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Customer Service Focus

Finding a good match

"Cookie cutter" doesn't cut it

By Karen Terry, CISR

Every business talks about the importance of an excellent customer service representative (CSR). In the insurance industry this is especially true. Many articles have been written on the qualities of the CSR. Most will outline characteristics such as positive attitude, being knowledgeable, and being professional. All of these are highly sought-after attributes for any agency or company. 

But will any good CSR fit into any insurance agency? The answer is no. Why is that, you may ask? How can employers not make their final decision based on the application? Because of the structure that is unique to each operation. Each person within an office is an individual and not a cookie-cutter model. We all have different temperaments, likes and dislikes, and different methods of handling workload. 

If you look at a large insurance agency, you will easily recognize the strong personalities as well as those that are more mild mannered. The challenge for the employer is to choose a CSR who works well within that group. For example, if you have a group of highly charged individuals who are exciting and motivated, the last thing you want to do is put someone in there who is a "Negative Nelly." The more diverse they are, the more compromises must be made to keep the group on-target and running smoothly. That is where pre-interview testing was born. The thought process is to match the individual with the qualities that are needed for the job; weed out those who don't make the grade.

A larger company or agency may desire to use specialists. Each person would specialize in an area, without a lot of cross-training. Departments may handle different aspects of the business such as accounting, human resources, management, and even janitorial. In a small agency, however, that is not the case. The person who writes the checks may also be the person who distributes the mail.

Small agency needs are unique

I am a customer service agent in a small agency. I am the only employee, other than the agency owner. This works well with my personality. My main goal is to see the need and fill it. As every person working in a small environment can tell you, that "need" can change by the second. One minute you may be writing a new policy and the next you will be fixing the jammed paper in the copier. A CSR who is flexible is vitally important within this scenario. I know of one CSR who thought that it was not in her job description to do the filing. As an agent, she believed that this duty was below her—after all of her education, she would never be asked to do a file clerk's job. Her attitude did not fit in with the small agency. Filing is done by whichever person is not busy at the time. So, as you can tell, divas don't get the job done!

My boss and I work together to keep the office up and running. That means our schedules must be coordinated. If he is out of the office, I am in and vice versa. Communicating with one another is also key. We meet every morning to discuss what is on the agenda for the day. Sometimes we just don't know what is coming through the door. I depend on him to cover my back no matter what. This was especially true the day an angry client came by to see me. He was clearly irritated when he came in. I greeted him and asked him to have a seat. I knew there would be trouble when he just paced back and forth instead. He was upset about a decision that an underwriter made on his homeowners policy. The recommendations were really easy fixes, but he was not up for listening. The more I tried to explain exactly what needed to be done, the more aggressive he became. I finally told him that I didn't think I could help him and he would have to talk to my boss instead. Sometimes acknowledging that you cannot fix every situation becomes a skill. I know when to call in the big boss. 

Customer service agents in a small agency must be able to multi-task very well. They will be called upon to handle several duties at one time. There is never a day that goes by that I don't have someone in my office, someone waiting to get in and the phone ringing all at the same time. How does one handle this? You must maintain grace under pressure. 

Make sure the waiting area is clean and well supplied with reading material. It is also advisable to keep a few toys to help children pass the time. I always have pens and paper available. Engaging the child will make the parents feel more welcome. Not too long ago I was writing a new auto policy while a family waited—the mom and dad, three kids under the age of eight, and a little one who was only six months old. The oldest was reading a book. I made a paper airplane for the middle son and held the baby while the mom and dad signed all their paperwork. The ability to adapt helped to save the day.

Education is a primary focus for small agency employees. Most companies recognize that you must train all employees at the same level and not just the principal agent. For example, one day while my boss was out of the office, I had one of our biggest clients come in to write a new policy. The application was not even close to being ready. I called my boss and got the specifics and was able to finish the application and save the client valuable time and energy. This is because I was cross-trained on each program. I can finish my boss's work and he can finish mine. (The same can be said for contest prizes. We share those because one cannot do this job alone. It takes the whole team.) 

What should you look for when hiring a customer service representative for your agency? Look for someone who has the same outlook as you. Work styles should mirror each other. That person should possess the skills to be flexible and the ability to multi-task and maintain a positive attitude under pressure situations. Employers should take their time when choosing someone for this position. Sometimes the employer feels pressured to fill the slot—a body is needed to at least answer the phone. Take your time. Hire a "temp" to fill the immediate need. Interview and then interview again until you are sure that you want to make an offer to your new CSR. After all, it will take several months for even the greatest CSR to become familiar with your office and systems. You want to make sure that you don't have to go through the process again if the person doesn't work out. 

Your customer service representative will either enhance your agency or tear it apart. You as the employer must have the faith that you made the right decision to put your agency and clients in this person's hands. The CSR must also respect the decisions of the principal agent and treat your clients like they are hers. Working together to tag-team every situation will let you know you have both chosen correctly.

The author

Karen Terry, CISR, works at First City Insurance in Huntington, West Virginia. She is the state winner for the Outstanding CSR of the Year Award. For information on the award or the CISR program, go to:


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