ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

Excellent Service is More than a State of Mind

When asked, "What is your greatest strength?", 90% of insurance agents will claim "Excellent Service" as the answer. Yet if all of the agents who claim excellent service actually provided excellent service, there would be many fewer losses of accounts with reasons like, 'went elsewhere', 'lost to price', and, the old stand-by, 'non-pay - no reason'.

Do 90% of the agents you know provide service you would term excellent? Why do they think or believe that they do?

1. They are fooling themselves. Ego forces them to believe that the service that their agencies provide is, by definition, excellent. They have never been exposed to excellent service so they don't recognize the difference between excellence and their current practices. They see the occasional spark of service in their staff and equate that instance to the norm.

2. They are fooling others. These agents know that their agencies service levels fail to meet neither their nor their customers' expectations. But they don't know how to change it or they don't feel that the human or financial cost of the change justifies the results.

3. They are cynics. They have a low expectation of their customers and their employees, so they feel that the service provided is "adequate"! And, for the most part, it is exactly that - adequate. But since 'adequate' doesn't sell, they term the service levels 'excellent' assuming that no one will be able to tell the difference. The owners hide behind excuses like the following to avoid confronting their inability to provide excellent service.

A. "My employees can't/won't do better."

B. "My customers don't care about service, no matter what they say. They just want the lowest price."

C. "The more service we provide, the more the customer will expect."

D. "We can't provide better service when most of the mistakes come from the companies."

These are some of the common excuses we hear. But how accurate are they?

A. We've never met an employee who didn't wan to be the best and take pride in their performance (yes, I mean your employees, too!). The conduit for the initiative and pride is the feeling of being appreciated. Fair compensation is, of course, important, but many employees hide their true feelings behind the demand for more money. It's like a child crying when no one is paying attention. It sounds like they have been hurt, but the cry is for attention. The true hurt is unjustified criticism and lack of appreciation and praise.

We have been in many agencies in which the owners beam with pride over their wonderful employees. They frequently praise them publicly to anyone who will listen and privately to the employees, themselves. No, they are not afraid that praise will cause the employee to ask for more money. They are honest in their praise (it's easy to tell the difference between true praise and patronization) and don't confuse the employees with mixed messages of appreciation on some occasions and deprecation on others. Of course, the employees make mistakes (as do the owners), but the owners know that the employees try their best every day. Criticism is always private while praise is public. When criticism is justified, it usually takes the form of disappointment that the employee didn't live up to his potential.

The employees were not necessarily paid more than the same employees in other agencies (who feel unappreciated and underpaid). But the satisfaction level is much higher ( in both directions) and the turnover rate is miniscule. The performance of your employees depends on long term and consistent appreciation and praise. This is a paradigm shift in the owners, not a change originating in employees. IT IS A STATE OF MIND.

B. If price really was the customers only priority they would all

* buy the lowest priced car that gave 'adequate' performance,

* buy generic foods (primarily the same as the name brands but packaged differently)

* shift billions of dollars of premium to the lowest rated insurance companies every year through automated systems (like term life comparison raters).

Yet higher priced cars have consistent flows of buyers, the brand names continue to outsell generics and even companies with rates in the upper 50% retain customers and get new ones each year. The facts don't substantiate the common impression. BUYING DECISIONS ARE A STATE OF MIND.

C. This statement is true. Once you start surprising the customers with excellent service, they will raise the bar and expect more. Eventually, what was excellent will become adequate, forcing you to further enhance your service. But isn't continuous improvement one of the habits you would like to build into your organization? And where will that put customers' and prospects' perceptions of your brand compared to the 'generics' represented by your competitors?

D. Until and unless the carriers pursue quality excellence in their operations, a part of your job will continue to be checking and correcting them. This should be generally transparent to the customer and is described as a part of the reason they hae an agent as opposed to dealing directly with a copany who has a history of inaccuracy.

We don't assume that all agents who feel that their organizations provide great service are delusional. But the feeling that your agency provides great service is just that - a feeling - unless you have a gauge against which to measure yourself. We commonly us a bathroom scale to measure our progress (or relapse) in the 'battle of the bulge'. Where is our scale to measure our grade of service?

Some agents have started measuring complaints. While this is the negative side of customer satisfaction, they feel that the fewer complaints, the better the service. This is simply not true. The lack of complaints could simply mean that the customers have accepted the agency's mediocrity as the norm. If they find a reason to leave, they will. Otherwise, they will stay. Mediocre is defined as average. Just as no one would like to be identified as mediocre, I trust you would not like to be termed as an 'average' agency.

Instead of living with mediocrity, take your search for excellence to your customers. After all, they are the ones who determine how good you are, not you! That sounds like a strange statement. But, in fact, its not how good you are that counts, its how good you are perceived to be by your customers that makes or breaks your reputation. So it makes perfect sense to let your customers set the standards by which you should measure yourself.

ASK THE CUSTOMER!!! - Ask them very specific questions about very specific service issues. Use their answers to help you set the standards that you must BEAT in order to qualify for the "Excellent" title that you would like to use for your agency. For instance, don't ask them generic questions like, "How can we serve you better?" They have no idea. But if you ask them how long it should take to call back with an answer to a question and give them the following choices; one hour, four hours, one day, three days, or five days, you will get a good idea of what is expected to provide the customers' version of good service.

Personal surveys are a better tool than mail surveys. A personal survey involves calling the client and asking for five minutes of time to help their insurance agent, XYZ Agency, enhance their service to their customers. Telephone surveys are better than surveys conducted in person because, while you can still obtain clarification of either questions or answers, the impersonal telephone call is less threatening than asking the same questions in person. Quality oriented personal surveys are better done individually than in focus groups because focus groups actually tend to lose, rather than enhance, focus. One or two participants usually end up monopolizing the conversation and influencing others to express the same feelings. Unless facilitated very carefully, a focus group could end up a complaint session. Both personal surveys and mail surveys are better done by an objective third party than by the agency and must be done with guaranteed anonymity. The third party proves that the agency is serious enough about their opinion to pay someone to collect it and that the customer need not fear identification or embarrassment by criticizing an individual with whom they have a working relationship.

If you survey your clients to identify your current service levels and how it compares to their expectations, publicize the results. If you are identified as an excellent agency, say so, loudly and frequently, so everyone knows that your reputation is well earned. If you have not met your customers expectations yet, publicize the service goals desired by your customers and how you intend to achieve those standards (including time frames). Then follow up with occasional updates to remind yourself, your employees and your clients of what your goals are, why and what progress you have made to date. Nothing changes unless the customers' perception changes.

Excellent service must be proven to yourself and to your customers every day. Don't live with excuses for not being excellent or with being "as good as" the other agents. If you think you provide excellent service but you can't describe how or why, your service levels are probably not up to the standards that you have set. We do urge our clients to market themselves as excellent servicers. But we do so only under the condition that they are, in fact, excellent in the eyes of the customer because its not how you feel about yourself that puts bread on the table, its how your customers view you. That state of mind must be supported by truly excellent service. That's why service excellence is more than a state of mind, it is the reality of identifying your service levels and the customers' definitions of excellent service and melding the two by actually changing what you do.