AGENCY OF THE MONTH
Canada agency offers online experience centered on service rather than price
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
There is a myth about marketing insurance on the Internet: It has to focus on price because the people who look for insurance coverage online are interested solely in shopping for the cheapest policy. But Cornerstone Insurance Services, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Canada, has become a myth-buster. They put to rest the lie that price is king by offering insurance on a site that never mentions price; instead, it focuses on educating prospects about the need for insurance and the advantage of having a broker representative during the purchase of policies and when a claim occurs. The approach has been so successful that Cornerstone, marketing its online insurance as Swift Digital Insurance, has had to slow down promoting the site while it adds personnel who can provide the promised service.
The move into digital marketing is partially the result of the agency’s location. As Cornerstone CEO Tim Longworth explains, “We’re at the end of the road. There’s not much further down the road other than untapped wilderness, the world’s greatest lakes and tremendous resources. Our marketing territory is a vast tract of land spanning more than 125,000 square miles (translated from square kilometers) with a population of less than 200,000. And we are known by nearly all of them and insure a lot of them and their businesses.
“We actually have about 50% of our local market,” he notes. “They come to us because our culture is centered around trust. We have created a culture of service that goes well beyond industry norms as we adhere to our Cultural Clarity Compass that emphasizes ‘Wow! Right! Now!’
“That three-part promise underscores the need to provide customers with as many ‘Wow’ moments as possible,” Tim says. “We expect them to be a regular occurrence. ‘Right’ means that we strive to get everything right the first time. And ‘Now’ means that we expect all our people to provide sudden service that happens without delay or excuses. In effect, it’s the old under-promise, over-deliver adage.”
Tim and a partner purchased the agency in 2001. It became Cornerstone in 2007 after that partner decided to leave. “It was a tough time,” Tim remembers. “My dad had helped me with the financing and then unexpectedly passed away in 2002. We had to pay off his share and then I had to purchase my partner’s share when he left a few years later.
“Our growth up to that point had been a little slow,” he adds, “but I knew we were going to take off. We had the pieces in place with a growth culture that focused not just on sales, but on retention, through rounding, cross-selling and the aforementioned sudden service.
“Fortunately, I was right,” Tim recalls. “We have doubled commission revenue and our number of employees every five years. Our mix of business has changed from approximately 95% personal lines to about 60/40 personal/commercial and our premium volume has grown from $1.8 million in 2001 to more than $22 million today.
“In addition, we have added a number of risk-related profit centers, including a division that helps clients and other brokers with their financials,” he explains. “That was a logical outgrowth of our expertise in surety, where we have to take a deep dive into customer financials and truly understand the best way to assure a strong bottom line.”
Fastest grower is digital
According to Tim, the move into digital insurance was a logical one “if we wanted to reach a wider audience. The effort was made easier by the fact that, unlike many of my colleagues, I have never been afraid of the younger generation. In fact, that generation makes up the majority of our agency. We’ve always had a large contingent of younger people in our agency and I’ve been very impressed by what they’ve been able to accomplish.
“Of course, it helps that one example of the best of the younger generation is my son Brock, who serves as our chief operating officer. He is right at the average age for the agency, 33, and is an 18-year veteran of the business. Yep, he started working with us at 15. And he is the engineer behind our apps and website and he’s the person who has translated our broker model into our digital offerings.”
“When we started to look at offering insurance online,” Brock says, “we decided that our strategy would be one that reflected our core values of extreme service, providing the best insurance coverage for each client and excellent claim service when needed. We realized early on that this approach would require more from us. We had to contact every person who came to our site for a quote to discuss what their risk management needs were.
“We didn’t want people to wind up with cookie-cutter coverage that didn’t properly serve their needs,” he adds. “The consultative approach we use when face-to-face with clients and prospects had to become part of what we do digitally as well.
“Needless to say,” Brock continues, “we did make some mistakes along the way. We started out expecting people to come to us, but that didn’t happen as often as we hoped. It became clear that digital marketing was very similar to our other sales strategies—we had to rely on building our reputation through centers of influence and getting our name out there.”
They went to auto dealerships and mortgage brokers to show them what the agency site offered that others didn’t, and spent time explaining what made Cornerstone different. “We wanted them to know that if they recommended us it would be good for them as well as for us,” he says. “We were truly going to be there for their clients, providing them with excellent advice and claim follow-through.
“The way it works, with one exception (an E&O/CGL package is available for yoga instructors that involves a one-minute sign-up), is that one of our brokers sees where the prospect left off in the process and then reaches out to that person to introduce himself or herself and to help answer any questions or address any concerns,” Brock notes.
“Our system is structured so that a file—one that is accessible to everyone in the agency—is created in our management system (we are using Applied Systems’ EPIC) as soon as someone reaches us digitally,” he adds. “While this is tremendously helpful to the broker making the initial contact, it also means that anyone at the agency has the wherewithal to help that person if the broker is not available.
“In the most recent year, we have written well over $1 million in premium with no additional staff,” Brock shares proudly. “We’re relying on Cornerstone staff because they understand our core values and we know that they will provide exceptional service. We are in the process of hiring and training staff, but that takes time as they have to become part of our culture and learn our core values before they can interact with the public.
“That’s the system that we’ve used for as long as I’ve been with the agency,” he says. “Even though we have four offices and have some people working from home, everyone has spent time here learning. We recognize that it has slowed us down somewhat.” (As mentioned earlier, marketing of the digital offering has been curtailed until Swift can staff up.)
“In the long run,” Brock adds, “I believe we will be well ahead of the competition by adhering to our principles. We’re going to do this ‘Right’, so we can create ‘Wow’ moments for our digital customers and have the staff to provide excellent service ‘Now.’
“At this point, Cornerstone is reaching four provinces and it has plans to reach all of Canada. We are teaming up with a like-minded agency, Charlebois Trépanier, to provide access to the rest of the provinces,” Brock notes. “My dad and Michel Drouin, president of Charlebois Trépanier, have worked together for many years and he knows that Michel shares his approach to exceptional service.”
Team members make the difference
Brock and Tim agree that employees are a competitive advantage. “I am so proud of our staff,” Brock says. “We have a group of phenomenal people who live and breathe teamwork. We’ve calculated that we should have a staff of about 55 people, but our staff of 40 has handled this with the professionalism our customers expect and deserve, and they’ve done it cheerfully.
“They are part of our family,” he adds. “In fact, a poll of our people revealed that the thing they appreciate most about our culture is the feel of it being a second family. That is displayed daily. Whenever somebody has a break in the action, they don’t just sit back and enjoy the brief respite, they knock on people’s doors to see if they need help.”
Tim picks up on that. “We have such a great staff that a big part of my job is just getting out of the way. It’s the old cliché about helping only when needed and complimenting when not. It means that I’m probably the best golfer and fisherman on the staff,” he adds with tongue firmly in cheek, “since I have the time now as I ‘get out of the way’ by going to the lake or the links.”
Tim points out another key partner group that has recognized the effectiveness of the Cornerstone approach. “Our insurance company partners like what we’re doing and have responded by, in a number of cases, offering us the pen,” he says. “They also are exceptionally quick in handling claims that come from our customers.
“Maybe that’s how they handle all claims,” he adds. “I certainly hope so. But I know it doesn’t hurt that they know about our 3-5-5 promise to clients. Clients will hear from us within three days after a claim is filed. (Our system allows them to do that online as well as other more traditional ways.) Then, they will hear from us five days later to see how things are going and five days after that and so on until the claim is settled or they tell us to stop.
“I went to Best Practices seminars back in 2006 and one of the warnings they shared was that change is constant,” Tim says. “If I look at what has happened with the insurance distribution system since then, I can attest to the fact: change really is the only constant. And our people love that. They actually get a little nervous if a change doesn’t come their way.
“Needless to say, that rarely happens, so they’re rarely nervous. But what it does mean is that our people are ready for anything. Whatever a client needs, they can deliver it quickly and correctly,” he concludes.
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Cornerstone Insurance Services as our Agency of the Month and applaud their use of digital marketing in a way that supports the independent agency values. We look forward to seeing how effective they are in reaching all of Canada with their approach.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.
Cover Image: From left: Chief Financial Officer Lyn Schmidt, CPA, CMA; Commercial Lines Manager Debbie Heal; Co-Owner Carla Longworth; Chief Executive Officer Tim Longworth; Chief Operating Officer Brock Longworth; Sales Manager Shantel Kalika, CIAB