The People vs the Process – How Successful Agencies Work

Ah, the life of a commercial insurance agent. For a job that many people don’t even know exists, there are an awful lot of opinions about what we actually do.

Of course, we’re not just middlemen, or David to Goliath insurance companies. Our fundamental job is to find clients and help them to understand and manage their risk effectively. That sounds easy, but it’s actually a million things: networking and developing client relationships, gathering exposure information and apps, preparing submissions, identifying and negotiating with different carriers and markets, comparing quotes, creating proposals, getting the bind order, managing and tracking information in agency management systems, checking policies, issuing certificates, handling claims… and then doing it all again for the renewal next year!

 

How can we handle those tasks effectively and efficiently, so we can take care of clients profitably?

The short answer is you can’t do it alone! It takes a crack team of professionals to protect a client. While every agency is different, there are roles you see often, each with their own turf, priorities, and personalities.

 

Producers

Producers focus on sales and client relationships above all. They are the charismatic ‘people-people’ of the agency who generate new business and keep clients happy by meeting client expectations. Because they are the face of the agency and their commission dollars are at stake, producers are usually the ones held ultimately responsible for the account.

 

Account Managers (AMs)

Account managers do the actual work of making the insurance policies and other services a reality for the client. This may include assembling submissions, negotiating with carriers, comparing quotes, creating proposals, handling claims, and tracking everything in an agency management system (AMS). They may or may not interact directly with the client, but rest assured they know everything about them. They are the details people who just want to get it done and do it right.

 

Marketing Department

Some agencies have a person or team focused only on which insurance carriers write which types of business, tracking contingent commissions goals, and who have the volume of business to fuel personal relationships with individual underwriters. Marketing people rarely talk to clients, and their passion is the deal itself: once the placement is bound they move on to the next one.

 

Account Executive (AEs)

Account executives are the fixers within an agency, for the non-routine. They may act as a renewal producer for complex risks; or could be in-house specialists for tricky lines like E&O, D&O or Cyber. Convoluted premium allocations, manuscript coverage forms, claims history analysis or coverage audits all tend to land on their desks. AEs love learning and love the hard stuff, but if they get bored, you’ll lose them.

 

Office Head/Sales Manager

The office head holds everybody together so the big picture – a successful agency – doesn’t get overlooked in the details. They keep the everyone focused and accountable, manage conflicts, encourage best practices and establish processes to maximize the productivity and revenue from the office. Oh, and usually they are also producers with their own large books of business that they need to manage, so there’s that responsibility too!

 

These roles are nearly universal because they arise naturally from our fundamental role of identifying and serving clients: the extrovert producers lead the way by making friends and connections for the agency. AMs keep the producers’ promises by making sure the details are handled properly. They are in turn supplemented by AEs or marketing specialists who work their magic and take the complex odd tasks off the shoulders of the AMs. Elegant and simple.

I always feel bad for the Office Head though, because that’s a whole lot of people that have to work together efficiently if the agency is to be successful. They may also be accountable to investors or upper management aren’t fully aware of how complex “placing insurance” is. Facing those expectations, it’s tempting to create an elaborate ‘workflow’ for how the agency can handle business systematically. It looks so deliciously good and efficient on paper… until you actually try to implement it!

 

 

Ugh! Basic expectations between roles is good, but the reason clients need insurance agents is because commercial insurance is not systematic – it requires judgment and experience, strategy and customization. The flowchart approach only works if you can replace agents with a computer. People outside our industry may think that’s exactly what needs to happen, but we know that commercial P&C agents have never been more relevant and commercial lines have never been less of a commodity.

Businesses are becoming more unique and less standardized, with more subtle risk and complex business models than ever before. We have realtors that fly drones; hospitals that sell excess solar panel energy into the power grid; or grocery stores with restaurants inside them. Even small risks have more varied exposures than we ever saw in the past. Agents keep clients safe from an existential crisis, and clients depend on their custom-fit expertise and experience that no app or direct online rater can ever provide.

 

 

OK, so a fancy process won’t work. But how can we control the chaos and take care of our clients efficiently, effectively and profitably?

Everyone must respect each other!

This is the critical change for most dysfunctional agencies. Naturally each role is concerned only with their own responsibilities. The AMs worry most about documentation and following agency processes. They feel like they get stuck doing the ‘real work’ and may resent it when producers are out of the office at meetings or networking, which sounds like it’s just great fun. They can be upset if they feel that producers push work onto them.

Meanwhile, producers are keenly aware that everybody’s income depends on the clients they develop relationships with. They can get frustrated when they think a process should be done faster; with ‘red tape’ delays or when an AM is blunt with a client. And nothing angers a producer more than when the Marketing department prioritizes another account over their own or is favoring the carrier.

An Office Head should do their utmost to remind everyone that they are all working together to serve the client and follow best practices, like good documentation. Specifically, they should

  • Remind AMs and AEs that getting clients is hard, exhausting work and that clients are the source of everybody’s livelihood, even if they can be unreasonable at times.
  • Remind Producers to MANAGE client expectations, not just pass them along. AMs and Marketing can’t work miracles, and they expect Producers to stand up for them. Producers should never ever ask AMs or AEs to present bad news to the client.
  • Remind Marketing that they need to negotiate with and manage the carriers, not just pass along questions and pricing. They need to stand up against underwriters on behalf of the agency and clients, and to negotiate hard on every deal.
  • Remind everyone that they are working together, and to ask for help if they need it! It’s amazing how many skills are spread across an agency, but it may not always be the person you expect.

 

Make each task in a process simpler, while maintaining flexibility

It’s impossible to set up a process to handle every client that comes along, but many of the specific tasks happen over and over again. Anything you can do to speed up or simplify each task will make everybody faster, happier and more efficient, as long as you take special care to still keep it flexible enough to not over-complicate the overall process.

Setting up a new Agent Management or IT system, or implementing a service center, are examples of changes that seem to simplify tasks, but can actually make tasks more complicated because now they must be implemented in a specific way. A classic example is all the time producers spend resentfully laboring in a CRM system when 80% of revenue comes from senior producers that ignore it. Especially for more established teams, you don’t want to fix what isn’t broken. It’s all too easy for an ‘improvement’ to become just another task to be completed.

Other ways to simplify tasks, while still being flexible include:

  • Set up email templates for things like requesting information on certificate holders, sending a renewal proposal, or updating clients on claims. Email templates are easy to modify right in Outlook or Gmail, but hard to come up with from scratch.
  • Set up an Excel template for premium allocations, with pre-filled formulas and places to drop in the premium for each line of coverage. It is easy to delete columns you don’t need, but hard to figure out all the math for each new client.
  • Keep checklists for each type of coverage, not only with things to check but with keywords to search for when carriers send you a quote. That way when you’re comparing retro dates between a Chubb quote and a Travelers one you can just do Ctrl+F and do a quick word search, rather than having to read the whole quote.

 

Another great example of simplifying a task is using Modern Submissions for your commercial P&C apps. Modern Submissions is an online platform for insurance agents that totally eliminates the time spent on gathering exposure data and getting applications from prospects or clients. An agent simply signs up with their email address and is assigned a link that they can send to any client whenever they would normally ask for applications or exposure surveys. The client is presented with a familiar, non-intimidating online interface branded with the agent’s name and logo that asks the relevant exposure questions. It automatically self-adjusts based on the client’s answers and produces all the appropriate acords, signed supplemental applications and signed loss run request letter, which are then emailed directly to the agent, ready for intelligent review with the client, or be sent directly to an underwriter.

Making your agency a well-oiled machine can be frustrating, but remember that successful agencies are people first: people that understand insurance and understand their clients. By giving them the culture to work together and the tools they need to minimize busywork you allow them to use their time effectively and focus on truly providing value to your clients. That’s the way to make your agency successful!

 

 

Image credits:

Cave Explorer: https://www.willflyforfood.net/2015/02/08/the-sumaguing-cave-survival-guide-sagada-mountain-province/

Herding Cats: Electronic Data Systems

Teacher: https://www.freepik.com/free-photo/smiling-teacher-with-blackboard-background_856636.htm  Created by Pressfoto – Freepik.com

About Michael Bruns

Michael Bruns is CEO of Modern Submissions, and a 10-year successful P&C producer. He is passionate about the critical role that agents and brokers play in protecting businesses. Modern Submissions is a technology platform serving retail insurance agents and brokers. We make the process of gathering and maintaining exposure information from clients as simple as sending a link. The agent receives back an email with completed acord and supplemental applications. By sidestepping the frustrating dance of paper questionnaires, emailed followup questions and pestering phone calls traditionally needed to get exposure info, our service allows agents to focus on their true value-added services of identifying, addressing and managing client risk and to handle more clients efficiently.

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