Agency of the Month
BRAND, CULTURE, AND THE POWER OF RELATIONSHIPS
FAST-GROWING NEW ENGLAND AGENCY FOCUSES ON COIs
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
When Matt Naimoli and Zack Gould met, they were friendly competitors at Liberty Mutual, where both were outside sales representatives striving to be the best. As the insurer’s top two agents nationally, they met at company functions for top producers and quickly became fast friends. That led to discussions about future opportunities where they could better utilize their sales acumen and entrepreneurial zeal. The one that stood out was the independent channel, where they would be able to offer more carrier options to clients and also be able to let their entrepreneurship loose and create their own future.
“When we were in the direct-writing channel,” Zack remembers, “we thought about how great it would be to have multiple carriers.” So, in 2010, they left their successful sales jobs and cofounded Southborough, Massachusetts-based G&N Insurance from scratch, with one carrier and no clients.
“For the first year and a half,” Zack continues, “we worked a tremendous number of hours trying to get more carriers and selling the fact that we had multiple carriers to potential clients. We had no choice but to focus all our energy on the top end of the sales funnel. We understood how to build relationships and were both willing to put in the hours necessary to generate revenue. In essence, for those first 18 months, we were an agency of hustle and sales.”
That wasn’t exactly differentiating them from the competition.
“There had to be a better way to reach clients at a time when the purchase of insurance was top of mind,” Matt says. “Clearly, one of those times was when they were purchasing real estate. The lender made insurance a requirement for every transaction. So we went to mortgage brokers, real estate attorneys and others who were involved in real estate transactions to become the agency they recommended to clients when they were looking for that required coverage.
“At the same time, we made great efforts to highlight and emphasize our brand so that we would stay top of mind with these new partners,” Matt continues. “We reached out to mentors in other industries to see what they were saying and doing on the Internet that would help us become a recognized brand.
“Since we spent a considerable amount of our time connecting with similar professionals, we were able to better understand what mattered to them and how we could provide real value,” he adds. “The first two years we were in business were spent focusing on selling. Once we found our unique differentiator, we spent the majority of our time listening to our referral partners so we could align our agency with their business goals.”
“One of the things that we noticed about our industry is that there is a significant focus on ROI. Everyone wants to be able to show a tangible result from each dollar of investment,” Zack points out. “That’s an important consideration with certain marketing campaigns, but we chose to adopt a longer-term perspective when it came to our branding strategy. We were going to invest in spreading our brand to our center-of-influence partners and to the potential clients they sent in our direction.
“We realized we both enjoyed being in front of the camera,” Zack continues. “So, once we had the funds to do so, we decided to concentrate on videos as a more effective way to broadcast our brand. We went all-in with video, tying in to social media to remain top of mind with all referral partners and to expand national awareness within our industry.”
“We didn’t start out with videos on day one,” Matt picks up the thought. “We spent the first five years growing the agency and making sure it was properly run, including bringing in a business coach to help us build our entrepreneurial focus and run the agency with a culture that rewarded people and made them lifetime employees who enjoyed what they were doing. Once we had the resources, we ventured into vlogs by hiring a full-time videographer and editor to help us develop video presentations that highlighted who we were and what we stood for. Today, we have a full-time marketing department that helps us develop and publish content daily.”
Vlog the Regaler
Okay, I know that some of you are waiting for a quote from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Well, I hate to disappoint you, but there won’t be one. I chose regale because it is defined as “to entertain or amuse with talk,” and that’s exactly what the G&N Insurance vlogs do.
“What we chose to highlight is strategic and intentional,” Matt points out. “We’re not asking for help or business in the vlog. Instead, we focus on motivational, informational and entertaining content.
“In today’s world,” he continues, “the consumer has access to such a great amount of information that you have to produce content that people want to watch. In a lot of ways, we’ve developed a kind of reality TV-type vlog.”
Zack says that the newest vlogs will show their morning and evening routines “so people can see why we do things. There’s been a lot of talk about transparency in all industries. Well, I would have to say that we are completely transparent. It’s a very noisy world. People crave something real and I think we offer that.” The fact that the G&N Insurance vlogs attract between 10,000 and 20,000 viewers every week certainly backs up that claim.
Starting in 2013, G&N Insurance developed a new way to show appreciation and recognize loan officers, real estate agents and attorneys who brought them warm leads. They created custom-made bobbleheads of each one and delivered them to their rightful owners. There is probably nothing that is less like the stodgy image that insurance “enjoys.” This was something unique that underscored the fact that success can be achieved while having fun. That is one of the core values of the agency— to make insurance fun.
“We’re doing what we love, and we want every one of our employees to have the same experience,” Zack says. “We were lucky to attract good people, people who believe in our core values and would offer exceptional service to clients, prospects, COIs and one another. And then we lead by stepping back and letting each person shine. Our people feel very valued. You can see that in our videos.
“The three core values that we articulate to all our clients and referral partners are:
- We do whatever it takes.
- We find ways to help.
- We have fun together.
“Sure, we offer company perks like outings and other company-sponsored events, great benefits and a good salary,” Zack continues. “But that’s not what’s really important—it’s what employees should get. The real differentiator that makes our company special is that we focus on delegating and elevating. This lets each person at the agency have a voice in determining the best solutions to their own issues. We support them and, of course, hold them accountable.
“Our people have a tremendous sense of responsibility to the agency and to our partners and clients,” he adds. “They’re doing something that they love. And leaders only get ahead by having employees who love what they do.”
To date, more than 1,000 bobbleheads of G&N employees and referral partners have been delivered. You can see some of them on most of the social media outlets G&N uses to remain in constant contact with its partners, clients and prospects, including Instagram (#BobbleOn), Facebook, and YouTube. All told, the agency has six platforms of video integration on the Internet.
“We have more than 100 referral partners, and they send us more than 500 warm leads every month,” Matt says. “And because clients are referred by trusted partners, our closing ratio tops 75% and our retention rate is at an industry-leading 96%. We have more than 10,000 clients. We’re writing between $125,000 and $150,000 in new business premium every week, and it’s staying with us.
“We don’t worry about GEICO because, despite their huge resources, GEICO just can’t compete with us locally,” he adds. And today, “locally” means all of New England. In Massachusetts, the agency insures more than 7% of all real estate transactions annually. And it started out with nothing in 2010.
Perhaps more important, because they are having fun, Matt and Zack want to share their experience with agencies around the country. They aren’t hiding their “secret sauce”; they’re offering it to everyone. They coach and mentor more than 100 agencies nationwide for free and have presented their program at agency conferences from coast to coast. They epitomize the “friendly competition” that has been a hallmark of the independent agency system, where successful agencies have gone out of their way to help others succeed.
They also epitomize the generosity that independent agents have shown by supporting more than a dozen local charities with both time and dollars.
The agency has enjoyed annual growth of 35% to 40% since its start. That’s growth in policy count, premiums and revenues. And it’s all thanks to a grassroots networking effort that uses both social media and shoe leather to reach centers of influence within a niche who can generate warm referrals. G&N has shown the way that businesses can use social media to brand and broadcast within a vertical market.
There’s more than one way to succeed in the independent agency business, and G&N Insurance is offering a unique, exciting and fun way to do that. Matt and Zack are committed to working with agencies to help them join in transforming the industry.
“We are large and we’re growing at a rapid clip, but our most valuable asset is our brand. Our brand is the best hedge against disruption, so our ability to articulate who we are allows us to differentiate against competition and strengthen our position as a niche expert. There is no better way to showcase what makes you special than using video and social media to broadcast your brand and culture,” Matt concludes.
G&N Insurance is offering agencies an alternative way of doing business that has certainly been successful for them. Time will tell if it is the future of the business or one of many futures as other independent agencies experiment with new ways of reaching clients and prospects. Zack concludes by saying “We’re excited about where we are going next.” Stay tuned.
And we conclude by saying that G&N definitely deserves recognition as the Rough Notes Agency of the Month.
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.