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The Innovative Workplace

Hiring your way to a great agency

Consider the agency's online presence and provocative job interview tactics

By Don Phin

I often write about how insurance agencies can do a better job of offering HR services as part of their "value-added." In this article, however, I will turn inward and talk about how agencies can do a better job of managing their own people.

Not only have I worked with hundreds of agency partners through the years, I've also worked within agencies for seven years to better understand their operations. In preparation for writing this article, I conducted a quick survey of many of our HR That Works agencies about their internal HR practices. My thanks to all who participated.

Pressing concerns

One question I asked was, "What is your greatest HR concern right now?" The concern voiced most frequently was finding qualified, reliable recruits for starting level positions. Because this was by far the number one issue, I will focus on it here. And, for good reason. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, says hiring is the most important skill needed to build great companies. In my experience, most agencies will take the very conservative approach to hiring, wanting more than anything to get it over with so they can go back to doing their jobs. Big mistake!

Here are some suggestions for filling the three most common positions in an agency:


• Look for someone already past the fear of selling but looking for a better sales opportunity. Typical sales positions involve the selling of payroll services, mortgages, office supplies, and those who work at sales aimed at targeted customers. For example, someone used to selling to contractors, doctors, or architects can now sell insurance to these people.

• Many agencies are reluctant to hire away from competitor agencies, in large part because they don't want to inherit poor sales practices or a lawsuit. Take a tip from law firms—go after producers with three years of experience. Let them know what you can do to help them advance in their career.

• Hire from within—someone who has already exhibited himself or herself as a hard worker and wants to move up the ranks at your agency. Just don't turn a great account manager into a poor producer! Treat them as you would a new recruit in terms of testing, interviewing, etc.

• When it comes to advertising for these positions, try to get a little outrageous. Consider using a lot of video. Videos that talk about the specific job opportunity and videos that talk about your agency in general. Your videos should resonate not only with job applicants, but also with existing customers.

• Position the job as something difficult to obtain. This is Psychology 101. Just ask the folks who run fraternities and sororities. Let prospects know that it's difficult to get accepted at your brokerage and that there will be a series of tests, interviews and evaluations that only the best will be able to pass. While you're certainly anxious to fill a job position, you want to weed out those looking for the easy buck or "any job."

• Last, emphasize training and sales support for these brokers.

Account managers

• Here's the first thing to understand—this is what I call a split-personality position. Half the day an account manager (CSR) spends his or her time on the phone communicating with prospects or clients and the other half of the day managing data. If you look at personality profiles, communication skills and data management skills are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. I would first consider shifting the work of existing account managers along the lines of their personality profiles. For example, if someone is great with phone skills, then let them do that for 80% of the day. If someone else would rather manage data, then let them do that at least 80% of the day and you'll watch the productivity of both these employees take off.

• Then, make sure you have your existing account managers delegate any low-value work so you can hire an entry level employee. For example, if you have three account managers, how much $10-$15 per hour work can you take away from each one of them? When you do that, you not only hire an entry-level employee to pick up their grunt work, you force the existing account managers to step up their game. Maybe the answer here is to work with a vendor like ReSource Pro and outsource that grunt work!


• Whether it's the CFO or the receptionist, it is important to remember that the primary job at hand is to support the sales effort.

• As with the other positions, test, test, test—whether it is on their ability to use the agency management system or answer the phone. I like both skill tests from and personality profiles from IRMI's ZeroRiskHR program.

I can't over-emphasize the importance of testing. For example, Lynne Wallace at Vantreo in Santa Rosa, California, worked with a couple of her team members to produce a substantive insurance knowledge test that she first had everyone take internally. That was certainly an eye opener and helped identify where some training was required. She told me that there were numerous applicants who said they had worked on large accounts and took on real responsibility, only to find they failed to get even 7 out of 10 questions right on the test. It is a constant reminder that we cannot judge the book by its cover.

• While it may not be a fun part of the hiring process, you must make sure you put any job applicant in a position where things feel unfair. In fact, I will ask them in the interview process what felt unfair to them at their prior places of employment. When I get their responses, I dig until I've exhausted the conversation. I'll also purposely disagree with some of their statements to see how they react. The reality is, you want to find out in the interviewing process how they deal with what they believe to be unfair, as opposed to learning how they deal with it after they come work for you.

• Many of our partners encounter the same difficulty that most agencies do—attracting people to them without having to use a recruiter. If I go to their Web sites, I can quickly understand why they are having difficulty recruiting. There's a fine line between looking stable and being flat-out boring. What does your About Us or Job Opportunities page look like? The point is, if you're working at the right firm and with the right clients, the insurance business can be a rewarding and exciting career.

• During your recruiting efforts, talk about some of the difficult client problems you have to solve. Talk about how you help clients through their emergency situations. Talk about how insurance coverage itself made a tremendous difference in a client's personal life. Talk about what working in insurance has done for you and your families.

• You can talk about why you like working within certain niche industries. For example, Kim Fricke-Young at PCIA in Michigan keeps herself highly motivated by insuring what she loves—horses and everything to do with them. I remember speaking several years ago with Joe Hatch from upstate New York who was as excited as any insurance broker I've ever met. He spent his time selling insurance to bungee jumping operations and to assure himself they were a good risk, jumped at every one of them. Talk about an exciting niche!

Hiring right

Remember, hiring right is the tipping point in creating great agencies. Many survey respondents said things like, "I learned that it's huge and costly if we don't get it right." Most of us intuitively understand that if we get into relationships with the right people, we'll have fewer conflicts and problems down the road. Unfortunately, that is a future pain, and as a result many agencies don't have any leverage on themselves in the present moment. Of course the answer is to bring the future pain forward and use it to create a "no regrets" standard. For example, "We will have no regrets about how we hire people because we'll have followed a powerful hiring process."

One of our partners stated, "We have found in the past two years that the employees we would like to hire are not interested in moving from their current employer. In these uncertain economic times, we have learned that unless someone is extremely unhappy or believes they have hit the top of their promotional potential they will not move. Better to deal with the devil you know than roll the dice with one you don't."

So, how do you break past this reality? I would market right at it. "Are you truly interested in growing to your greatest potential or are you more interested in holding on to the job you've got right now?" Making bold statements like that can help shake the top 10% loose from any emotional bondage that may be blocking them from considering your agency.

Some additional thoughts:

• If you're trying to get employees from larger competitors, then you'll have to talk about the work experience as opposed to the compensation. In addition, the whole idea of flexible work schedules and working from home are very appealing right now.

• It is important that once you make these hires, you have a robust orientation process that is planned and in writing. If you e-mail me at, I'll send you an Orientation Checklist.

Letting go of poor performers

Last, when people tell me they aren't hiring, my response is, "That's because you're not firing." Here is one of my favorite questions: "Is there anyone working at your agency today that if they quit you'd be relieved as opposed to upset?" When I ask this question of agency principals, I get that typical painful laugh as I do from all executives. Here's the thing: An agency and its clients should always be "culling the herd" getting rid of the bottom 10% - 20% of employees year after year and thereby making room for top 10% - 20% employees. Agency principals have to get past the noise associated with letting go of a poor performer no matter how well-liked, how long they've worked there, or how close they are to you personally. If you don't let the bottom rung go, you send the wrong message to your A players and risk losing them to the competition.

Building great agencies requires hiring great employees. Not doing so is the greatest risk your agency will ever face.

If you would like me to mail a copy of an audio CD of a presentation I made to a group of insurance executives on How to Hire Winners and Work as a Team, simply e-mail me at

The author

Don Phin is president of the Employer Advisors Network, Inc., and the author of the "HR That Works" series of compliance and management products. He is the editor of "Employment Practices Liability Consultant" (EPLiC) published by IRMI. He can be contacted at or at


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