A local computer store – a branch of a large company – roundly earned a reputation for poor customer service. With their service-oriented – mission statement on the wall behind them their sales people disregarded customers, their cashiers were rude and their service department seemed to think of reasons why they couldn’t help you rather than if and how they could. The problem with the store was a management problem and lack of leadership. When the general manager was summarily dismissed and replaced with a service oriented manager, he, in turn, replaced many of the employees. However most of the employees stayed and changed their attitude because of the positive, customer oriented attitude of management. I got to know the manager because I was interested enough in the turn around to introduce myself and find out how this experiment was proceeding.
On December 30th my staff and I attended a training seminar at that store for a piece of software that we had purchased. At the end of the seminar we told the trainer how impressed we were with his training abilities and we look forward to many more training sessions with him. He then informed us that the store would close on January 1st and all of the employees (including the manager) were being laid off.
The owners of the company had lost faith in the ability for this branch to perform up to their standards. While talking about “quality improvement”, “positive mental attitude”, and a “commitment to the future”, ownership proved that quality was not what motivated them. I asked myself the question, “why would they go to the trouble of terminating and replacing a manager and a substantial percentage of their staff if they were going to close anyway?” when I posed this question to the departing manager, he indicated that they were just trying to maximize their holiday sales before closing the store. He as well as the other employees felt betrayed. All of the appropriate steps had been taken to improve performance in the long term but this company was apparently only interested in short term financial results.
Why would we use this kind of example in an article designed for insurance agents?
We have long been a strong proponent of the quality movement in the insurance industry. The Agency Consulting Group is a charter member of the Quality Insurance Congress. We bring the messages of quality management, continuous improvement and empowerment to every client with whom we consult and we have seen some positive trends. However, too many quality programs in insurance agencies become procedural issues rather than people issues. The owners understand that a motivated empowered group of employees will perform, better, more productively and more profitably than their current staff. As a result, the readily adopt the procedural changes in the quality movement hoping to institute the positive traits of pro-activity, goal setting, prioritization, empathetic listening, win win relationships and synergistic problem solving. Yes, their willing to implement the procedures of the quality movement but many owners are not willing to adopt the mental changes necessary to fully support that quality movement. Leadership always starts at the top. Unfortunately it sometimes stops their as well. Insurance agents who own their own businesses are by design, by nature, or by accident the leaders of their groups of employees. If the leader does not create the vision and implement the changes of the quality movement within himself (or herself) first, it is doomed to failure. Just like our local computer store, all the right steps could have been taken but failure result none the less because the goals given to the employee groups are not the real goals of the owners. In our example (and in many insurance agencies) the real goals are financial not customer service. These owners are willing to accommodate any change that will improve service as long as it concurrently increases profits (or, at least doesn’t cost more money). We don’t have to worry about the majority of insurance agencies in the United States. As customers grow ever more sophisticated and continue to shop for the best value for their insurance dollar, the insurance agencies who are basically policy peddlers at the lowest cost available at the moment will drop by the waste side. Insurance customers are already learning to expect more for the commission dollar that they pay an independent agent than price alone. Those insurance agents who are alert enough to understand that the “old way” of doing business will not be the way to do business in the 21st century must commit to change personally before they can change their organizations. Don’t spend your money on the quality movement-spend your time. Attend seminars, read voraciously and talk to others who have pursued the goals of continuous improvement in order to sell yourself on the idea that you must change your own style and mental attitude before you can change those of your employees. Otherwise, you will find yourself starting and stopping improvement programs without properly supporting them or giving them enough time to succeed.