Canadian Underwriter

The secret behind CSR good talent

January 1, 2001   by Axiom

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As the company’s senior marketing representative, it was an annual ritual. Every January, I invited a group of my lead brokers to my house for an afternoon of wine tasting followed by a large and calorie-rich dinner. It was now early evening. We had tasted and rated a dozen good wines, eaten a huge dinner, and we were slumped into the easy chairs of my recreation room, facing a cheerful fire. I passed a fresh pot of hot coffee around the group.

Broker Harry, who ran a successful operation in the city suburbs, looked deep in thought, almost glum, as he took a sip. “Penny for your thoughts Harry,” I said. He looked up at me. “To tell you the truth, Dave, I’m frustrated these days. My lead CSR quit two weeks ago. Another one is going off to the U.S. where her husband has a new job. I need two fully-trained CSRs right now – and I just can’t seem to get them.”

A sympathetic grunt came from Bob Davies, a midtown broker with a sizeable volume of commercial as well as personal business. “Tell me about it! I could use a couple myself right now, but how do you find them?” That brought a laugh from Joanne, who ran a thriving brokerage with her co-partner Shirley. “Pay ’em a decent salary, you guys!” she roared with mirth, “then they won’t leave you!”

Before Bob or Harry could respond, there was a quick response from Stan, who operated a very efficient and fully automated office in a town of 30,000 population and about an hour outside the city. “Money’s important,” he agreed, “but CSRs often leave for other reasons.”

“Give me some ‘for instances’ Stan,” I interjected. Stan put down his mug of coffee, “okay…CSRs quit because they don’t get a full or decent package of benefits that include health and dental care. Don’t forget that quite a few CSRs are single moms so benefits are very important to them. CSRs quit because they’re not given any responsibility, because they discover that the boss expects them to sit like human machines and just process work. They leave because the office hasn’t been upgraded or automated from the 1980s. They leave because they don’t have access to modern, timesaving software”. “…Essentially, they quit because they don’t feel like their efforts are appreciated,” interjected Joanne who was warming up to the developing debate. She added, “before joining my office, one of my senior CSRs had never been sent on a single course or seminar by her broker. Each of my CSRs must go on at least one course a year. If it means she has to stay at a hotel – I don’t quibble. And on the last night, I join the CSR and her partner for dinner, at my expense. It’s my way of thanking them for upgrading themselves and becoming more useful to me.”

“Sounds like one heck of a good idea,” I said, filling up her coffee mug. “It certainly is,” Bob Davies acknowledged, patting Joanne’s arm. “I like your approach. None of us should ever overlook the fact that to our customers, the CSR’s voice over the phone is our company. The impression customers get is shaped by how well – or badly – they are treated. Let’s face it, a CSR can make or break your reputation with a customer in five minutes or less.”

There was a moment’s silence, broken only by the crackle of the logs in the fireplace. Then I spoke. “Reminds me of a report I read recently. It was a ‘consumer loyalty study’ carried out by an American outfit called the Center for Client Retention. It shows that in the treatment they receive, consumers rank ‘courtesy and professionalism’ first. Next comes ‘amount of time a representative spends with them’, followed by ‘encouragement to call again’, and finally – ‘expression of appreciation for the client’s business’.” I smiled at the group. “Hey, it’s not rocket science, but it’s amazing how often these simple rules are overlooked or ignored by people who should know better.”

Beside me, I saw Harry’s eyebrows go up as I finished my story. “Hey!” he exclaimed. “These facts are worth remembering!” He stood up and refilled his coffee mug. “You know, there’s one other fact which finally came through to me loud and clear. After struggling myself with our computer setup and the various software support packages, I realized that a couple of my young CSRs were a whole lot brighter and faster to absorb that stuff than I am. So I made them jointly responsible for that area of our operation.” He shook his head slowly and smiled around at us. “One of my smarter ideas, they’ve got it down pat.”

“Good move, Harry!” Joanne said. “And I’d be willing to bet they enjoy the responsibility.” Harry nodded, then he opened up his hands in front of him. “Look, while we’re on this general topic, let me throw out a leading question: I agree that CSRs often leave for reasons other than money, but I’d like to know, am I paying too little?” He leaned forward in his chair and looked around. “I pay a junior CSR, freshly-licensed, around $25,000. An intermediate CSR with a few years’ experience $30,000 to $32,000. My senior CSR pulls down around $40,000. They all get a full benefits package.”

That brought a nod from Bob Davies. “These figures aren’t out of line for the city,” he said. “In my operation. As you all know, we have a good chunk of high-end commercial business. My top CSR has graduated to become my commercial lines’ marketer. She’s first-rate, and she’s worth the $50k-plus salary I pay her.” He turned his head to look at his broker friend beside him. “But I think these numbers might be a little rich for Stan.”

Stan grinned, “you’ve got that right. There really are some advantages to living out in the boonies. For one thing, my salary scale is about 20% under the big city rate, since I don’t have to compete for staff with all you free-spending big city agencies. I pay a newly-minted CSR around $20,000 to $22,000 if she also doubles as my receptionist. My top CSR gets around $34,000. Full benefits as well. And of course,” he added with a quick smile at the rest of us, “my staff don’t have any big transportation costs to get to the office. The parking is for free, and they can go home for lunch.”

I jumped into the fray. “I’m sure that’s competitive where you are, Stan. But for all of you, doesn’t the cost of benefits vary a lot?” Harry was the first to answer. “Sure it does. Obviously, the cost varies with the package you offer. In my own office it costs me around $300 a month per person for a comprehensive package of health and dental benefits. But let’s face it, in today’s marketplace, where there really isn’t a surplus of good, trained people, you have to offer a full range of benefits to attract good staff.”

I could see Stan’s head nodding in agreement. He spoke next, “well, since we’re talking about extras here, let’s not forget the cost of ‘special’ or ‘added’ benefits. A lot of us throw these in for our CSRs because of the goodwill they generate. In my experience, they far outstrip the cost.” I asked the obvious question, “what sort of extras do you mean Stan?” He replied, “well, I decided some years ago to pay the car insurance costs for my lead CSR. She was a single mom and really appreciated it. Then I extended this to include my other CSRs. Finally, a couple of years ago I decided we’d pay the full cost of their home insurance as well.”

There was a high-pitched whistle of surprise from Harry, and Bob smiled in response. “Sure, it’s another bottom-line cost, but if you mean to hold on to good staff you have to make them want to stay.” There was a quick laugh from Joanne. “Well,” she said, “I can see why you hang on to your staff, Stan. We don’t go that far – but we do offer an ‘S-day’ for all our CSRs every year.”

“S-Day?” I queried. “Stands for ‘Shopping’ Dave,” Joanne replied with a quick grin. “Every December, I let my CSRs pick a convenient shopping day for themselves. It’s a free day off. They get to hit the stores during the quiet daytime hours to do their Christmas shopping. You have no idea how popular this little benefit was last month! My CSRs loved it and told me so.” Bob Davies added, “speaking of Christmas, in our office we have an annual Christmas party which is organized by our CSRs. I pay the sho
t, of course, but I get cards afterwards from them all, telling me how much they and their families enjoy the dinner and the social time we spend together. I figure it’s worth every dollar.”

Another small silence descended on the group as we sipped our coffee. “You know,” I said, “we haven’t really discussed the fine art of finding and training CSRs.” Bob Davies nodded. “To find them – advertise. Talk to people in the business. There’s always some movement of staff going on.”

“Ask your own CSRs if they know of anyone who’s looking around,” Joanne added. “Your own people network, they know people like themselves and can sometimes steer you to a good CSR who needs a change of scene.” Harry chipped in, “and don’t forget the Internet job posting sites, they’re popular with younger candidates.” Stan spoke out, “well, here’s my advice, guys. Whenever we hire a new CSR, I always let my current CSRs do the interviewing. They know the job and its responsibilities as well if not better than I do. They know the qualities that make a good CSR So they do the interviews and tell me who they feel the best candidate is.” He let these thoughts sink in for a moment, then continued. “I’m sure the women who apply for a position in my office feel more relaxed talking to my CSRs than they would with me. My CSRs are better connected to the aspects of the job that are most important to them. They can answer all these questions on a more believable level than I can – because they actually do the job.” He paused for a moment in thought. “And lastly – think seriously about hiring a young person straight out of college. They’re energetic and keen, and they’ll learn your system quickly, they won’t have to unlearn some other system.”

“Speaking of learning…” It was Bob Davies. “I think our business lags behind many others in how we train our newcomers. Most of us expect our CSRs to become proficient on the job. The best most of us manage for our CSRs is to send them on a half, or a one-day training course.” He looked across at me. “Nothing personal, Dave, but the fact is companies could do a lot more for efficiency in our business if they set up better training courses for CSRs. Most brokers I know would be more than willing to do it on a cost-share or even fifty-fifty basis.”

As he finished speaking, I walked to the recreation room window. I could see a dense cloud of snowflakes whirling past the shaft of light and sliding down the pane of glass. A long drift had already formed across the driveway, and the cars parked there were covered in a thick white blanket. I turned back to my group, sitting around the warm glow from the fireplace. “I have short news bulletin,” I said with a grin. “What may work best for you guys now is a good set of snow tires. Boy, am I glad I’m not driving tonight!”

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