AGENT FOR THE FUTURE
RiskSOURCE Clark-Theders nabs national honor for innovation and forward-thinking strategies, tactics
By Dave Willis, CPIA
Now in its second generation of family ownership, Cincinnati-based RiskSOURCE Clark-Theders has what agency leaders describe as “an award-winning work culture centered around empowering our team.” Key elements of that culture are deep client relationships, effective use of digital tools—internally and externally, and a laser focus on the future.
Successful deployment of these elements not only helped the agency thrive but also helped earn the firm honors as 2020 Agent for the Future. Agent for the Future (AFTF) was created by Safeco and Liberty Mutual and offers recognition—and a cash prize—for the winning agency. RiskSOURCE Clark-Theders was one of 200-plus agencies nationwide to compete in the program’s third year.
“Agent for the Future is one example of the many ways we at Liberty Mutual and Safeco champion independent agents,” says Tyler Asher, president of independent agent distribution at Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance. “It was created to serve as a resource for the entire channel and a platform to shine a light on winning agencies.
“It offers actionable advice from forward-looking agencies, expert insights from across the insurance ecosystem, and tools to help agencies grow. Through content, research, and the annual Agent for the Future Award, AFTF is a source of inspiration for how agencies can succeed today and into the future,” adds Asher, who was one of the judges for this year’s award.
Fellow judge and 2019 Agent for the Future regional award winner Claudia McLain, founder and princpal of Everett, Washington-based McClain Insurance Services, adds, “RiskSOURCE Clark-Theders embodies the Agent for the Future spirit in so many ways. They are a dynamic agency that is data-driven and digitally savvy. They integrate technology into everything they do and find innovative ways to serve as a trusted partner and advisor for clients.
“With a top-notch online presence, industry-leading customer experience, and creative approach to relationship building, RiskSOURCE should serve as an inspiration for the entire independent agent channel,” adds McClain, whose agency was voted 2014 Rough Notes Agency of the Year. “Most impressive, however, is in their focus on the employee experience. They quickly pivoted in response to COVID and have used this time to reimagine how the agency will operate in the future.”
While nabbing an award is great, the drive behind the agency’s activities is to ensure ongoing success. Agency Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Theders, CRA, ACRA, puts it like this: “We are committed to remaining independent and relevant into the future. That has to involve transforming into a digital agency, something we’ve been intently working on for the past several years.”
RiskSOURCE Clark-Theders President Amanda Shults expands on what’s behind the agency’s digital push. “We want to take advantage of technology when it can ease and enhance the client experience for simple transactions,” she explains. “This also allows time for our team to spend with clients on more complex problems or situations that need extended research or have lots of moving parts.”
According to Theders, “We believe insurance alone is never enough. Over my 22-year career we have had really bad things happen to really great people, and the ones who plan and proactively manage risk always end up better than those who don’t.
“We can have the right insurance in place, but it’s really about the risk management,” he adds. “We are focused on building deep relationships with our clients, understanding their business, and creating the best solutions to help them be successful.”
The agency’s customer-facing process includes quantifying risk, creating a customized risk management strategy, and providing clients the tools and resources they need to effectively manage their risk. The agency builds on its relationship by maintaining touch points through the renewal process, stewardship meetings, and ongoing risk evaluations.
During COVID-19, technology played a big role, with virtual meetings and using the agency’s digital infrastructure to provide and share documents. The agency uses technologies available from partners that handle everything from customer onboarding to database management to marketing and more.
Using one partner’s platform, for example, the agency made available to employers 250 online courses through the RiskSOURCE Academy Learning Management System, which fits in well in an era of increased remote working. “This has been a great way to support our clients in the education of their employees during challenging times,” Theders notes.
While tech is important, it’s just a tool. The agency in its AFTF entry said “… nothing replaces the value and importance of being there with a phone call to answer questions and to make sure our clients are doing okay.” Results include a 97% retention rate and, the agency noted, “100% of the time, we discover a gap in coverage through our risk assessments.”
The agency’s digital efforts were particularly valuable as the entire country dealt with fallout from the pandemic. Early agency activity focused on client outreach. The agency immeditaely emailed clients about how COVID-19 could affect their business. Within a week of local stay-at-home orders, team members created a COVID resource page on the agency website to share updates and resources that help clients and their businesses. They linked to government agency resources and shared information to help with developing contingency plans, managing a remote workforce, and more.
With the increase in working remotely, the firm also launched a section on its site that is dedicated to cyber security and created a return-to-work page with a free plan for returning to work safely. All of this was promoted through an e-newsletter and social media. In its AFTF submission, the agency said, “We realize that we have (a) an ongoing pipeline of meaningful information to share and (b) the need to share this information in dissectible bites. We are currently working on a strategy that will allow us to drip out information throughout a client or prospect journey so they can remain informed and aware of all resources available to them.”
Recognizing that virtual will be here to stay, the agency strengthened its focus on video messaging and has created a series of short clips that feature members of the team, including Theders, answering cyber-coverage questions.
The agency’s ongoing digital diligence helped employees respond to COVID-19. Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, the agency established an infrastructure that allows team members to work from home—and most did one day a week, so the transition this year to a remote workforce went smoothly.
Efforts to keep team members engaged included:
- Continuing weekly staff meetings via Microsoft Teams and finding ways to keep this time engaging with meeting themes like “crazy hat” day
- Engaging in group games like virtual trivia, bingo, and word searches and providing prizes to the winners
- Virtually continuing to celebrate team milestones like birthdays and work anniversaries
- Conducting talent development check-ins to stay on track with individual and group progress toward the agency’s annual and strategic plans
Theders created a meme series titled “Missing My Teammate” in which he highlighted a quirky trait of each teammate and impersonated them through a fun meme. The year ended with Theders as an Elf on the Shelf as part of the agency’s celebration of “12 weeks of Christmas.” The memes are shared through team emails and social media.
The agency surveyed teammates to better understand how the pandemic affected them personally and professionally. Agency leaders also wanted to learn how working remotely would change how the firm operates. Here is what we learned:
- 94% of the team think agency meetings are more effective when they’re remote
- The biggest impact is a better work/life balance due to no commute
- Most would like to continue the option of working remotely at least two days per week
- 100% felt cared for by the leadership team, and 100% felt communication from leadership has been effective
Reflections and recommendations
Shults describes receiving the Agent for the Future award as “an honor and affirmation of the importance of the work our team members are doing to move the agency into an even stronger position for the future.”
Theders concurs. “As a boutique mid-market insurance agency that’s competing every day with the large global brokers, earning the award shows we’re on the right track, that we’re doing the right thing. Innovation has always been a key part of our business, and we’re constantly looking at new ways to better serve our clients.”
Going forward, the agency is positioned for continued growth. In its award entry, the agency said, “Evolution for RiskSOURCE means constantly seeking out initiatives that allow for greater productivity and stronger operations while remaining personal and attentive to our clients. Technology is a critical piece of the art and science of our business, but it should always be an enhancement to the client relationship.
“From a mergers and acquisition standpoint, we envision RiskSOURCE as a leader in the boutique space and possibly a landing platform for smaller agencies to consider a home. We have spent the last decade building the technological infrastructure, and we continue to enhance our capabilities to leverage and scale into the future.
“Since technology is a big piece of who we are, we see our agency as a springboard for innovation in the industry. As IoT devices gain in popularity, providing the ability to deliver real-time analytics to manage risk, we would like to be a conduit that positions Cincinnati as a leader in this market. Our strong relationships will allow us to conduct product trials and deliver feedback to assist in the engineering of these devices.”
For others interested in building their capacity for the future, Shults offers a few pieces of advice:
- First, she says, “Create and share a vision. Start at the top and cascade the message to your team. Are they on board? When they buy in, they will be much better positioned to help your firm achieve its vision.
- Second, “Collaborate with your team on what works well for their workflows and with the client experience,” she advises. “Then start making a list of the gaps to find improvements and solutions.”
- Finally, “Hire and develop great teammates and talent. We promoted an associate into a role that is focused on all things digital, and doing so has allowed us to get more done and to get it done faster!”
Theders adds, “I believe the future of the broker is as a risk manager—engaging with clients and helping them, whether they’re personal or commercial. Regardless of the effect of online competition or commoditization, there will always be people who want someone who can help with their unique situation.
“For years, we have been insurance salespeople and providers of products, and that will always exist,” he adds. “But to set yourself apart, you need to be the risk management resource for businesses and families, to allow them to be the safest they can possibly be going into the future.”
Along with being named Agent for the Future, the Theders firm will have the opportunity to implement an agency growth or innovation project with the support of a mastermind group and a $5,000 contribution from Liberty Mutual/Safeco. The agency is planning to design a “service bot” it says would be unique to a boutique-style agency. The bot would focus on simple problems, freeing up time for team members to address more complex issues.
“This service automation would deliver interactive answers to client and prospect questions in real time, with little to no wait, so they can get the solutions they need or be pointed to the right RiskSOURCE team member for consultation,” Shults explains.
The estimated cost: $10,000; the agency plans to match the prize money to make the project a reality for 2021. “We see the mastermind expertise as a vital component of exploring the process and successfully developing and launching our new robotic teammate,” Theders adds.
UTAH-BASED AGENCY NAMED EMERGING LEADER
Majda Baltic, a refugee from Bosnia & Herzegovina, migrated to the states as a teen and got into insurance right after turning 18. She had been speaking English—her fifth language—for a few years and, she recalls, “I had a very hard time passing the (licensing) test; I quickly realized that insurance information was very hard to find online.” It took six tries before Baltic finally passed the test; determination clearly is a strong suit.
In some ways, she says, she was fortunate to enter the business before the tech explosion. “I learned to rate policies with a pencil, calculator, and rate book—the old school way! This sets me apart from other agents: I have the ability to understand why a rate is what it is … .”
Now that tech has exploded—and continued to evolve—Baltic is fortunate in another way. Thanks in part to innovative adoption of technology, the Salt Lake City-based agency she founded and leads, Majdas Touch Insurance, earned Emerging Leader honors as part of Safeco and Liberty Mutual’s Agent for the Future competition.
“Our agency has been structured to operate as a 100% virtual, 100% remote, and 100% green office since we opened,” Baltic notes. “When COVID hit, our office was completely unfazed by the turmoil our colleagues were experiencing.”
She adds, “Our branding is unique, our customer service is traditional, and our sales are modern. We stay connected with clients through social media platforms, and we have truly built a family. We make insurance simple, and our clients appreciate us for it.” A field rep dubbed Majdas Touch Insurance “The Anti-Agency of Agencies,” which Baltic calls the best compliment ever.
Baltic entered the competition and hoped to win the Emerging Leader award to recognize her team’s work in charting its path in the industry. “Early on, others doubted my processes, my vision, and my efforts,” she says, but once COVID-19 happened, things changed. “Agents were calling, looking for advice on how to move forward digitally. It turns out they hadn’t been disagreeing with my concepts as much as they couldn’t envision it themselves and therefore rejected it.”
She is eager to help the community of agents and says, “I’m very proud of our accomplishments, and it’s nice to get some recognition for that. It feels good.”
It feels good for team members, too. “There’s a lot of excitement, even though I don’t know if the weight of it—what it really means for our agency and our future—has really set in” during the short amount of time between when they learned they won and when she was interviewed for this article.
Note: Look for a feature story on Majdas Touch Insurance in an upcoming issue of Rough Notes.
For more information:
Agent for the Future