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Productive production

Vertafore's Pipeline Manager enables agencies to run professional sales organizations

By Nancy Doucette

What's in your producers' opportunity pipeline? That shouldn't be a "gotcha" question but for too many agencies, unfortunately, it is. According to Paul Areida, vice president of California Markets at Vertafore, and developer of Vertafore Pipeline Manager, agency owners and sales managers typically don't have any visibility into the prospecting efforts of their producers.

It's not that the producers are intentionally keeping this information to themselves, Areida notes. "A lot of producers don't have access to the agency's management system, which means they're left to their own devices when it comes to keeping track of prospects." He says some use contact management programs like ACT! or GoldMine, some use Excel (where lists of prospects typically aren't updated) or Outlook—and any combination of these approaches could be used in the same agency! "It's not pretty at all," he quips.

Additionally, "Agencies often fail to implement big sales force automation programs—like—because they require too much time to set up; they're too difficult to train on and use," he adds.

A former agency owner and producer himself, Areida knows first-hand that "good sales people don't make any money if they're sitting around the office, playing with a CRM system all day." So when he and his team set out to develop Pipeline Manager, he wanted to build something that was easy to use, easy to implement, and easy to learn for producers as well as agency owners or sales managers.

"According to our research, producers need to spend about 60% of their time selling in order to be successful," observes Mark Craig, vice president of product management at Vertafore. "We're focused on anything we can do to make that happen."

Monitoring more than producers

Matt Fox, president/CEO of Bullen Insurance Group, headquartered in New Hyde Park, Long Island, New York, recalls that he had become frustrated in his efforts to implement a pipeline management system due in part to Bullen's unique business model. "We're a boutique insurance brokerage and risk management firm that creates customized insurance programs to meet the specialized needs of high net worth individuals and their businesses."

Bullen uses what Fox describes as an "alliance network" to get referrals. "Our alliance network consists of service professionals—CPAs, attorneys, real estate brokers—who are trusted advisors for the clients with whom we're looking to develop relationships," he explains. "We wanted to track by referral source so we could give credit where credit was due or follow up with those individuals on a regular basis to try to cultivate new opportunities."

Sales meetings were also on Fox's mind when he was researching pipeline management options. "We have 10 producers in our various Long Island locations as well as in Florida, California, and Wyoming," he points out. "We wanted to have a view into each sales person's production efforts, especially because producers kept track of their production activities on their own version of an Excel spreadsheet," he says. "We'd be on the phone for our weekly sales meeting and we'd be talking about the opportunities from last week. We couldn't keep track outside that timeframe."

With the agency being an AMS360 user, Fox contacted Vertafore for some help in his quest for a suitable pipeline management tool. He was introduced to Pipeline Manager.

Today, he says, Pipeline Manager is "the backbone of our sales management process. It's the centerpiece of our sales meetings. We 'meet' Monday mornings at 10:00 EST. Our chief operating officer, the producers, and I are on the phone together, looking at a WebEx session of my view of Pipeline Manager, which is a consolidated view. We're able to see the opportunities the producers have been working on, and new opportunities that have come in since our last meeting. It provides us complete transparency into the individual sales person's pipeline, how long the opportunities have been in the pipeline, and the size of the opportunities."

Fox says that, initially, some of the sales people were reluctant to have their colleagues looking at their pipeline. "Once we started doing it, we discovered that two or three other sales people might know a prospect that another producer is working on. Collaboration increased dramatically as producers helped each other land opportunities. We're experiencing a higher close ratio as a result."

That said, there's definitely more competition. "Using the Performance Quintile, producers can see how they stack up compared to the rest of the sales team. They can see where they stand in terms of year-to-date or month-to-date production."

Fox says he and the rest of the producers appreciate that there's a minimal amount of information to enter into Pipeline Manager in order to use the system effectively. And with the agency's dispersed sales team, having a Web-based solution is essential. It also means that the sales team can use their iPads or smartphones to access Pipeline Manager from the field.

He adds that Bullen has hired two new producers within the last six months. Both are in their mid-30s and entered the insurance business from other industries. "The new sales people coming into this industry expect to have a pipeline management system in place," Fox asserts. "They don't look at it and say: 'Wow! This is great!' They expect to have one. If we didn't have it, it would be conspicuously absent."

S.O.S.—Save our salespeople

Sophia Stukas, FCIP, CRM, CRIS, vice president of operations and strategic projects for Turlock, California-based Winton-Ireland, Strom & Green Insurance Agency, says keeping tabs on the prospecting activities for the agency's 30 producers—who are spread out among the five Central Valley locations—was no easy undertaking. "Everyone's prospect list looked different," she recalls. "Some were in Excel, some were handwritten.

"From a management perspective, forecasting and budgeting were a real challenge because we couldn't get an accurate view of what was in our producers' pipelines," she says. "There was no easy way of telling if the producer was working on a particular prospect," she says. Prospects might languish while the producer cultivated other opportunities. What information the agency was able to extract from this "system" provided only a backward look.

So Stukas was asked to find a pipeline solution. She says she spent about six months participating in Webinars, sales presentations, and demos to get a feel for the CRM products available.

The right product would have to meet the needs of the agency's diverse sales force as well as management, she remembers. "We have some tenured producers—they don't need a lot of sales management tools—most of their business comes by referral. We have another group of producers who have established books but who are still out looking for new business. And we have a crop of fairly new producers who are actively seeking business," she explains. There are six production teams, set up according to the type of business on which the team concentrates.

"These folks were using a lot of different ways to manage their leads and their time. So from a planning perspective they needed something that was consistent on their end, easy to use, and integratable with Outlook so they could do an activity and be able to send it to their Outlook calendar.

"Managers and team captains needed a system that provided a better view of the activities around certain prospects. We didn't want to have to run reports out of our TAM system to see what was going on with production. We wanted to be able to get a quick look at how long an opportunity had been in the pipeline. If it's been in there too long, the team captain can ask the producer about it and, if necessary, reassign it to another producer," Stukas says.

Once she had narrowed the field to two companies, she arranged to have three producers do 30-day test drives of the systems. Pipeline Manager was the clear winner.

Team captains are now able to view the production activities of their team members. Stukas says Pipeline Manager has proven to be a great coaching tool. "Team captains can easily take a look at a producer's Opportunity Management Funnel and say: 'If your goal is X, you're not on pace. You have to step up your activities.'"

Additionally, she says, Pipeline Manager helps team captains make sure producers' prospecting efforts are playing to their strengths, thus assuring they're making the best use of their time. "We try to keep our producers in their comfort zone," Stukas explains. "So if they're comfortable with nonprofits and school boards and suddenly they decide to work on a trucking account, the team captain will have a conversation with the producer to find out why they're pursuing that lead."

KISS principle

As noted earlier, Paul Areida's Pipeline Manager development goal was "to keep it simple and straightforward." He says, "This program is dedicated to new business only. However, current clients are considered prospects in the context of account rounding activities. Pipeline Manager is designed to automate the sales department in an agency."

In terms of account rounding, Areida continues, an agency could run a report from its management system to identify all the accounts where the agency writes the package, but not the workers comp. Pipeline Manager can import a list from a spreadsheet to create leads. "You can then call your clients and say: 'I noticed we don't write your workers comp,'" he explains.

For producers, there are only three screens to work with: how to prospect, enter an opportunity, and follow up on an opportunity. "We've kept it simple," he reiterates.

There are safeguards built in to prevent different producers from entering the same prospect. Areida says producers can't enter a new opportunity unless they first search the database. The database can find a prospect based on its name or the name of the contact. Suppose the Pizza Garden is owned by Mike Chiofaro. All the producer would have to do is begin keying in either name and if it is in the database, it will appear.

Areida says Pipeline Manager works on all mobile devices, which makes it possible for producers to make the most of their time—whether they arrive at an appointment 30 minutes early or are stuck in traffic. "You can take a look at your Opportunity Management Funnel, click on the Qualified section, and up pops your 10 highest qualified opportunities," he explains. "You can make prospecting calls no matter where you are. Without a product like this, producers spend half their time trying to figure out who to call."

Once a prospect gets to the quote stage, evidence of Pipeline Manager's insurance underpinnings becomes clear, Areida says. "All the carrier names are already in the system. You don't have to go to a set-up screen and input carrier names. Every line of business is built in as well—personal, commercial, life, benefits—it's all there."

Areida says Pipeline Manager can assist agency owners or sales managers in working with a producer to help that sales person understand gaps in his or her funnel, or any peaks or valleys in production activity. "An agency's goal should be to eliminate the production peaks and valleys. The sales manager can look at the funnel and point out that the producer is not spending enough time prospecting every day. Without a product like Pipeline Manager, these conversations typically don't happen," he observes.

"Everything we built into this program maximizes the producer's time," Areida says. "We want producers to spend as little time as possible in this program, while still giving the agency the maximum visibility into the pipeline."

For more information:

Vertafore, Inc.

Pipeline Manager

Web site:


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