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.
My daughter Emily is (was) a high school senior this year, and I just attended her graduation and an orchestra banquet over the weekend, and a lacrosse banquet a couple nights earlier.
As a parent, you attend these events and sit and watch with pride at what they have accomplished and amazement at how fast the time has gone. You can't help but marvel at how wise and insightful these young people are yet, at the same time, think about how many lessons and experiences await them.
One of the student speakers at the graduation commented on how we tend to mark our lives by the "firsts" and by the "lasts", not stopping to always appreciate or remembering all the things that happen in between.
When you think about it, that's where life is lived, "in the middle". However, maybe because they seem more exciting, we make our plans for firsts and lasts, not the middles: our bucket lists of what I will do, our resolutions of what I will stop doing. And, probably for the same reason of it seeming more significant, we tend to give advice based on those same firsts and lasts: "you will be more successful if you start doing this" or "you will be more successful if you stop doing that". But, what about advice for the things that happen in the middle?
How often do we think to ourselves, "if I only knew then what I know now"? Most of what you know isn't about a "first" or a "last", it's about the knowledge gained from the experience in between. It is the things that happen in the middle that truly shape us and make us who we are.
So, would you do me a favor? Would you share one little nugget of your "in between" advice to be passed on to the class of 2013? I'll go first.
To Emily and the rest of the class of 2013, my advice is to push your boundaries of comfort and allow yourself to fail. The adults in your life (parents included) have probably done you a great disservice by not allowing (or even encouraging) you to fail. Pushing comfort boundaries and embracing failure is what will make life richer and more interesting. This isn't just about tackling new firsts at which you may fail, but more of not taking the safe route once you start something new. Regrets in life are inevitable, but you will almost regret the things you don't do far more than the things you did.
And, if you haven't had a chance to attend a banquet or graduation lately, I will assure you that our future rests in very good hands.
Now, back to that favor. What advice will you offer?
You aren't alone. Or, at least you don't have to be.
I have traveled more over the last couple of weeks than I ever have at one time in my life. I have traveled to four cities to attend and present at four different conferences. While the travel itself can be tiring, I have finished more energized than ever before. And that energy is coming from the adrenaline flowing from being around such amazing people.
For all of the doom and gloom that surrounds our industry right now, I attended four similar, yet very different, conferences where I witnessed very positive outlooks. As different as the purposes of conferences may have been, the similarities among the attendees were the quality, professionalism, and commitment to success I found in the people I met.
The first conference was a bit of "coming home" party for me. It was the benefits discussion group of Intersure Partners (an association of independent agencies) meeting in Chicago. This is a group of agencies right in the bull's-eye of the industry turmoil: independent (multi-line) agencies who are struggling with their future role in the industry. Most are trying to figure out how to compete more effectively with the "big boys".
The second was a group of Canadian brokerages (that doesn't mean financial services, that's just their term for agencies). This is another discussion group of a consulting practice called iC3/Broker Performance Group, which also met in Chicago. This group of brokerages get together for financial analysis and to share and identify overall best practices.
The third conference took place in Scottsdale and was the "specialist" meeting for yet another network of agencies. However, the members of this particular network are more closely aligned, sharing a formal affiliation. The overriding concern I heard while talking to the attendees was to figure out what the future of their affiliation will look like moving forward.
The final conference brought me to San Diego and the Benefits Selling Expo, by far the largest and most diverse conference of the four. With some one thousand attendees representing everyone from mom and pop agencies to the national brokers; voluntary providers to core benefits; lead generators to technology providers, well, you get the idea. Here, the primary concern was the obvious, Healthcare Reform.
With the diversity of the audiences, you might think that I had to be prepared to deliver four entirely different messages in order to deliver value, right? Well I actually didn't. While I did tailor my message to each audience, 99% of the message was the same for each. And you know what? I received the same overwhelmingly positive response from each.
I don't say that as a pat on the back for myself at all. Rather, I point this out because, as an industry, we share similar, foundational challenges. And, with similar challenges, there are similar answers, answers that can become bigger and achieved faster when we are open to ideas from others.
So what was the core of my message?
The message is a kind of an in-your-face, wake-up-to-reality message. Rather than telling me I'm wrong or full of crap, every one of the groups embraced the message and seemed empowered to go take control of their future.
So, while I have always been optimistic for the future of our industry (at least for those of us willing to make the necessary changes), I have finished my mini-tour with a more positive outlook than ever before.
However, I wouldn't be so optimistic for those of you sitting there alone trying to figure out the answers for yourself. I just experienced four different conferences, each that clearly demonstrated the power of networking.
It is a challenging time for our industry. You can either retreat and try to figure it for yourself, or you can embrace your role as a part of the larger industry. If you aren't putting yourself in situations to learn from your peers, you can expect to be crushed by those who do.
Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt.
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.
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.