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Winning Strategies

Are you learning or leaning?

Learn more; earn more

By Roger Sitkins

As an agency, are you one that's filled with learners or one whose agents are leaning on the past? It's not that difficult to distinguish one from the other.

A Learning Agency always wants to get better and continuously reaches for the next level. The staff understands that no matter where you are as a company or as an individual, you'll continue to improve if you're committed to learning. Is your agency filled with learners?

A Leaning Agency is one filled with agents and others who are leaning on the past and waiting for the Good Old Days to return. You know you're a leaning agency if most of your conversations start with, "Remember when…?" This strongly suggests that you're living in the past and passively waiting for things to happen.

Each year Inc. magazine lists the top 100 small businesses in America (fewer than 500 employees), based primarily on their rate of growth. Several years ago the study showed that the fastest-growing and most profitable companies spent, on average, 6% of their revenues on the training and development of their people. That's a significant number.

That same year, the IIABA Best Practices Study showed that the average independent agency spent approximately 0.25% (that's 1/4 of 1%!!) of their revenues on employee training and development, most of it for continuing education and/or recertification requirements. So, not onlywere they spending very little money on training and development, they were spending because they had to, not necessarily because they wanted to get better.

This reminds me of the concept of Working In vs. Working On your agency, which Michael Gerber wrote about in The E-Myth and The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to do About It. Within our Sitkins International Membership, we've consistently found that the agencies that are growing the most rapidly and profitably are those whose leadership is constantly working ON their business.

Working ON it is not just the time spent on planning and long-term strategic and tactical issues, but about the constant improvement, development and training of all agency team members. It's similar to the best professional athletes in team sports. Typically, professional teams will have trainers, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, game and practice analysts, along with whoever or whatever it takes to get better. But some players take it a step further. I remember reading about how NFL great Bill Romanowski personally spent $150,000 a year on personal trainers, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc. Even though the team provided its players with so much, he was committed to being better than anyone else by going above and beyond.

The same is true in individual sports. When it comes to golf, for example, the best ones have an entourage that often includes sports psychologists, trainers, caddies, swing coaches, putting coaches and club fitters, to name a few. Here at my vacation home at Reynolds Plantation in Georgia, there's a TaylorMade® facility known as The TaylorMade® Kingdom. Whenever I go there for a lesson or to practice, I always see company-sponsored touring professionals come in for club fittings. The fittings and subsequent videotaped analyses ensure that the loft or angle of each club is perfect for that particular player. Because TaylorMade wants its sponsored pros to win, it is committed to making them better.

Like manufacturers, agencies "sponsor" people to get results for them when they hire agents. In either industry, the difference between the professionals and the amateurs has less to do with talent than with ongoing training and relentless efforts to improve. What sort of training and development has your agency committed to the areas listed below?

• Sales. What are you doing to improve the sales results and skills of your agents?

• Sales Management. What are you doing to be a better leader? What percent of your producers have actually exceeded their sales goals in the last three years?

• Presentation Skills. These are among the most needed yet least developed skills in our industry. When we bring agents to our training facilities and practice via closed-circuit TV, we're often amazed by their poor presentation skills. Incredibly, the salespeople who struggle the most never realize how bad they are. They blame not getting an account on external factors—things beyond their control. In reality, they simply weren't prepared.

• Questioning Skills. It's critically important to be able to ask open-ended questions and actively listen to the prospect's answers to get more information. Journalists call them "leading" questions. As a producer, you're leading them down a path to say "yes" to what you can provide.

• Sales Process. What sort of training and development are you doing around a sales process? Typically, when I ask about an agency's selling process, there isn't one (other than the old Look, Copy, Quote and Pray method). Walking in, giving a quote and hoping that yours is the best price is not a selling process, it's a quoting process!

I challenge you to ask your sales staff this question: "What is our unique selling process that differentiates us from other agents and agencies?" If your sales staff can't answer that, you don't have one. I'm amazed at the number of agencies (small, medium and large) that don't. So if you don't have a process, what are you training your producers to do? To give quotes and hope you have the lowest price?

• Prospect Pipeline Development. What's the ongoing focus and training to fill up your pipeline? I know I've asked this 100 times, but what are you doing as an agency to learn more about the prospects in your market area and to go after them?

One of our members that does a consistently good job of pipeline development inexplicably hit a lull recently. As an organization, they responded by going back to the basics. First, they defined their ideal client and then identified their 40 best prospects. Next, they decided which producer(s) would be responsible for getting in front of the prospect and telling their unique story. Within a month, they'd already gotten in front of 32 of their 40 prospects and 26 of them were moving forward to the next step in the process. Why? Because they took one day for a pipeline retreat and got serious about prospecting.

• Management & Supervisory Training. This is a very serious aspect of ongoing training and education because it involves a myriad of issues involving agencies, initiatives and behaviors. In addition to understanding guidelines imposed by the EEOC and ADA, it is imperative that agencies, large and small, have explicit policies regarding sexual harassment, employment practices and other workplace issues that can create huge liability issues.

• Business Planning & Strategy Development. Most agencies have a business plan that is vague at best. They describe the desired end result, but not the means to achieve it (because no one knows). "To sell a lot of insurance and grow by 10%" is a nice goal, but not a long-term, strategic plan.

• Supervisory Skills. You have people who supervise personal lines and commercial lines service, claims, accounting and other functions of an agency. What sort of training have they received in terms of how to be a supervisor, how to read other people or how to communicate? At most agencies, selecting a supervisor is often reduced to simply appointing the best CSR. But really all that changes is the employee's title. Without training, that CSR is likely to lack the supervisory skills required to do the job properly.

• Automation Usage. Technology can dramatically improve efficiency and productivity. Just because you have an expensive system doesn't mean that everyone can utilize and maximize it.

Did you know that payroll productivity of the average professional services firm is only about 63%? In other words, for every $1 million of payroll, the average firm is getting only about $630,000 of productivity. The top three reasons for such poor productivity: (1) employees are not actively engaged in their work (2) inefficiencies, lack of ongoing training and (3) the absence of a performance review system.

While it's essentially impossible to get 100% productivity (from human beings), what if you could take payroll productivity from 63% to 80%? A learning organization will do what it takes to get there; a leaning organization will make excuses for not trying.

The bottom line

Ask yourself, "On the whole, what has my agency learned this year?" I know you've earned,but what have you learned? If you didn't earn enough, maybe it's because you didn't learn enough!

Are you actively trying to improve or are you doing what you've always done? You're either getting better or getting worse—you're not staying the same. Remember, you can only coast in one direction and that's what leaning agencies do!

What does your agency need to learn in the next 12 months? More important, what does it need to learn before the competition does? The days when competitors were lazy and still made good money are long gone. Therefore, if you want to earn more, you've got to learn more. It's your choice.

The author

Roger Sitkins is founder and chairman of Sitkins International, a private client group and membership program for some of the top Independent Insurance agencies and brokerages in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Members participate in training, advising and networking opportunities focused around innovation, sales, growth, profitability and value. Sitkins International is inventing the future of the independent insurance system by providing intellectual property that empowers agents and brokers to become the innovators.


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