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.
No, not that kind of voyeurism! And, yes, you can consider the title a little bait and switch, but we wanted to get you to read our post. Sorry about that, but we’re happy you’re here. So, here’s the switch:
We’re at a loss and can’t seem to figure the answer out on our own. So, instead of guessing, we have decided to just go direct to the source of our confusion and ask for help.
Our first blog post went up on July 13th, 2010. We have been posting consistently ever since, usually twice a week.
First, we wanted a platform to share our thoughts and ideas around managing an agency and a book of business – what we’re overtly passionate about. Thoughts and ideas that we feel may benefit, or at least stimulate thought in, others.
The other purpose was to create a platform that would drive a dialogue between our readers and us, and even between the readers themselves. We believe that any good idea can become exceptional when debated, challenged, and questioned by others. In fact, we believe that’s perhaps the only way an idea can become exceptional.
Here’s our dilemma. While we get good traffic and are extremely appreciative of the positive feedback we receive (tweets, e-mails, personal feedback), we are still trying to figure out how to generate that dialogue here on the site. However good, or bad, our ideas may be, knowing who our readers are – like you - we know the ideas can all become better, maybe even exceptional, with your participation. We are committed to building a blog, or better yet – a community - where readers receive the benefit of countless perspectives on a subject, not just ours.
How can we get you to become a blog participant and not merely a blog voyeur? We certainly don’t expect you to comment on every blog, and we actually hope that you don’t just comment on those with which you happen to agree. Tell us when you think we’re wrong, misguided, or just out in left field.
Really, we just want to help facilitate a conversation amongst the community that gathers here a couple of times a week and are looking to you for some guidance as to how we can get that started.
Is it something we’re doing? Or not doing?
Or are you a little comment shy? Feel a little intimidated about committing yourself? If so, this is a great place to test the waters. We want to hear what you have to say, and we won’t bite – promise!
So there you go, help us out and give us your thoughts. Please!!!!!
Photo by Colin Kinner.
We have had the great pleasure of spending a total of five full days recently with one of our new member agencies doing both strategic planning and sales training. I point out the two activities because the sessions gave us focused time with the leadership team and then with the sales team respectively, giving us different perspectives.
What is very apparent is the strong culture that exists in this agency. It is an organization where there is a great deal of respect. Everyone genuinely appreciates the contributions of others in the organization. They take what they do very seriously, but have fun doing it. As good as they are at what they do, they all want to get even better. The leadership has made the necessary investments and the sales team is very appreciative of what has been provided and have avoided an entitlement mentality.
Beyond the obvious upside of such a culture, I was struck by how much margin for error the leadership team has working for them.
When there is a high level of respect, nobody wants to let anyone else down. They become determined to perform at their highest level. You can ask for more and the team will ask “how much more?”
When there is a high level of trust, people don’t waste time asking “Why?” They know decisions are made for the right reasons. The reality is that the trust largely comes because the “why” is always made obvious. With this, leadership isn’t forced to look for the “safe” answer. The margin for error allows them to look for the “best” answer.
When you are having fun, you are always willing to do that little extra that makes the difference. It is that little extra that will almost always mitigate the perceived risks of trying something new.
When people appreciate what is provided for them, they take the responsibility to make sure it is protected. New investments are easy to make when you know they are appreciated and will be used effectively to generate a return.
When you have margin for error, you can just flat out take bigger chances. Bigger chances deliver bigger results. Bigger results benefit everyone. When everyone benefits, the culture gets stronger. When the culture gets stronger, the margin for error increases. When the margin for error increases…
Photo by Terry Johnston.
You’ve all heard the story of the twin boys with such extreme personalities (one a complete pessimist and the other a complete optimist) that their mom took them to a psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist first wanted to visit with the pessimist and took him into a room filled wall to wall with new toys. Immediately, the little boy burst into tears. When the psychiatrist asked why, he explained,
“Oh, I just know that if I played with them they would all break.”
More than a little disappointed with the reaction, the psychiatrist turned his attention to the optimist. Instead of a room full of toys, he was taken to a room full of horse crap. The boy squealed with delight, climbed to the top of the heap and immediately started digging. When the psychiatrist asked him why, he exclaimed,
“Are you kidding me?! With this much crap in here, there has to be a pony somewhere!”
Producers and agencies go out and get new toys all the time - the next solution or value-added service that they think will make their job easy, and them happy. Then they get their new toys home and seem afraid to take them out of the box and play with them.
“Oh, I don’t really know how to play with it yet. Something might go wrong, so I can’t take it out of the box.” The thought of reading the directions never seems to cross their mind and they turn their attention back to their old toy box. It doesn’t make any sense!
And then I see other producers who walk into the room full of crap called healthcare reform and squeal like the little boy digging for his pony. They understand that when that much crap is dropped on the marketplace there are opportunities in there somewhere. And you know what? I promise you that they will be the ones to find them, even if they have to create them.
Don’t tell me “I can’t”, “It won’t work in my market.”, “People here only buy relationships.”, “blah, blah, blah”. Because that, my friends, truly is a bunch of crap!
"Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat. Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. Opportunities multiply as they are seized." – Sun Tzu
Sun Tzu was a military strategist famous for his military treatise, The Art of War. While I hesitate to compare the attack we are facing as an industry to military action, and in no way want to demean the efforts of the brave men and women who fight for our freedom, there is no doubt that we can learn from his teachings.
We are an industry under attack. Of course, it’s not the first attack we’ve faced. We’ve faced the threat of “Hillary Care,” Elliott Spitzer, direct writers and the Internet – to name a few. As different as the earlier attacks may seem on the surface, the way we responded as an industry was almost identical to each. That response was actually a non-response; we sat back, did a little hand wringing, changed very little about how we work and hoped that it would pass without a fatal blow. Largely, that strategy worked.
However, it won’t work that way this time around. This attack is different: it’s real, it’s sustainable and will produce casualties. To say the least, it has put our industry into crisis mode. And when a crisis hits any industry, competition becomes fierce. Survival is no longer the result of a passive act. As is one of the fundamental laws of survival, you have two options: fight or flight.
Some are going to abandon the very industry that has provided such amazing opportunities and, I will argue, whose greatest opportunities still lie ahead. They are convinced that government exchanges, reduced commissions and employers’ decisions to stop offering benefits has made this an apocalyptic moment. That’s unfortunate for them, but I guess if all you see is yourself as a victim of events beyond your control, flight is the only viable option.
Actually, the fact that there will be a fair amount of flight is part of what helps produce so many opportunities for those who remain, for those who choose to stay and fight. For those of you willing to fight for your future, there is one additional question: How are you going to do battle? Are you going to wage a tactical war or a war of strategy?
Unfortunately, this seems to be the battle cry of too many producers and agencies. They see their current business model threatened and just start swinging wildly. Below are some of the swings I see producers/agencies taking:
Buying books of business – This is akin to the manufacturer who says, “I know I lose money on every widget, but I’ll make up for it in volume.” If your current model is being threatened, just making it bigger isn’t the answer.
Moving into P&C – Those who take this tactic are making themselves more of a generalist and prone to further attack by the specialists. Specialists will always generate more value than a generalist. If you agree that your future has you getting paid for the value you create rather than the product you place, becoming more of a generalist takes you in the wrong direction.
Doing more for less – In an attempt to be more attractive, they start throwing more “free stuff” into their offering, further reducing their profit margin. If what you offer has any value, shouldn’t you get paid for it?
Even when you are swinging wildly you may connect with a few punches, maybe even win a battle. However, swinging wildly quickly becomes exhausting and soon makes you even more vulnerable. Until you create a solid foundation in your area of core focus, going in new directions is only going to create greater instability. Some of these tactics may be part of a long term solution, but only once the core is solid and they are determined to fit into a larger, overall strategy.
When the “fight” instinct kicks in, it’s difficult to subdue the urge to start swinging wildly and to, instead, take time to size up the opponent (in this case the threat to the survival of your business model). Planning a long-term strategy, while feeling like it initially slows you down, is the only way to create a solid foundation, ensure your long-term survival and provide an ability to take advantage of the coming opportunities. Ultimately, it is the only way you can have any endurance along with your speed.
Having a plan means you have clarity in three key areas: current situation, vision and business needs.
Current situation – Describe your current business model. This may be difficult, but you have to be brutally honest. Actually, the difficult part will likely be seeing just how vulnerable to an attack you really are.
Vision – Now, answer those same questions again, but this time in terms of your future vision. I’m not talking about a mission statement-type vision, I’m talking about what your model needs to look like in the future. Take yourself out three years and picture that your model has grown to be exactly what you want and need. What does it look like, ideally?
Business needs – Once you have a true understanding of where you are and can clearly see where you are going, its time to determine how to connect those two points. Be sure you address the following:
Next, for each business need:
Yes, we are an industry under attack. A passive response will be a concession of defeat. It’s time to choose: fight or flight. For those who choose to go to battle, you must choose a battle plan. Swinging wildly may be instinctive, but you will connect with precious few of those shots and can never ensure your ability to connect a second time. However, if you slow down for a moment, create the appropriate strategy and a disciplined plan of attack, you will look back at this “attack” as the time your business/career was liberated. You just have to ask yourself, “How badly do I want it?”
Photo by Kyle VanHorn.