Customer Service Focus
Making the client an active participant in effective customer service
Independent insurance agents certainly under- stand the importance of effective customer service in maintaining a profitable book of business. As a producer in a small independent insurance agency for the past 30 years, and as someone with ownership interest in an agency for over 15 years, I have always handled both customer service and production responsibilities. In addition, the schedule I maintain when I have speaking opportunities often result in my being out of the office for several days each month. These responsibilities, along with the fact that in a small agency, when the phone rings, it must be answered—with very little regard to any institutional hierarchy—have made me appreciate just how vital our service personnel are to our survival.
We have found that those clients who understand that effective and efficient customer service requires commitment from both parties and have “bought in” to this concept are more satisfied and are the type of client on which a solid book of business can be built.
I am convinced that, until our clients become active participants in the pursuit of effective relationships, we are fighting a battle that often results in all parties being disappointed with the outcome. Training of agency personnel is a time-consuming, expensive proposition. Training of our clients also is time-consuming and expensive. That being said, most agency principals understand that the former must be done. Unfortunately, if the latter is not done, our agencies suffer—perhaps not immediately, but there will be suffering.
We encourage our service personnel (which in a small agency is each and every one of us) to understand what is expected of each of us. We expect our service people to have sales skills and expect our salespeople to have service skills. As a producer who knows his way around our agency management system, I am intimately familiar with its shortcomings and understand the frustrations our customer service representatives must deal with on a daily basis. As a producer who does his own rating and market selection, and routinely completes and submits applications and does most follow-up, I certainly understand how these vital functions work in an independent insurance agency.
As our CSRs also have some sales responsibilities, they understand the challenges of dealing with the nuances of underwriting, risk selection and market selection. I am convinced that the least attractive sentence in effective customer service is: “That’s not my job.” If the task includes or will result in taking care of the client, it is “your job.”
It is also very important to determine upon whom these time-consuming, expensive services are to be showered. Ultimately, the salesperson who feels compelled to spend time and energy on every prospective client, without discernment as to which of these will be a long-term and profitable endeavor for their agency, is destined for a (short) sales career of frustration.
The same can be said of the CSR who feels compelled to cascade inordinate amounts of his or her time, energy and effort on clients who, unfortunately, do not warrant such attention. When this happens, it is, as often as not, the fault of management.
In our shop, we often discuss the parameters of our agency’s “culture.” Not only do we have this discussion at the management level, we also have these discussions with our sales and service personnel. Do you have a discernible culture in your agency? What are some of your unbreakable rules? Some identifiable components may be the minimum limits you offer when quoting personal auto insurance (is state minimum ever enough?), certain endorsements that are offered every time, or written customer service manifestos that are reviewed with every client.
Might it be time to expect as much from our clients as they expect from us?
We are a relationship-based industry. Ultimately, our relationship with our clients is the determining factor in our survival. As independent insurance agents, it is not likely that we offer products so unique that they cannot be secured somewhere else. It is more likely that what we offer can be secured somewhere else and likely at a lower cost. I am in no way saying that the products that we offer are simply commodities—instead, I am saying that, without efficient relationships, we cannot separate ourselves from those around us who do offer substantially similar products.
How do we secure and maintain an effective and efficient relationship with our clients? We must train them to allow us to be effective and efficient by making them aware, time and time again, of what we expect from them.
I often compare the agency-client relationship to the process of rearing a child from infancy to adulthood. This may sound trite, but if you imagine that new customer as a child—someone who has agreed to allow your agency to nurture their insurance needs and protect them—both for things they recognize as possibly problematic and for things you recognize that they may not be acknowledging, your relationship begins with an understanding that each of you has a job.
The client’s job is to provide what is expected of them as to information, premium payment, contact parameters and other needs that you have spelled out to them as vital in making the relationship work. Conversely, they must be assured that what they expect from you will be delivered in an efficient way. For example, new clients who have consistent and varied certificate of insurance needs must be taught early what is expected of them.
If these things are not addressed when they are in that early (child) stage, they will “grow” into their adolescent stage with your agency without being aware that there are any expectations placed upon them. When this type of relationship is allowed to continue, they will eventually become unruly teenagers and young adults in that relationship. Much as with the teenager who has never been told “no,” you will not like this volatile relationship. This type of relationship often explodes when clients need a certificate of insurance to evidence something that their insurance policy does not (and often cannot) do. Of course, when your inability to meet their needs results in their not being paid for a job already completed, you will likely be blamed.
These situations can occur with the many types of insurance products we offer. Such issues as how quickly the agency must be contacted when a new vehicle is acquired by an auto insured, when it is best for your agency to know that a commercial general liability client is considering the acquisition of an additional entity, what you need to know and when you need to know it as to your agribusiness client leasing a new farm location—all of these and many more situations are opportunities for really good customer service—or really bad customer service.
Our clients look to us to fulfill our promises, often without regard to what may be required of them to make this possible. Teaching them early and reminding them consistently throughout our relationship with them as to what is expected of them will make them an active participant in the customer service they receive. We have found that those clients who understand that effective and efficient customer service requires commitment from both parties and have “bought in” to this concept are more satisfied and are the type of client on which a solid book of business can be built.
Certainly, everyone in your agency must also have “bought in” to these concepts. The CSR who understands and pursues this process will be frustrated by the producer who does not. Conversely, the CSR who simply “takes orders” and does not take the additional steps necessary to remind clients what is expected of them will frustrate those co-workers who have spent time, energy and effort to foster this culture.
Ultimately, when a request is made by the client, the answer must be: “Yes—we can do that. And here’s what we need from you.”
Samuel T. Bennett, CIC, AFIS, CRIS, CPIA, is a producer, presenter, and shareholder in Harrison Agency, Inc., of Columbia, Missouri. He has been an independent agent since 1987 and is a national faculty member of the Society of CIC.