What was the biggest challenge you faced in 2011 as a young agent, and how did you handle it?
Garrett Droege: I think the challenge in 2011 was staying positive. We are inundated with negative reports from every angle in our lives. The economy is bad. The market is soft. Investments are souring. It’s easy to allow yourself to give in to the negativity and use this information as an excuse. I’ve heard many producers say something like, “It’s rough out there. The economy and soft market are just making it impossible to produce new business.” I don’t buy it. You are responsible for your own destiny. You can find ways to be successful, but you have to avoid the negative sources at all costs.
Personally, I try to stay positive and help others see that things aren’t all bad. If I can share some positive news with a coworker, a prospect or client, it helps promote success rather than excuses for failure.
Darren Hasson: One of the biggest challenges I faced in 2011 as a young agent came after procuring carrier appointments. The time had now come to figure out how to get the phone to ring. As a young agent you are most likely on a conservative budget. So it became necessary to come up with marketing strategies that were both effective and economical. My partner and I quickly realized that we had to devise fresh ideas to acquire new clients and create a referral program. We became involved with our local community which included our local chamber of commerce, charity organizations and school events; this allowed us to introduce ourselves to our neighbors. Incorporating social media, direct mail and cold calling into our daily routine was further necessary to establish which method of marketing was best for our firm. In these ways, we were able to meet one of the biggest challenges we faced in 2011.
Sara Sheppard: The biggest challenge I faced in 2011 was learning that I have to be more selective in regard to the accounts that I target. I think when anyone starts out in a sales role, you are eager to put anything and everything on the books. Eventually, you have to realize that some accounts just aren’t worth it. In 2011 I had to learn how to distinguish between a prospective client who understands the value of good insurance coverage and good service and someone who is price shopping and does not care about the service or coverage. Even though this is incredibly challenging, I think this is one of the most important lessons any producer can learn. The more time you spend on people who are only out for the cheapest price, the less time you have to build a relationship with a client who will stay with you for years to come.
What skills do you think young agents need in 2012?
Hasson: Young agents need to have more education and a better understanding of the knowledge they share with their clients. Continuing education and joining organizations such as Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers (IIABA) are two practical and essential means for broadening one’s knowledge in this field. Using technology is another crucial factor for building a successful business. Having a website that consistently implements current information and facts to support that information is of utmost importance. As insurance brokers and emerging leaders of tomorrow, we need to be able to use our knowledge of the industry and share it with our clients. Listening to the client and knowing what the client’s needs are now should be at the heart of any insurance company. Agents and brokers are the experts of insurance and must accurately and consistently portray their understanding of how insurance plays a role in our society. This ensures integrity and intelligence of an insurance company and those who represent it.
Sheppard: The first thing that comes to mind is technology. It isn’t just about social media anymore. It is having a mobile website, a smartphone app, anything that makes you easily accessible to your clientele. When I think about how I work and live on a day-to-day basis, my phone, laptop and iPad are never far away. On the other hand, the other skill that I think young agents will need in 2012 is relationship building: getting out into communities and learning how to interact and communicate with people, creating a reputation that people can relate to and want to be a part of. From the most modern technology to the oldest means of doing business, I truly think these two skills will be most important. While people need technology to function daily, they also still want personal relationships with those they do business with.
Droege: Clients have so many choices these days; you must give them a reason to work with you. You also must be a relentless self-promoter. That’s not to say that you have to be selling policies over the Thanksgiving table, but you do need to love what you do and ensure people are aware of your abilities. I would say that half of my sales calls are purely to tell my story. If I’m enthusiastic about what I do, then that energy transfers to clients and prospects, which turns into new business.
Obviously, at the end of the day, this is a sales business. Some basic sales techniques and abilities are no-brainers. I’m not overly reliant on technique, but I do think you should understand what motivates people to buy.
Read on for the panel's insights into using social media and how young agents struggle.
Sheppard: I use social media daily and update our Facebook and Twitter accounts frequently throughout the week. I have learned that our followers and clients want to read more than just insurance-specific posts. They want to know about us as people, about what is going on in the community, about what is going on in the world and so much more. Social media is a way to communicate with prospects and clients on a more personal level. I also use social media to learn. I will follow insurance industry groups and businesses on Twitter and Facebook to see what they are saying and gather useful pieces of information. Social media is a two-way street for both putting information out there and also taking information in and learning.
Droege: I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I think LinkedIn is vital because it gives you insight on individual clients/prospects and the connections between you and them. Twitter is a fun way to connect, but is easily a time-waster. If you are very strict with your time on it, it can be a great way to have personal interaction with a client or prospect. I use it to promote my clients’ or prospects’ news and successes. It’s just another way to connect on a different level. We also use Facebook to interact with people.
The reason I’m not 100 percent on the bandwagon is that I think social media blurs the line between productivity and procrastination. It’s easy to feel like you have accomplished work after 2 hours of Tweeting, but have you? Social media can greatly enhance your interactions, but it’s not going to replace the cold calling.
Hasson: Contemporary society is brimming with numerous innovative social media outlets. Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp, Google Places and Meetup groups are great ways to start. People love reading reviews and feeling connected. Social media is a major part of getting referrals; for example, Facebook and LinkedIn is an effective way to gain your friends, acquaintances, family as your clients. Face it, most have opened the door to people by becoming friends with them on a social media page. By adding you as a friend, trust and rapport have already been established. It is just another small step to expand by sending out a survey concerning insurance agents and waiting for a response. You might find many who are looking for more information concerning that. Since trust has already been established they will find it natural to trust you as one of your clients. Personally, I like to stay in touch with my clients by sending them blogs about daily information and tips for saving money.
What do you see young agents struggle with in their first years in this industry? What advice do you have?
Hasson: Many young agents find themselves struggling with startup capital, financial burden and the ability to sustain carrier appointments. It was so important for us to join the Big I for help and support on what to do or where to go. What new agents must recognize is that starting a scratch agency is time consuming. They have to be willing and dedicated to put in the time. I have put in hours and hours of time in meeting with marketing reps, trying to get them to accept a new young agent with no book of business to start selling. So it is important to understand that it takes time to get established. Sometimes it just takes realizing that it is okay to be frustrated at times because it is just part of the learning curve. Being patient, putting in the time and believing in oneself can and will make all the difference. You are as good as you believe yourself to be.
Sheppard: Insurance is an incredibly complex and ever-changing industry. The first thing I see young agents struggle with is being overwhelmed by all that we have to learn. Becoming licensed is challenging in itself, but working in the industry is a whole other ballgame. My advice to young agents is simple: Calm down, read everything and listen. Try your best to not get overwhelmed. When you receive those industry-specific emails from companies, legislative updates and anything else, read them. Read anything your boss sends to you and familiarize yourself with the changes. You have to be willing to accept that this is how the industry works and everyone has to deal with it; you are not alone. When your marketing rep comes to check in, when your agency principal holds a meeting, when a company rep comes into the office, listen to what they have to say. Opening yourself up to the information will truly help. Remember, the benefit of keeping up with the industry will only make you a better and more successful agent.
Droege: The biggest struggle for me was accepting the learning curve. This industry demands a high level of knowledge in several areas to be successful. You have to learn coverages, sales, business and more. There’s a lot to it, and you can’t expect to master all of it overnight. As you gain knowledge in these areas, you will be more successful. But for me, it didn’t come fast enough. Young people tend to want everything yesterday, and the insurance industry cannot offer that. Your success comes from hard work. My involvement with the CPCU and CIC designation programs has greatly expedited my learning of coverage forms and risk management techniques. I’ve also devoted time to sales training and have used that to develop my own style.
Read on for the panel's take on legislative issues and age-related workplace conflicts.
Sheppard: Prior to joining my family’s independent insurance agency, I worked as a research aide for a senator in the North Carolina general assembly. Having a degree in political science, I am passionate about government and legislative issues. To stay involved in the legislative world, I became a member of the Independent Agents of North Carolina’s legislative committee. This allows me to lobby on behalf of other independent agents at the state and national level.
An ongoing legislative issue on the national level that I’m always watching is the National Flood Insurance Program. Right now, our state is dealing with a major issue with our coastal insurance pool. Our agency is in western North Carolina, but this issue affects agents and homeowners all across the state. This was something that was ongoing even in my years at the general assembly, so I am interested to see how and when it is resolved.
Hasson: InsurPac is the federal political action committee of Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA). It represents the unified political voice of IIABA’s 23,000 member agencies, and 300,000 agents and brokers. It is the interaction with our representatives on Capitol Hill that is crucial to the interests of independent agents and brokers. This is a great way to get involved and support current issues that go on with agents. InsurPac is self-funded by personal contributions from independent agents.
Droege: I would love to get involved in legislative issues at some point in my career, but I’m not currently very active with it. This industry has so many moving parts, it’s hard to tackle them all. In my state (North Carolina), we have a very active state association (IIANC) that has helped our local legislative issues tremendously.
Have you experienced any age-related workplace conflicts? How were they resolved?
Hasson: Overall, thankfully, we have not experienced age related conflicts. We resolve ageism with education. We want people to know that we are the experts. Thus, we have spent hours educating ourselves within our field. We learn from our mentors who help us grow and understand how to learn from mistakes. Growth is part of starting an agency. With growth comes success and accomplishments. Believe it or not, we have held the attitude that age actually has also been an aid to us. With youth comes innovation and cutting edge ideas; couple that with continuous education and learning from elders and we have successfully developed, and are constantly expanding into a balanced, well-rounded agency. Our agency takes it one step further: We are the emerging leaders of tomorrow. In this way, because of our optimistic attitude, others have given us the same mutual respect that we have shown them.
Droege: The biggest issue for younger people is the experience gap. Many seasoned industry veterans forever associate youth with a lack of knowledge. It’s a hard thing to overcome, actually. I think it’s only natural for them to assume that people new to insurance don’t know as much as they do.
I’ve made a personal commitment to get my CIC and CPCU in the next year, which I think will help with this issue. A respected designation shows commitment and knowledge. My generation also is typically viewed as lazy, so a few letters behind your name indicate otherwise.
Sheppard: I think all young agents will experience an age-related conflict or obstacle to overcome early on in their career. Quite often, we are entering an agency or company with co-workers who have been in this industry for a very long time. I entered my family’s independent agency where my mother has been the owner for more than 20 years and has more than 30 years of experience in the industry. Conflicts are bound to arise, but the best thing to learn is respect. I have learned that mutual respect is a sure-fire way to resolve these types of conflict. As young agents, we have to respect those who have been working in this business for many years because there is much to be learned from them, and they have to respect us in return for our fresh ideas, energy and excitement about starting our careers.