Long-term planning can tell you what you need to do now to get ready for the future. (Photo: Shutterstock) Long-term planning can tell you what you need to do now to get ready for the future. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Like other businesses across the country, independent insurance agencies are facing the COVID-19 outbreak with one eye on the health and safety of family and friends and the other on the future of their business. And that future may very well depend on how effective they were in planning for the days, weeks and months ahead.

I see three distinct planning phases agencies should undertake to not only survive this disruption but also to be ready to accelerate their recovery and growth once the dust settles, and we find ourselves in a healthier business environment.

These phases are the immediate response, the 30-to-60-day plan, and the longer-term plan that takes them through the fall and into 2021.

Immediate response

A business continuity plan (BCP) is an essential part of a proactive and successful response to this and other crises. The goal of this plan is to maintain business operations during the initial stage of a crisis and carry you through to longer-term strategies. For example, my company completed our remote-workforce plan by March 1 and made the move smoothly on March 9.

There are several key components in this planning and they start with leadership. Independent insurance agencies should begin by establishing a Leadership Response Team for all regions and functions. This team can set expectation levels for meetings and productivity while staff are working from home.

Communications and technology are also essential in the early days, especially setting up remote access and notifying clients that you're open (in your office or home) and ready to help. A communication protocol for you and your employees establishes how, when and why you communicate, while file-sharing capabilities and web-based access (with security best practices) keep operations on track.

Managing productivity is a challenge with a remote workforce, so you need new ways to measure productivity, especially if you had based it on whether employees were at their desk. One way to do this is to recreate the teamwork you have in the office through tools like Microsoft Team or Slack, establishing priorities for you and your clients, delegating, as appropriate, and checking in with your team daily to assess progress and results. Video conferencing through tools like Zoom can make a big difference here.

Intermediate phase

When you're 30 to 60 days from the start of the crisis, you can begin to plan longer-term and take proactive steps to evaluate market changes and adapt your business to meet challenges. Start with communicating with your carriers to learn of their evolving plans, what's changing and what they're saying about rates and product availability.

Your clients will need to hear from you in this phase, too, so if you haven't reached out yet, now is the time. Since face-to-face meetings aren't possible at this time, you may need to expand the ways you communicate with clients, whether you're just checking in or marketing and selling products. When this crisis is over, you can expect a heavier reliance on remote work, smartphones and communication platforms like social media, so plan now to build a meaningful social media and mobile technology presence now.

You can also exemplify leadership and be helpful to clients and prospects by providing them with COVID-19 resources, which is an approach we took by using our own experience and lessons learned to create print and video resources for independent agents on a dedicated website page.

Finally, job loss in severely affected industries is one of the unfortunate outcomes of this crisis, but it also means many people with excellent sales and marketing skills will be available in your communities. These are people who may be able to upgrade your sales team and help you grow quickly once we emerge from this crisis.

Long-term planning

While many agents will find it difficult to look beyond the immediate impact of the pandemic, I argue that now is the time to take a longer-term outlook with your business planning. That's exactly what we're doing at my company — looking 100 days beyond the estimated end of the crisis to plan around what we expect to see in the insurance markets and overall economy.

For example, in the fall, we expect a very soft market and that means lower volume and profits, a reduction in premiums along many lines of business, fewer renewals, reduced commissions and a slowdown in new business activity. With that in mind, now is the time to expand your book of business into commercial lines and other products, if you haven't already, while also broadening sales and marketing with new channels and geographic areas.

In short, long-term planning can tell you what you need to do now to get ready for the future. And in the process, it can increase your team's confidence in this future.

The pandemic will end and life will go back to normal, even if this happens in fits and starts. Agencies that plan and transition successfully will move ahead quickly with a well-defined growth strategy while their competitors are just getting out of bed.

Tony Caldwell is CEO of One Agents Alliance, an alliance of 181 independent insurance agents in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas and California. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed here are the author's own.