Category Archives: Articles

Customer Service Is Just Foreplay

Customer Service Is Not Just Foreplay — for Independent Agents

Jason Cass’ just released book, “Customer Service Is Just Foreplay,” is not just a “must-read” but a “must use” for every independent insurance agent. The book is packed with no-nonsense, practical tips and insights in this digital age. As Jason says, “Consumers are no longer concerned about coming to our offices and meeting our people like they used to be.” The fact is, agents must stay in touch with prospects and current clients using digital tools in the right way. Relying solely on shoe leather and cold-calling is not enough.

Jason Cass is a dynamic speaker, agency owner, and champion for the Agency System.  The book has been praised by many industry leaders and I wholeheartedly add my name to that list.  I am also privileged to have Jason’s endorsement of the Social Media Content Roadmap.  The book is available through Amazon and at http://insuranceforeplay.com

When It Comes to Mobile for Independent Agents It’s the App that Counts

When It Comes to Mobile for Independent Agents It’s the Smartphone App that Counts

Have agents reached a tipping point when it comes to making their services accessible with a smartphone? Some believe the independent agent still has time to adapt. Others argue that those who wait will be run over by competitors – both direct writers and their digital-savvy agency brethren. It’s risky to make a precise prediction. However, looking at how smartphone use has evolved provides some eye-opening clues as to just how much time agents have to make changes to their current service and marketing models.

For starters, smartphone penetration in the United States is now seven out of 10 Americans, according to Nielsen. Those smartphone owners are not all young either. Nielsen also reports that 51 percent of mobile owners over the age of 55 now own smartphones, up 10 percent from 2013. Moms and millenials are the top smartphone users and comScore reports that 18 percent of the latter do all their browsing, emailing, social networking, and news reading on a smartphone or tablet. The bottom-line is that the smartphone and the staggering array of apps developed for it has become the communications device-of-choice for huge chunks of an agent’s clients and prospect pool.

Americans are always looking to save time, whenever and wherever they can. Convenience, prompt service and ease-of-use rank as critical factors when consumers choose what products and services to buy. It’s also not hard to understand why the smartphone is so popular, not just with the young but with Americans of every age and background. Smartphones place the world at one’s fingertips with just a click or two – and they do it almost anywhere. Agents who downplay the importance of the smartphone and of having their own app will pay a heavy price.

Jason Cass, an agent based in Centralia, Ill., and a passionate digital advocate, puts it bluntly.

“The window of opportunity is still open but closing fast.”

“The client of today is going to get the information they want in the way they most want it,” he says. “A mobile app makes it possible for an agent to provide this information without the client going directly to the company, thus cutting the agent out of the equation. Customer service is about creating a client experience and the mobile phone is at the center of that experience.”

It’s well-known that one can now perform a staggering array of functions with a smartphone, including buying groceries, airline and theater tickets; checking the status of an order or a flight; making bank deposits; and paying bills. Consumers can use their smartphone as their wallet to buy merchandise with just the wave of their hand.

The medical profession has also embraced the smartphone to make communications easier and more immediate between patients and their healthcare providers.

The argument against agents making more use of the smartphone has been that insurance is too complex a product to be reduced to a smartphone. Consumers, however, are being conditioned to do everything with a smartphone. Many insurance carriers already make their policies, payments, and claims filing procedures accessible through a smartphone.

Why would insurance agents believe they are somehow exempt from making their services more accessible and immediate with a smartphone through their own agency-branded app?

The window of opportunity is still open but closing fast.

This article originally appeared at: www.insurancejournal.com

Predictions on the Demise of the Independent Agent Are Premature Yet …

Predictions on the Demise of the Independent Agents Are Premature Yet …

This column has covered a number of important technology issues facing agents, including security, social media, mobile technology, and the customer experience. A groundbreaking study issued last month and an equally sobering and hotly discussed report from last year makes clear that agents cannot put off taking action on these issues even as the debate rages on.

The just-released “Evolution and Revolution: How Insurers Stay Relevant in a Digital Future,” by The Boston Consulting Group and Morgan Stanley Research reports that insurance consumers don’t just prefer digital experiences, they expect them.

“Consumers expect digital experiences with insurers to become more “direct, simple, seamless, and intuitive” the report says. Further, “consumers expressed strong interest in insurers developing products that apply technology-driven capabilities and are deployed close to the source of their needs” and “that digital native insurers are well-positioned to address these consumer expectations and can operate much more efficiently.”

The phrase “deployed close to their needs” implies a role for independent agents though the report glosses over their role. Ron Berg, executive director at ACT (Agents Council for Technology), believes the report misses the mark.

“It seems that the big opportunities are not just for insurers to develop innovative and intuitive digital solutions more rapidly to meet consumer expectations, but develop those solution sets to enable their independent agent and broker partners in staying a part of their customers’ support structure,” he says. “This could be accomplished whether it is the moment-of-truth points the study highlights such as claims handling, or other aspects such as servicing to sharing of analytics and business intelligence.”

The BCG/Morgan Stanley report also calls for the need for insurers to completely rethink their customer engagement model.

Last year’s blockbuster report from McKinsey & Co., called the “Agents of the Future: The Evolution of Property and Casualty Insurance Distribution,” elicited both praise and criticism, the latter taking issue with the underestimation of an agent’s local footprint, personal relationships, and consumers’ preference for advisers they know as compared to large institutions.

The report states that “where independent agents once served as the front-line in risk selection and pricing, advances in predictive models are making this role obsolete. The agent was once the face of the insurance brand; now customers increasingly use multiple channels to connect with their carrier. Perhaps most disruptive to the traditional agent value model, auto insurance – which accounts for 70 percent of personal lines premiums – is fast becoming commoditized.”

“The McKinsey report shines a great light on not just the digital challenges but also the tremendous opportunities for independent insurance agents, provided they act on them quickly,” says ACT’s Berg. “All business models must now rely heavily on digital tools; it’s what consumers want. What’s so exciting, however, is that consumers also hunger for a trusted adviser relationship with their insurance agent. Independent agents who marry the two will be big winners in the years ahead. That’s an opportunity direct writers can’t fully execute.”

Both reports are available online:


This article originally appeared on the Insurance Journal www.insurancejournal.com

Businessman looking at watch

Social Media Can Combat Commoditization

Agents lament the commoditization of insurance and not having enough time to develop stronger relationships with clients and prospects. Regrettably, most still ignore or underutilize one of the most powerful weapons in combating both: social media.

Commoditization and weak relationships are two sides of the same coin. On one side, strong relationships keep the lines of communications open, head off misunderstandings and dispel perceptions that all agents are the same. On the other side, agents contribute to commoditization if they treat policies more as transactions than relationships. In today’s marketplace, relationships with both current and prospective clients must be developed and maintained continually, not just at renewal time or when a claim needs attention.

Why? Because today’s insurance buyers, including those on the commercial side, are bombarded every day with more pitches, offers and come-ons and through more channels than ever — on TV, radio, smartphones, tablets, and yes, social media ads. They come not just from Flo and the gecko, Esurance and other digital-savvy carriers but also from new players such as Overstock and Walmart, both of which have launched efforts to peel off personal lines clients. These efforts work for three reasons: sheer saturation, they make the insurance process easier and more immediate and because most independent agents don’t fight back, or at least not effectively. That must change.

I appreciate how many issues and challenges agents have on their plates and how tempting it may be to dismiss social media by saying, “I’ll do it when I have the time.” For those agents who already have a Facebook or LinkedIn page without much to show for it, it’s just as easy to feel that social media is a waste of time. Both conclusions are wrong, dangerously so.

Agents Are Pressed for Time, but So Are Consumers

Agents do have time issues, but consumers are just as time-slammed, which is why they are increasingly turning to digital tools to help them find, evaluate, and buy from carriers and agents who make it as easy as possible to do so. It’s utter madness for any agent to ignore social media for that very reason. No agent, no matter how industrious and well meaning, can keep up if they insist on playing on a field that’s shrinking fast. Even the best website needs to be found and that means casting as wide a net as possible. Agents must be visible and accessible not just on their websites but also where their prospects gather to share ideas and stories and solutions to common problems — and that means social media. In addition, there is a growing trend in which consumers are more likely to skip browsing the Web (aka Googling) but instead to just visit the sites or platforms they favor. This trend underscores the need for agents to use social media as a critical means to reach out and be “found.”

Accenture, the management consulting, technology services firm, recently came out with a survey that reported that 48% of the respondents said they would consider comments on social media BEFORE making a buying decision. Why then, would any agency consciously ignore one communications tool that one out of every two buyers considers an important factor?

The fact is, every age group, from millenials to seniors, relies heavily on social media to help find and evaluate businesses to patronize. Why? For the simple reason that it is far easier and less time-consuming to go online, shop around, get some recommendations and then, and only then, schedule a direct conversation, either face-to-face or on the phone. Finding an insurance agent or just the right coverage may not be as simple as buying a loaf of bread. Most agents, however, lose the opportunity to sell to wide segments of the population by making it harder to be found and harder to get to know by avoiding social media entirely or by participating halfheartedly.

Just Being There Is Not Enough

It’s not enough just to have a mere presence on Facebook or Twitter or any of the other social media sites that consumers use today. The generic “we have great people, great service and great products” bromide that many agents display on their websites and on their social media pages just doesn’t cut it. To stand out from Flo, State Farm and other independents, agents must generate, week in and week out, distinct, memorable and unique social media images and content that resonate with their target niches.

To make social media work, agents need to wear their personalities on their sleeves and demonstrate how well they understand every market they serve. Ironically, that should not be as hard as it sounds. Every agent worth his or her salt got there because of a dynamic, energetic, can-do personality. It is just a matter of transferring that image to a digital platform.

Social Media as a Prospecting Tool

Social Media CubeIt’s also amazing to me why more agents do not use social media for prospecting. Every connection developed via social media represents a solid prospect, not just a faceless cold call. After all, these connections can show up on an agent’s digital doorstep because they share a common interest with the agent, be it a love of community, plumbers, jazz, or old cars. For example, LinkedIn maintains hundreds of discussion groups that cover topics ranging from parenting to poets to photographers. Entire books have been written by agents who find interest groups with which they share a special passion or expertise and then join in the discussion, not to sell overtly but to participate as a “fellow traveler.” Then when an opportunity to demonstrate insurance expertise presents itself, the “fellow traveler” enjoys a powerful credibility.

Creating the right content is also essential to social media success. There is nothing wrong with a consistent stream of insurance advice and periodic premium-saving tips, but there are two caveats. First, if you use canned advice from an outside source, understand that such content does little to separate an agent from competitors, particularly if they’re using similar content. Second, insurance advice is like broccoli — it’s good for consumers but no one wants it for breakfast, lunch and dinner, seven days a week. As a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea that for every insurance post, post two or more non-insurance items, including events, humor, useful tips and human interest.

Studies have shown that answering customer-service questions on social media is a powerful boost to participation. Specific policy questions about specific clients are off limits but general answers about a particular coverage, exposure or market work well.

The Most Important Best Practices

  • Use canned content sparingly. The best content is that which you create yourself and reflects something unique and distinctive about yourself or your agency.
  • Post consistently and frequently, at least three times a week.
  • Pick the social media sites that your prospects use.
  • Be visual. Use photos, videos, drawings and plenty of color to attract attention and to make your message fun and memorable.
  • Monitor everyday. The process of monitoring is not just checking your own Facebook page for responses. Monitor the social media activity of those communities you serve as well as your target markets for updates and unusual or interesting subjects. Monitor the activity of other agents with whom you compete. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Create reminders to monitor periodically throughout the day — your followers will understand that you are not glued to your computer screen but it is important to respond as quickly as you can to questions and comments that warrant it.
  • Measure, measure, measure. Measure continually, not just the number of likes, comments and shares but other details by using free or low-cost tools. Google Alerts (free) is a good first option but also take a look at SocialMention (also free) which provides more detail. Hootsuite, Tweetdeck and Buffer are all good with free options available.

Social media is not a new-fangled technological concept but actually a throwback to the days of the small town merchant in which communication was immediate and face-to-face — now it’s just dressed up in a new package. It’s not as hard as you may think, however it will get harder if you put off getting in the game or learning how to use it effectively.

 


This article originally appeared at: www.pianet.com/benefits/publications/agenttoagent/socialmedia072814

 

Agents Keep Up: How People Use Mobile Technology to Communicate and More

Agents Keep Up: Use Mobile Technology to Communicate & More

 

An agent’s technological plate is so full it may seem impossible to decide where to start. Experts agree that embracing mobile needs to take top priority for two critical tasks: to mobile-optimize the agency website and streamline clients’ access to various functions via smartphones.

“Agents must streamline their mobile technology, no question,” says Ron Berg, executive director at ACT – Agents Council for Technology. “In fact, agents need to be in front of insurance buyers in their use of smartphones, not behind as they are now. It’s not happening fast enough.”

According to the Pew Internet Research Project, 58 percent of American adults own a smartphone and 34 percent go online mostly using their phones rather than using another device such as a desktop or laptop computer. Other studies confirm that mobile is more personal than a desktop or laptop – it’s how people communicate today and it’s more cost-effective in the long run.

Berg explains that some agents just add a carrier’s mobile app to their website without understanding the consequences.

Agents need to be in front of insurance buyers in their use of smartphones, not behind as they are now.

“Let’s say you’re an agent who has mobile apps from four of the six carriers you represent. Unless you place all of a policyholder’s business with one carrier, you’re forcing the consumer to add multiple apps, which is confusing and takes extra time,” Berg says. “Most damaging of all is the fact that it discourages consumers from going through agents at all.”

“Agencies need to provide clients a single, mobile point of contact regardless of carrier and policy,” says Kiki Johnson of GoInsuranceAgent.com. “It’s critical for them to understand what apps can do for their clients and the benefits they can get in return, including greater retention and the ability to stay top-of-mind and relevant for the consumer 24/7.”

Johnson adds that mobile is critical for three different audiences, all of which have different requirements: producers for their internal use, prospects who use smartphones to shop with, and clients who want to access their policies and perform critical functions such as creating a household inventory.

“Unfortunately, the vast majority of agents are not focused on utilizing, maximizing and investing in mobile,” says Chris Paradiso of Connecticut-based Paradiso Insurance. “Half of our web traffic is from mobile devices. For agents, there are many resources to self-educate via articles, YouTube videos and conferences. I’d talk to fellow agents you trust and who have adopted these technologies to understand the best ways to achieve maximum ROI (return on investment).”

ACT’s Berg also recommends that agents reach out to their carriers to determine what resources may be available, including training and co-op funds.

“Society is moving incredibly fast in the use of the smartphones and we, as agents, are not reacting fast enough in response,” says Linda Rey of Rey Insurance, Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. Rey’s agency has its own mobile app that accesses all policies and carriers – and the result has been a marked increase in retention.

“The fact is, mobile will dominate the marketplace,” says Paradiso. “The consumer is used to many of these technologies outside of the insurance space. People hardly go to the bank any longer.

“ATMs and mobile banking have made the customer experience easy and painless. We are silly to not believe insurance will not follow that path of creating an easy-to-use system for real-time quoting, e-signatures and claims reporting, in addition to automated communications based on activities,” Paradiso says.

This is the third of a series on the technology issues facing agents. The focus is on practical solutions on many fronts, including the customer experience, privacy and security.

 


This article originally appeared at: www.insurancejournal.com