Arkansas account manager named National Alliance
Outstanding CSR of the Year
Winner observes that there’s “sales,” and then there’s sales
By Alice Ashby Roettger
In Mary Katherine Henderson’s mind the field of sales is multi-faceted. As an account manager at Insurance Center, Inc., in Little Rock, Arkansas, she is not a producer as such. Nevertheless, The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research’s 2019 Outstanding CSR of the Year considers herself to be a salesperson.
MK—as she is known—maintains that some people focus on selling products, some are concerned with selling a service, and others sell themselves. Experience leads her to recognize that the latter two characteristics are intrinsic qualities in account managers and customer service reps—they’re constantly delivering service and engaging with customers.
She also points out that employers don’t necessarily look for “sales” talent in a potential CSR hire, but they know good sales aptitude and engagement when they see it and perhaps unconsciously acknowledge that quality during the process.
“I am the person that I am because I went to that school. I was brought up with all kinds of people and now can deal with all kinds of people.”
-Mary Katherine “MK” Henderson
Across the industry, MK observes, there is little or no formal training for account managers in the sales field. Instead, they are encouraged to get continuing education to keep their licenses up to date and also to take ethics courses.
What drives that? “There is a misconception that we aren’t selling,” she says. “As an account manager, I don’t necessarily want to be a specific (commission-based) salesperson, but account managers still are salespersons.”
In her qualifying essay for The National Alliance’s Outstanding CSR of the Year Award, MK wrote: “A sale is often defined as a single transaction between a buyer and a seller. But as an insurance account manager, I believe my job is to continually sell my customers and my carriers on quality insurance service and expertise. It is crucial to equip account managers with appropriate sales techniques. Not only must we sell our service to our insureds, but we must also sell our insureds to our carriers.
“Account managers are on the front line of every agency and must be armed with the proper sales training in order for an agency to be successful. While being a salesperson does require a unique skill set that not everyone possesses, account managers can aid in an effective sale through their positive attitude (selling oneself), effective communication (selling service), and product knowledge (selling a product).”
Positive attitude (selling oneself)
“I try to wake up every morning to face each new day with a bright and positive attitude,” she wrote. “Customers can hear a smile on your face through the telephone. Underwriters can sense a smile on your face through an email. I think having a great attitude is the most important part of my job.
“Knowledge and experience are important, but attitude is what separates a good account manager from a great one. Skills can be taught, experience will come with time, but a positive attitude is one thing that we, as account managers, can control on a daily basis.
“People do business with people they like, and people like positive people,” she believes. “An effective sale starts with a positive attitude.
“My customers, underwriters, producers, and support staff deserve my kindness, my time, and my respect. In fact, I am approved to teach a continuing education course in the state of Arkansas titled ‘Attitude is Everything’—and I believe in that title to my very core: Attitude truly is everything! Be a team player! Go the extra mile! Take the time to listen!”
MK absorbed these values early in life—both at home and in her early work experiences. Born into a hard-working family, she says that she is “a good split of both of [her parents].” Her CPA father possesses an accounting personality—quiet and stable. Her mother is outgoing and more expressive.
At age 14, MK worked in a gift shop. Even that small retail job was not just a job to her. “Because of my parents I have always had a drive to improve,” she explains. “I have always had a willingness to learn.” That drive took her to another job working as a file clerk at a family friend’s surplus lines agency when she was 16. “I filed things before I knew what they meant,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t know anything about insurance. It loved me before I loved it.”
She credits these two beginning jobs, plus her “real life” experiences at Little Rock’s historic Central High School, for challenging her sense of excellence. (In 1957, Central High School was the site of jeering crowds, National Guard troops, and black students being escorted into its all-white halls during the civil rights era.) “I am the person that I am because I went to that school,” says MK. “I was brought up with all kinds of people and now can deal with all kinds of people. Others may have more insurance experience, but I have more experience in going into the real world.”
MK’s boss, Agency Principal Clay Murphy, CIC, observes those same qualities. “Mary Katherine has always been a leader,” he said in his recommendation letter. “From the time I met her until today, she has never retreated from a challenge. Mary Katherine had no previous experience with oil and gas insurance when she was hired at our agency. During her first few months, I was able to see just how quickly she could grab and master a concept.
“Of the thirty-plus employees at our agency, Mary Katherine is the only person with a master’s degree and the CIC designation,” he added. “Since college, her ambition has been to work in insurance and it shows today.”
Effective communication (selling service)
“Through continuous and effective communication, an account manager strengthens the bond between clients and carrier,” observes MK. “By taking the time to personally interact with my customers, I’m building a relationship with them. Trust plays a large part in a client’s decision on where to place insurance coverages, and by providing open, honest, and frequent communication with my customers, I’m earning that trust.
“Everyone wants to feel important; from the biggest corporation to the smallest contractor, making each customer feel like they are being heard and being helped is one of the biggest parts of my job,” she adds. “Keeping open lines of communication is fundamental to building strong relationships with insureds and insurers. Through open communication, I am doing my part to continue to sell that client into a long and (hopefully) profitable relationship for our agency.”
Eugene Phillips, CSP, CIC, ARM, regional vice president, South Central Region, Union Standard Insurance Group, affirms that MK lives her beliefs. “MK is an excellent representation for what our organization looks for in a partner,” he says. “Her knowledge of the insurance product is excellent and she is able to articulate that to her customer base in such a way as to convey trust and security.”
Product knowledge (selling a product)
Account managers may not sell a product directly, but they, too, must have a broad knowledge of coverages and carrier offerings, MK asserts. “While producers are often placed in the role of presenting a proposal to the client, the account manager has to first sell a carrier on that piece of business,” she notes, “and long after the producer has ‘proposed’ that business, the account manager has to continue to sell outstanding customer service. A large component of outstanding customer service is providing extensive product knowledge to our customers.”
She continues: “Our industry is constantly changing! Through continuing education, daily experiences and ongoing communication with my peers, expanding my knowledge base is crucial to being the best that I can be at my job. While no one can be expected to know everything, arming yourself with extensive insurance knowledge is one way to ensure you can make the sale.”
Murphy agrees: MK’s “ability to relay terms and conditions to our insureds in laymen’s terms is second to none.”
Susan Cockrell, senior territory manager, business insurance, Southwest Region for Liberty Mutual Insurance, concurs: “I’m in offices across Arkansas with my position, and this is a rare find in this day and time. She is considered an authority with local marketing and underwriting staff on how the insurance market is performing in Arkansas and is quite willing to share her ideas for improvements as needed.”
Beyond the office
MK’s sales talents don’t stay in the office when she closes the door at the end of the day. All three of the qualities come together in her community service. She is careful to pay tribute to her own firm for allowing her to take time to volunteer. “I’m lucky. I work at a place that allows me to volunteer; that might not be possible at other workplaces.”
Voicing his support, Murphy observes: “Mary Katherine also exhibits this work ethic within her local community; the requests for her participation are too numerous to list here, but she is searched out by many organizations and local leaders to chair or be on a committee. She seldom says no. From college, to church and insurance activities, she stays busy helping as many as she can.”
Serving her alma mater is primary in her life. Although her husband attended another high school, he willingly accompanies her to “TigerFest.” Because it was at Central High that she learned all about Little Rock’s history, she wants to use that knowledge to “make Little Rock better,” both in Central’s halls and the wider community.
Another focus of her desire to serve her community is her beloved United Methodist Church. A church sign declares: “Being good neighbors to make Little Rock a place where children thrive.”
“That church embodies a lot of my beliefs,” she says. And church is where she wants her children to grow up as she did.
Because she loves everything about her hometown, she sparkplugged a former Memorial Day weekend musical gathering called Riverfest for nine years. “It was a big part of me,” she remembers. “I’m sad that it is no longer.”
Phillips notes: “A great example of MK’s commitment to both professional and philanthropic endeavors is shown in her commitment to the United Way organization. Not only has she served as the campaign chair for one of her former employers, she has also participated in our internal fundraisers on the carrier side, greatly enhancing our ability to provide for this charity.”
And then there’s family
Perhaps what looms largest in MK’s mind is the foundation of many of today’s Millennials: the work/family element. Her attitude was summed up by Murphy, who wrote, “Even though I could go on for pages about Mary Katherine’s work ethic, leadership, and knowledge of the industry, she plays one role in which she never takes time off, asks for help or complains—this is as a mother. Her son, Garrett, is the apple of her eye and center of attention.” And soon there will be another “apple.”
There is no question that Mary Katherine Henderson will hand off her work ethic and definitions of salesmanship to those offspring. After all, she wants them to live in the town she helped make better as a “salesperson supreme” and a community servant.
As the 2019 Outstanding CSR of the Year Award recipient, Mary Katherine received a $2,000 cash award, national recognition, and a gold and diamond lapel pin, and her name will be inscribed on a permanent sculpture displayed at The National Alliance headquarters in Austin, Texas.
In addition, her employer will receive a scholarship that can be used for participation in any National Alliance program.
Alice Ashby Roettger is a freelance writer based in Indianapolis, Indiana. She also serves as an editorial assistant at Rough Notes magazine.
THE OUTSTANDING CSR OF THE YEAR AWARD
In 1991, The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research established the Outstanding Customer Service Representative of the Year Award, based on the winning candidate’s contributions to the insurance industry, community involvement, and the quality of an essay that responds to a specific prompt.
Four other national finalists receive a gold and garnet lapel pin, national recognition, and a $500 cash award.
This year’s finalists were:
Marcella R. Beasley
Alliant Insurance Services, Inc.
Katie J. Bohrer
Peterson Bros. Insurance
Barbara J. Henrich
Neely A. Lorimer