Agency of the month
The Hitchings Insurance Agency team outside their Findlay, Ohio, office.
PEOPLE OVER POLICIES
Ohio agency focuses on empathy for everyone’s situation
By Dennis H. Pillsbury
There’s an adage often ascribed to Andrew Carnegie that says “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” Clearly, Andrew Carnegie—or whoever actually said this—hadn’t spent much time around independent agents. Among the hundreds of agents whom I’ve interviewed, there were quite a few who were third or even fourth or fifth generation, and none of them were spending their time wasting the legacy that their ancestors had left them.
That’s certainly true of Ryan Pessell, third generation owner and president of the Hitchings Insurance Agency in Findlay, Ohio, although he does admit to “spending money now, but for rewards down the road.
“And it’s all done so we can provide even better service to our clients,” he adds proudly.
The agency was founded by Ryan’s grandparents, Jim and Sally Hitchings, in 1968 and conducted business out of the Ohio Bank Building until the Hitchings purchased a historic building on North Main Street from which the agency still operates today. The foundation of the agency continues to be promoted in its new logo, where the four vertical lines represent community, customer, dedicated team, and extended family, all of which are important parts of the agency’s commitment to place people ahead of policies.
“That’s what my grandparents believed and worked toward every day,” Ryan says, “and we continue to hold that precept as the essence of what we think sets us apart from our competition. We don’t look at our customers and prospects as insurance clients, but as people, and we spend time to get to know them and help them in any way that we can.
“If that involves insurance, we are certainly happy to provide them with the best possible coverages for their needs,” he adds, “but we’re focused on being empathetic about everyone’s situation. We believe this results in not just improving our ability to provide those people who choose to do business with us with the best coverage and service, but also leads to a solid, long-term relationship. It’s one of the reasons that our retention ratio is 96.4%.”
“We spend a great deal of time with our team members making certain that they understand and buy in to our approach,” says Kari Colman, vice president, brand manager and operations manager. “We get together on a regular basis to go over what’s working, as well as learning from what hasn’t. We’re always looking to get better and that sometimes results in uncomfortable conversations, but we approach them with openness and an emphasis on learning and growing, not chastising and blaming. And our main emphasis is on celebrating our successes. Most recently, an intern joined us full time. We celebrated with a cookout.”
Ryan adds that “we have a staff that is probably younger than the average and they generally don’t join us with insurance experience. That’s because we’re looking to hire the best humans we can and then work with them to teach them insurance. But it also means that we have to emphasize how important it is to understand that not every prospect will become a good client.
“We work hard on identifying the ideal client,” he explains. “We emphasize that it’s important not to waste time quoting. If you land a client through price alone, you can be pretty sure that you’ll lose that client the same way. The strength of the relationship that you develop with a client or prospect is what will keep them with you for the long run and will help us maintain our retention ratio in the high nineties.
“We instill in them the need to put themselves in the customers’ shoes,” Ryan continues. “When they purchase insurance, they are making a very important financial decision. It’s up to us to point out exactly what they are protecting and what is the best way to protect it. And we use that approach even when we know that we might not get the business right away.
“We’re open and honest and provide them with the truth at every turn. And that extends to our marketing efforts, which are extensive. We provide real life stories about how insurance can help and also what can happen if you aren’t getting the best advice and wind up buying a policy just based on price.”
A precarious market
One of those stories involved a personal lines prospect that was lost to a direct writer.
“We lost the initial sale, where they had a 5% deductible on a $800,000 dwelling, which equaled $40,000,” Ryan says. “We won the account the following year once we were able to compare our offering to theirs.
“When we sell a policy, we tell the customer exactly what’s in it, both the good and the bad,” Ryan says. “And today, the market in Ohio is hardening, so our renewal specialists are working overtime on reviewing the policies to determine if anything besides the price has
changed. We share what we find out with the client well before the renewal and offer to shop around if they find the terms unacceptable.
“We’re completely transparent,” he adds. “We explain what is happening in the insurance marketplace today and, if they received money back during COVID because people were driving less, we remind them of that and point out that reflected the lower risk. Then we remind them that, today, the risks are back up and everything costs more, and that includes the stuff that insurance pays for. The carriers aren’t trying to price gouge, but are reacting to new market conditions.
“We also remind them that we are always here to answer their questions. We have a service agreement with every customer that includes a promise to get back to them within 24 hours for a new business quote; for general service work, we strive for first-call resolution. A majority of our interactions with clients are handled immediately; we live up to our promise.
“We don’t want problems to fester,” Ryan says. “That’s one way you lose customers, each one of whom we see as part of our agency’s extended family.”
Investing in technology
When Ryan joined in 2008, he started encouraging the agency to invest in two areas: commercial insurance and technology. The former was not surprising, since Ryan was brought on board as a commercial lines producer, but he also saw that technology would play an increasingly important role in the agency’s servicing and communicating with clients.
“Our goal was to add technology that helped our people operate more efficiently,” he says. “We weren’t looking at it as a replacement for people but rather as a way to enhance our ability to service and communicate with clients.
“In short, we wanted technology that took over a lot of the back-office processes so that our people could spend more time with customers, building that all-important relationship, while still providing service that was lightning fast because of the efficiencies offered by technology.
“We’ve hired the best humans
we could find, and helping out is just part
of their DNA. They love helping others and it’s
infectious when you have like-minded people talking
about what they’re doing.”
Vice President, Brand Manager and Operations Manager
“The pandemic brought home how important this investment was,” he continues. “We didn’t miss a step. We were able to communicate with clients and provide excellent service thanks to our investment in technology. We’re continuing to upgrade our technology regularly, always with the goal of enhancing our service to clients, our community, and our insurance company partners. We dedicate 5% of revenue to technology.”
But, of course, Ryan’s impact was not just on improving the agency’s technology; he also was highly successful in building a commercial book. “When I came on board, we were primarily a personal lines agency, with commercial lines only comprising about 5% of revenue,” he says. “Today, the agency has a much more balanced breakdown, with benefits accounting for 34.1% of revenue; commercial lines is 31.3% and personal lines represent 34.5%. “In the last eight years, our base line revenue has doubled and our team went from six to 14 members.”
“We don’t look at our customers and prospects as insurance clients, but as people,
and we spend time to get to know them and
help them in any way that we can.”
Owner and President
“We’ve always been a strong supporter of the local community,” Kari points out, “but this year we decided to give that greater emphasis by starting a Hitchings Gives Back program, which includes not just financial support but marketing support and volunteering. Our people are given two free hours per month to help out at any charity and that’s just a small part of what they actually do.
“We’ve hired the best humans we could find, and helping out is just part of their DNA,” she adds. “They love helping others, and it’s infectious when you have like-minded people talking about what they’re doing.
“Some of our people have that Midwestern attitude where they keep what they are doing to themselves because to not do so would be bragging,” Kari notes. “But a number of them have become comfortable with talking about their favorite charities because of the trust that’s been engendered within our extended family, which includes all our employees and their families and, oftentimes, clients who have seen us at charity events that they support as well. We were recognized by our community when we were voted as one of the Best of Findlay in our category.
“In addition, our giving extends to our clients,” she continues. “We send cards to celebrate personal events in their lives. If they have a baby, we send a Hitchings baby blanket. And every team member signs the card and they love doing it, which is good, since this happens almost every day. We also send care packages to our underwriters so they see that we appreciate what they do for us.
“We do these things because we care, but they’ve also proven to be valuable marketing tools,” Kari adds, noting that “two of the employees are full-time marketers, using all our electronic and print opportunities to keep us in front of clients and prospects.”
Rough Notes is proud to recognize Hitchings Insurance Agency as our Agency of the Month. Even though the agency is over 50 years old, “we are just getting started,” Ryan notes. “This is a marathon and we are in it for the long run. Our goal is to grow by 18% a year and we fully expect to do so.”
Dennis Pillsbury is a Virginia-based freelance insurance writer.