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Marketing Agency of the Month

Trying everything and integrating what works

Seely & Durland succeeds by always moving forward

By Dennis H. Pillsbury

"Agencies have to be looking at the big picture and integrate all the tools if they are going to be successful in today's environment," maintains Stuart Durland, AAI, AINS, vice president of operations for Seely & Durland, Inc., Warwick, New York. That's why the agency is constantly evaluating new tools and incorporating them into its overall marketing operations when appropriate.

Stu, along with his brother Garrett, CIC, the agency's president, represents the third generation running the agency, which was founded in 1934 by their grandfather, Harry S. (Poppy) Seely. It turns out to be a perfect blend of talents as Garrett thrives on sales and Stu on operations.

The introduction of new tools has been an ongoing effort at Seely & Durland. The second generation "dad," Kenneth L. Durland Jr., who retired in 1997, automated the agency long before that was mainstream. He purchased equipment from Data General, a leader in minicomputers in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Data General missed the advance of microcomputers and soon lost market share. Seely & Durland moved on to a system called EBS, provided by Travelers Insurance, until 1990.

"Needless to say, we were in transition at that point and started evaluating agency management systems," Stu remembers. "We decided on Applied Systems and have been happy with that decision. I've been very active with ASCnet (Applied Systems Client Network), serving as president and as a member of the Industry Solutions committee. I also stay very active with industry groups like ACT (Agents Council for Technology) and AUGIE (Acord User Group Information Exchange). It is very rewarding, but also very time consuming."

And there was a lot going on at the agency, so Stu has cut back on the technology time commitment and expanded the time he spends at the agency. "I'm still involved, because automation is a critical part of our success. We use an ASP environment as a way to protect ourselves from a disaster, as well as keeping expenses down. (The bad economy opened our eyes to that need.)

"It also facilitates our efforts to be completely paperless or as close as possible," Stu continues. "Imaging is all online. Everything is shredded after a month. We're also trying to get our clients to accept the use of electronic signatures. We've been using RPost for years for registered and secure e-mail, and now utilize their e-signature solution as well. We've had some pretty good success with that effort. More carriers are willing to take electronic applications and use electronic signatures. That really has helped to improve workflows."

But automation, no matter how critical, is still just a tool that makes doing business easier if used correctly. What really leads to success is having the right people in place and finding the best way to let them use their talents.

Creating a sales environment

Stu and Garrett began working on a plan that would create a new environment in the office that made sales paramount, but still facilitated the strong service side that had resulted in a better than 92% retention ratio year after year.

Stu recalls that the agency's implementation of real time rating, billing inquiry, policy inquiry, and claims inquiry spurred the decision to move in this new direction. "These capabilities significantly improved our workflows and freed up our customer relations professionals to spend more time selling," he declares.

"It took us six months to come up with a plan before we felt ready to present it to the staff," Stu says. "We wanted to end the arbitrary salary increases and create a plan that basically paid for performance. The plan we created incentivized individuals with commissions and bonuses for cross-selling and developing new accounts. At the same time, base salaries were reduced. That was a tough sell. We sat down with our CSRs and showed them how much they would have made in the last two years under the new system. In every case, the person would have made more than he or she was making. But they still were a little tentative, so we also threw in a guarantee for the first year that we would make up the difference if they fell short. No one did!

"Individuals receive a bonus based on the number of accounts they develop in addition to getting the commission," Stu continues. "The plan also recognized that we needed to develop a mechanism to reward our claims manager, Linda R. Decker, ACSR. Linda is one of our most seasoned employees and an integral part of the team. The work she does to make certain that our clients' claims are handled fairly and quickly is vital to our business. So we instituted a bonus plan under which she gets paid for survey returns. We send out a survey to every claimant asking how the claim was handled and if they were satisfied with the outcome. The rate of return is very high and, even more important, the results are a marketing plus for us. We're very proud of the fact that 99.8% of our claimants say they would refer Seely & Durland based on their claims experience!"

More touches, more sales

"In order to help our people increase their touches with the public, we encourage involvement in the community," Stu says. "One of our key associates is president of the Warwick Community Center, and others are involved with the center as well. A number of our people work with the Lions Club. And we've provided everyone with credit cards so they can take referral sources to breakfast or lunch. We feel that's very important.

"Our senior client relations professional, Tammy L. Artusa, AIS, AINS, ACSR, AAI, really enjoys getting out in front of people," Stu remarks. "She conducts regular defensive driving classes and is asked periodically to present at the Warwick High School and other local organizations. Garrett's also spoken at the high school. It's a great forum for us. The parents are there and see us providing a service to the community and helping make their children better and safer drivers. I don't think there can be a better way to begin a relationship."

A long history of community involvement

Involvement in the business community has been a hallmark of Seely & Durland almost from day one. "Poppy Seely was one of the local businessmen who formed the Warwick Valley Chamber of Commerce in 1939 and served as its first president through 1948," Garrett notes, adding, "I guess term limits were not a factor in those days!"

"Our dad also was Chamber president starting in 1994 for two years. And in 1998, I became active with the Chamber. In 1999, I became a director and have also been involved as treasurer, vice president and president (twice) in 2003 - 2004 and again for the past two years—from 2009 to the present."

Garrett continues: "Being involved in the local community has been one of the most effective and rewarding experiences for myself and Seely & Durland, and we encourage our entire staff to get involved. Creating relationships and building trust remains the most effective way an independent agency can build its business with long-term, trusted clients."

Electronic tools are being tested

"Needless to say, our biggest competitors are the direct, online and 1-800 writers," Stu comments. "We're always fighting the branding battle. Every one of the major direct writers has an office in town. So we have to combat that not just with the tremendous efforts of our staff, but through the online tools that so many Gen Y's are using to shop for almost everything, including insurance.

"Our Web site is up to date and interactive. Five of our major carriers can be quoted online. We're also on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Our fan base on Facebook is over 400 and growing. You have to be out there and try to mix it up with the direct writers if you expect to compete, particularly for the Gen Y personal lines business. Eventually, some of them are going to be business leaders. We need to capture that business and grow the relationship," Stu asserts.

"Of course, you can't just push this out there in a vacuum. We check to see how many hits we're getting to determine what's working and what isn't. We're set up for Google AdWords and Facebook ads. And we're talking with our marketing firm about a mobile app we can push out to our clients. We're constantly searching for ways that will distinguish us from the competition," Stu comments. "It's a moving target. You need to change and refresh constantly, starting with the Web site and moving on from there."

The agency also does a lot of old-fashioned marketing to clients. "We're really good about pushing our survey out to clients 60 days before renewal," Stu says. "The survey helps us identify any changes in the client's circumstances that might require additional coverage. We also do postcard mailings every month to clients and prospects. New York Central Mutual helps us with a different postcard every month.

"Travelers also does a really nice job of marketing. In fact, it was Travelers that introduced us to Skip Daigle. He worked with us on our personal lines marketing and showed us just how profitable that business can be," Stu continues, noting that, sadly, Skip passed away in April of last year.

"We have revenue close to $1.5 million with nine employees. The mix of business is about 53% commercial, 43% personal, and 4% life and health. But I really want to see that 43% personal segment increase," Stu declares. "We've found that personal lines customers are steady and consistent. The market is less susceptible to the kind of softness we've seen on the commercial side. And it's not as painful when you lose one account. 

"I've recently joined the board of directors of the Personal Lines Growth Alliance," Stu says. "Our goal is to help other independent agents grow their personal lines business profitably. The direct writers control about 64% of that business, but I'm convinced that's just because we aren't trying hard enough. Whenever we lose an account to one of the direct writers, many of them come back after a year or two. It only takes that long for them to understand the value of having an independent agent who is working for them as their local insurance professional and advocate, providing choice, flexibility and true local service."

Stu notes that Seely and Durland also formed an alliance with three other agencies in the Hudson Valley back in 2002 to discuss marketing and to educate and help each other when they face unfamiliar risks. Called DCS Risk Management Group, the alliance has grown to six agencies covering nine locations. "It gives us another source for help in all areas of our business. We're not close enough that we compete for business, so it's been a valuable resource for all of us," Stu comments.

Garrett, who is president of DCS, says the member agencies "enjoy significant growth in the Hudson Valley because we share in our successes, including all of the members implementing some type of incentive-based employee compensation. It's been a winning relationship in so many ways. We have such a healthy respect for our DCS colleagues!"

Stu concludes: "We've had steady growth and have been very healthy, profitability wise, even during this extended soft market. And I think we're in an excellent position to continue to grow. Our staff is lean and quick to accept change, and I believe that will be key moving forward. Every year, changes come faster and faster and the ways to reach the public grow and diverge. We're ready for those changes, but we also understand that is only part of the battle. We then need to establish long-term relationships because that is truly the way to succeed in the independent agency business."

Rough Notes magazine is very pleased to recognize Seely & Durland, Inc., as our Marketing Agency of the Month. The agency exemplifies the spirit of the independent agency system and truly shows why it remains the premier marketing arm for the insurance industry.


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