How do you present yourself?
Do prospects really learn what you want them to learn about your agency?
By Len Strazewski
Google says your agency sells insurance. Facebook says you have a great softball team. LinkedIn says you went to a state university.
Is this the way you want present and prospective customers to know and understand your agency? Do these sources communicate what you really offer your clients?
Wendy Keneipp, market strategy consultant and coach at the Benefits Growth Network, says that agents and brokers may be missing valuable opportunities to take control of their image and distinctive business brand if they ignore the power of the Internet and social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.
"What does any consumer do before meeting with a new vendor or contractor? Google it to see what the Internet reveals! What comes up in a Google search—your presence or absence online is your first impression."
Agents and brokers who do not manage that first impression run the risk of letting random online information or misinformation control what prospective clients learn about them before they have a chance to meet directly and present their business value, she notes.
The result could be a negative message that runs counter to what every progressive agent and broker tries to project. "You have to manage that first impression—and every other online opportunity to present your business message," Keneipp says.
Benefits Growth Network is a St. Louis, Missouri-based consulting company that partners with independent agencies and brokerages that provide employee benefit services. The company provides sales and marketing services, individual and group coaching and agency networking.
BGNLive is the company's annual networking and coaching event, held this past June in Chicago. More than 40 agents and consulting partners attended the event, sharing and exploring new ways of presenting their extraordinary value to employee benefits buyers.
Agents and brokers worked through a program of strategic reassessment about the evolution of the employee benefits consulting model and developed personal plans for their individual agents. Participating members also shared examples of program innovation and new services for health risk assessment, wellness, enrollment and human resource services developing in the past year
BGN business partners presenting at the one-and-a-half day event included Rick Baumann, president of IC3 Corporation in Watertown, Ontario, an employee engagement survey firm; Mark Brown, partner at TowerMetrix, Inc., in Wexford, Pennsylvania., a performance management consulting company; and Don Phin, president of HR That Works, Inc., in Coronado, California, a human resources consulting and service firm.
After the event, Keneipp blogged about some of the lessons learned about brand and value communication.
"In Chicago, we talked a lot about using social media as a communication and relationship management tool. It's another way to develop and maintain relationships, and it allows you to carry that connection forward on a daily basis. With social tools, we don't have to wait for the next in-person event to rekindle that connection. We can work on it every day.
"We talked about the importance of our online presence and what it says about us—how our presence, or absence, is the new first impression that people have of us. This online presence that we project gives us such an advantage in developing relationships and then allows us to use the power of the social tools to maintain the relationships moving forward."
Online communication and brand management is one of several approaches agents and brokers should be applying to their development of a modern and progressive business model, said Kevin Trokey, BGN president, who kicked off the discussion with an exploration of challenges that benefits brokers face in the contemporary marketplace.
They include the rigidity of the traditional health insurance and group benefits market, which restricts agent and broker access and control of group benefits products and defines the ways in which most agents and brokers are paid—by commissions set by insurance companies.
"In addition," he observed, "we all face the economic uncertainty of the post recession and health care reform. We cannot be sure what impact these factors will have on our business and our future viability."
Trokey advised agents and brokers to take more aggressive control of their business model and the way it is communicated. Many leading agents have been moving progressively toward a more consultative approach, serving as a business advisor to clients, not just an insurance intermediary.
Instead of presenting a spreadsheet that reflects the results of marketing employee groups to insurance companies, more agents and brokers are developing customized employee benefits strategies that are consistent with their clients' business strategy and promote proactive tactics to control benefits risks.
Trokey told BGN agents that they need to abandon the traditional business model which was built on insurance sales, spreadsheet presentation and commission income and replace it with custom strategies built upon listening to and advising clients to adopt strategies that don't just accept cost increases but improve return on investment in employee benefits plans.
In most cases, this approach calls for agents to receive fee-based compensation reflecting the value of the services the agents provide.
"Profitability," he said, "is based on value."
However, making the new business model work requires a new approach to client communication, he says, and retraining clients to recognize their agents and brokers as advisors and business partners.
"We've trained them to think the wrong way. We have trained them to expect the spreadsheet and the quotes and to struggle with you on basic buying decisions. We've trained them to accept renewals with pessimism.
"This training will be an anchor that will drag you down."
Instead, he suggested, employee benefits agents introduce their new model to clients with analytical advising sessions that reflect a broader base of services and the new approach to employee benefits planning that integrates human resource management needs and strategies. And fee compensation.
Keneipp noted that this new message starts with a new brand that replaces negative aspects of employee benefits sales such as perennial rising prices, commodity benefits products and bidding quotations with positive images of professionalism, follow-through and problem-solving.
This requires the development of a brand message that clearly communicates your professionalism, what you want your clients to expect from you and your unique value in the marketplace, she said.
"You must be one hundred percent committed to the business model, and every aspect of communication should reflect that commitment and brand message."
She recommended that agents review their Internet presences and revise them to use the language of their brand message rather than traditional insurance sales jargon. Agency Web sites should communicate the consultative roles and value-added services rather than list benefits products.
Social media can be a powerful component for the Web presence, but only if it also reflects the brand message, Keneipp said. Individual social media, such as Facebook pages and LinkedIn profiles should be tweaked to be consistent with brand messages and reflect the modern business model.
Len Strazewski has been covering employee benefits issues for more than 30 years. He has an M.S. in Industrial Relations from Loyola University in Chicago.