ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

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

Who is Number One in Your Agency?

All of the gurus are professing that the customer is Number One and is the most important ingredient in your agency.

WE DISAGREE!!

We have visited thousands of agencies in the last fifteen years and can verify that the agencies who are most successful are inevitably those who have made their employees their number one concern.

Imagine an agency with ill-trained employees with low morale, little experience and either too little or too much management. Can you foresee an agency like this succeeding? Now look at your own business. Ask yourself these questions and you will determine if you have put your employees first or have relegated them as clerks and "gophers".

1. Are your customer contact employees knowledgeable?

Every employee who services customers should know all forms and policies and carriers and their products as well as how to transact an endorsement. We are not impressed by designations -- but we are impressed by the knowledge that those designations imply. Successful agencies have required continuing education for all employees with everyone working toward a designation that improves their insurance knowledge.

2. Are your employees friendly?

Yes, there are unfriendly people in the insurance business. Regardless of how qualified they are, they are unpleasant to be around for other employees and for customers. And, luckily, there are plenty of friendly, qualified people in the industry -- looking for jobs. Replace anyone who is a problem to clients and staff. You will increase customer satisfaction and in-house morale. Inertia is a terrible force, but it is the force that keeps us from getting rid of our "miserable" employees. The only way to beat it is to meet it head on.

3. Are your employees happy?

If you really want to know, don't ask them. Provide them an Employee Satisfaction Survey that is anonymous. If they are unhappy, find out why. Most of the time, money is not the primary reason -- lack of appreciation is. If you are the typical agency, you expect as much from your staff as you do from yourself. Stop it. Even if they are dedicated, long-term, career employees, they will not have the same motivation and dedication as the owners (should). Let them surprise you by their excellent efforts, don't expect them on a regular basis. Thank them. Thank them as common courtesy. Thank them when they do their job well. Thank them in public. But don't overdo it. Too much of a good thing spoils it. And undeserved gratitude degrades it for others who deserve it more. Be certain of your kudos -- then give them generously. Money isn't everything, but it sure helps. A bonus for extraordinary efforts (i.e.-bailing out a backlog) is justified. Non-monetary gifts work just as well as tokens of appreciation. Make sure that you are paying a fair wage to your employees.

4. Are your employees managed consistently and well?

Insurance agents are sometimes good salespeople. Insurance agents are notoriously poor managers. They don't mean to manage poorly, but the same strengths that make one a good salesperson, can be weaknesses in the management field. Sales requires someone who can juggle many balls at once, paying attention to whatever needs it. Good management requires consistency and focus. Otherwise the employees are confused. The agent who attends a seminar and uses the result to change the agency -- for a while -- is the perfect example. His desire is pure -- to improve the agency. But when a few weeks have passed or when the next seminar is attended, the changes made previously move to the back shelf in favor of new ones. The employees become demoralized, confused and have learned that every change is a "flash in the pan" causing additional work and changes for a little while. Here's a good policy. Study changes and talk them over with all affected employees. When you make a change commit to living with it for a full year unless your employees agree that it has become counter-productive. Apply your management style consistently, whatever it may be.

5. Do you share your goals and plans with your employees?

What's the secret? That you want to make money? Folks, I have news for you -- your employees already know that! Is the secret that you are not doing as well as you would like? I have more news for you -- most of you wear your hearts on your sleeves -- your employees already know that the agency is not doing well!! They just don't know whether that means that you have less of a profit, or you are on the verge of bankruptcy. Which is better, to have them know -- or to have them guess? I assure you that the "Bogey Man" is much scarier in the dark than in the light. The most successful agencies have a planning process that includes all employees. Everyone should know what his goals are and how they fit into the agency's Plan. The smartest agents even share their financials with the employees. You see, making money is acceptable. And if you're not making money, the employees will understand the necessary cost control measures much better if they don't think that you have imposed them to continue to make large profits.

6. Do you trust your employees?

How do you prove it? The best way of proving trust is to permit them to make their own decisions about the efforts of their jobs. Sometimes they will make mistakes. So will you. But if they are knowledgeable, experienced and customer oriented their decisions will be the right ones most of the time. Don't punish them for their mistakes, just help them correct them. This will earn you much more loyalty than either a private or public display of dissatisfaction. The term for this activity is employee empowerment. The most successful agencies have empowered their employees to perform their job duties without managers or supervisors breathing down their necks and verifying everything that is done. The empowered employees "OWNS" their jobs. They (as a group, not as an individual) control the procedures and the flow to best serve the customer. They are not told what to do -- they participate in the decisions of how to do it best.

One of the most degrading issues for competent employees is having all of their work "checked". It is not only degrading, it is expensive for the agency. If the employees' work is not satisfactory (through occasional audits) retrain or replace the employee. However, do not penalize the trustworthy employees along with the slackers. The greatest example of this is when one or a few employees abuse an agency's starting time, breaks or sick time. The last thing the agency should do is to impose new, more stringent standards on all employees for the actions of a few. Attack the problem children, not the good ones.

7. Do your employees enjoy the job?

No, insurance is not everyone's favorite subject. And, yes, the customers tend to ask the same questions, repeatedly. And, yes, the companies are not always cooperative, timely and efficient and we often have to take the "rap" for things that are out of our control. But job satisfaction breaks through those petty issues. If your employees are satisfied with their jobs they will reflect two conditions:

A) They will be confident that they are doing the best that they can for their clients and that you appreciate that fact,

B) They will be able to maintain a sense of humor (not sarcasm) about the petty incidents, comfortable that it is still only a job, that they are secure in your eyes and that they are fulfilling a true need for the security of their clients.

How do you get your employees to enjoy their jobs more? By enjoying it yourself. If they see you in highs and lows, they will tend to be less confidant (in you and in themselves). You must also never lose your temper to your employees in public. It is perfectly alright to be angry with someone, but do so in private. And after the issue is resolved, make friends again so the employee will know that they are not on the verge of being dismissed. If you permit your employees to get mad at you (also in private) without it affecting your relationship, it also boosts their confidence and their overall enjoyment of the job. Enjoyment is tied to security and confidence. Them more of each you can give your employees, the more they will enjoy their jobs.

Most businesses pay lip service to their commitment to their employees. Most businesses do not follow through on their words. That's why so many employees in the U.S. feel cheated and work at jobs that they detest until they get the chance to retire. Changing these attitudes is a long and arduous task because it involves changing your own mind-set as an owner. Too many of us grew up with the "boss/employee" attitude. When we finally became the "boss" we wanted to impose those same edicts that were imposed on(and taught to) us as we were growing up in business. But business has changed. Ownership is a burden and a privilege that needs to be earned. Leadership must be learned in place of the despotic management styles of the fifties and sixties. We must acknowledge that the results of our businesses rest with the efforts of our employees more than with our own efforts. We work for them, not them for us. Our jobs are to make their work as easy and efficient as possible. Insofar as we can do that, they will succeed and so will the agencies. When we can not make their jobs satisfying and effective, their attitudes will reflect on their work, on the customer and on your results.