Producer training: Let's get real
State Auto's PaceSetter program teaches a proven system for sales success—and keeps producers on track with follow-up coaching
By Elisabeth Boone, CPCU
Like Ben & Jerry's ice cream, producer training programs come in a dizzying variety of flavors, and there's at least one to please every palate. The fact is, though, that some flavors last longer than others, and those weekend "power selling" pep rallies at resort hotels have all but lost their taste by Tuesday morning.
For real staying power in sales training, many producers and their agency mentors are choosing the PaceSetter Producer Development Program offered by State Auto Insurance Companies. Launched in 1997, PaceSetter boasts more than 1,200 graduates and a documented record of impressive results in agencies of all kinds and sizes.
Founded in 1921, State Auto and its affiliated companies are rated A+ by A.M. Best and distribute their products through a network of more than 3,000 independent agents in 33 states. The insurer's headquarters are in Columbus, Ohio, and it has regional offices in Indianapolis, Nashville, Baltimore, and Austin, Texas.
PaceSetter is the brainchild of State Auto's sales development director, Ken Fields, CPCU, CIC, CLU, ChFC, and PaceSetter Regional Sales Manager Diane Masterson, CPCU, CIC. Fields is a 29-year State Auto veteran who also has extensive experience with a direct writer as both an agent and an agent sales manager and trainer. Masterson joined State Auto in 1989 and has a strong underwriting and training background. "Ken and I brought complementary skills to the project," Masterson says.
"Up until about 20 years ago, we were conducting on-site technical training classes for agents throughout our operating territory," Fields explains. "At about that time, states began to adopt continuing education requirements for licensed agents. Agent associations became increasingly involved in providing that training on a local basis, so it appeared that there was no need for us to continue to offer technical education.
"At the same time, we had also been doing sales training; for several years we offered a week-long class in which I taught the PRISMS For Agents program," Fields continues.
Although State Auto's sales training session offered useful content and tools for producers, "Once the week was over, there was absolutely no follow-up," Masterson says. "We had no idea if our agents changed their behavior after attending our week-long program."
Time for a change
Considering all of these factors, Fields says, State Auto realized it was time to develop a new approach to agent training. Even with much of the continuing education being provided by the associations, "We thought that there still was a significant void in the independent agency system where sales training was concerned, and we believed we could address that," Fields says. "So we decided to put our agent education dollars into providing sales training—and, further, to establish a system where we would follow our producers to see whether our training was making a difference in their behavior and results."
Masterson and Fields began to develop the foundation for a program that would encompass both sales and technical training and would incorporate systematic follow-up with producers who completed the program.
The PaceSetter program is a 12-month educational experience for licensed and commissioned State Auto producers that begins with a two-week Producer Development Conference at the insurer's corporate headquarters in Columbus, Ohio. The program is managed by Fields and Masterson and is coordinated by Luanna Matthews, CPCU, CISR and Bridgette Brodbeck.
Comprehensive technical training in underwriting principles and insurance coverages is provided by State Auto staff. Producers also are taught a proven prospecting and sales system that guides their efforts in the coming year. Producers begin to implement their marketing plan in Columbus by making X-dating and prospecting phone calls to their agency's marketing territory, using leads provided by State Auto.
Through a strategic partnership with The National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research, the highly regarded Dynamics of Selling program is presented in its entirety by faculty from The National Alliance.
"Dynamics of Selling has been a part of the program from the beginning," Masterson says, "and to a great extent, what Ken and I do is follow up on what the producers are taught in Dynamics of Selling."
Coaching is key
Following up, in fact, is at the heart of the PaceSetter program. A State Auto sales coach is assigned to each producer and works closely with him or her throughout the 12 months after the Producer Development Conference. Through weekly phone meetings and quarterly sales phone conferences, the coach monitors the producer's sales activity and helps the producer refine his or her sales skills. At the six-month mark, the PaceSetter producers return to Columbus for a one-and-a-half day midyear class reunion and sales conference.
Each producer's agency designates an agency sponsor who oversees the producer's prospecting and sales activities and confers with the sales coach as needed. A two-and-a-half day seminar for PaceSetter sponsors is conducted during the two-week Producer Development Conference. The seminar includes the Dynamics of Sales Management program and can be used to update the sponsor's CIC designation. The program teaches the skills required to successfully train, coach, and monitor the PaceSetter producer's prospecting and sales activities.
The PaceSetter program provides intensive coaching, mentoring, and agency sponsor support, Fields says, "so that when producers return to their agencies after the Producer Development Conference, they must start to do the things they were taught; they can't leave the class and continue to do what they've always done."
For any sales professional, hard work is rewarded by increased commission income—and the pot is sweetened by the opportunity to win awards and prizes. In the PaceSetter program, quarterly incentives are used to emphasize specific sales skills. Producers can win prizes for achieving the highest percentage of X-dates in a quarter, for completing and submitting the most Diagnostic Appointment Questionnaires (DAQs), for obtaining the most referrals, and for producing the most State Auto premium. A participating producer who produces predetermined levels of eligible new State Auto premium and meets other program requirements is rewarded with a five-day, four-night Caribbean cruise, and his or her agency can receive a 50% to 100% refund of the PaceSetter registration fee for achieving certain new business production levels.
Participating in State Auto's PaceSetter program isn't as simple as signing up and showing up, Masterson remarks. To be eligible, a producer must be a licensed and appointed agent with State Auto and must devote at least 75% of his or her time to commission-based sales activity. The program is appropriate for both new and experienced producers, but Fields says that some 70% of PaceSetter participants have less than one year of experience, and their average age is in the early 30s.
"As a first step, every applicant is tested using the Managing for Success (DISC) profile and a test from Target Training International called PIVA: Personal Interests, Values, and Attitudes," Masterson explains. "The DISC test tells us how people like to do things; the PIVA tells us why they do things and what motivates them. Sometimes the test results themselves eliminate a candidate."
For applicants who qualify based on their test results, Masterson continues, "We conduct a telephone interview with the candidate and with his or her agency sponsor, who is typically an owner or may be the sales manager in a larger agency. The candidate also completes a detailed application."
Because the PaceSetter program is an intensive, demanding endeavor that requires a year-long commitment, Masterson explains, the process of evaluating candidates must be equally rigorous. About 20% of applicants don't make it into the program. State Auto leaves the door open to reevaluate applicants in the future if they are not accepted initially.
A producer and sponsor who are accepted into the PaceSetter program are required to sign a contract that sets forth the specific commitments that both they and State Auto agree to fulfill. The producer must attend the entire two-week Producer Development Conference and the Midyear PaceSetter Class Reunion, and State Auto enforces a zero-tolerance policy with respect to tardiness and absenteeism except in case of personal illness or injury. The producer also must agree to give State Auto first look at all eligible business and to use monoline workers compensation markets when necessary to propose State Auto accounts.
Before attending the Producer Development Conference, each PaceSetter participant is required to complete either the commercial lines or personal lines version of the National Underwriter Coverage Specialist self-study program, depending on which track the producer takes in PaceSetter.
Breaking new ground
When it was launched 15 years ago, Fields comments, the PaceSetter program represented a markedly different approach to agent training compared with traditional models.
"For one thing, we were using a selection process, so we weren't going to take everybody who applied," he says. "Also, participants had to pay a fee, and some people here thought that independent agencies wouldn't be willing to pay a carrier to train their producers. Others expressed concern that what we were trying to do would be intrusive for the agencies. As someone said to me, 'If you stick your nose into an agent's business, he's going to cut it off. He doesn't want you telling him what to do.' And to some degree," Fields says, "that's exactly what we're doing."
To allay this concern, Masterson and Fields proceeded gradually in directing the activities of PaceSetter producers and their sponsors. "To our surprise, instead of telling us to back off, agency sponsors were saying, 'Give me more!'" Masterson says. "Today that's no longer an issue; in talking with sponsors, we're very forthcoming about what we think they need to do to support their PaceSetter producer. We initiate conversations about compensation and other sensitive matters, and we never get the feeling that agency sponsors are resentful of us for interfering in their business."
When most of us hear the word "micromanager," we picture an obsessive snoop who insists on knowing the tiniest details of employees' activities and who refuses to let them make even the smallest decision on their own.
For the members of the PaceSetter team, however, "micromanager" is definitely not a dirty word; in fact, it's something of a mantra. When producers return to their agencies after completing the two-week Producer Development Conference, that's when Fields and Masterson go into high gear as micromanagers.
"Through coaching calls, we hold our producers accountable for their results on a weekly basis," Fields says. "Every producer gets a subscription to salesforce.com, and we hired a consultant to customize that program for PaceSetter. As a result, the calendar of each producer I work with is in Salesforce, so I know what he or she was doing yesterday at 10:00 a.m., and I know what he or she plans on doing tomorrow at 2:00 p.m.," Fields explains.
"Our producers are required to put all kinds of information into Salesforce, so I know how many telemarketing calls they've made, how many X-dates they obtained, how many presentations they've made, how many DAQ appointments they've been on," Fields continues. "All of that activity is tracked in Salesforce, and the results are displayed in graphs and visuals. Both the producers and I can see what they've been doing and how that is affecting their sales results.
"What we're doing is providing our producers a structure that we have built over 15 years, and if they like the idea of having a structure, of being held accountable, and of having a personal sales coach, then PaceSetter is a great program for them," Masterson declares. "This approach doesn't work for everyone, and that's why we tell candidates up front, in excruciating detail, exactly what they can expect during the follow-up year."
A work in progress
Over the 15 years of its existence, the PaceSetter program has evolved to address changing needs and incorporate new techniques and subject matter.
"If you were to look at a PaceSetter group from two years ago and look at our groups today, you would see very little difference," Fields says. But if you were to look at our program 10 years ago and our program today, you would see big changes. Diane and I are constantly examining every single thing that we're doing within the program, and if we see something we think we can improve, we incorporate that element and then track the results."n
For more information:
State Auto PaceSetter Program
Web site: www.pacesetter.stateauto.com