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May the Sales Force be with you

Washington agency's "Call Wars" blitz fills prospect
pipelines and builds team spirit

By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU

Look to see where "cold calling" appears on any producer's to-do list, and you'll likely find it somewhere in the vicinity of "call IRS" or "schedule root canal." Most producers put off this dreaded ordeal until their prospect pipelines are almost empty, and even then they pick up the phone with all the enthusiasm of someone walking to the guillotine.

Any way you slice it, cold calling is not funóor is it?

At The Unity Group, an independent agency in Bellingham, Washington, cold calling has been transformed from a hated chore to an eagerly awaited contest to see who can make the most calls and set the most appointments. Spearheaded by sales and marketing manager Kari Glennon, the agency's monthly "Call Wars" cold calling blitz uses a Star Wars theme to build team spirit and fill producers' pipelines in a lively, fun atmosphere. Since it was launched in the fall of 2009, Call Wars has generated $360,790 in new business revenue and enjoys enthusiastic support from The Unity Group's carriers, which often sponsor prizes and celebratory happy hours.

The Unity Group traces its roots back to 1929 and over the years has grown through a series of strategic acquisitions. Unity offers commercial and personal insurance as well as employee benefits and has expertise in a variety of risk management disciplines. Under the agency's internal perpetuation policy, when senior owners retire, talented sales professionals and managers are given the opportunity to become shareholders early in their careers.

Rising to the challenge

Glennon joined The Unity Group in 2009, bringing with her a strong background in sales, marketing, and product development in manufacturing as well as insurance. She was ideally suited to tackle the challenge of motivating producers to make cold calls, and to foster a spirit of friendly competition within the agency's 14-member sales force.

"As head of sales and marketing,I have to come up with ways to drive new revenue and retain existing clients, as well as support our perpetuation plan by recruiting new producers," Glennon explains. "I'm always looking for creative marketing ideas. I heard about the Call Wars approach from a rep at one of our benefits carriers, who told me about an agency in Ohio that had used the idea successfully. With that agency's permission, the rep shared details of the concept with me. I loved it, so I took it and ran with it," Glennon says.

"I truly doubt that any producers jump out of bed in the morning because they're so excited about the idea of cold calling," Glennon says with a laugh. "In our agency, we have a producer with a $1.5 million book who never picks up the phone because he gets all of his business through referrals. Another producer has a $750,000 book and is in the same situation of not needing to make cold calls. Of course, everybody wants to be those guys. But when producers are just beginning to build their books of business, they may not have many referral sources. I need to help them develop those sources."

The launch

Adapting the ideas shared by the Ohio agency, Glennon created a PowerPoint presentation to introduce Call Wars to The Unity Group's producers. "It started with an image of the Death Star, and it said, 'In a town not too far from here, a competition will soon take place. Our brave band of brothers will try to steal business from the Dark Side,' and so on," Glennon says. "We used images of Darth Vader, Han Solo, and other Star Wars characters, labeled with the names of our producers. We also used a couple of Star Wars videos from JibJab, and gave everyone a Star Wars toy, like Yoda and Chewbacca bobble heads, light sabers, and action figures, to take back to their desks and look at while they made their calls."

To add spice to the competition, Glennon reached out to two agencies in other parts of Washington with which Unity doesn't compete and invited them to join the Call Wars blitz. "I presented our PowerPoint to them and challenged them to a contest with us," she says. "I explained that we would all do this on the same day, and at the end of the day we would have a conference call and report our results. Then we would all go out in our respective areas and have happy hours to celebrate. No matter who wins, this is a great way for everybody to get appointments."

The first Call Wars blitz took place in the fall of 2009. Producers spent half a day calling prospects for new commercial lines and employee benefits business and, Glennon says, "They really enjoyed it." (A personal lines producer recently joined the agency and is also participating in Call Wars.)

Initially Glennon had intended to do a half-day Call Wars session every other month, but that plan soon changed. "After our third Call Wars in six months, the producers asked me if we could do it every month," she says. "I was thrilled, because nobody enjoys cold callingóbut when you wrap a fun theme around it and do it for a set period of time, it works. You know that while you're in your office making calls, all the other producers are doing the same thing, and at the end of the day you're all going to report your results to the group," Glennon comments.

Since the fall 2009 launch of Call Wars, Glennon says, The Unity Group's producers have made 1,683 calls and set 202 appointments; and, as noted earlier, their efforts have brought in new business revenue of $360,790.

"One of our producers just closed a $70,000 account, and it was a Call Wars call," Glennon says. "The prospect was unhappy with his current broker and was receptive to learning about our approach to managing his strategic and business risk. All our producer had to do was make the call!"

Success keys

Star Wars toys and happy hours motivate producers and take the sting out of cold calling, but Glennon attributes the success of Call Wars in large part to the built-in elements of commitment and accountability.

Top-down commitment to Call Wars is vital, she says. "Each time we do a blitz, our CEO, our president, and I all have call lists, and we all participate. Our CEO and president came up through the ranks via sales, so they both have substantial books of business. They make calls to clients and prospects, while I make calls to offer our agency's consulting services," Glennon says. "I also call clients who have left us and ask them for the opportunity to earn their business back."

Glennon continues: "I also asked our senior producers to be involved, and they are, whether they're sitting with a rookie and coaching him or her during calls, or are actually making calls themselves. Maybe it's time for a senior producer to reach out to people in his COIN (Center of Influence Network) and set appointments with them to obtain more referrals." The senior producers, Glennon says, are involved in every phase of Call Wars. "They participate in our pre-calling event, calling event, and after-calling event. Their commitment is absolutely critical to the success of the program," she says.

Before each Call Wars blitz, producers take part in a pre-event session, Glennon says. "Everybody brings their prospect lists, and we talk around the table to find out if anybody is cross selling. We don't want someone from the P&C side and someone from the employee benefits side calling the same prospect. Then we go around the table and have Low-Risk Practice as recommended by Sitkins International, so each producer can practice what he or she will say when the prospect picks up the phone. Everybody does this twice, and then we give each other feedback," Glennon says. "This is a great way for newer and younger producers to prepare for cold calling and get feedback from colleagues in a friendly spirit."

Keeping Call Wars fresh and exciting month after month requires a good deal of effort, Glennon remarks. "Understandably, enthusiasm can wane. It's my job to be the cheerleader. I have to show up excited every month. I have to wave my light saber and show off my Chewbacca bobble head, and I have to come up with new incentives and rewards. I really go all out to make Call Wars a fun event every time."

Another way to keep the monthly Call Wars blitz fresh and lively, Glennon says, is to hold it at different times of day. "One month we'll do it early in the morning, and then we go out to lunch and celebrate. The next month we'll do it in the afternoon and go out for happy hour.

Eyes on the prize

The true rewards of a cold calling initiative are appointments and new business, but prizes keep spirits high and inspire friendly competition.

"We started by giving out three prizes," Glennon says: "one for most calls made, one for most messages left, and the grand prize for most new business appointments. After talking with Roger Sitkins and Larry Linne at Sitkins International, I decided to move away from giving rewards for the activity and instead to focus on results, with one big prize for the most new business appointments.

"The prize can be a wine basket, a Visa gift card, a restaurant gift certificate, a leather portfolio with a nice pen," Glennon says. "I try to mix it up."

Since the launch of Call Wars, it has enjoyed growing support from The Unity Group's carriers, Glennon says. "Soon after joining the agency in 2009, I started meeting with carriers and telling them about our marketing plan and sales goals for the year and getting their input on how they could participate in helping us reach our goals. I've mentioned Call Wars to every carrier, and there has been a lot of interest.

"This past spring, one of our carriers sponsored Call Wars," Glennon says. "We put up a banner with the carrier's name, and the reps brought reusable shopping bags filled with goodies that our producers could take back to their desks during Call Wars. They also provided the prizes and sponsored the happy hour at the end of the session."

A funny thing happened after that month's Call Wars, Glennon says. "I forgot to take down the banner with the name of the sponsoring carrier, and the next day some reps from another carrier came in for a meeting. They saw the banner with the other carrier's name, and they said, 'We want to sponsor Call Wars, and we want to be known as the 'fun guys,'" she says with a chuckle.

Carrier support for Call Wars, Glennon explains, now goes beyond sponsoring prizes and happy hours. "The reps sometimes go into producers' offices and listen to the calls. Often the rep will actually provide lead lists for the next Call Wars.

"Other than the revenue we put on the books, the biggest win is how Call Wars has changed our culture," Glennon declares. "Even on non-Call Wars days, producers are making calls. Cold calling has become second nature, and the people on our team don't hesitate to connect when they see an opportunity."

When cold calling stops being dreaded drudgery and becomes an eagerly anticipated event, you know you're doing something right. Each month at The Unity Group, the light sabers flash to announce the launch of Call Wars and producers pick up their phones.

May the Sales Force be with you!


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