Back in the 1960's the wine industry in Napa Valley was still largely in its infancy and had a long way to go to be competitive with France. Robert Mondavi, now considered the patriarch of Napa Valley, noticed an especially large discrepancy between Napa Valley and France: the popularity of a varietal called Sauvignon Blanc.
At the time, Sauvignon Blanc was quite popular in France, but in Napa it was dead last. Mondavi did some research on the name and the taste preferences of the US market.
Sauvignon Blancs in the States at the time were pretty sweet and were obviously not very appealing to the market, so Mondavi decided to make some changes. He moved away from the sweet flavor and instead created a crisp, dry style using the Sauvignon Blanc grape.
Along with the change in taste, he also made the decision to rebrand Sauvignon Blanc into the easier-to-pronounce Fumé Blanc. And he chose to not trademark the term Fumé Blanc; he wanted it to be part of the public domain so it could be available for anyone to use it, while also ensuring it could not be claimed and protected by anyone else. The industry embraced the new style and rebranding suggestion, and soon Fumé Blanc became a huge success in the U.S.
So why did Mondavi pass up on what seemed like such a huge personal opportunity? He knew that by doing so he would benefit all of his neighboring wineries in Napa Valley and an entire industry. He understood that a rising tide raises all ships.
Rightfully, you are probably wondering what the point of this story is and why we're sharing it. Well, I think it is a powerful story that speaks to the idea that sometimes you need to be embracing your competition and actually working together rather than always fighting against one another.
We definitely see the need for this in our industry. The independent agency system is under attack and, some might even argue, facing extinction. While we agree it is under attack, we don't believe for a moment it's facing extinction. In fact, we believe the best days of the industry are still ahead, not by way of the status quo, but still ahead nonetheless.
In fact, we believe in this so strongly that we have built our entire business on this belief and focused it on this purpose - to save and strengthen the independent agency system. And, we're not alone; there are many other consultants out there with the same belief and purpose.
Do we compete for some of the same clients with these other consultants? Sure, at times. But it's a big industry and there is room for all of us. And, as much as any of us might like to be the only game in town, we know that isn't possible. In fact, it wouldn't even be good for the industry. The industry needs different ideas and different perspectives.
So, what are we doing about it? We've decided to bring together a group of these industry consultants to discuss how we can create our own "Fumé Tide" for the independent agency system.
We have invited about a dozen of our "competitors" to a meeting in February with the sole purpose of sharing our individual perspectives on the future of the industry and to look at how, together, we might raise the tide for all of our agency clients.
Nobody will be sharing their trade secrets; we're just interested in various perspectives on how we can ensure that the insurance industry not only survives, but also finds new ways to thrive. If the industry can't survive, then it isn't likely any of us will either.
While the first meeting is set, we're not sure if it will be a one-time only event or maybe it will be something that we do on a regular basis. That's something the meeting itself will determine.
What about you, does the idea of a meeting organized in the spirit of "coopetition" make sense to you?
Photo by oatsy40.
I am so fortunate to be doing what I am doing, for SO many reasons. But one of the coolest reasons is that, given the role I fill with our member agencies, I get to see salespeople at their most vulnerable. By vulnerable I don't mean weak and frail, I mean open and completely honest.
If you are a producer, I have a strong suspicion you have a distorted perception of many of your competitors. You think they are: smarter than you, more experienced than you, more articulate than you, have more resources than you, are more qualified than you, have better agency support... the list goes on.
When you compare this perception you have of them to what the voice inside your head tells you about yourself, it's amazing you muster up enough courage to compete.
And, because of the role I fill, I happen to know what that voice inside your head is telling you. I know because I get to hear producers open up and share those thoughts.
Well, guess what? That "intimidating" competitor has the same voice inside her or his head. I know because sometimes that's who I'm talking to. Yes, you are the "intimidating" producer to many of your competitors.
During my first meeting with a producer, I ask four questions.
It is trying to answer the first three questions that brings out the vulnerability I mentioned above.
Here is another cool thing about this role I fill with producers: by just having someone who is genuinely interested ask the questions and help them start talking through their answers, I can immediately see the relief on their faces and the hope and confidence start to build.
It's the answer to the fourth question that would likely surprise most agency owners and sales leaders. When I ask what it is that I can bring to our relationship that would benefit them the most, the most consistent answer given is "continue to push me to do the right things and then hold me accountable."
The very thing agencies fear putting on their producers the most is the same thing those very producers most desire.
By pushing a producer and holding her accountable for results, confidence is bound to replace the insecurity. And we all know what happens when a salesperson competes with justifiable confidence.
Photo by Capture Queen.
I have no choice is a common sentiment among businesses: “The competition is doing it, so we have to do it.”
The insurance industry is ripe with traditions that agencies feel they must follow because “it’s always been done that way and really, how can we effectively compete if we’re doing something different?”
If you believe that you must follow suit with things your competitors are doing or offering, then you’re letting your competitors determine your business model and shape your company values.
Following the competition puts a limit on creative thinking and implementing any innovative practices in your business.
Nothing - this is how the buyer sees a company who is generically the same as every other competing company.
Being the same, saying the same things, offering the same things, and maintaining the same model will not get you farther ahead. In fact, you will risk going backward because you’ll have to work harder and harder at doing the same things since there is no point of differentiation.
Buyers need a solid way to make a good decision for their business. When they look at a group of quotes from a seemingly homogenous group of agencies, there’s nothing but rather superficial reasons for making a decision.
Which spreadsheet do they like better? Who do they like better? Who might offer better service after being hired?
There’s nothing substantial to use. And how solid of a business decision is that?!
Now it’s common thought to have a collection of products and services to offer as a point of differentiation, but the problem is that those same things can also be acquired and offered by any other agency. This is not seen as a point of differentiation in the eyes of the client. Instead, what they see is a collection of products that they can get from you or any of the others.
Counter to this traditional thinking, it’s those agencies that deviate from the traditional model that are the ones who are seeing great success.
If you find that you’re competing on the same things as your competitors, then it’s time to step out and create your own category.
No one said you have to run your agency like everyone else. No one said you have to offer the same products and services as everyone else. No one said you have to work with all businesses regardless of size or industry.
Create a specialized process for analyzing a client business. Define a niche market in size, location, or industry. Create a specialized culture that delivers unique results to your clients (think Zappos or Umpqua Bank). Focus on a core set of services that you do exceptionally well and become known as the go-to source in your market (or even nationally).
If you create a new category, then the buyer now has a new way of judging the competition – who can offer the same thing as you?
Those who are truly finding a way to make themselves different will be dominating the market, making it even more difficult to continue competing with the traditional model.
Photo by John Paul Rodriguez.
I realize it may be a fine line, but I would much rather get beat than lose, at anything.
I am helping coach my 12 year old son’s baseball team this year. With the exception of a small core group of boys, this is a brand new team. We’ve been having batting cage practice for a couple of months now, but have only had one outdoor practice. Nevertheless, we signed up for a pre-season tournament. We did so to get in some game time, get a sense of what we need to work on, and to start playing together, as a team.
We lost each of the first 2 games by 2 runs, we won the third game, and got beat pretty handily the last game. At the end of the tournament, I reminded the boys, that as much as anything, our goal was to leave the weekend a better team than we started. Mission accomplished. I talked about baseball being both a physical game as well as a mental game, a team sport as well as an individual sport.
I also pointed out that, even though our tournament record was 1 - 3, we really only got beat once. The first two games we lost.
You may be asking, “What’s the difference?”
Well, as I see it, the difference is whether you take the loss because of your effort or that of your opponent.
In the game we got beat, their pitcher was lights out and their batters just kept hitting against our most dominant pitcher. It was definitely their effort that drove the outcome of the game.
However, we lost the first games because of the way we played. We were tentative at the plate and in the field, we swung at bad pitches, and we made both physical and mental errors. It was our effort that drove the outcome of those two games.
What about you? When you look at those situations you don’t win, are you losing or getting beat? Do you play tentatively? Do you prepare in advance? Do you “leave it all on the field”? Do you look at selling as just an individual, rather than a team sport?
Getting beat still sucks, but I’d rather get beat by someone else than lose because of my own poor effort.
Photo by snappybex.
We’ve talked about where you focus your attention – on your business or on competitive businesses. We've challenged you to ask yourself if you’re trying to stay ahead of the competition, or if you’re thinking about how to fill your clients’ needs regardless of what the competition is doing.
This idea goes beyond just the business model.
Let’s also do a similar comparison on marketing activities.
As you define and develop your marketing programs, are you looking at what your competitors are doing for your inspiration? Are you watching their websites and programs for a comparison of what you need to create, or maybe even what you don’t need to create because of what they are or are not doing?
If you are looking to them for your inspiration, I believe you are completely missing the boat on creating the most compelling marketing program to attract clients. For example, if you have the mindset that you don’t need to blog or tweet because your competitors aren’t, then you don’t recognize that your clients and prospective clients want to know what you have to offer – not that you are offering the same thing as the other guys.
Instead of looking at competitive insurance agencies, you should look to your clients and prospects themselves for inspiration – specifically your best clients and your ideal prospects. Carefully review their business models, websites, and marketing programs. See what they value. Ask them what they want in a business partner. And then create your marketing activities and website to reflect what they want and value.
Think about it – you’re not trying to attract other agencies to do business with you. You’re trying to attract clients. If you look just like the other brokers, what competitive advantage have you given yourself? The more you watch the competition, the more similar you risk being.
Instead, focus obsessively on your clients, and create the tools and resources to help them build a better business.
If you spend your marketing efforts answering questions in order to help your clients achieve these kinds of improvements in their organizations, you will be a complete stand-out from your competition. You will not look like the other guys, and you’ll reinforce your position with your clients that you are, in fact, not just another insurance agency.
Photo by cesar bojorquez.
What’s your perspective on your competition? Do you think about them regularly and obsess over what they’re doing at all times? Do you worry that they’ve got a new solution, employee, or carrier relationship that you don’t?
Knowing who your competitors are and having an idea of what they’re doing is a good thing. But if you are obsessing over those things, you’re ceding control of your own business to them.
If you have a strong company vision, a team you trust, you’ve empowered them to take the reigns in their own area, and you’re all driving hard on a vision toward a common goal, then you’re actively running toward something.
Yet if everyday is a focus on what the guy down the block is doing, and you’re worrying about that new solution they’re offering or the new sales guy they hired, and you’re looking for ways to one-up that other business, you’re not building a better company. You’re still running; you’re just running away. You’re running away from your competitors.
When you’re running away,
This limited scope, short term thinking will get you a random business model continuously disrupted with reactionary changes. It will also produce an inconsistent client experience.
Companies obsessed with the competition ultimately pursue damaging activities and create the scenario they’re working so hard to avoid – being beat-out by the competition.
Instead of focusing on what we don’t want, we need to affect change by focusing on what we do want. It is only with that driving focus on the goal that we’re able to choose the behaviors and actions we need to achieve the positive results we so desire.
The greatest financial opportunities lie in helping clients build better businesses, and without this properly placed focus, growth will prove elusive.
Direct your thoughts, energies, and resources on what you can control – what you’re offering your potential clients and the experience you’re giving them after they’ve hired you. That is the best competitive advantage you can give yourself.
Photo by Tiffa Day.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the investment that Liberty Media Corp is making into Barnes & Nobel. The article was noting the difficulties facing BN, and competition was top of the list. The competitors listed were Amazon.com, Google Inc., and Apple Inc.
Wow! When I read that list I was struck at how the landscape has changed so dramatically that these technology companies are the biggest threat to the bookselling giant. (Amazon.com has become such a retail behemoth that I hardly remember they started as a bookseller.)
A couple of days later, another article was published in the WSJ by Marc Andreessen where he makes the case that “Software Is Eating The World,” saying that “technology companies are invading and overturning established industries.” He goes on to give case-by-case examples of long-term industries that have been overtaken by technology companies or have overhauled their business models to try and stay relevant:
In The Upside by Adrian Slywotzky, he identifies a number of strategic risks to which all businesses must pay close attention – these are risks that threaten the company’s business model. He specifically calls out the music industry and their response to technology companies, which were threatening their business models. Instead of responding by recognizing that people’s patterns and desires were changing and modifying their offerings, the music industry dug in to defend their current model, which was quickly losing ground and relevancy.
We’ve long contended that someone will be the new competitor in the insurance industry, and likely it’s someone we don’t currently recognize as competition. With all of these other established industries being taken over by technology start-ups – the guys & gals with a fresh perspective on an old standard – we have to be acutely aware that we’re not immune to such a take-over. And we need to be proactively managing that strategic risk we all face.
Every industry, every business should be constantly watching a broad scope of news and industries to keep an eye on the trends. Every new idea that comes along could be potentially relevant. It doesn’t matter what industry the idea comes from. In fact, the industry-crossing ideas are where the real game-changers come from.
Understanding what business you’re really in is a good starting point. Then you want to have regular team discussions about your clients needs.
If you’re in the product selling business (benefit & commercial policies), then you should be asking, “What products do our clients need in order to offer a quality benefits program and/or protect their businesses?”
If you’re in the business of helping clients run better businesses (solution provider), then you should be asking, “What business challenges are our clients facing?”
Explore your solutions and possible competitors:
Ask, “Who offers products or solutions that might benefit my clients?” When you look for answers, be really curious – who might profit from a change of customer behavior? They could become your next competitor or your next partner offering.
Think about Apple – they offered music playing devices and wanted their customers to have direct access to the music for those players. So they went direct – and profited.
In the insurance industry we’ve seen payroll companies like ADP expand to offering HR and benefits administration services. And accounting firms, like CBIZ, have expanded to sell employee benefits and commercial insurance. We did not see these companies as competitors when they first started - but we do now.
The opportunities are there for these natural transitions and expansions. We need to be looking for them.
If you put everything you read, see, and hear through a filter, you’ll be seeing those opportunities everywhere. Always ask yourself, “How could this help my clients improve business operations?”
We no longer have the luxury of waiting for the ideas to be given to us – we need to be coming up with the ideas ourselves and moving faster than our possible competitors.
Not actively looking for new competition and possible business opportunities is irresponsible and lazy. Our businesses are too valuable to us personally, and to our employees who entrust their livelihoods to us, to be complacent or to “not have the time” to think about it. We have to make the time.
And that becomes the point of differentiation – instead of waiting for someone else to have the idea (likely outside of the industry – someone tired of not getting the solutions or results they need) and take over the marketplace or industry with it, you get to be the one who is reinventing the industry and not only remaining relevant, but is setting the new industry standard.
Photo by elisasizzle.
In fast-changing benefits field, "not losing" won't be good enough
How are you playing the game? Are you playing to win or are you playing to not lose? As hard as it may be to believe at first, a strategy of playing to not lose has produced pretty good results, at least up to this point. However, benefits producers whose continued goal is to avoid losing will find they are facing certain defeat.
Let's start out by discussing what it means to play not to lose, as opposed to playing to win. Don't get me wrong, playing not to lose doesn't mean that the players aren't good. However, it does mean that they play defensively and most likely don't go out with an exceptional performance.
Playing not to lose is actually the result of having successfully played to win at one point. Producers build up a nice book of business, generate a nice income, enjoy a great lifestyle, and achieve an enviable work/life balance. When they realize they have more than they ever really expected to have, a switch is flipped and a level of complacency sets in. Instead of continuing to do the hard things that resulted in all of their wins, they start focusing on protecting what they have. And, up to a certain point, that actually works pretty well.
Instead of continuing to be aggressive, they become defensive. Instead of looking to give reasons for new clients to say "yes" to them, they become much more concerned about not giving their current clients a reason to say "no" with the hopes that no one else comes along and gives that same client a reason to say "yes" to them.
The primary reasons that the same strategy has worked reasonably well for so long is two-fold.
First, at the risk of offending a few, I believe that the financial reward for mediocrity in this industry has been ridiculously high and has perpetuated a game that has too many players playing to not lose. Why play harder than you have to when a fairly simple game has generated such unbelievable financial rewards?
Second, the rules of the game have remained fairly static. Yes, the game has been threatened at times. Hillary brought the threat of nationalized health care, Spitzer threatened their contingency income, the Internet and direct writers even threatened to take them out of the game. However, those threats largely passed with glancing blows and no real damage.
So, there producers sat, going into the sales equivalent of the "prevent defense." They wrapped their arms around what they had accumulated and even fooled themselves into thinking they were playing to win as their revenue and income continued to grow, but only because premiums on what they already had continued to rise. Well, the circumstances that have allowed that to be a successful strategy have changed. The old saying, "What got you here will keep you here," is a saying whose time has come and gone. What got you here in the world of benefits will now take you back to where you once were. For many, a place they haven't visited in a long time.
Before it's too late, benefits producers would be wise to take a lesson from our friends on the P-C side of the fence. They have been in a soft market for years. If they successfully retain every account they have but don't go out and generate new business, they are slipping backwards 15%-20% every year. While the words "soft market" don't even exist in the benefits dictionary, the changes to compensation coming from health care reform are starting to drive the same results. It is for that reason that playing to not lose on the benefits side of the field is a game plan that assures the players' defeat.
So, let's look at some critical areas and the difference between playing to win and playing to not lose.
For quite some time, competing for benefits business has largely been focused on a list of value-added services that benefits brokers' attempts to use in order to differentiate themselves. The reality is that the services brokers have acquired in an attempt to be seen as innovative have quickly become commodities themselves.
Brokers who are playing to not lose will focus on the needs of the clients that happen to fit the solutions they have available. Those playing to not lose will open conversations that could lead only to solutions they already have.
That may seem pretty reasonable, until you contrast that to a producer who is playing to win. When you play to win, the focus is on filling the most urgent needs of a prospect, even if it's a solution you don't currently possess. Those playing to win are willing to create a solution if that's what it takes to win the game. A perfect example is an agency that went into the game competing for the benefits of a very large company. One of the greatest needs of this particular company was some help with sales training. Determined to win, this agency took its internal sales process, turned it into a solution for the prospect who not only turned into a new benefits client, but who also engaged the agency for help with a sales training program. Not a bad win, huh?
Lesson: Don't manipulate the client's problem to fit your solution; adjust (or create) a solution to fit their need.
It is true that producers playing to not lose understand the need to learn from their failure. When they lose out on an opportunity, they debrief with their team and review the "game film" to learn what went wrong. Sometimes, they even get brave enough to go and ask the former prospect why they didn't win.
Producers playing to win go one step further. They aren't just satisfied with learning why they lost or even satisfied with getting a win. No, the exceptional producers want to learn why they won. They will go through the same team debriefing, the same reviewing of game film and will always ask their new client why it was that they were chosen.
Lesson: Having complete clarity about what led to a win is the only way that you can ensure a repeat performance.
In case you haven't noticed, we work in a fairly conservative industry. We don't necessarily embrace change easily. Not many accuse our industry of being on the cutting edge. However, that doesn't mean that your clients aren't on the cutting edge and have similar expectations of those with whom they work, or at least favor those they happen to find who are on the cutting edge. Social media is a glaring example of what I mean.
We all know the need to make a strong first impression. Those who are determined to not lose will do their research, put on their best suit, look the prospect in the eyes, give a firm handshake and be confident that they haven't done anything to hurt themselves as they make this critical first impression.
Now, contrast that to the producers who are determined to win. These producers have created an online presence through their blog, LinkedIn, their Twitter content, and Google ranking. They have used that presence to communicate their expertise. Knowing that their new prospects will be doing their own research on them as well as their competition, they have used that presence to create an advantage and ensure their victory.
Lesson: The first impression is no longer made face to face. It is now made by what the prospect learns, or doesn't learn, about you online.
Those producers who are determined to not lose make sure they are able to make a strong presentation. They make sure they tell their prospect and client absolutely everything about themselves. They want to ensure that they can never be accused of not having told the prospect absolutely everything about them and their agency.
Now contrast that to the producers determined to win. Sure, they communicate the critical information about themselves, but they spend much more time learning about their prospects. They ask probing questions and then, not yet satisfied, they follow up with more questions. Then when they start to get a sense that their prospect/client may have a need, they drill down into the detail with even more questions.
Lesson: Leaving your prospect/client exhausted from answering your questions about them is a much more aggressive strategy than leaving them bored to tears from listening to stories about you.
This is a time in the evolution of the benefits industry that the professional players will be separated from the weekend warriors. This is no longer a game for the casual player. The spoils of victory are about to become greater than they have ever been before. However, if you don't create an aggressive game plan, sharpen your skills and take the field with a fierce determination to win, you'll be much better off on the sidelines.
The game is about to get bloody.
Originally published in Rough Notes magazine June 2011.
Photo by David Goehring.
Give me a reason to do business with you. And don’t make me guess what it is - tell me before I commit. And don’t give me a reason that benefits you.
Don’t tell me I should buy from you because you are local, or because we already have a relationship, or because you have been in business the longest. None of that does anything for me.
This may be obvious to you, but it evidently isn’t obvious to everyone. I was just listening to a talk radio show and heard a “local” business owner call in and berate Wal-Mart. I’m sure you can imagine the reasons she gave, but it basically came down to the fact that she couldn’t compete with what they offer. She was encouraging other listeners to boycott Wal-Mart and buy from local merchants, for the primary reason that they are local. When you think about it, she was basically asking for entrepreneurial welfare.
Isn’t a free market – the very market that allows an entrepreneur to go into business in the first place – supposed to reward a competitive advantage? If you are a small business owner and the reason you are giving your customers to buy from you is price, I strongly encourage you to start looking for another reason. In this world of big box stores and Internet shopping, small businesses just can’t compete on price.
However, there are plenty of other reasons I will buy from you:
Those are reasons that benefit me. And guess what? When it benefits me, it also benefits you.
However, be prepared to adjust your value proposition over time. Borders and Blockbuster are just two examples of companies who took over an industry (shut down the mom-and-pop stores in many cases) only to watch that advantage ultimately fail due to their failure to keep up with changing technology.
Give me a reason and I’ll buy from you today, but also be prepared to adjust so that I still have a valid reason tomorrow.
Photo by anna gutermuth.
I live in St. Louis. Which, by unwritten law, makes me a huge Cardinals fan. Since there is no minimum age for said unwritten law, my 11 year-old son is also a huge Cardinals fan. And, of course, by some unwritten subsection of this unwritten law, our favorite player is Albert Pujols.
Now, you may or may not know, that at the end of this season, Albert will be a free agent. This brings up the possibility that he could (god forbid) play for another team next year. As you might expect, this has caused no small amount of anxiety for my son who has never known Cardinals baseball without Albert Pujols.
We have had countless conversations about what might happen at the end of the season. At this point, I think he truly understands the basics of how it all works. Our most recent discussion went something like this:
Zach – “Dad, if someone else offers Albert a contract, does he have to take it?
Me – “No, he will get to choose where he plays.”
Zach – “Well, I think he really likes being a Cardinal, and I think he will stay. But, I bet the Yankees offer him crazy money. They try to buy all of the best players.”
Me – “That’s certainly possible, but I agree that Albert will take less money to stay here.”
Zach – “You know dad, if the Cardinals give him too much money they wouldn’t have enough left for other players.”
Me – “That’s right buddy. As good as Albert is, they have to think about the rest of the team as well.”
Zach – “Well, if he has to go somewhere else, I hope he gets to go to a team that isn’t very good. That way, he can help make them into a good team.”
I thought that was pretty insightful for an 11 year-old considering the prospect of his favorite player no longer playing for his favorite team. I also thought that it’s too bad that we don’t always have that same level of insight with our employees and clients. Think about the comparison:
Your employees and clients always have a choice as to where they work and with whom they work.
Your employees can always leave for more money, and your clients can always leave for a lower price. You have competitors who will offer both.
Your employees and clients have to consider the employment/client experience you provide as part of their decision to stay with you.
There is a point where paying an employee to stay or discounting your compensation for clients just doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it’s in everyone’s best interest for employees and clients to move on to another team. As good as the run may have been, it almost always has to come to an end.
Albert, if you happen to be reading this, it’s definitely NOT time for you to move on.
Photo by William Holtkamp.