President & Coach, Benefits Growth Network
Kevin Trokey is a coach and an implementer of business strategies. He works with agency leadership, department managers, and producers of benefits agencies to craft strategies and lead them to successful transformations by breaking down the complexity into manageable steps.
Yes, this is a scary time in our industry, but let's face it: Fear is just a natural part of doing business. Whether you're building a business or a book of business, there's nothing easy about it. There are always threats, and if we let our fears get in the way, we'll never achieve anything.
Fear itself shouldn't automatically be seen as negative. A healthy level of fear can keep you sharp and focused and may actually help ensure your survival. To paraphrase the old saying, courage isn't the absence of fear, it's willingness to face the fear. Fear is a problem when it becomes irrational or comes from a source over which we have no control.
In working with producers and agencies, recently I have seen more fear in eyes and heard more fear in voices than at any time in the past.
Understandably, many of you are saying: "Of course we're scared! Do you have any idea what health care reform is going to do to our business?"
Let me ask a question in return: Just exactly what business are you in?
Before you answer that question, consider the message in an article I read recently in Inc. magazine. Back in 2000, the author was the CEO of a startup entertainment company. As part of a promotional activity, he found himself standing in the Times Square location of a national record store chain with the owners of the chain. He asked the owners why they thought so many people came into their store.
The CEO of the record store chain replied to what he obviously thought was a ridiculous question: "Well, to buy CDs."
To which the startup CEO responded: "I don't think so. I don't think anybody wants to buy a CD."
Record store CEO: "Do you have any idea how many millions of CDs we sell each year?"
Startup CEO: "Oh, I get that. But nobody wakes up in the morning wanting to go out and buy a round piece of plastic with a hole in it. They wake up wanting to hear that new song they heard yesterday, and they want to hear it now. They have to buy the CD, but what they want is to hear the song."
Record store CEO: "What's the difference?"
The difference, as pointed out by the startup CEO, is that if the record store owners had understood what their customers really wanted, they might have invented the iPod and iTunes. Instead, they are now in bankruptcy liquidation.
Now answer the question: Just exactly what business are you in?
Are you selling pieces of round plastic, or are you putting music into the ears of your clients? Are you selling a health insurance policy, or are you helping your clients become the employer of choice?
These are critical questions. Your answer will either legitimize your fear or reduce it to a manageable, healthy level. Your clients have to buy the health policy, but what they really want is to be sure they have the strongest value proposition to offer their employees. In other words, they want to be the employer of choice.
If you identify your business as selling traditional employee benefits (i.e., insurance policies), there are basically two ways you can help your clients and get paid: (1) Sell them an insurance policy, and (2) fix the problems that result from the policy you just sold them. I see this as the epicenter of the fear I have been seeing and hearing:
The fear arises from the inadequacy of the typical agency's business model.
Even in the best of times, this seems legitimately scary to me. At a moment's notice, the foundation of your business can be taken away or altered almost beyond recognition. If your carriers, or the government, decide your services are no longer required, you're out of business. (This is a clear example of fear emanating from a source over which you have no control.)
Now, imagine having a business model based on "putting music in people's ears."
Let's say that you are in the business of helping your clients become the employer of choice. Start by listing how many ways you can help your clients (and how many ways you can get paid):
Oh, and don't forget:
This list could go on almost indefinitely.
I can hear you saying, "We already do all those things." Exactly! (Well, sort of.)
In all likelihood, your primary focus is on selling insurance, and, in an attempt to "differentiate" yourself, you give away many of the services listed above. Unfortunately, anything given away for free is worth exactly what is paid for it: nothing. It's worth nothing not because it doesn't have potential value, but because it isn't a primary focus of the business model/value proposition, and, as a result, it isn't used effectively, if at all.
The answer to most of our fears is right in front of us. It starts with redefining your role with your client. Here's how:
Take responsibility for creating "employer of choice" clients; look at all of your resources (including insurance) as possible solutions to help achieve that outcome; and assume the responsibility for helping your clients use what you provide.
Now you've begun to build a relationship that will be music in the ears of your clients. This is a business model that can't be taken away from you. This is how you face the fear that's associated with the typical agency's business model.
Unfortunately, the impact of business model fear doesn't stop here. I believe this fear creates other fears that have been an ingrained part of our industry for a long time: producers' fear of their clients and agencies' fear of their producers.
Sad to say, I often find that producers are actually afraid of their clients. I believe this fear exists because many producers have ceded control of the relationship to the client. Most producers realize that they get more out of the relationship than they give. In their hearts, they know they are being paid too much for what they actually do (assuming the model of placing coverage and fixing problems). And because what they do is largely transactional, they also know they can be replaced in a heartbeat.
Now let's look at the producer-client relationship in an "employer of choice" model. In this relationship, insurance coverage and problem solving are just two promises among many made by the producer. Fulfilling the other promises (see the list above) moves the relationship beyond the transactional. When producers deliver on these promises, they are delivering real value; they are contributing to the success of their clients. When the value you deliver increases, so does your confidence. When your confidence increases, so does your standing in the relationship.
Although the employer of choice model may have an element of fear, I believe it's a healthy fear. If we are selling based on a promise of delivering results, we'll always have some fear about not delivering on our promises. Unlike with the "place insurance and fix problems" model, however, the ability to deliver is now within our control. In this model, fear is a positive, driving force toward enhancing client value, not a negative, suffocating force that causes us to dread every renewal meeting. We now have complete control over our standing in each client relationship.
This may sound crazy, but I believe that some agency principals are actually afraid of their producers. Good news and bad news both come from the same misguided "place insurance/fix problems" model.
In the transactional model described above, the agency adds only one element: the relationship. And that relationship is almost always tied to the producer. In many agencies, principals avoid upsetting the producer-agency relationship at all costs. As a result, these principals end up behaving as if they work for the producer.
Don't believe me? In the typical agency, who has the lowest level of accountability? Producers. No other position has fewer defined expectations or less accountability than a producer. Why? Because the agency has ceded control of the relationship to the producer.
The good news is that by redefining the business model, by becoming an agency that creates "employer of choice" clients, the principals can expand their value proposition well beyond the producer relationship. The responsibility for meeting client expectations is now spread throughout the agency, restoring a balance that makes for healthier relationships and a stronger business model. Nobody wants good producers to leave; but, if they do, a majority of what drives client value is still intact.
So let's face our fears. I'm convinced that both producers and agencies will have much greater confidence in the value they bring to the client relationship if they contribute measurably to helping each client become that "employer of choice." That is a relationship that any business owner will value.
The alternative is to quote the insurance once a year and fix the problems that arise. That's a business model whose time has passed. That's a relationship that can be replaced in a heartbeat. That's a relationship that would scare me too. Is this a fear you are capable of facing and overcoming? Absolutely, but you have to ask yourself, "How badly do I really want to?"
Originally published in Rough Notes Magazine December 2012.
Photo by Kevin B 3.
Be your own biggest fan And biggest critic. We’re all selling ourselves. More specifically, we’re selling our ability to make an impact on the business of our clients. If you don’t believe passionately in your ability to do that, and speak about it with energy, you’ll never allow anyone else to see that potential either. This is about justified confidence in the result you deliver, not artificial arrogance. Live by the idea that what was exceptional yesterday is adequate today, and will be unacceptable tomorrow.
Blind faith is a requirement. We all want immediate results. All too often, that’s not the case and we give up on a good idea prematurely. Engaging in social media is a perfect example. I’ve been active in social media and writing/publishing since I started BGN almost four years ago. However, it’s only been in the past year that I have seen tangible results. The lesson is that if you still believe an idea is a good one, stick with it. Stick with it because it is at this point where most of your competition will give up.
Study, discuss and debate. Increased knowledge equals increased success. Study and read as much as you can. Become a student of business, of human behavior, of emerging trends. While reading is a great start, finding someone with whom you can share your new ideas and have lively discussions and debates is what will open whole new worlds of how you can put your knowledge to work.
Jump in the deep end. When something is missing or needs to change in your business, find a way to get it in place. Rather than tiptoeing into the water and trying to get there incrementally, just jump right in. I’m not suggesting commitments to unrealistic ideas. They can be big ideas and big goals, but you have to have a plan and accountability to make them happen. Let everyone know your plans; committing to others that you will create/implement/deliver something is the most powerful catalyst you can find.
Love what you do. There has to be at least one significant aspect of your career/business for which you are wildly passionate. Building a successful business is hard to do under ideal circumstances. To try and do so without passion makes it is almost impossible. And, when you really believe in something, be selective about those to whom you allow access. After all, life is way too short to accept clients you don’t enjoy. However, when you find your professional passion and only allow yourself to work with people you like, it will never feel like work.
This article was originally published in the February 2013 issue of Benefits Selling Magazine.
Photo by mRio.
We all want to have great results, but how many of us are really willing to make the sacrifices that drive those results? Sure, most of us have enough occasional wins to keep us going, but what would it feel like to have those kinds of results on a consistent basis?
If you can get a result once, you can get it on a consistent basis. The key is finding the discipline to put in a consistent effort.
The greatest example of discipline and consistent effort I have ever heard or witnessed was shared with me by an agency principle a few years ago.
His top producer recently had a huge win, one of those wins worth celebrating, which is exactly what they decided to do. The whole agency shut down early one afternoon and they had a caterer come in with food and drink. This was a big win for the producer, it was a big win for the agency, and everyone was going to celebrate together.
Well, the owner was telling me that after he had mingled around for a while, it struck him that he hadn't had a chance to congratulate the producer in front of the whole team. After all, this was primarily a celebration of his results.
As the owner wandered from group to group he wasn't able to find the producer. This went on for a while and the owner was getting a little frustrated. Having looked everywhere else, he finally started down the hall toward the producer's office. As he approached, he could see the door was shut and could see light pouring out of the office from the side window. As he peeked in the window, he could see the producer on the phone. He waited until the producer hung up and then opened the door.
The owner asked what in the world the producer was doing. He (rather pointedly) reminded the producer that the office was shut down and there was a celebration going on in his honor. Why wasn't he out there with everyone else?!
The producer's response was not what the owner expected. He expressed his genuine appreciation for the celebration and explained that he had stayed at the party as long as he could. However, the celebration was scheduled during his prospecting time, the time he had blocked out to make cold calls. He explained to the owner that he knows this would be a legitimate reason to excuse himself from his commitment, but he also knew himself well enough that if he made an excuse this time, it would be that much easier to make an excuse next time.
Can you believe that?! And that, I'm sure, is exactly why he had the win in the first place. Perhaps they should have been celebrating his effort and discipline even more than his results.
Photo by Thomas Leth-Olsen.
We always talk about how we want our employees to approach their job with an "ownership mentality". It's pretty obvious why. The logic goes if they think like an owner, they will perform their job more effectively, right? Well, not so fast. It all depends on what kind of owner we are talking about.
I was having a conversation with a really good friend whose agency recently sold to a large, national broker. When I asked how it was going, I was a little taken back by his response.
It wasn't so much that I was surprised by that the fact that things are going well, but I was surprised at what it was that he described as going well. He said that he couldn't remember a time when the sales team was so engaged and motivated, and that they were now setting the tone for the whole agency.
He pointed out that the sales team was also the previous ownership team and (before the sale) had gotten to the point that they used their ownership as a "free pass" to not be accountable to anyone and, therefore, to not have to perform. However, after the sale to an organization with a real sales culture, they find themselves the most accountable of all. Which now accounts for the renewed engagement and motivation.
If you have been reading our blog for any length of time, you have heard me talk about the responsibilities that come with leadership. And shouldn't the owner(s) of any organization be right there with the highest level of leadership? And doesn't it also stand to reason that they should also be the most responsible for performing their role and driving results?
Sadly the (pre-sale) situation my friend described is all too common in small, privately held companies. There is no doubt in a publicly traded company that the leaders would be the most accountable and under the greatest amount of scrutiny. Why shouldn't it be the same in our agencies?
I think it should, but I also see why it isn't. The producer/owner is happy with his/her level of income, rationalizes that past efforts continue to drive revenue, and then stops producing.
I couldn't disagree with this position more!
They may have taken care of themselves, and they may not have Wall Street breathing down their necks, but there is an entire organization depending on their leadership, engagement, and motivation. When this doesn't exist, a whole host of problems happen:
However, when the owners/leaders are engaged and motivated there is no limit to what can happen! So, before you ask your team to "behave like an owner", be sure to evaluate what kind of ownership example is being set. If the example is one of a "servant owner" who makes himself or herself the most accountable, then I applaud the expectation. However, if the example is one of an "entitled owner", well, I would just caution you to be careful what you ask for because you will most likely get it.
Photo by magnetbox.