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Winning Strategies

Evaluating your agency's culture: Sales vs service

Celebrate new business, loud and clear!

By Roger Sitkins

Rapid-growth agencies truly have a sales culture, whereas slow- and no-growth agencies have a service culture. Sales organizations talk about sales, and service organizations talk about service. ("We give great service! Service is what we're all about!") The differences are huge.

This article shares some of the fundamental behaviors and strategies that can affect agency sales growth. As part of our Vertical Growth Experience™, we help agencies implement various ways to improve their sales. Although we've identified 41 different influences on agency growth, here are some of the most significant.

Deciding to be a sales organization. What comes first in your agency: sales or service? Listen to your culture (the behaviors and language that are considered normal in an organization). How does it sound? You can tell by the language whether it's a sales organization or a service organization because language leads culture.

For example, the standard line at most average agencies is all about service: "We provide excellent customer service that exceeds our clients' expectations." Conversely, a sales organization not only talks about sales, it celebrates them! As funny or weird as this may sound, the agency must decide and declare to everyone: "We are a sales organization that provides outstanding customer service!" Just saying it won't do it, but it's a start.

Leading by example. In a sales culture, the agency executives and/or owners lead by example. They're not the producers who retired in place and forgot to tell anyone. Rather, these leaders have some of the largest books of business in the agency. Further, they're working to perpetuate them by partnering with their agency's newer, younger producers. Some of these junior producers may even be taking on the role of "account executive" as they get to know the accounts and develop relationships with them. That way, when the senior partners or owners retire, the account remains with the agency.

Agency leaders also have the best natural pipelines. They've been around the longest, they know the most people, and they're still out there working their pipelines. Please note: There's a difference between working a pipeline and working a prospect. Leaders who work their pipeline will make the necessary introductions to open the door for the producer who will actually work on the account. Leaders who lead want to land and/or retain the account, but they don't necessarily want to do the work that accompanies it.

Celebration. In an organization with a sales culture, new business is loudly celebrated. No one says, "Oh no, that's more work for me." Instead, their philosophy is that new business is great; they get excited about writing new accounts! What's more, they recognize it by throwing a party, handing out gift cards, ringing a bell, or doing something that says they're thrilled about getting new business!

Organizations that have a service culture don't feel the same way. To them, new business is bad! In a service organization, you'll hear people say, "Oh no! New business means more work for me."

Systematic sales system. In a sales organization, the agency has a defined and unique selling system in place. The producers do follow the system because they know it works. However, the agency takes a "flexibility without dilution" approach that allows producers to inject their own personality into the system without changing it entirely.

In discussing sales numbers with one of our sales leaders recently, I asked about the agency's closing ratio. "With or without the system?" he asked. I told him I assumed he meant when they followed our system vs. when they didn't. He replied, "When we follow the system, it's 84%, and when we don't follow it, it's 32%." What does that tell you?

Another key is that sales organizations have a single offense. They're not trying to run multiple offenses where every producer does it his or her own way. Everyone understands and practices the "agency's way" of selling.

Relentless preparation. We've mentioned this several times in the past, but it bears repeating: Every opportunity deserves your very best. This means being relentlessly prepared and not just "showing up". In an agency with a sales culture, it goes without saying that presentation rehearsals are mandatory, as is Web-based research prior to your initial meeting with a prospect.

Purposeful relationship management. We all agree that relationships are crucial in business and in life. In a sales culture, here are the five most important relationships to manage proactively:

Clients (the vital few vs. the trivial many)

Prospects (an agency-wide Top 100 program)

Key Insurance Carriers

Fellow Team Members

Centers of Influence

Knowing vs. guessing. All agency managers and producers in a sales organization know their sales critical indicators (or key matrix). They are: Closing Ratio; Conversion Ratio; Revenue per Sale; MVPs (Monetized Value of Pipelines); and At-Bats Needed (in order to meet their goals each month/quarter/year).

Full-time clients only. A true sales culture believes in taking care of the total client. These organizations do not waste agency resources on part-time clients. Their attitude is all or nothing. Either they write all of the account or none of it. There are reasons for this.

First, you can't meet all the needs of the client unless you write all of its coverages. Having some but not all means that gaps are inevitable. Further, having full-time clients ensures greater revenue per relationship. Finally, your retention rate will be higher with full-time clients.

Reverse performance management (RPM). With RPM, every producer has an annual sales plan with monthly accountability meetings, and producers take these responsibilities very seriously. The agency has a set agenda for these meetings, at which every producer must come prepared to report to the sales manager the events and activities of the previous month. Preparation and participation are non-negotiable. These meetings are not to be missed under any circumstances.

New business takes precedence. Some of you reading this article will not agree that new business is paramount. You'll think it's more important to work on renewals. But you may want to think again when you consider this: Most agents doing just an average job will have 92% to 95% retention anyway, regardless of whether they make renewals a priority. That's one of the beauties of this business! (And if your numbers aren't at least in that range, we need to talk!) The fact is, most clients will stay with their current agency rather than make a change.

Keep in mind that when I say that new business takes precedence, I am not devaluing the importance of renewals or the need to have a formal continuation process in place. After all, that's what drives retention and earns referrals. Rather, I'm reminding you to take the attitude that renewals will happen and that you'll have upwards of 90% retention, and that you'll continue to do a good job and follow your renewal process. But ultimately, in order to grow, you simply must devote more resources, time and energy to new business.

Quarterly pipeline retreats. Yes, pipelines are that important, which is why we talk about them so frequently in these columns. Just prior to the end of 2012, I was invited to give a presentation at the 34th quarterly retreat hosted by one of our Sitkins International members. As I did the math, it struck me that they've been holding retreats every quarter for 8.5 years! What's most gratifying is that they have made a huge difference.

At a time when most people are lamenting that it's so tough to grow their agency, the one hosting its 34th retreat has averaged 17% growth for the last five years! There's no doubt they have a sales culture. As Vertical Growth Advisors, we see this consistently with our Sitkins International members. Those that have the quarterly pipeline retreats—on a regular basis, that is—always have growth. The same cannot be said for agencies whose quarterly retreats become bi-annual or every-other-year events. To reap optimum results, pipeline retreats must be held on a quarterly basis.

Mentoring programs. New producers must become part of a formal on-boarding program that gets them productive ASAP. It's a very specific "First 100 Days" program that quickly brings them up to speed on how the agency operates and how they can succeed.

This is not the old-school style of "welcoming" the new agents. You know the approach: "Here's your desk and here's your phone, now start cold-calling everyone!" (And if you still do this, how's it been working for you?)

I'm always amazed when agency principals say they just don't have the time to mentor new producers. That makes no sense! Producers who aren't worth mentoring are not worth hiring. Hiring without mentoring guarantees you'll have a loss.

The bottom line. So, do you have a sales culture or a service culture in your agency? Does it matter to you? If you're not sure where your agency stands, we'll be happy to send you our Sitkins International Sales Culture Evaluator. To receive your copy, please e-mail us at

As always, it's your choice!

The author

Roger Sitkins is founder and chairman of Sitkins International, a private client group and membership program for some of the top independent agencies and brokerages in the United States, Canada, and Latin America. Members participate in training, advising and networking opportunities focused on innovation, sales, growth, profitability and value.


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