Continuing the subject of establishing and maintaining disciplined processes that we began in December’s column, "New year, new foundations," we leave new business, renewals and policy changes and focus this month on administration.
How your administrative processes are organized depends a great deal on the extent of your operations and the size of your agency. But many topics are common to all agencies and bear looking at if we want to operate effectively and efficiently.
New employee orientation
Even in this automated day and age, some agencies still operate under the theory that the only way for a new employee to learn the ropes is to show employees their desks and have them pitch right in. After all, if they’ve come from another agency, how different could it be?
Related: Read "Need workers, try retirees"
The answer, of course, is a lot different. The sink-or-swim technique doesn’t work without having in place a standardized orientation technique as one of the elements of carrying out the administrative (non-insurance) business within the agency. Failure to do so can result in:
• Making a bad impression on a person to whom you have explained how terrific is your agency
• Having an employee who has learned different ways of doing things from different people or, worse yet, left to their own devices to figure out how things are done
• Poor service ramifications to clients you’ve spent a lot of time cultivating
• Wasting money as the new hire sits around pretending to be busy but actually wondering what to do next.
You should have an orientation schedule covering at least the first week of any new employee’s tenure. In that schedule, specific people are assigned specific parts of each day to orient the new person on the specific topics covered in this column. One of the best ways to begin is with a little history lesson. Tell the individual how the agency got started; how it grew; what its guiding principles are; and what makes the agency different from its peers.
A good end-of-the-week topic is "how to succeed at our agency." Let the person know what attitudes you look for, not just work ethic but how you want them to interact with fellow employees and clients. Emphasize team building and team goals if you have inculcated that as part of your agency culture and don’t be afraid to talk about your periodic evaluation process and how you administer salary increases.
If you have an employee manual, which you certainly should, have new hires take it home, read it and come back with questions. And make sure they understand that nodding their heads and being agreeable is not the way to learn the ropes; they must know that asking co-workers questions is not only suggested but strongly encouraged. Remember, new hires come from a job where they knew all about their job expectations, to a new place where they don’t even know where the paper clips are. Let your new hires know that you are aware that they are going to feel awkward for the first few weeks, but that gradually they will get to the point where they feel like they’ve been with you forever.
Unless mail is marked personal, the same individual should open all incoming mail each day, date stamped, separated by department and distributed. Checks should be extracted and directly delivered to the accounting department, along with any accompanying material. If you don’t receive your mail until late morning or early afternoon, talk to the post office about earlier delivery or assign someone to pick it up at the post office first thing in the morning.
By having the same individual perform this function over time, with an assigned back-up for when the person is sick or on vacation, recognition of what goes where will allow greater efficiency and less handling as part of the process. Misdeliveries and lost items will be kept to a minimum.
Outgoing mail/overnight mail
Whether you use a centralized area in the office or everyone has an outgoing mail tray on their desk, your process should call for collection at 4:00 p.m. or 4:30 p.m. or to allow time for metered postage and delivery to the post office. The most efficient way is for one clerical employee to gather each person’s outgoing mail at their individual desks, thereby avoiding multiple people making multiple trips to the mail room. The idea is to ensure that outgoing mail starts its journey that day and doesn’t get delayed sitting around somewhere.
If you don’t have a definitive procedure understood by all for handling overnight mail, a lot of money is walking out the door. Especially in our business, there is a great temptation to use overnight mail to be sure that underwriters or clients receive our output in a timely manner. But using overnight mail should be the exception when something absolutely must arrive the next day, because regular mail will, in all likelihood, be received in a day or two. If everyone knows the drill, then leaving things until the last minute should decrease.
The key focus should be on how you want your customers—insureds and underwriters—to feel about your agency when they call. An automated attendant may be more efficient, but does it convey the right attitude? If you have a receptionist actually answering the phone, does he or she transfer callers to the intended individual and then abandon them to "voice mail hell"? Or, as an alternative, do you have a system that rings back if not answered so the receptionist can find out what the caller would like to do?
Voice mails that direct the caller to another person and extension are well intended, but there is nothing more frustrating to the caller than following that instruction and then encountering yet another voice mail message. There is a constant tension between efficiency and promoting a caring attitude toward callers, and each agency has to figure out how to best deal with that balance.
Trying to totally stamp out personal phone calls by employees is akin to eliminating cockroaches from a poorly maintained building. But you can minimize the problem by allowing short personal phone calls in case of family emergency situations, as well as during lunch and before and after work.
E-mail and Internet
E-mail and the Internet are indispensable facts of business life, but the potential for abuse is rampant. Your employee manual and periodic reminders should make clear that the use of the Internet for personal e-mails and non-business surfing is strictly prohibited and can result in dismissal. Aside from wasting time, it runs the risk of excessive spam and even corruption of agency systems.
Advise employees that you will be periodically monitoring Internet usage—and have your IT person follow through.
It is crucial to have one person and a back-up in charge of procuring office supplies. (If you have ever faced running out of auto ID cards at the very moment when a client needs one, you’ll never permit it to happen again.) That person must institute a system that reminds people to let him/her know when they open the last box of agency envelopes, printer cartridges or anything else. With or without that system, the office supply person should do his or her own periodic survey of supplies to see if anything needs ordering.
As to cost, it’s okay to have a favorite supplier but there should be a periodic check with others to make sure you’re buying at the right price. Other factors such as delivery time, attitude and willingness to help at times of urgency are important as well.
Certain classes of supplies, such as computer products, might be handled by an IT person rather than lumped in with the other office supplies.
Office equipment service/repair
With sophisticated all-in-one machines combining copying/scanning/faxing, together with a profusion of computers, printers and other equipment throughout the office, you need a trained, qualified person (and a back-up) available at all times to deal with service and repair issues. That person needs to know how to take care of the paper jams and local problems while also knowing who to call to get fast response to major issues.
Office and building security
There is too much expensive equipment and sensitive information in your office to approach security casually. If you have a key system rather than pass codes, make sure that discharged employees return their keys before leaving. If you have an electronic entry system, the access code should be changed after any employee is discharged.
During the day, if you have a receptionist, his or her area at the front of the office must be attended at all times, even during lunch. Locking up filing cabinets at night has too many potential problems to be worth whatever extra feeling of security is engendered.
Female employees should be encouraged to take their handbags with them when they leave their work areas for any period of time.
Storage/retrieval of inactive files
Even though agency management systems electronically capture and hold much information, most agencies have lots of older policies and documents in paper form. Having a categorized system for storing such files so that retrieval is not like looking for that needle in the haystack is important. As we all know too well, claims can arise years after policy expiration and that material must be systematically retrievable. Even off-site storage is okay if organized properly; documents are rarely required to be produced in one day.