LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
Identifying “that certain something” that predicts success
Creating a strategy and environment for seeking out
and then nurturing and developing the best account managers will
ensure that you maintain a competitive advantage for many years to come.
By Cheryl L. Koch, CPCU, ARM, AAI, ACSR, AFIS, and Mary M. Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC
We have the privilege of presenting our Ultimate Account Manager School© in various venues throughout the country each year. Meeting and interacting with dozens of individuals of varying ages and backgrounds who wish to become true insurance professionals is energizing and shows us how new perspectives will continue to shape our industry.
We are always struck by those who truly stand out from the crowd, and it raises several questions. What exactly is it that sets them apart? Can that “certain something” be identified, quantified, and used to help agency owners and managers to identify and perhaps develop and encourage those characteristics or behaviors in existing and prospective employees? If you could catch that proverbial lightning in a bottle, would you recognize it for what it is, and be ready to harness it for the best result?
Innate qualities of successful account managers
Over the years, we’ve observed and studied the best account managers and captured their essence in a comprehensive list of qualities that set them apart from the rest—the basic ingredients. Those employees and candidates with the highest concentration of these qualities have the necessary raw material to become the best account managers. For the most part, these are not things that can be taught; yet, they can certainly be reinforced through nurturing, encouragement, and further development.
The first—curiosity—is essential. The rest are in no particular order; and yet, they all matter. The collection of these characteristics that any account manager possesses makes up that intangible thing we commonly call “attitude.” Most can be identified by using the best personality testing tools, which we highly recommend and consider a necessary investment; you don’t have to leave it to chance.
- Curiosity. Perhaps the most important asset an account manager (or any insurance professional) can possess. Questioning is part of learning and overall high performance.
- Sense of urgency. The ability to recognize, manage and be motivated to meet deadlines, no matter what. This is mission critical in our industry.
- True love of people. Clients become engaged when served by nurturing and caring individuals.
- Empathy. The ability to see another person’s point of view.
- Confidence. This stems from self-esteem and assertiveness (not aggression).
- Solution-orientation. Creativity and problem-solving ability. Note: It takes knowledge to do this.
- Accountability. Responsible, with a sense of ownership of any problem.
- Team player. Account managers are required to play on multiple teams.
- Critical thinker. The ability to understand and work with complex systems, concepts, processes, and documents.
- Attention to detail. Quality and accuracy —
- Global thinking. The ability to see the big picture. Our industry is large in scope. Even a single account or agency can have a lot of moving parts.
- Energy. Endurance to finish the task at hand.
- Discipline and a strong work ethic. Giving 110% every time.
- Self-awareness and emotional intelligence. EQ is known to be a greater predictor of success than IQ.
- Unselfishness. It’s not about you; it’s about the client.
- Management of multiple and shifting priorities. Rather like nailing Jell-O to a wall!
- Resilience and persistence. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.
- Sound judgment. The ability to make good decisions. Again, it takes knowledge to apply this.
- Anticipation. Only 20% of people possess the ability to be “three steps ahead,” anticipating the needs of those around them. This quality is a gift for anyone possessing it—as well as for their clients, producers, carriers, and co-workers.
Feeding the desire for skills and knowledge
The larger the collection of these characteristics and behaviors an account manager exhibits, the easier it is for them to leverage their innate gifts by gaining additional skills and abilities that can be learned and continually honed. These are the employees we call the “naturals” at the position—being a great service person seems to come very easily to them, but it’s no accident.
The best account managers have a particular thirst for more knowledge, expertise, and to be the most skilled at their position. Creating and maintaining an environment where they can thrive and develop is as important as providing air in the room for them to breathe. It is critical to create a formal-structured and continuous plan for education and training.
Next, be certain to give employees the opportunity to put those skills and knowledge to work. Performance-based compensation is a concept that the best employees understand and embrace. The best agencies make the effort to create incentives tied to specific performance, which we have highlighted in past columns. Simply put, what gets rewarded gets done.
Need for structure
If you are fortunate enough to have found account managers with a high level of talent and potential, how can you best leverage this asset? It is critical not to underestimate the need that younger employees in particular have for formal structure. Their lives have been very structured: Play dates, organized sports, and scheduled activities, as well as close supervision, were essential components of how most have been raised.
They didn’t go out to the sandlot as children and play pickup games and argue and negotiate about the rules of the game. Rather, they participated in formal activities with coaches and referees, as well as parents and grandparents watching them perform from the stands. This is neither “good” nor “bad”; it is simply the way it is.
They expect clarity and specific training, as well as feedback. They need more explanation as they progress than past generations may have required. The investment is worth it, if you have chosen people with the right basic makeup.
What does this mean? Clear reporting relationships, position descriptions, procedures, specific goals and training, as well as frequent, brief “check-ins” feed the need for structure and make younger account managers feel comfortable and engaged. Lack of structure can create unnecessary anxiety.
We have seen many otherwise-qualified individuals struggle or simply leave organizations where they are expected to “wing it.” Agencies that have not made the shift from the “free range” management approach of the past to a more organized way of operating will pay a stiff turnover price if they cannot engage and retain account managers whose life experiences differ from those of (especially older) owners and managers.
A word about remote employees is necessary when considering structure. While some flexibility has been the hallmark of better agencies for years (remember telecommuting in the ‘90s?), it is interesting to note that we still see the best result when teams work together in person. A great deal of indirect learning takes place in the workplace; those working remotely miss out on these opportunities.
We are seeing trends emerge where remote workers may be overlooked for promotion and leadership opportunities or receive lower compensation as a result of working remotely. Structure and frequent “touches” are even more important in these situations. Stay tuned for a future column discussing the art form of successfully engaging remote employees.
A word about motivation
Agency owners and managers take note. We are aware of a recent survey of accomplished account managers across multiple states who answered regarding their top challenges. The responses were not surprising and were very much in keeping with what we hear daily. Basically they are overwhelmed, yet not necessarily handling full books of business. Paper and antiquated processes still abound, even though at last look, it is 2023!
Price has become foremost, as account managers are required to quote renewals day-in and day-out. It is simply not rewarding and is sucking the life out of talented individuals and does not further client relationships. Having “lesser associates” handle this chore is not the answer. We devoted two recent columns to rethinking and significantly reducing this pervasive and reactive practice—by far the top issue affecting account managers across the board.
The one thing that crosses all generations of great account managers is the need for acknowledgment and recognition of a job well done. Handling a difficult situation successfully; winning over a client with great service; becoming an expert, resource, or “go to” person for others; hearing a sincere and heartfelt “thank you”; these are the moments a great account manager strives for. When things get in the way of this, no one wins.
It all starts at the top with agency owners and managers. Great leaders surround themselves with the best and brightest people in all positions, including account management. Top account managers become future leaders. Creating a strategy and environment for seeking out and then nurturing and developing the best account managers will ensure that you maintain a competitive advantage for many years to come.
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.
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.