefits Growth Network works with agency owners, managers, and producers to help navigate the changes that are taking hold of the industry. To remain growing, successful insurance agencies, they must make significant changes to the business model.
“Helping such a large and varied group of businesses, as those in the independent agency system, navigate these changes and stay at the forefront of their individual marketplaces takes a mixed approach. One size does not fit all. As a consulting firm, communication is the foundation of our business, and Constant Contact has become an integral part in helping us create a successful system for managing all of those communications,” says Kevin Trokey, CEO of BGN.
Constant Contact customers using any combination of the company’s Email Marketing, Event Marketing, and Online Survey tools are eligible for this award. Constant Contact looked at the following criteria to select this year’s All Stars:
“There is nothing we like more than to see our
customers finding success. It’s the reason Constant Contact was founded,
and it’s a thrill to see the fantastic results that our All Stars are
achieving,” said Gail Goodman, CEO of Constant Contact. “This group is
really leading the charge when it comes to delivering relevant, engaging
content that drives real business results. We salute this year’s All
Stars for their success, and are honored to have played a part in their
About Benefits Growth Network
Benefits Growth Network, based out of St. Louis, MO, is an international membership-based consulting firm specializing in growth strategies for independently owned insurance agencies and brokerages. Through the exclusive Benefits Growth System™, members get individualized planning, coaching, training, use of proprietary systems and access to a network of thriving insurance agencies. For more information about BGN, visit www.benefitsgrowthnetwork.com.
About Constant Contact, Inc.
Constant Contact is revolutionizing the success formula for small organizations through affordable, easy-to-use Engagement MarketingTM tools that help create and grow customer relationships. More than half a million small businesses, nonprofits, and associations worldwide rely on Constant Contact to drive ongoing customer dialogs through email marketing, social media marketing, event marketing, and online surveys. All Constant Contact products come with unrivaled know-how, education, and free coaching with a personal touch, including award-winning customer support.
Constant Contact and the Constant Contact Logo are registered trademarks of Constant Contact, Inc. All Constant Contact product names and other brand names mentioned herein are trademarks or registered trademarks of Constant Contact, Inc. All other company and product names may be trademarks or service marks of their respective owners.