Canadian Underwriter

How to survive a pandemic

October 20, 2020   by Rob Vosseler, Executive Vice President, Principal Broker, Union Power Insurance Brokers Inc.

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Our brokerage is six years old, which is still relatively new. As insurance brokerage principals would appreciate, significant challenges exist when starting an insurance brokerage from scratch. Insurers are leery of newcomers, costs exceed income, and recruiting quality staff is a huge feat. We were just getting over that start-up hump when we were hit with the pandemic; COVID-19 was like a punch to the gut.

The safety of our staff and customers was Priority 1. The thought of exposing them and their families to COVID-19 created significant stress. Despite being identified as an essential service, we shut our physical location down immediately.

Thankfully, we had the foresight to purchase laptops for all team members in the days leading up to Ontario’s complete shutdown. Also, we had upgraded to cloud-based servers accessed via VPN, so our network was ready to switch from physical to virtual operations.

We were ready for this. Or so we thought.

As soon as the province-wide shutdown was announced, our phones went silent, our website stopped humming. Customers were much too pre-occupied with more important concerns; shopping around for insurance was on nobody’s priority list.

Six years of very hard work developing our business looked to be at significant risk.

We sat down with our leadership team and broke down the emerging situation into manageable pieces. We had the technology in place, but we identified other challenges. For example, what about proper broker supervision while working remotely, which is a regulatory requirement? We have some experienced brokers and some that are still acquiring the required skillset.

Adjusting the way we supervised licenced individuals required a new way of thinking. Remote coaching, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams became the new tools for education and oversight. Internal file maintenance and underwriting audits became especially important. We learned a lot about how some people have challenges working from home and others thrive working remotely.

Indeed, as the pandemic continued, we identified some team members who out-performed the majority in significant ways. This came as a surprise to us, to be honest.

Understanding one’s propensity to work effectively from home will now be incorporated into our hiring practices. What was once considered an employer perk will now become a highly desirable employee attribute. These people were focused instead of stressed out by long commutes and maintaining family obligations. We can now recruit from anywhere in Ontario. We can hire, supervise, and reward insurance professionals who live outside of our own backyard.

We learned many lessons, including how work/life balance is key to a high-performing workforce.

Next came the challenge of making the phones ring again. Some believed advertising for new business during a pandemic was not a proper way to conduct ourselves, citing the potential for brand damage. We found the exact opposite to be true.

The situation was new to everyone. Both new customers and existing clients wanted and needed advice. This required a shift in messaging. Our new message was simple: During these tough times people want advice. After we shifted from a price proposition to a service-first and advice-first offer, our phones lit up.

It helped that the media were saying drivers should pay less for auto insurance while sheltering at home, so our messaging resonated. Yes, sales went down and our staff were consumed by advice-based conversations, which rarely lead to a sale. Nevertheless, we think we demonstrated the value of an independent broker’s advice and created a huge amount of goodwill, which will pay off in the long term.

We aspire to be the trusted advisor. With all of the choice and multiple messages out in the consumer world, people don’t know where to look or whom to trust. This pandemic forced us to zero in on our target clients. We offered them information that was timely and relevant and embraced our role as independent insurance brokers.

Despite it all, we didn’t lay off a single person. Staff disruption was minimal and team morale was high. We encouraged our staff to use some downtime to take online courses or book a “staycation” in order to de-stress.

Today, production is trending back to pre-pandemic levels. We have slowly shifted back to physical operations. Thankfully, our leased space is large enough to allow for physical distancing. Hand sanitizer and wipes are strategically placed throughout the office. Arrows on the floor ensure proper distancing when moving about.

We are not out of the woods yet. Now is not the time to let down our guard. However, I truly believe our business is stronger because our team is stronger. And a stronger team will lead to a healthy workplace, engaged clients, and stronger long-term financial results.

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Rob Vosseler is executive vice president and principal broker for Union Power Insurance Brokers Inc., in Hamilton, Ont.

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