Filed Under:Agent Broker, Sales & Marketing

Personal Touch

Agents can use new technology to strengthen old relationships

I recently visited my parents who live in the North Shore area of Boston. They are elderly and have had trouble running errands. While we were together, I drove them to take care of outstanding things—doctor’s visits, grocery shopping and setting up community support through the local Council on Aging.

We made one stop to my parents’ insurance agent’s office. My parents had never set up automatic withdrawal and as they don’t have a computer for paying online, a visit to the office was in order to pay a premium. 

I love visiting insurance agents’ offices. It’s not something I do on a regular basis. Even though I serve as executive director of the Personal Lines Growth Alliance, whose members are independent agents, I usually connect with members and other agents over the phone, at conferences, through email and via social media. These are all great communication mediums, but there is nothing like visiting with an agent on his or her own turf.

It was a great opportunity to knock on the office door of my dad’s agent, Dave, while he was busy with the CSR up front. I had a brief, informative conversation with him about issues he faces. Having been involved in the leadership of the state producers’ association, he had a broader perspective than many agents I’ve talked with. 

Related: Read Gilman's previous column "Hunt and Gather."

Once I introduced myself to him and mentioned this column (he has two subscriptions to American Agent & Broker to circulate to his staff of six), he relayed the frustration that he feels when confronted with competition from direct writers. He doesn’t believe independent agents are getting “our message out on the benefits of working with us, effectively enough,” he said. 

Consumers don’t understand the difference between independent agents and captive agents, Dave said, and our association isn’t doing enough to make it clear. I agreed but suggested that it was up to the individual agents to make sure that message was delivered in his or her own marketing strategy.

I believe agents sometimes lose sight of their roles in the big picture campaign. Solely relying on the national and regional producer associations to build and manage the only marketing platform to compete with the captive and direct writers is a mistake. The message won’t resonate with consumers unless an individual agency also differentiates itself from the other channels.

This is not new. People prefer to buy from people, not from businesses, and unless you can connect with your clients and prospects at that level, you become just another insurance provider. This is Marketing 101; in today’s world, the same old methods aren’t cutting it—because the world and expectations are different.

For those of us that support the independent agency channel as consultants or pundits, our message isn’t always getting through. I’ve talked with a number of agents who are frustrated, either by the demands this new world is placing on their already resource-strapped staffs or by the lack of results from effective efforts to reach the market.

One agent, who contacted me after publication of my column, “Agents: Do You Really Need a Website?” (AA&B, June 2012), comes to mind. In that column I opined that if you website lacks interaction, fresh content and valuable information beyond just product and service hype, it’s not worth building. Easier and less expensive methods are available. 

Related: Read another Gilman column "New ROI."

The agent was frustrated because his website was generating “very little business.” He wondered if it was an SEO issue or something else. His website acted as an online brochure that had phone numbers to the carriers they represented for reporting a claim and some forms for getting a quote. It also had the agency phone number for calling during business hours.

I can’t really blame him for his frustration. As consultants and writers, we do a disservice to agents when we discuss issues like SEO and pay-per-click. If we focus on using simple approaches to the new social media options, then you can position your agency more effectively:

  • What makes my agency different from the other guy? A great way to do an audit of your message is to check out what your competitor’s message is. Does it sound familiar? Is it any more or less believable than yours? If your answer is “yes, it’s the same as mine and no, it’s no more believable,” then that’s not good enough.
  • Do I come across as more committed to my clients and community? Do you provide 24/7 service? How often do you communicate with your clients? Is it only during renewal? Is it only about business? Do you demonstrate involvement in your community? Do you share your agency’s activities on your website and other places?
  • Is my agency where my clients and prospects are? If your agency only operates 9 to 5, you can be sure your prospects don’t. If your agency operates out of a brick and mortar storefront and has a two-dimensional website, you can be sure your customers will want more. If your agency believes that phone calls and walk-ins by clients are the best ways to build a strong relationship with them, you can be sure you’re missing the mark for a large percentage of them.

Swimming lessons

The other conversation I often have with agents is about swimming—or more accurately, “keeping their heads above water.” The average agent I speak with owns an agency or is responsible for marketing and its website. Sometimes they are the same person. The agency is usually small and employees barely keep up with the workload. Maybe they’ve bought a prospect list but haven’t had the time to do anything with it. They do some cross selling, but it’s usually prompted by commercial accounts looking for personal lines coverage.

Then, during a brief moment of downtime, agents read an article or hear someone at the local association meeting talking about engaging in social media. They know they should be doing this, but they don’t know how. 

If you have the finances to invest in marketing platforms, there are several companies that can rebuild your website, create marketing campaigns for you and provide content to give you a presence on various social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and blogging.

Relater: Read the article "Have Tech, Will Travel" by Rick Gilman.

You need to find a way to present your agency and yourself as someone a prospect would want to have a relationship with. It starts with building a brand, defining what that brand means and delivering on the promise. It needs to be more than “providing the best products and service for the best value.”

It’s about recognizing that new techniques can achieve old-style results. Successful agencies build strong personal relationships with clients that think of them as a friend and refer them to their friends.

Multimedia content brings personality

So what’s new? You’ve heard it before but it’s still effective: video and audio messaging. Using multimedia on your website conveys a much more personal touch than text. Even something as simple as having photos and short bios of your staff on the site helps clients and prospects get to know them before meeting them in person.

Client interaction with agents is typically limited, so the exposure they have to your agency has to be much more enriched in order for it to be lasting. Letting them get to know you can go a long way toward giving them a feeling of commitment to you, reflecting the commitment they feel they’re getting from you. The goals are the same as they were years ago, but the path to get there is different.

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