AGENCY OF THE MONTH
THE FIRST AGENCY ON MARS
Zinc leads the industry’s counterculture as it creates technological ways to reach “Yes”
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
“Will that work on Mars?” may not seem like a question that would be asked at an insurance agency, but then there aren’t many agencies like Zinc, which under the leadership of Seth Zaremba has become an incubator for technology that revolutionizes the way agents reach and serve customers. “Over the last four years, we have become a laboratory for technology,” Seth says. “And I have to give credit to our people for their willingness to adapt to almost daily change as we enjoy successes and a number of failures as well,” he continues.
“We are sharply focused on the customer experience and on the people and technology required to make the customer experience great. To do this successfully, we must develop our technological innovations in a way that is artfully human.”
In 2008, Seth started the agency in Broadview Heights, Ohio, just outside Cleveland. “Due to a non-compete that I had, we started with less than zero. My plan was to leverage technology to outperform the service and marketing capabilities of my competitors. We adopted the best technology that was available and were absolutely disappointed with what was out there. What was available did almost nothing to support ‘smart’ marketing and prospecting. So three and a half years ago we made a lifelong commitment, and I decided to mortgage everything I had in order to build our own platform—one that used artificial intelligence effectively to reach consumers at precisely the time they were ready to make a purchase decision.”
The results of that leap of faith are startling. At the end of 2014, Zinc had 2.5 people (two full time and one part time) writing about $3 million in business. Today there are 19 people doing more than $16 million in sales.
“We searched the marketplace for a vendor that would work with us to develop a system that provided intelligence on the customer experience, along with prospecting, marketing and identifying core customers who were in desired classes and were ready to make an insurance decision,” Seth says. “Salesforce found our idea intriguing and agreed to work with us to automate an independent agency from end to end and for the first time include insurance marketing as a core behavior. Because many insurance companies were familiar with Salesforce and were adopting platform technology, they also were willing to accept our approach and, most important, our strategy.
“Once our carriers saw how effective our approach was, they moved from acceptance to raving fandom. They are willing to invest more in us because of that. We can show them the ROI on any dollars they deploy with us for marketing support. We can put it in terms of actual written premiums that will result from a successful marketing strategy.”
Reaching preferred clients
“Basically, our platform uses the disciplines of behavioral economics supported by technological intelligence to reach each insurance company’s desired classes,” Seth explains. “We find out why our insurers want those classes, what makes them attractive and where they are going for information. We then use that information to find prospects digitally.
“Once that has happened, we develop a digital marketing plan by creating content that is directed at those core prospects. Our software allows us to determine at what time of day they are reading about insurance so we can reach them with our information at those times.
“As this is going on, our machines are scoring their interest all along. This information is turned over to a salesperson who knows the class. When that salesperson sees that it is time to approach the prospect, he or she already knows what they are reading about, as well as their social profile, and is able to talk intelligently with the prospect about any concerns, insurance or otherwise, to establish a trusted advisor relationship that we hope will win us the prospect initially and retain them in the future.
“The same technique is used to help us see how our customers experience their relationship with our agency,” Seth continues. “We regularly send them information and know whether and when they are reading it. We know how much time they spend with it and so on. At the same time, our machine intelligence lets us know if they are interested in other matters.”
A simple example is when a personal lines client starts searching sites about boats. The agency salesperson is able to approach the client and talk about boat insurance, as well as provide information about boating safety. The idea is to help the client determine whether the purchase of a boat is a wise decision. Most important, this approach places agency personnel at the forefront as advisors who are there to help the client determine the efficacy of a potential major purchase.
Unleashing the power
In a lot of ways, technology is like Spiderman. It has great power and, as all Marvel fans know, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Seth is committed to unleashing this great power in a way that ultimately will benefit customers. “We are sharply focused on the customer experience,” he says, “and on the people and technology required to make the customer experience great. To do this successfully, we must develop our technological innovations in a way that is artfully human.”
He continues: “We are developing data to determine profitability, not just for ourselves but for our customers. The intelligence we are able to glean from our ventures into the world of artificial intelligence must be used for the benefit of our customers. In essence, we are the artists who use technology as our palette to create an experience that our customers can be enjoy. When we develop information, we must use it for that purpose.
“Our primary job is to help people. This tool allows our people to provide more assistance to our customers than any of our competitors. We know their businesses more intimately because of the insights we get from AI, and we use that information not only to help them reach the correct risk transfer solutions but also to help them achieve an improved bottom line. When Zinc people visit a client or prospect, they are armed with insights they can deliver so they can truly become a valued partner to the customer.”
Attracting great people
“One of the greatest things that has happened here at Zinc is that our approach has resulted in our being able to attract great people from all generations,” Seth says. “Most of the people who are here did not start out in insurance and probably never intended to work in insurance. They wound up here because they want to help people and enjoy the challenge of change.
“You have to be a really brave person to work at Zinc. Every day you come in, something will be different. We’re always tweaking things to make them work better for our customers and even throwing stuff out and replacing it with a new system or approach for the same reason. We always strive to provide the best value for our customers and realize that, while we will never be perfect in that regard, we are committed to working toward that goal.
“Needless to say, the result is a culture that is open to change and willing to take a risk, so long as it is intended to help the customer,” Seth continues. “It’s always been surprising to me that we work in an industry whose job is helping people handle risk and yet it is such a risk-averse industry.
“That’s not true here. We take risks every day, constantly trying out new ideas, some of which work and some that don’t. Maybe that’s why we have such a unique blend of employees who are learning on the job every day. They’re inquisitive and aggressive and driven and most of all focused on helping others. We tend to attract the Rocky Balboa types—the grinders who learn by doing and by not repeating mistakes.”
All you have to do to know that Zinc is a different kind of agency is to visit their office. “We’re an insurance agency inside an art gallery,” Seth says with a smile. “And it’s unique and different art that fits with our being a unique and different insurance agency.”
Not surprisingly, one of the unique coverages that was developed by Zinc is its Artist & Craft Artist Insurance program. The program covers individual artists and craft artists and extends liability coverage at the artist’s home or studio and at exhibition sites. It also provides full product liability coverage for sold items. The business property portion protects equipment, supplies and finished work on an all- risks basis.
“We view ourselves as risk artists,” Seth says, “so it’s only natural that we would provide coverage to our compatriots. This industry needs a counterculture that questions authority and the old-school way of doing business. We’re at the vanguard of that new culture. I work with my brother and sister astronauts, preparing to become the first operational agency on Mars. Our system will work there. Now we just need to find a super-regional insurer that wants to add Mars to its operating territory. I think we could guarantee 100% penetration.”
Rough Notes is pleased to recognize Zinc as our Agency of the Month for, as Seth concludes, “remaining true to our core and refusing to conform. We accept risk, explore the uncharted, challenge assumptions and are unapologetically us.”
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.