Producers Push To Ride Learning Curve

Carriers move swiftly to keep up with rising demands for training among their agents

Realizing that knowledge is power, and that the more you know, the more you can earn, producers are moving to capitalize on educational opportunities offered by their carriers, and insurers in turn are expanding course offerings and access points to keep up with the rising demand for training.

With competition and costs on the rise, many agents are struggling to obtain quality producer education, and they are looking to insurance companies to help fill that gap, according to Barbara Smiley, vice president of property and casualty training and development at The Hartford.

Companies have responded, with many offering various types of courses through a variety of outlets. At The Hartford, the company revived The Hartford School of Insurance in 1998.

The school’s director, Shirley Woods, said the carrier takes a “blended approach” to its educational efforts, providing agents with some pre-course work before either bringing them into the classroom or, more recently, bringing the classroom to them.

The Hartford School of Insurance recently went on the road, and Ms. Smiley said that nearly half of its educational work is done in remote locations. “It’s more expensive for us to do that,” Ms. Woods conceded, but she added that The Hartford “recognizes the value” of providing a more convenient service to its affiliated agents and brokers. “We look at this as value added,” she said.

Other companies have sought out additional ways to bring the classroom into the field, and not surprisingly, these efforts involve the Internet.

The Chubb Group of Insurance Companies offers webcasts to agents and brokers as part of its training outreach that allow them to access the classroom from their own desks, or even through their cell phones, according to Elizabeth McDaid, the company’s vice president of agent/broker education.

Chubb webcasts are provided free of charge, Ms. McDaid noted, making them the “perfect” means of providing low-cost training to agents, she added.

Chubb offers 15-to-20 webcasts throughout the year, and Ms. McDaid said that they average 70-to-80 connections for each one, with some having as wide an audience as 700-to-800 connections. Each connection, she noted, could be an individual or several individuals in an office.

The number of connections is roughly twice those of two years ago, according to Ms. McDaid. She attributed this to an increase in demand, more effective marketing and efforts by Chubb to consistently provide quality opportunities.

“We’re always going out to get the best” in terms of resources and people to lead the courses, she said, noting that Chubb provides some of its classes with the Wharton School of Business.

Chubb also offers approximately 25 courses in the classroom, up from just three when the education division was founded within the company four years ago. These cover a variety of topics from basic training through agency management techniques, and students in those courses are required to pay a fee–or as Ms. McDaid said, “put some skin in the game.”

Additionally, she said the classes could work in conjunction with the webcasts. As an example, she explained that a webcast might be used to continue the work done in a classroom in the months after the class has ended.

At The Hartford School of Insurance, providing a classroom atmosphere is important, Ms. Woods said, because those taking the courses tend to get more out of them when they are physically involved rather than simply receiving information.

“People don’t learn by listening. They learn by participating,” she said. To keep the level of participation up, The Hartford maintains small classes, averaging about 18 students.

As they have grown, the educational programs and schools of insurance have also had to evolve from offering simple training for new producers to a more in-depth curriculum of issues facing insurance agencies and companies.

Of course, agents and brokers aren’t the only ones in the industry eager to keep learning. Bruce Stauf, director of training at Crawford & Company’s Crawford University, said that the demand for training at the school is on the rise. Crawford University offers training for other insurance professionals, most notably claims adjusters, through a number of courses based on individual product lines.

Crawford University’s courses run the gamut from basic information about individual lines to an advanced business course. “We’ve had a lot of people asking for that,” Mr. Stauf said of the advanced course.

Crawford offers training to both its own employees and those from outside the company, which Mr. Stauf said typically come from the self-insured market.

Currently, the vast majority of Crawford’s students–approximately 86-to-88 percent–come from within the company, but the number of students from outside is increasing. Mr. Stauf said this is because the company has shifted the focus of the university. Although training and education have always been a part of Crawford, Mr. Stauf noted that the university was started by the company’s founder during the 1940s.

Crawford’s shift outward in focus a few years ago–as well as the resurrection of the Hartford School of Insurance in 1998 and the establishment of the education division at Chubb four years ago–can clearly be seen as the insurance industry’s reaction to an increase in demand for training opportunities from all sectors of the business–but particularly from the producer community. Those involved in training believe this increase in demand is not simply a temporary surge, but will likely only grow over time in a knowledge business such as insurance.

Already, Ms. Woods said, The Hartford has seen the demand for training move to the next level. Rather than simply seeking to enroll their people in specific courses, Ms. Woods said that agencies are now calling the school seeking help in designing an entire educational program for their employees. “We’re getting more and more phone calls over the past few months from agencies saying, ‘Help me design a curriculum,’” she noted.

Work on this latest evolution in education has already begun, Ms. Smiley noted. “We’re playing a consulting role with a number of our agents” to design a full educational program, she said.

The investment of providing education and training to insurance professionals results in a positive for the industry, according to Chubb’s Ms. McDaid. “When we make agents and brokers better, it raises the standards for the industry overall,” she said.

However, education can also help individual agencies grow and avoid the pitfalls of poor business decisions. Ms. McDaid said she has received numerous thanks form those attending classes or participating in webcasts. In one instance, she noted, the owner of an agency told her that a class from Chubb saved him $1 million by making him realize that a planned merger would be a mistake.

The Hartford’s Ms. Woods said that the increase in training and education flows from the agents themselves, and that the agencies that employ them are also feeling pressure. Top employees, she said, “expect training and expect development.”

Ms. McDaid also noted this, saying that agents realize the industry and the world around them are changing, and that “they must be aware of what is out there.”

Agencies, she said, are realizing that they must provide this service to keep their best employees and are taking advantage of what companies have to offer. “Agencies are starting to realize that, with a very small investment, they can attract and retain the top talent,” according to Ms. Woods.

The education and training programs provided by these companies are typically general in terms of products, and the classes avoid becoming a sales presentation. “We don’t product-dump on them,” Ms. Woods explained.

Caption:

In a knowledge business such as insurance, what you know is a critical component of how much you can earn.

Quoteboxes:

“We’re getting more and more phone calls over the past few months from agencies saying, ‘Help me design a curriculum.’”

Shirley Woods, Director

Hartford School of Insurance

“When we make agents and brokers better, it raises the standards for the industry overall.”

Elizabeth McDaid, V.P. Agent/Broker Education

Chubb Group