Ross Insurance Agency named Astonish e-Marketing Agency of the Year
Agency's digital marketing initiative boosts engagement and business
Place a phone call to Ross Insurance Agency and you get a sense for what drives the agency's success. From the receptionist's cheery greeting to the upbeat on-hold messages—addressing everything from "positive word-of-mouth" customer referrals to the agency's desire to serve new clients—you feel welcome.
That's just one of several things the agency does to engage customers and prospects. Agency leaders have worked hard to make sure everything associated with the agency brand—from its Web site and online marketing to its employees and its community activities—help build and strengthen relationships with local residents and businesses.
The 87-year-old independent agency is led by Maureen Ross O'Connell, president, and her brother Kevin Ross, vice president and treasurer. The nine-person operation serves clients throughout Western Massachusetts from a single location in downtown Holyoke.
Ross has been in the business since he could barely reach the water fountain without a step-stool. "When I was six years old, I used to go to work with my father," he explains. "He had a spare desk that he made my desk. As I grew up, I never had a question that this would be my future."
O'Connell didn't share Ross' youthful exuberance. "I wanted nothing to do with the place," she recalls. "All through high school, I was a hard worker, but my dad insisted that I stop working after high school to focus on college studies. I was furious."
Before long, the senior Ross softened up. "I was in college locally, and one day my dad called and said that if I wanted to earn a little extra money, I could come down to the office," O'Connell notes. "Statements weren't getting mailed out, so he brought me in for one day to stuff envelopes and mail them." She finished the job before quitting time, so they gave her another task.
"I didn't finish that second job by 5:00, so I returned the next day," she adds. "Basically, I never left." When O'Connell finished college, she came on board as a full-time employee and worked her way through every department. In 1990, Ross and O'Connell, together with their brother Ernie, who passed away suddenly a couple of years ago, bought the agency.
"We were three equal partners for many years," Ross explains. "Today, Maureen handles administration. She's very detailed with the accounting, systems and staffing. I'm a salesman. I go out and bring the business in…" "And I keep it here," O'Connell interjects.
The agency leans a little more heavily toward personal lines, with a 60/40 split. "We also write some disability and health, and have a couple of municipal benefits accounts, thanks to strong relationships Ernie had built with local government leaders," Ross notes.
Over the past few years, the agency encountered several challenges—some unique to its locale. "Our area is saturated with independent agencies," Ross explains, "so competition is fierce." The region's economy has been hit hard and unemployment is high. Plus, overall population is declining and the average age of local residents rising.
Aggressive pricing in the soft market has cut commercial and personal lines revenues. Plus, legislation passed in the commonwealth increased competition in the personal auto insurance market, making things even tougher. "It became intense," he notes, "and we were losing business."
The principals knew they had to find ways to operate—and market—more efficiently and effectively. "We beefed up our marketing efforts with radio ads and print campaigns, in anticipation of the new competitive environment," Ross recalls. "We held our own for a time, but even though we weren't losing clients, our revenue was down about 10%."
With a declining and aging population base, the agency found it increasingly difficult to replace lost revenue with new business. "We needed to turn things around and start growing again," he explains, "and that required a more significant change." To help drive this change, in 2010 the agency signed on with Astonish Results, an insurance-focused digital marketing and sales training organization.
The siblings learned of the firm through an e-mail blast from the agency's state association. "The funny thing is, I clicked on links in the e-mail and checked it out, and so did Kevin and Ernie," O'Connell recalls. "At our weekly meeting, each of us had it on our list of things to bring up. We all were interested."
"I remember clicking through some of the links and thinking, 'Oh, my goodness, there's no way we could ever do anything that impressive with our half-baked Web site,'" Ross adds. "I was just blown away with how professional and feature-rich these sites were."
After the agency met with Astonish and learned about their capabilities, Ross says, "We were ready to write a check. We agreed that this is what we needed to do."
One Astonish Results offering they found especially appealing was the ability to organize and manage e-mail marketing. "Being able to target market, to reach more people with a very well designed e-mail campaign, and to follow up on those activities—that was a big deal," he explains. "The whole package was just unbelievable." The agency shifted print ad dollars to digital, and never looked back.
"Our initial goal was to reach out and attract new prospects," Ross notes. "We quickly learned, though, that e-mail marketing also helped us communicate better with the people and businesses we already served."
The agency also went full bore into search engine optimization work. They use a variety of tactics, starting with an entirely new Web site, to increase traffic. "We started using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and agency blogs," O'Connell notes.
More than 1,000 people "Like" the Ross Insurance Facebook page and, more important, they engage with it frequently. Nearly all posts generate "likes" or comments. "People are interacting with the site," O'Connell explains. "More people are becoming much more familiar with the Ross Insurance brand through our social media presence."
While she leads this element of the digital marketing focus, O'Connell relies on employees to extend its reach. "I generally set the direction and tone for the work we do to brand our agency through social media," she explains. "We have a college student who works part time, managing posts and online activities. We encourage other employees, who live in the various communities we serve, to contribute ideas, share posts with friends, and comment. This really makes a difference."
While social networking and other digital marketing activities help boost visibility and traffic, they're just natural extensions of how the agency has operated for years. "The agency has been involved in the community through its entire existence," O'Connell explains. "Social media and electronic tools help us expand and enhance our involvement, which benefits both the community and the agency."
She says the online focus has actually taken the agency back out into our communities in new ways. "We've always been involved—volunteering and serving on boards," O'Connell explains, "but social media has helped us be more visible and lets us showcase some of the important causes in our local area."
For instance, the agency brought in a local social service agency it supports and created a video to highlight the nonprofit's work. "We posted that on YouTube, and shared it through Facebook, Twitter and blogs," O'Connell says, "using our expertise and resources to help boost their visibility. We'll keep doing things like that."
The agency also sponsors a public movie night in nearby Chicopee. "The town puts up a large, outdoor screen and shows movies for free," she explains. "We pay for it and our employees show up in Ross Insurance t-shirts and give away gift cards to people who share their name and e-mail address. Of course, we promote it heavily on Facebook." The agency also uses social media to announce and promote contests it runs, special events it hosts—including food drives and a recent paper-shredding day, as well as fundraisers it holds for worthwhile causes and more.
The agency uses its Astonish Results contact, Matt Russell, who carries the title 'Raving Fan Manager,' as a source and sounding board for new ideas, tools, tactics and campaigns. "We talk about everything from what others are doing to how search engines are changing and what we need to do to remain relevant," O'Connell explains. "He's a terrific resource."
While the agency has hit its stride and is enjoying considerable success increasing engagement and revenues through digital marketing, it did stumble early on. "We didn't prepare, perhaps, as well as we could have," O'Connell explains. "I don't think we realized how significant of a cultural shift this change would require."
Shortly after going live, agency principals regrouped and made time to share everything—from agency financial results to the importance of having a true sales culture and more—with employees. "We closed the office and had an off-site meeting to reintroduce the concept--properly, this time," she notes. "It was a very, very smart thing to do. We outlined where we were before, where we had come, and where we were going. Our employees responded very well."
"They were on board with the concept of moving from a service culture to a sales culture, even though it was a different approach," Ross adds. "We brought in people to help train us, which made the shift smoother. What we ended up with is a terrific group of employees who realize we can best help people by making sure they have our policies, our protection, and our service. They understand that and, as a result, they're writing more policies."
They're holding on to existing policies, too. "We were retaining 96% of the business we could, so there wasn't a lot of room to improve," O'Connell explains. "I'm proud to say our staff continues to deliver the service that keeps retention rates high, and they do it while helping customers benefit from greater protection through Ross Insurance."
The e-marketing initiative is delivering results. "Out of the gate—in just the last seven months of 2010—we increased our new business policy count by 55%," O'Connell explains, "and policy counts have continued to grow each year since then." The agency tracks policy count closely, because, she says, "It's the one thing employees can really control and, to be honest, everything else flows from that."
Employee involvement plays a key role in the sales success. "Our people are much more diligent now about making sure customers are fully protected," O'Connell explains, "and they're actually cross-marketing outside of their own departments. For instance, a commercial rep might ask about someone's personal insurance. That's great—and it's something that really didn't happen before."
Ironically, the agency had tried to boost cross-selling and account rounding several years ago. "We ran a program called Total Account Development," explains Ross. "In our minds, we were convinced we had done all we could. We believed we had talked to every one of our clients about their other lines of business, and that there were no more opportunities. We were wrong."
The agency's digital marketing work led to a revenue turnaround, as well. "Coming off a couple of years of decline, we were pleased to see things turnaround," Ross notes. "We saw an immediate increase of about 20%—and that's compared to a 10% drop-off the year before. Revenue has continued to grow each year.
"Every day we're getting several opportunities to quote business that we never had before," Ross notes. "I liken it to the old days, when we had walk-in business. People used to just walk in with their auto insurance, or they'd get a new car, they'd come in and we'd write it. That doesn't happen anymore. The 21st-century'walk-ins' are over the Internet, and we're getting them.
"We're excited and we're positive," explains Ross. "We're going in the right direction and our people are ahead of the curve. We're thrilled with how our people are responding, and the great work they're doing to help customers. There are a lot more exciting things on the horizon."
The extra push with community involvement has been positive, too, notes O'Connell. "It's very important to us—just as it has been since the agency was formed—that we contribute to the towns we serve," she explains. "Our digital marketing work helps us take that involvement and support to a new level."
The community notices all of the changes. "I get comments from people all the time," Ross explains. "They recognize we're doing business differently, communicating differently and more regularly, and serving them differently. They recognize our community involvement, and it's all making a difference.
"It's just so rewarding to come to work every day," he adds. "We always have to do better. The challenge is there. We're in a tough environment, but we're doing well. We definitely like where we're going."
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Ross Insurance Agency, Inc.