LESSONS FROM THE PANDEMIC: FAILING TO PLAN IS PLANNING TO FAIL
Go beyond just using tech and learn to master it
By Todd Sorrel
Not too long ago I was on a conference call with a management system partner and one of their clients. The agency owner admitted that COVID-19 has blown his 2020 growth plan out of the water. He thought it could take two years to get fully back on track. This got me thinking about business resilience in times of major disruption. The pandemic has certainly affected all of us in major ways. But it hasn’t hit all agencies equally.
My firm, ePayPolicy, surveyed our clients about how COVID-19 has affected their agencies. On a scale of 1 to 10, most responses were 3 or 4, so the impact hasn’t been severe. These low scores are not a coincidence. How do we account for the difference between agencies that are basically unfazed vs. those that are struggling? Quite simply: strategic planning. The agencies that were prepared for disruption were able to pivot, thanks to their technology and management style. They had set and fulfilled specific goals pre-COVID to build out their operations and implement technology solutions to drive growth that also helped to keep their agencies operational during this disruption. And when I say goals I’m not talking about vague, ill-defined statements like “We will expand our technology capabilities this year.” I’m talking about specific, focused, and strategic goals.
[T]hose who start with BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) and break them down into manageable chunks are more likely to succeed.
Let’s look at it on an individual level. Think about why so many New Year’s resolutions fail. People say, “I want to lose weight, travel more, move to a new city, change jobs,” and so on. These are aspirations and nothing more. They lack an actual plan to reach the goal. Inevitably, months go by, no progress is made, and the resolution fades into oblivion—until it’s trotted out again next year.
On the other hand, those who start with BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) and break them down into manageable chunks are more likely to succeed. They lay out the steps needed to get from Point A (where they are now) to Point B (success). There’s a huge difference between “I want to lose weight” and “I want to lose 30 pounds by December.” Thirty pounds seems like a lot, but it breaks down to only 2.5 pounds per month. Losing just a few pounds each month seems doable, right? The action plan might include walking for 30 minutes every Monday, Thursday and Saturday, reducing daily intake by 200 calories, and cutting out sugary drinks. One missed day of exercise per month or the occasional splurge at a party are not going to derail the resolution. Not having a plan of action will.
The same concept holds true in the world of independent agencies. Let’s say your 2020 goal is to eliminate manual data entry for accounting, implement a new CRM solution, and apply new technologies to improve your response time to client outreach. You’ve outlined specific targets in each area, invested in the right people/partners, and started to build out the tech needed to achieve these goals. For your agency, COVID-19 is likely just a speed bump (albeit a very big speed bump) because you have a plan and are actively putting the pieces into place.
But what about agencies that wanted to “grow” and “increase profits” this year but never built a solid plan (i.e., the doomed New Year’s resolution approach)? Well, they’re a very different story.
Looking around the industry, I see three identifiable groups of agencies and philosophies:
Group 1: These agencies have a strategic vision that they’ve built their agency around. They continue to innovate and push on, excited to see what’s to come.
Group 2: This group may have had a detailed strategy to start the year, but they view COVID-19 as an opportunity/catalyst and spent the time to build out a strategy and now have a technology implementation roadmap to go forward with.
Group 3: The final group continues to battle against innovation. They just can’t wait to get back to the “good old days.”
Two of these groups are going to succeed, and one is not. Here’s why. Whether we like it or not, the industry is changing. We’re changing because our clients are changing. Because of COVID-19, they are working in (even more) dangerous conditions and have new (often changing) regulations to follow. They’re asking their teams to adjust to working under uncertain, potentially high-risk conditions. And this is on top of the already pervasive trend of clients expecting tech-assisted convenience from their vendors and service providers.
Today’s independent agents need to rise to the challenge and deliver service in tech-assisted ways. This means more than making your website mobile friendly (although that’s important). It means client portals, AI chatbots, rapid response texting, digital payments, and more. These all drive the user experience. They are no longer optional bells and whistles. Technology-based client engagement is now a competitive “must.”
So where does your agency stand? If you’re in Group 3, don’t worry. It’s not too late to change course. The “good old days” are not coming back. But I promise you there are plenty of good “new” days ahead. I encourage all agency owners to sit down with your team and ask: “What does our agency look like 90 days, six months, one year, and five years out?” Don’t be afraid to write down your Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. But don’t stop there! You want your BHAGs to become BHARs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Realities). To get there, you’ll want to build out your SMART goals. (Google it if you don’t know what SMART goals are.)
No one says you need to accomplish all your goals at once. Trying to do so is a surefire way to overwhelm your agency (management, staff, resources) and tank your client service. Instead, apply SMART principles to prioritize your efforts. Devise your plan for quick and easy wins and build on your successes. We’ve talked in the past about not just using tech but mastering it. Management system integrations, cloud storage, project management systems, underwriting solutions, social media, digital payments, and so on work best when they become second nature to everyone who uses them (both agency staff and clients).
Now is the time to engage in goal setting for your agency. Right now, with your clients’ businesses and lives disrupted—to whatever degree—you have a prime opportunity to position your agency to serve them both during and after the pandemic, and far into the future.
I can guarantee three results:
- You’re going to attract some amazing new talent entering the workforce. Remember, as you plan out one to five years, you’re going to be hiring generations who are digital natives. They master technology in their sleep!
- Your employees who love the changes you’re making are going to be fired up. Those who are change-resistant technology avoiders will need to leave (and stop holding you back).
- You’re going to maximize your relationships by accommodating increasingly tech-adept clients. And you’ll attract the right kind of new business from clients who appreciate your commitment to their convenience and their future.
None of us knows when the next major business disruption is going to occur—or how widespread it may be. Whether it’s a tornado or flood, a labor strike, another public health crisis, or even a Godzilla attack, SMART planning now is your insurance policy. A phased tech-adoption plan will position your agency to adjust and pivot, regardless of what comes your way. Remember, your clients are (and will be) dealing with their own challenges. They look to you for guidance and protection. They’re depending on you to see them through.
Todd Sorrel is co-founder of electronic payment processor ePayPolicy. The firm facilitates the acceptance of electronic payments via credit card and ACH with transaction fees being passed on to the consumer. For more information, visit www.epaypolicy.com.