Marketing Agency of the Month
Doing more with less
Automation creates big presence for small Tennessee agency
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
When Chester Butler started his agency, The Butler Company, Inc., in 1983 in Brentwood, Tennessee, he naturally focused on what he knew best—and that was bonds and commercial insurance. He came into the agency business with 10 years of experience in bonding, but he also entered at a time when things were in flux.
"I came from a bond background where we wrote things on the back of a napkin and then wrote the coverage based on that," Chester remembers. "Our word was our bond," he adds, with the pun fully intended. "The first time a company asked me to file an ACORD form, I said sure and then went to find out what that was."
As the agency grew and expanded into other areas, including personal lines and health insurance, Chester saw the need to add more people. And he quickly went from an agency that still thought of itself as doing business on the back of a napkin to one where automation would allow him to provide better service to his customers. In fact, since his goal was to help his customers save time, money and aggravation when they purchased insurance and other related products and services, it became imperative that he enter the electronic age in order to reach and serve his customers as quickly and efficiently as possible.
"In the early '90s, I was at a National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA) meeting in Boston where they talked about the Internet," Chester says. "One of the agents at the meeting was a neighbor and friendly competitor. He helped me set up our first Web site.
"That was all well and good," he continues, "but it became clear to me that the Internet could be a much more valuable tool for marketing and selling insurance, basically replacing direct mail. It would cut down on mailing costs, and that was important, especially for small bonds like those written for notary publics, where profits were dependent on writing a large number of accounts. The premium for those was around $25, so it was essential that we wrote those quickly and without involving too much of our time. And, because we wrote a lot of small policies, time was becoming a very valuable commodity."
Finding a company partner
"I was convinced that we could write bonds online," Chester continues, "but that was just the beginning. I had to find a company that would work with me. I went to a number of the bonding companies and found that they were not convinced it would work. Finally, I sat down with a colleague at Western Surety and he gave me a less than enthusiastic response: 'Let's see if it will work.' That was all the encouragement I needed. We set up a Web site, www.bondyourself.com, and the business started to come in. And, most important, it saved us an enormous amount of time. We actually sat down with a stopwatch to determine how long it took to write a notary public bond and found that we could do it profitably. And, at the time, we were ahead of the curve. No one else was using the Internet to write this business, so we pretty much had it all to ourselves, since no agent wanted to handle it manually."
But there was much more to be done. As the agency expanded into other lines of business, using the Internet as a marketing tool became an important goal. When Chester's son Brad joined the agency in 2000, the task became both more important and more difficult.
"I came to Chester and told him I was tired of the company thing," Brad remembers. Brad was with CNA and ultimately ran an 80-person processing team in the long-term care division. "I helped develop programs for other companies. The CNA training was excellent, and I really appreciated my time in Orlando for the month-long training." And that was especially true since he met Stefanie, the person who was to become his wife, in Orlando.
But Brad wanted to be somewhere where his efforts directly affected his earnings and Chester decided to give him a chance.
"They found a desk for me out in the hallway and I started my agency career," Brad adds with a chuckle.
"I started out selling to pest control companies. It was a niche Chester suggested. And, thanks to the relationships I had developed, I suddenly found myself in front of my first elephant—a big account. Much to my surprise," Brad continues, "I found that the big account wasn't any more difficult than the small account. They wanted the same things—a knowledgeable risk advisor who could help the company mitigate and transfer their risks. I landed that account and, at the same time, realized that here was an opportunity for us to reach potential customers over the Internet. If the big accounts wanted the same thing as the small accounts, then there must be some way to communicate to them in a meaningful way via automation."
Oh, and by the way, Brad got out of the hallway and into his own office and was promoted to vice president. And since that time has become the 2011 PIA Tennessee Agent of the Year, 2012 PIA National Agent of the Year, and a Tennessee Legislature Honoree. Brad is quick to point out, "What makes the awards special to me is that they are not for selling the most insurance or having the lowest price. It is that the recognition comes from my peers and even my competition.
Finding a way
While the overall goal of large and small companies was the same when it involved insurance—finding an effective risk advisor—the complexities of the risks did tend to increase, requiring a variety of risk mitigation and risk transfer techniques. Now that The Butler Company was fully committed to the Internet as its primary way to reach customers and potential clients, the question was how to find a way to "present solutions to complex problems in an understandable and readable way," Brad says.
"What we came to realize," Brad continues, "is that there really was not an effective way to do that without losing most of our audience. So we instead focused on one aspect of a particular risk and educated the client or prospect on that narrow area. And, as we continued to provide additional blogs on different aspects of risk, we began to develop a following of individuals and businesses that recognized us as experts."
Chester picks up: "Brad really got a baptism by fire as he tried different methods of providing information on the Internet. We quickly found out that it is not something that you can sub out to someone else. The culture of the agency has to come through, and the only way to accomplish that is by doing it yourself.
"I'm not saying that it isn't possible for an agency to dabble with an Internet presence," Chester continues. "They can, and there may be some benefits. But if you really want to use it as a marketing tool that brings your message to clients and prospects, then you have to be a big part of it. People can differentiate between a PR message and the genuine article. That's why I write our blogs. The readers can tell that it comes from me and appreciate that it truly represents what our agency can and will do if they decide to use us for their risk transfer needs."
Building on success
The success of the online bonding program led the agency to look into other areas where premiums were relatively small, but where there was a real need for coverage. Chester talked to the PIA of Tennessee and found out that many of the rural agents "didn't offer umbrella coverage because the auto and homeowners policies were with different carriers. This seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to offer a product to other agents via the Internet."
The agency hooked up with RLI to offer standalone umbrellas. "We're the market of last resort," Chester notes. "Agents go to our Web site, www.buyumbrella.com, and can purchase umbrellas for their clients regardless of who the underlying carrier is. This is an important protection that isn't readily available anywhere else."
Brad adds: "We've been helped by the environment, particularly in Florida. Most of our business comes from the Southeast, although we have moved across the river to Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma."
Chester concludes: "We're trying to stay ahead of the curve, but it moves very rapidly. We're on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and so on, as well as having a regular blog. Brad oversees our Internet presence and I do most of the writing. Things are changing daily and we are constantly working to keep pace." The formula seems to be working for them, as they are currently the 2012 PIA Social Media Agency of the Year.
"Our emphasis is on education. Both Brad and I have CIC and CPIA designations and I serve as a facilitator and instructor for PIA of Tennessee. In addition I serve as Vice President of Education for the American Insurance Marketing Society (AIMS). But that's only a small part of it. We exceed the state continuing education requirements by about threefold. Both the Internet and the insurance worlds are constantly changing and we need to stay on top of things so we can communicate our expertise to our clients. We want to have the smartest, most informed clients. And to do that, we need to be well informed. That's our competitive advantage, but we'll only keep it if we push ourselves to stay one or two steps ahead of the curve."
Today, The Butler Company is highly automated, allowing them to do more with less. As Chester can demonstrate, "We can take an ACORD application in the field with an iPad and send it back to the office before we leave the client's office. If they want to use a credit card, a simple swipe on the iPhone is all that is needed. We want to make a complex product with complex processes simpler for our customers, our companies, and ourselves. Currently the agency has more than $5.1 million in sales handled by five people and an effective automation system. It has moved its headquarters to Nashville.
In addition to the above-mentioned niches, it also has carved out a specialty in the movie business, serving as one of the leading insurance providers for movies being made in the Tennessee area.
Rough Notes is proud to recognize The Butler Company as our Marketing Agency of the Month for its drive to always be ahead of the competition, so it can provide the best service to its customer base.