By Mary M. Belka, CPCU, ARM, ARe, RPLU, CIC, CPIW
SO YOU WANT TO GROW YOUR OWN!
Considerations for training and developing professional agency account managers
Hope springs eternal as agencies struggle to hire account managers. I receive daily calls regarding recruiting and turnover challenges. When it is not possible to find what used to be standard hiring fare—seasoned, experienced individuals who have arguably become over the past generation or so true “unicorns”—the fallback that sounds logical is the idea that “We can grow our own.”
Just saying it does not make it so. The reality is that few agencies are prepared to train or educate an individual—even the “right” individual—from scratch.
For the first time in history, we have four and sometimes five “generations” represented and actively working in independent agencies, where the average age of owners stubbornly remains around 55. The average age of account managers is not on the same trajectory; it is decreasing. Few are owners, and therefore they remain on a more traditional retirement age path.
The servicing employee exodus is real. How will that wisdom and expertise be replicated?
We now have two generations who, simply put, expect and require structure. This includes specific position descriptions, goals, processes, procedures, and expectation; all are critical to assure success for Millennial and Gen Z replacements. It is not enough to “tell” younger people what to do, to “show” them a couple of times, or have them view some web-based CE classes and hope it all magically sinks in.
In the past, a general educational career path document was enough for agencies to run with. They were comfortable “filling in the blanks” as appropriate. This is no longer the case.
This age group has tremendous potential for learning and performance, yet most have been raised with structure and a plan for every day. Play dates and organized sports and activities, from pre-school through college, have defined them. They have been constantly coached, and their lives have been mapped out from the beginning; it is disorienting to them to be left to their own devices. Paradoxically, like most people, they don’t love micro-management, yet crave what they consider real leadership. They appreciate wisdom and expertise and seek the opportunity to become experts.
They need intentional, structured leadership and a clear path to success. For them, more than those who came before, achievement is paramount. One recent study reveals that 40% of Gen Z individuals want and expect their leaders to check in with them several times a day; they need and expect what many would consider “too much” feedback. This doesn’t make them “needy”; they simply want to be “on track.”
Fully 84% of those individuals studied also expect formal training for the positions into which they are hired. Willing to work hard, they need a specific plan with well-thought-out goals. They need to know and understand the “end game.”
Investment in your future
Your expectations must change regarding how long someone may stay with your agency and the structure employees will need to succeed. You can create the groundwork for longer-term employee tenure; however, younger generations fully expect to have multiple careers during their working life. This raises the stakes—and the acquisition cost—for hiring them.
The clock is ticking from the moment they walk in the door, and the learning curve must be nearly straight up, monitored, and measured, in order for agencies to achieve a workable ROI on hiring—all at a time when there is more to learn than ever before. It’s possible, but it’s a big lift for agencies lacking an organizational chart with intentional reporting relationships or position descriptions, to say nothing of formal written procedures and workflows and formal, individualized career plans.
Once hired, employees must contribute as soon as possible. This requires an investment of time and money on the part of agency owners, and of effort and focus by new employees. The faster they are contributing to your bottom line, the higher your ROI. Engaging them early, getting them up and running faster, and keeping them longer—that’s the goal.
Regardless of agency size, I repeat my ongoing advice to segment and focus as much as possible in order to simplify the learning process, to meet your clients’ and employees’ needs, and to recruit and hire the right people. Being all things to all people is no longer a sustainable business model in light of the complexity each discipline brings. Personal lines, commercial lines, and benefits require different knowledge and skill sets; the workflows are not the same. I ask you to take a leap of faith in understanding that focus is paramount. Suffice it to say that a new strategic approach is needed, including for agency structure and how employees are trained and educated to meet clients’ evolving expectations.
Position descriptions need to be clear. Where do producer and account manager responsibilities begin and end? Is “who does what” clear from your position descriptions and procedures? Are you prepared to show your employees exactly how everything is done in ways that resonate with them?
Warning: I am not a fan of “processing” and believe that the differentiating factor and real value of independent agencies lies in intentionally targeting the right accounts and providing proactive risk management-based service to those clients. I’m not offering an outline for “processing,” rather a game plan for creating professional account managers.
In the past, a general educational career path document was enough for agencies to run with. They were comfortable “filling in the blanks” as appropriate. This is no longer the case. Younger leaders and those leading younger employees require more specifics in order to feel confident that they can manage the account manager training and education path.
They are not daunted by a detailed plan—they demand it!
What does it mean to train someone from scratch? What does it take to perform the personal lines account manager job? We have revamped our prototype three-year plan into four specific time segments for account manager development. Each segment contains detailed goals, outcomes, and expectations for that time period, and specific training and education components to be completed. The expected contribution of the employee is indicated for each segment, as skill sets, experience, and education/training continue to build.
- Entry Level: 0-3 months
- Becoming Productive: 3 months to 1 year
- Broadening Skills and Knowledge: 1-3 years
- Achieving Professional Status: 3+ years
Entry level: 0-3 months
Goals, outcomes, and expectations. Illustrated here are key components of just the personal lines account manager entry level prototype plan. You can see how important operational oversight is to the process of training someone from scratch.
- Handle basic servicing on small number (25-50) of assigned personal lines accounts from cradle to grave, with supervision
- Handle “fair share” of calls and document/handle properly per agency procedures and workflows
- Develop basic knowledge of industry issues and concepts
- Develop adequate command of industry-specific terminology
Education and training components. Here are the educational elements to be covered when developing a personal lines account manager.
- Personality testing is a must pre-hire and is a useful guide in developing an individual’s education and training plan
- Identify learning style (visual, audio, kinesthetic)
- Immersion in formal personal education
- Complete applicable P-C licensing class and pass exam immediately upon hiring
- Complete first national level designation [per recommended list] allowing three weeks per course to complete
- Complete basic online personal lines classes simultaneously with national level designation components [per recommended courses]
- Begin reading one customer service book every three months, starting with Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith
- Knowledge of agency systems and ancillary software
- Agency management system
- Comparative rater
- Outlook/Word/basic Excel
- Phone system/headset/voicemail/texting documentation
- Writable software (Adobe Pro, etc.)
- Timeclock software
- Knowledge of agency processes and procedures and major functionalities
- Evidence of property insurance
- Loss control and underwriting requests
- Knowledge of top three to five carriers’:
- Web-based rating procedures and underwriting guidelines
- Download/issuance processes and procedures
- Coverages and forms
- Knowledge of applicable insurance laws, rules, and regulations
- Understanding of basic Errors and Omissions concepts
- We also recommend that employees:
- Add to agency procedural FAQ, as questions are asked and answered, to build better training and reference points for future trainees
- Engage in regular roleplay to enhance and reinforce what has been learned; opportunities to apply knowledge in “real-life” situations is invaluable
- Provide a synopsis for mentor following classes; allows mentor to assess comprehension and proper use of information learned and encourages taking notes, increasing learning and comprehension
“If you build it, they will come …”
This process may seem daunting to some, but the questions you need to be asking—and answering—are, “What is it you want? Who are your target clients? What are their expectations? To whom will you entrust their accounts? Is your staff ready?”
Attracting the best and brightest employees is the most important sales job your agency can do to ensure a profitable future. With focus and effort, even the smallest agency can do this right. The agencies that can create a plan that makes sense to a new generation of potential servicing staff will create a competitive advantage.
An intentional, structured approach can reap big rewards.
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.