Pandemic fallout and technical advances call for new thinking
With the current difficulty finding new employees, offering advanced education
and opportunities will be the key to retaining your talent.
By Mary Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, and Cheryl Koch, CPCU, ARM, AAI, ACSR, AFIS
The scope of agency management and operations—inside matters—has expanded beyond our imagination. The pandemic has served as a catalyst for exposing the myriad challenges that led us to this point. Agency owners are struggling with these issues, and the calls and emails we receive daily have convinced us that we need to offer the industry we love as much help as we can to navigate these difficult times.
Cheryl Koch has graciously agreed to join me, Mary Belka, in providing operational and management perspectives that we hope will be thought-provoking and ultimately helpful to agency owners and associates. For years we have done our best work together, and we appreciate the opportunity to bring that energy to all of you through our column.
Here we are in 2022, facing a firm, if not hard, insurance market in many lines of commercial insurance; ongoing natural and man-made calamities that impact the ability of people to obtain certain types of insurance at an affordable price; and the challenges and opportunities presented by a post-pandemic world with an increasingly remote workforce.
It is at this very time that our agency associates need to know more, yet it seems in some cases we have taken a step backward when it comes to professional development and advanced learning, despite the fact there are likely more tools and resources available than have ever existed before. What has conspired to bring about this situation and what can be done about it? We offer the following thoughts on how you can keep both learning and development at the forefront of your agency’s culture:
Training and development must be intentional. Think back on your first weeks, months and years in the insurance industry. For most of us, that involved coming together physically in our shared office space, where much learning occurred “accidentally” as we overheard conversations or popped our head into someone’s office to ask that quick question or confirm what we thought was correct.
In today’s virtual office, that’s no longer going to happen. Many account managers who were hired during the pandemic and continue to work remotely have shared that they feel isolated and alone. This is not only a challenge for preserving the culture of the organization, but it may also stunt an employee’s professional growth.
How many organizations actually incorporate intentional learning into their workday? If “lunch and learn” was important pre-pandemic, it’s even more critical now; and with the many interactive platforms available today, there’s no reason it can’t be equally beneficial to remote employees as it is to those in the office. Or how about implementing “Webinar Wednesday” where you take 20 to 30 minutes tackling a topic of interest to everyone in a department? You can have a different person prepare a brief presentation, then discuss it as a group. We all know the best way to learn is to teach, so both presenter and participant will benefit.
It’s an investment, not an expense. When we look at the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America (IIABA) Best Practices Study, one thing to note is the amount of money that agencies are spending on training and development. Across every one of the six revenue categories, spending is less than 1% of the agency’s total revenue. In fact, it’s highest for the smallest agencies (less than $2.5 million revenue) at 0.7% of revenue; however, for larger agencies, it’s .28% on average. Clearly, we are seeing this as an expense that should be minimized versus an investment that should be optimized.
If you’re doing the math, keep in mind that amount is aggregated for the entire agency, so if you put the cost for you to attend your state Big “I” annual convention under Training and Education, we know where that money is being spent. We can and must do better. Many benchmarks suggest that total spending on training should be between 2% and 6% of payroll. If you’re not leading the way in education, likely your staff is falling behind.
With the current difficulty in finding new employees, offering advanced education and opportunities will be the keyto retaining your talent. Both Millennials and Generation Z employees indicate a major reason they would take or stay in a job is access to formal training and education.
First it became digital, then it disappeared. Back in the day, account managers and others had a lot of resources, but they weren’t always easy to get to or kept up to date. Many of us remember the various manuals we kept in the office, and often there was a pile of new pages sitting alongside that had yet to be filed away.
Today, everything is literally at each person’s fingertips, yet many agency employees don’t know that the tools and resources even exist or how they can help provide a better experience for your clients. As soon as everything became available online, it was as though it all just disappeared. There are four or five reference manuals that are essential for account managers, yet most don’t know how to access them, what is contained in them, or how that’s relevant to the job they do.
- The Insurance Services Office (ISO) Commercial Lines Manual (CLM). This is literally “the bible” for those who handle commercial insurance. The CLM contains all of ISO’s rules and rating methodologies, and it’s the same manual embedded in most insurance company systems and used by underwriters every day. Take a relatively simple client request, such as how much additional premium would it cost to increase a liability limit from $1 million to $2 million. Circa 1995, that was something an account manager could calculate in the agency by looking up the increased limit factor and using simple math. Today, that request is either done in the insurance carrier system or, worse yet, requested from the underwriter. More time, more effort and poorer service to the client.
- M. Best Underwriting Guide. If you need to know what loss exposures are present for any type of account, this is your go-to source. From acupuncture clinics to zebra farms, it’s all spelled out for each type of risk and line of insurance. If your agency has niches or special-ties, this is where you look to anticipate the kinds of questions the underwriter is going to ask when you make a submission. It’s always easier to provide the information the first time than to have to follow up with a prospect or client later.
- Rough Notes Advantage-Plus. In addition to the electronic version of this magazine, The Rough Notes Company has put together an entire suite of products that includes personal and commercial risk surveys, the PF&M (Policy Forms & Manual Analysis) technical manual, including ISO and AAIS (American Association of Insurance Services) forms and other practical tools that benefit producers and account managers.
- NCCI (National Council on Compensation Insurance) or independent bureau Workers Compensation manual. What the CLM is to other lines of commercial business, the NCCI manual is to workers compensation. Although highly state-specific, the “rules” for workers compensation are all spelled out in each state’s manual.
Individual professional development plan. Every person in the agency should have a specific, professional development plan or career map. Agency management can provide the framework, based upon the specific position and agency goals. Employees should be an integral part of the individual professional development planning process.
We have long advocated an education career path that focuses on meeting technical insurance milestones, including national level designations. A professional development plan goes beyond that to include the development of other skills such as business communication, negotiation, technology, leadership and the like, all of which contribute to high performance in the agency environment. These so-called “soft skills” are often overlooked or minimized, but in today’s environment where these skill sets are now missing, it has become apparent that along with technical insurance knowledge, they provide the foundation for excellence in the independent agency.
It’s not processing—it’s a profession. We often hear agency owners say, “But what if we train them and they leave?” To that we respond, “What if you don’t, and they stay?” Our business is not getting any simpler; quite the contrary. What we sell are complex legal contracts that are not read or understood by our clients. They rely on account managers to be educators and advisors—and to manage all aspects of day-to-day account servicing.
We don’t simply do a job—we are insurance professionals, and one of the hallmarks of a professional is to have advanced training and education, as well as the ability to communicate that knowledge to our clients in terms they understand. Are your account managers up to the task? Without superior knowledge, how do we provide superior client service?
Re-infusing professional development into your agency culture will help you to attract and retain the best associates—and to meet your clients’ needs. Professional development doesn’t just happen. It must be intentional. Professional development is built around planning, accountability, and execution. All three are essential, and all three are intertwined.
Mary M. Belka is owner and CEO of Eisenhart Consulting Group, Inc., providing management and operations consulting to the insurance industry. She also is an endorsed agency E&O auditor for Swiss Re/Westport. A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Mary holds the CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, and CPIW designations.
Cheryl Koch is the owner of Agency Management Resource Group, a California firm providing training, education and consulting to producers, account managers and owners of independent agencies. She has a BA in Economics from UCLA and an MBA from Sacramento State University. She has also earned several insurance professional designations: CPCU, CIC, ARM, AAI, AAI-M, API, AIS, AAM, AIM, ARP, AINS, ACSR, AFIS, MLIS,