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CUSTOMER SERVICE IN A VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT

CUSTOMER SERVICE IN A VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT

CUSTOMER SERVICE IN A VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT
February 25
08:37 2021

Customer Service Focus

By Bruce McCreadie, CCI, AAI, CPIA

CUSTOMER SERVICE IN A VIRTUAL ENVIRONMENT

What your agency needs to operate a non-brick-and-mortar setting

Quality customer service is a basic operational fundamental for the successful insurance agency. Since an agency’s financial success is dependent upon the recurring commissions derived from our clients’ ongoing renewing insurance policies, we must provide solid nonwavering customer service and support to our clients.

Some of these services and support basic fundamentals include:

  • Timely responses to clients’ inquiries and needs
  • Timely processing of clients’ new and renewal business
  • Open multi-channel lines of communication
  • Quality-check reviews of all policies, endorsements, and communications prior to making them available to the client
  • When communicating with clients, making them feel that they are the most important client you have
  • Having a great attitude, good manners, and friendly demeanor in client communications

As a general rule, we find most agencies do a pretty good job at servicing their clients. With the current pandemic situation, many agencies found themselves in a whole new world of how to best take care of their clients, as well as their employees, all while being unwillingly tossed into the virtual world. Sending employees home to set up makeshift offices was an interesting undertaking that some agencies handled better than others.

Many agency owners and managers found that not being able to see their team personally created management concerns, most of which they eventually experienced were unrealized. The requirements to set up remote access to allow for the continued operations of the agency were manyfold—requiring many IT changes, the purchasing of new equipment, and the establishment of new operational procedures for servicing clients.

In today’s technology driven world, it is possible to provide excellence in customer service and support virtually while all along keeping an above-average client retention ratio.

For many agencies that already had established remote scenarios for some of their employees as their standard operating procedures, the transition was not as difficult. And for a handful of agencies that were already 100% virtual, there was no transition at all; they already operated fully in the remote world, pandemic or not. This is where our agency has been for a decade: 100% virtual.

Our journey began when I was fortunate enough to have met an agency owner at a Certified Insurance Counselor (CIC) class in Phoenix, Arizona, about 15 years ago. In our discussions about her agency, she told me that the total number of employees in her operation was eight, and that they did not have an office; everyone worked remotely. They would meet once a week at a restaurant (pre-Zoom) and discuss new business, renewal business, and current issues. I found the premise purely fascinating, especially when she told me the agency revenue was close to $5 million, or over $500,000 per employee!

A little over a decade ago, I was given the opportunity to obtain my book of business and set up an agency (my third), which I gladly accepted. But this time there would be no brick-and-mortar buildings, no servers for either our automation systems or phone and fax systems. We were going to be 100% virtual and utilize the technology available through cloud providers (data centers).

So the big question is: Can an agency provide solid quality customer service in a virtual environment? As many agencies have discovered during this pandemic, the answer is unequivocal. Absolutely it can, and can be done while maintaining high retention ratios (95%-plus). So, let’s explore why and how this is possible.

The model

The most important factor is your business model. For many agencies, especially in small communities, their business model is one where many of their clients drop in to pay premiums, report claims, or just to have a cup of coffee. While the technology capabilities of a virtual agency can be used and are encouraged to be used in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, certainly the virtual aspect is not possible for this business model. But for most agencies, it is a rarity in today’s world to have a client or prospect actually stop by their office.

Even though our agency had local clients as well as clients across the country in 30 other states, we had not seen a client come to our office in years. Our business model was one of going to our clients’ locations—meeting them at a coffee shop, restaurant, or at association conventions—and additionally contacting them via online meetings, email, text, or phone. Consequently, a virtual model made lots of sense. And if your agency basically operates this way or you think you might want it to, then a virtual model just might be for you as well.

The virtual agency model is simple: you have an agency address (typically a P.O. Box), all of your technology is in the cloud, your staff works remotely from home (or another location from anywhere in the United States), and your clients will experience excellence in customer service and support regardless of the proximity to the agency’s mailing address.

Let’s break this information down a little further:

  • The agency address can be the principal’s home address (as the Post Office will deliver all mail to an address regardless of the name on the parcel). Typically, a box at a post office local to the principal or agency manager is best. The cost savings over a brick-and-mortar location in most cases is substantial.
  • All of your agency technology (including your agency phone system) would lie resident at a data center (the cloud) that would manage all of your systems and programs and provide 24-7 service and support. All authorized users would sign in with their credentials from any enabled device to gain access to their agency desktop, much like they do now in a brick-and-mortar setting. Your agency phone/fax system would route calls from the team members’ extensions to another phone, for example, one set up at employees’ remote-work premises, or even just their work cell phone (preferred in most cases). This IT model typically is less expensive and more effective and efficient than the standard brick-and-mortar IT model of servers. On a side note, I have held communications with clients, voice and otherwise, from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with them being none the wiser; all that was needed was an internet connection.
  • Your pool of staff candidates is now national versus local, making available to the agency a much larger group of qualified candidates, and management of human resources can be handled nationally by a PEO (Professional Employer Organization) to include hiring support, payroll, benefits, workers compensation, etc. The lack of a commute for team members typically results in a happier team member with a better demeanor than when they had to deal with traffic, weather, etc. In most cases, team members spend more time taking care of the agency business.
  • Most important, customer service and support will be greatly enhanced. If you are adopting a virtual business model, you probably did not have client traffic coming through your office and were basically already servicing your clients via electronic methods. The adaptation of additional technology and/or enhancement of your existing technology can make your team more effective and efficient in serving your clients. And frankly, all a client wants is easy communication over multiple options, fast and timely responses and service, and to feel welcomed and appreciated—all provided in a courteous manner by a knowledgeable insurance professional. All of this can be achieved via the virtual business model, all while maintaining a high client-retention ratio.

New business

But what about new business when utilizing the virtual business model? Let’s first discuss referrals. The most successful methods will not change! They actually may be enhanced. What about other new local-area personal and commercial lines business? For this article’s purpose, we will assume you have a robust marketing program utilizing internet resources including multiple social media resources as well as traditional marketing resources. If you are not, you will want to make this part of your transition to the virtual business model.

Further, if you are not utilizing these resources and you find the virtual business model intriguing, you need to consider updating your marketing program and utilize these resources for your brick-and-mortar business model. As for your local marketing plan, nothing should change; it does not need to!

What about new business outside of your local area? I know of many virtual agencies that write personal lines across the country, especially high-net-worth clients. Remember, these individuals typically have assets across the country; they do not care where their agent is. What they care about is ease of excellent customer service; again, just what the virtual agency business model provides (assuming you have the professionals who know that business).

From a commercial lines standpoint, you can expand your reach countrywide, but this typically takes being an expert in target/niche markets and providing an expertise in a prospect’s business that they cannot find locally. Even most commercial lines clients do not care where an agency is located as long as they can get the coverage they need in an effective and efficient manner with good customer service. Our agency typically grows 15% to 20% a year, writing clients across the United States, some we still have never met personally.

Retention

Client retention is how the insurance agency survives, and client retention is the result of exceptional customer service and support. In today’s technology driven world, it is possible to provide excellence in customer service and support virtually while all along keeping an above-average client retention ratio.

The advantages of the virtual agency to both the clients and agency team members for most agencies well out-performs the brick-and-mortar model on most fronts. And the expansion of new business opportunities on a national basis is endless.

The virtual agency model certainly seems like a win/win scenario for all stakeholders.

The author

Bruce McCreadie, CCI, AAI, CPIA, is the CEO of McCreadie & McCreadie, Inc., an agency specializing in insurance and risk management for professional employer organizations and staffing firms. Bruce is on the national faculty of The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research and has served on the board of directors of The National Alliance as well as state insurance boards.

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