BY AGENTS, FOR AGENTS
People, passion and future focus help HawkSoft win raves from client management system customers
By Dave Willis, CPIA
The genesis of HawkSoft dates back to the 1980s when Sean Hawkins, son of HawkSoft President and Chief Executive Officer Paul Hawkins, was in elementary school. Paul recalls, “Sean’s teacher called me and said, ‘Mr. Hawkins, we’ve got a problem with your son.’ I responded, ‘Oh no, what did he do?’’’ Allaying Paul’s fears, the teacher explained that Sean was doing his work upside down and with his left hand. He thought Sean was bored and recommended that Paul buy him a computer.
It wasn’t a hard sell; Paul was contemplating buying a computer anyway. But the teacher added a condition, and that really jump-started HawkSoft. “He said to not buy any software or games, but instead get a certain book on programming,” Paul says. “That one piece of advice paved the way for Sean and me to grow up together under the umbrella of programming. The relationship we had—and have to this day—is very different from that of many other fathers and sons. We grew to be best friends.”
With some programming experience under their belts—and before thoughts of insurance software entered their minds—Paul went to work for a company that imported cheese from around the world. “They would bring Brie in from France; it had a pretty short shelf life back then because it was not pasteurized,” Paul recalls. “We would lose whole palettes of Brie because it wasn’t used in the proper order.”
The problem was that the company had no inventory software. “Sean and I—mostly Sean—wrote inventory software and took it to my boss,” Paul recalls. “He was astounded.” The company had just fielded quotes from vendors of such software and found all of the proposals to be too expensive. The software Sean and Paul created did more than what the vendors were offering and what the boss was looking to buy.
“The boss gave me a sizable check, which I took home to Sean,” Paul says. “I said, ‘See what we did?’ Sean’s eyes got huge. He was in eighth grade and he said, ‘Dad, someday you and I will be partners in our own business, and we’ll call it HawkSoft.”
Before long, Paul became an insurance agent and he and Sean started writing software for his captive agency. A few years later, Paul moved to the independent side of the business and found strong need there. “We wrote software for the large nonstandard auto agency I worked for,” Paul notes. “Then some other agencies asked about the program, and we found ourselves in the software business. We signed our first customers in October 1995—and we’re proud to say those earliest agencies are still with us 24 years later!”
Canby, Oregon-based HawkSoft has grown from the father-son duo to 100 team members serving the needs of thousands of independent agency professionals working in agencies ranging in size from single-person shops to a group with 600 users.
“We got our start blanketing the western corridor of the United States—from Washington to California,” explains Rushang Shah, HawkSoft director of marketing. “We’ve always excelled in personal lines, but in the last 20 years we’ve expanded to the commercial side and now have a nationwide footprint. The Northeast is our strongest growth area. Our system scales from pure personal lines agencies to firms doing only commercial business.”
The software performs the full range of agency functions, from quoting and rating to customer relationship management to financial reporting and more. The features, while important, are not the big differentiator. “Early on we decided we needed to offer extreme customer service,” Paul notes. “Just like their policyholders, the most important thing agencies want is for someone to be there when they need help. Management systems can be very complex, and if agency staff can’t get support quickly, they get frustrated.”
Through most of HawkSoft’s existence, Paul says, growth came from delivering remarkable service and then letting customers do the marketing. “We didn’t have a marketing department for the first two decades of our existence,” he recalls. “If we had customers in a particular state, we’d attend the state association trade show, mostly to support those customers. For the most part, our growth has been organic, with satisfied customers sharing their experience with peers.”
Once they’re in, agencies stay because the product meets their needs. “One key metric we proudly shout from the rooftops is our retention,” Rushang says. “Agencies stay with HawkSoft on average for 18 years, and most who leave don’t do so because they’re switching to another system; more often it’s because they sold the agency.”
Asked why they stay, many customers cite user experience. “Workflows are very intuitive,” Rushang explains. “This goes back to our roots. Many management systems got their start as accounting or finance packages and then later added policyholder workflow features.
“Our story is backwards,” he continues. “We were built by insurance agents to optimize daily workflows that mattered to their staff. To engage a standard workflow may take two or three steps in our system, but the same workflow may take 10 steps in another system. This is a huge part of why customers stick with us.”
Paul recalls a recent case where an agent did leave. “He was very vocal about us not doing a good job for agents, and he left under a cloud,” he says. “He was gone for a few months before he came back, quite apologetic. Some of his staff had quit. Others threatened to quit if he didn’t go back to HawkSoft. He said workflows in the other system were less intuitive and took longer. Policy downloads were mapped incorrectly. Worst of all, he said, there was a general sense of malaise in the office.”
It’s more than product that keeps customers around. “I was just at the IAOA (Insurance Agency Owners Alliance) annual meeting,” Paul says, “and we have a lot of customers there. Like at other conferences, they would come up to me and say things like, ‘I love your people’ or ‘You have such great people’ or ‘Your people don’t talk down to me; they want to help.’ We work with users like they’re family. They’re that important to us, and that makes a difference.”
It goes back to something an early employer drilled into Paul. “My mentor, the guy who owned the agency where I worked when I started doing this and who later became my sales manager, told me, ‘The most important thing you can do is surround yourself with good people.’ I can say that’s something I’ve done.”
Rushang hears similar comments. “We were doing a video interview with an agency principal and she said, putting aside the product capabilities and the customer service, the one thing she appreciates more than anything is that everyone in HawkSoft is so accessible, from Paul at the CEO level all the way through the organization. She said it’s like how everyone in a family is accessible, adding that it’s very difficult to find this kind of accessibility elsewhere in this market.”
The notion of family bounced around Paul’s mind enough recently that he created an unofficial company tagline—or maybe it’s just a Paulism. “I was speaking to a group of agents and I described HawkSoft as ‘a family-owned business in a family industry that protects families,’” he says.
Belief in the family-centric independent agency system also underpins HawkSoft’s success. “This is one of the finest industries anywhere,” Paul asserts. “People are caring and family-oriented, and if someone isn’t—if they are not honest, high-integrity people—the industry will get rid of them quickly. I love the agency channel and want nothing more than for it to succeed.”
Changing industry needs drive Paul and his team. “Watch TV and you see one commercial after another all pounding price and commoditizing the personal lines insurance product,” Paul observes. “This is leading a lot of independent agencies to focus more on commercial lines. And it’s causing independent agencies to market more than ever before.”
Many agencies don’t know how to market effectively. “We’re helping them,” Paul says. “Being able to help them understand marketing, how to touch customers, giving them the tools to do so, and then helping them to make changes more easily—when they want to and how—those are the things that keep me up at night. We need to provide tools that help independent agents compete.”
Passion has led Paul to industry engagement. In 2017 the company won the inaugural Andy Fogarty AUGIE Industry Impact Award for its work to encourage agencies using HawkSoft to become more aware of current and potential carrier download opportunities. (See the January 2018 Rough Notes story.)
“Also, I sit on a vendor council with nine competitors to see what we can do to help the independent agency channel,” Paul notes. “Yes, we are competitors, but we’re also on the same team. If we don’t promote the independent agency channel and help it thrive, we’re all out of work.”
Rushang sees more agencies under-standing what he calls “the existential need to focus on their core expertise—building community relationships, educating people about risk management, and creating a unique brand—and leaving back-office operations to outside experts.” The firm took this into account as it recently introduced HawkSoft Managed Accounting Services.
Based in a new office in New Bern, North Carolina, “HawkSoft Managed Accounting Services provides out-
sourced trust and operating accounting, bank and commission reconciliation, and payroll services for insurance agencies,” explains Crystal Erlitz, CISR Elite, manager of the new unit. “We can do as little or as much as an agency needs. Some just need bank reconciliation. Others use the full-service package. Our job is to let agents do what they do best; we handle what most people really don’t care to do.”
PNI, an independent agency in Kirkland, Washington, uses the service. The 25-year-old property and casualty firm writes about 70% personal lines and 30% commercial. It’s a nine-person shop doing business in the Pacific Northwest and other western states.
“Our focus is on providing whatever is best for the client’s interest,” explains agency President Robert James. The agency has used HawkSoft for two yearsand last year signed on for the Managed Accounting Services. As part of a 17-member aggregator, the agency previously used a shared accounting professional who last year announced her intention to retire. “With her exit we needed to figure out a better solution,” James recalls. “Along came HawkSoft and Crystal.”
Initial discussions focused on communication commitments—an important factor given the cross-country relationship the agency was contemplating with Crystal. “I wanted to identify her work model and communication model and the commitments behind that,” he explains. “Her focus on details and her specialization with the HawkSoft system made it a natural selection.”
He got what he bargained for and more. “Accessibility is extremely important,” James notes. “I can’t tell you how many times I texted Crystal at three or four in the morning Pacific time and got a reply right away for something that probably should have waited. ROI for me is the ability to get what I need so I can move on to other important things.”
Crystal says the success of the model comes from her team’s knowledge of bookkeeping, insurance, and management systems. (They have expertise with a number of popular agency management systems.) “We know HawkSoft as well as anyone in the agent’s office,” she explains. “We know trust accounting, which is an incredible asset, and also operating accounting. We can run payroll, reconcile bank accounts, reconcile commissions—we’re a one-stop shop. Plus, we operate with the philosophy, ‘What’s urgent to my customer is urgent to me.’”
Managed services are just a part of HawkSoft’s future. As it helps agents focus on core competencies, the firm is moving aggressively to the cloud and is building a Partner API platform that lets outside parties integrate with the management system. “We offer a marketplace where agents choose from a list of integrations,” Rushang explains. “We invite vendors to be involved and grow their business.”
It’s all part of being ready to serve the next generation of agents. “Tomorrow’s employees are accustomed to subscriptions,” he comments. “Agents who join the insurance business in the next 10 years will come from a world where you subscribe to a service to handle almost any aspect of life.
“We want to break down barriers for people who are excited and connected to their community—help them become agents and not have to worry about all the back-office details,” he adds. “We offer the software and can handle back-office tasks through managed services. This lets agents build relationships, get involved in their communities, explain insurance, and be available to their neighbors during the rainy days of life.”
Paul also sees engagement with insureds as important. “Not only will our API and other offerings let agents do more; they also will let customers engage. For years we’ve always keyed in on agents. Now it’s more important than ever to key in on insureds as a way to help agents do their job better.”
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