Building and maintaining a successful sales force

Building and maintaining a successful sales force

Weinberg, Michael J

Perpetuation, careful hiring, training, and automation are important elements in establishing a successful agency

It seems that no matter where I travel and no matter what the topic of my speech may be, the first question usually is, “How can I possibly hire more good producers?”

No doubt, one of the toughest challenges facing our industry today is that of perpetuating our sales force. Usually, when we speak of agency perpetuation, we think in terms of replacing older, retiring owners with new, younger shareholders. All too often, however, we fail to take the perpetuation question to the next level by concerning ourselves with replacing our entire aging staff (assuming that is the case) and, in particular, our producers.

Unfortunately, producer perpetuation is not a “one-time” crisis that we face only as we approach retirement; rather it is a perpetual problem. Year by year, we face the problem of replacing an older producer with someone in the age bracket that he or she has grown out of. Ideally, a group of producers should span all ages, genders, and even ethnicities.

For instance, a 60-year-old white female is not likely to sell to a 20-something-year-old African-American male. An Asian is more likely to buy from another Asian.

The first mistake that we often make is trying to hire in our own image. We look at a candidate, see ourselves, and think, “Terrific!” The truth is that we have already employed ourselves. What we really need to do is to employ those who do not resemble us in terms of age, gender and ethnic characteristics. And, to take it a step further, we should look to hire those with different avocations as well. If we are golfers, then why not try to hire tennis players as well?

We recently implemented this strategy in our agency. While we have always tried to hire a diverse sales force in terms of age, gender and race, we recently expanded by hiring an entire sales force of Chinese agents. Currently, we are the leading insurer of oriental restaurants in our area. And we have picked up ancillary customers in food distribution, real estate, etc., as a result of having this Asian influence. A year ago, we never would have thought to proactively hire in this way; today it seems like the most natural thing in the world.

Finding good producers

One question that always comes to me is, “Where do we find agents?” Let me first tell you where you are not very likely to find agents-at another agency. How often have we all fallen prey to the notion that a failure at another agency can be a success in ours? We kid ourselves into believing that with our staff, our markets and our overall insurance and management expertise, someone who has failed elsewhere will succeed with us. I can tell you-from the vantage point of far too many bad experiences-that it is not very likely to happen.

I definitely suggest using non-traditional sources for recruiting. One of my favorites is the high-end clothing industry. Men and women who have experience selling expensive clothes usually come with two terrific traits. First, they are usually well dressed and very professional in their appearance. Second, they typically are very well spoken and are quite comfortable dealing with a wealthy clientele.

Two fields that can be a great source are not typically “sales oriented”-accounting and banking. Far too often we stereotype the insurance salesperson as being that jovial, golf playing, back slapping, joke telling “life of the party.” This profile actually is more accurate when it comes to life insurance sales than it is with commercial insurance sales. According to Omnia Profile (a service we use with almost a religious fervor), a typical commercial insurance salesperson is very analytical and able to demonstrate the discipline necessary to comb through a client’s policies and outline and critique each coverage part. Accountants and commercial lenders are typically great at this because they are used to detail and, more important, they are very comfortable with asking highly sensitive and personal financial questions. What may be uncomfortable for us is second nature to them.

At a recent state convention, I talked to an agency owner who was quite enthusiastic about having CSRs transition into salespeople. She declared that she had met with great success with the concept in the past. I must admit that this approach has never worked for us. Our finding, and again backed up by Omnia Profile, is that the typical CSR needs a stable environment, as well as a guaranteed income, and is rarely a risk taker. Historically, these qualities have been diametrically opposed to those of a great producer. We have tried the transition on a few occasions but never with any success.

The training problem

The next area that I want to address in the hiring of producers is training. My greatest concern whenever we hire a new agent is the amount of training that we are able to provide. Unlike big insurance companies, most of us have very limited resources. We do not have training facilities or a fulltime trainer, and often we don’t even have a sales manager or even a potential mentor for the new agent.

When I entered the insurance business, my first manager told me that 10% of all newly hired agents would succeed no matter what, 10% would fail no matter what, and the other 80% would fail or succeed depending on how well they were trained and managed. I have never forgotten that formula and find that it often is true.

Unfortunately, most of us have nowhere to turn. St. Paul’s mentor program is terrific, as was the old Aetna agent’s school. Fortunately, many insurance trade associations (Florida and Texas in particular) offer some training and sales courses for new agents. But overall, we still operate our agencies as “mom and pop” operations with very little opportunity for formal training for new hires in any area, not just sales.

Automation is a key

The last area that I’d like to address is automation and producers. Today’s ideal is for producers to sell and for CSRs to service. While this is the goal, we know that producers do end up servicing to various degrees. My suggestion is that we make the process as painless as possible through automation. Laptops (or PDAs) with wireless access to the Internet and an Internet access to an agency management system will certainly make an agent’s life in the field much easier. The ability to check e-mail, client accounts, etc., will improve “down time” (in between appointments) and will certainly make client meetings more productive.

I am always amazed by the reluctance on the part of both the agency and the agent to invest dollars in technology. There is no doubt that technology will make the agent more profitable for himself/herself as well as for the agency.

Good luck with your new agent hires. If you have found a winning formula, I hope that you will e-mail it to me so that I can share it with readers. Again, good luck!

The author

Michael J. Weinberg, nationally known columnist, speaker and seminar leader, is the managing director of Gateway Insurance Agency where he spearheads the agency’s marketing/ sales and automation efforts. He invites reader participation and feedback through his e-mail address (mweinberg@gatewayins.com).

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Aug 2003

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