Canadian Underwriter

Back to School

February 2, 2012   by Terri Goveia

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Second in a two-part series charting broker progress in the Insurance Brokers Association of Ontario (IBAO)’s Beyond Best in Class program. Part One was published in our June 2011 issue. To read that article, click here.

Brokers don’t often get the chance to walk in their clients’ shoes, but in mid-September, a group of southwestern Ontario brokers retraced the typical customer path together. From the first step through the door, they saw what every insurance shopper sees: How are they greeted? What are they offered? And—most importantly—are they getting what they need?

The exercise, part of the recent Beyond Best in Class (BBiC) workshop, prompted the participants to consider, “how do we make it work for them instead of us?” says Catherine Wilson, the sales and operations manager at Steele and Ferraro Insurance Brokers Ltd.

That question was fitting for the brokers, who had just spent five months applying elements from the program’s spring session into their own businesses. If rethinking core strategies—with lessons from global brands like Starbucks, WalMart and Apple—had helped them see their brokerages from a different perspective during phase one, the second phase turned their sights on the people both inside and outside their offices.

Josslin Insurance Brokers: Finding and Filling Gaps

The principals at Josslin Insurance Brokers finished the BBiC program’s first session with a specific checklist: fine tune the Kitchener, Ont., brokerage’s human resources strategy, and bump up its brand. This summer, they hit the ground running, says brokerage partner and sales manager Steven Wagler.

The brokerage began with strategy sessions at all business levels, and took the pulse in each department with an online organizational survey. After determining where the findings lined up—from senior executives to front line people—they were able to pinpoint any HR gaps through in-house focus groups.

One such gap: a less-than-clear organizational path. “People didn’t understand structure,” Wagler says. And fulfilling their overall vision required a path that aligned employee ambitions and talents with their brokerage career path. In a typical career trajectory, a good producer would start up their own shop—but producer talents usually lie in business development, not operations, he points out. “We want to make sure if we’re moving forward we’re in the right roles, we’re doing the right things, to make our larger goal.”

Also part of that two-year target: stronger branding for the brokerage. And for Wagler, better branding means a focus on value. “Right now, you call up [broker] X, and Y and Z and we all sound the same. We follow software—and sooner or later, we’ve commoditized the process,” he says. “What if we changed that around, and developed our own process? [For example] if we say relationships are valued, why don’t we talk about that?” One possible move: adjusting office hours to make them more accessible to clients when they most need them. Since the majority of car accidents happen when the office is closed, “the brokerage is positioning some services around that.”

Wagler draws parallels in that approach to the Starbucks model the brokers studied in phase one, in which, “coffee is a commodity, but the service isn’t.”

In adopting a new mindset, he says, “Beyond Best in Class has pushed us to challenge the norms.”

Erb & Erb Insurance Brokers Ltd.: Priority “Triage”

For James Chmiel and the other principals at Erb & Erb Insurance Brokers Ltd., the months between BBiC sessions offered a lesson in prioritizing. An updated renewal process was high on the brokerage wish list, but those plans took a back seat to human resources concerns. With their human resources point person becoming more occupied with other aspects of the business, they realized they needed a full time HR person and a trainer for the Kitchener-based brokerage. Tying the planning into BBiC strategies revealed that taking a step forward sometimes means a step back to prep the foundation, says Chmiel, the brokerage president.

“You have to triage a bit,” he says, noting that the ultimate decision made sense: a new trainer could help roll out future renewal changes.

The brokerage has made headway on its other key goal, to strengthen community presence. They’re working on a “welcome wagon” package for new businesses to the area, that lets them in on nearby services, and their profile got an additional boost when Chmiel was named the local United Way Chairman, a position that “demonstrates our philanthropic view and our ties back into the community,” he says.

Work on both those fronts requires that all employees, no matter what their title, “live out” the brokerage mission statement, he points out. When making decisions, staffers have learned to ask themselves, “does it fit in with the mission statement or am I taking away from it?” something they now do at staff meetings and call observations, he adds.

Working with the other program participants as his own brokerage made changes helped add momentum, he says. Monthly conference calls and follow-up at the second BBiC session “brought another level of accountability to it.”

Steele and Ferraro Insurance Brokers Ltd.: One Value at a Time

Overhauling brokerage strategy may seem daunting, but the principals at Steele and Ferraro Insurance Brokers Ltd. took it one service value at a time. Like the other participants, the Guelph-based brokerage focused on their mission statement after phase one, making it real for employees by adding service values, says Wilson.

Each employee has a copy of the mission statement at their desks, along with a list of values that might seem basic—heads up, genuine thank-yous, consideration for other team members, etc.—but make a simple client encounter a true service experience. “We have tried to bring our staff through Beyond Best in Class with us,” she says.

Next up, the brokerage will tackle processes—gathering feedback on which ones work and which might need a similar overhaul. “It’s about what you’re doing right, but identifying some gaps,” Wilson says. “As a business owner, you want to bring those to the forefront to be a better organization. You want to perform well in the long-term financially as well as operationally.”

Both sessions, she adds, have helped on this front. “These programs help you see what you might not have otherwise seen.”

Supporting Change

As the brokers continue to redefine strategies, clients shouldn’t be their only focus. New values and practices mean that staffers will need extra support as the business transforms, according to consultant Alex Gallacher. And there are several ways to offer it, says the managing director at Engage HR Solutions Inc., who also led the human resources component of the September workshop.

Having a clear, organized plan is key. Employees have to work together, “and they’ve got to work in an orchestrated way to enable the customer experience,” he says. Brokerages should ask themselves, “Are we organized in an appropriate way?”

Part of that plan means well-defined roles and responsibilities, he adds. But it also means more basic things like enough time to handle issues, adequate information and authority to make decisions. “Do we have frontline people who are enabled and empowered to make that customer experience easy?”

Customers and staffers won’t be the only well-supported ones. Even beyond the second session, the brokers continue to trade ideas and chart progress via monthly conference calls, even between scheduled discussions. That feedback is proof, says Wagler, that “as organizations, we’re never an island.”


Copyright 2011 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the December 2011 edition of Canadian Insurance Top Broker magazine.

This story was originally published by Canadian Insurance Top Broker.