I believe the independent agency system and its producers have the potential, and need, to be a more significant contributor to client success than any other partner their clients have. I also believe that the future of independent agencies is under attack and anything but assured.
I also believe the agencies and their producers and owners are their own biggest threat. And, so it begins.
On a daily basis, we have the opportunity to take a peek behind the curtain of independent agencies around the country. We are privileged to be trusted with intimate details of their operations. We hear of successes; we hear of failures; we get to see agency owners at their most vulnerable, admitting they’re not entirely sure how they became so successful, and they’re terrified of not knowing how to continue to be successful.
More than anything else, agencies are unsure of how to grow more predictably.
Before offering any answers to these owners, we ask questions. To be fair, we ask a LOT of questions, a lot of very personal (in the business sense) questions.
Tell us about your sales process.
Typical answer – “Yeah, we don’t really have one.”
Tell us about your pipeline.
Typical answer – “There’s really not much there right now.”
What has your recent growth rate been?
Typical answer – “We’ve been so busy just trying to hold on to what we have that we haven’t had time to sell.”
What are your new business expectations for producers?
Typical answer – “Yeah, we don’t really set goals.” (And, if they do, the goal is usually ridiculously low and more of a suggestion than a real expectation.)
For independent agencies to survive, they HAVE to have different answers to these questions.
These answers paint one very clear picture of the typical agency: there has been a lack of structure, discipline, and accountability. While that may have been acceptable in the past, those days are over.
It’s decision time
Circumstances have changed so quickly and so dramatically that agency owners are unexpectedly facing a decision between two extreme options. And hesitating is not one of them.
Now is the time to either give up and sell the agency, or stand up and fight together to maintain independence by running the agency as the business it is. For some, selling is the right choice, but it really should be a decision of last resort.
What you have built for yourself, what you do for your clients, the opportunities you provide to your team – those are things worth fighting for.
And it won’t be easy
I will tell you now, it’s not an easy fight and it won’t take place without some really tough decisions being made. And, at times, this battle will feel like a “civil war” because a disproportionate amount of the tough decisions are going to directly impact your producers.
The list of tough decisions is long, but I am going to limit this discussion to the most urgent. Agencies have to implement:
- Aggressive sales goals with accountability – If you’re not growing aggressively, the battle is already over; you just don’t know it yet.
- Compensation programs that reward continued growth – You have to reward the behaviors that will win the war.
- A value proposition and sales process that focuses on the needs of the buyer, not on a spreadsheet. – You must offer something your prospects don’t typically see. Trying to be a better version of what they already have is woefully inadequate.
Fighting the internal battle
An agency’s first battle will be internal. When these types of changes are introduced within an agency, the producers will come out fighting. It’s a natural reaction; their world is being turned upside down.
For agency owners, you must fight this first battle with words, not a stick. And I DO NOT mean fighting by being combative and argumentative. I mean empathizing with the producers’ position and taking the time to explain with great transparency why these tough decisions must be made. The people you really want to stay on your team will listen and come to a level of understanding; others won’t.
I can all but guarantee that those who keep fighting against you, and maybe eventually leave, are your weakest links. Weak talent wants to be able to hide, to be left alone to do what they want, the way they want, and if/when they want. Oh, and they want to be paid very well at the same time. It CAN’T work that way any more.
In some ways I understand the desire to keep things as they are. After all, being part of an independent agency is something special, it’s definitely worth fighting for. There is a great deal of autonomy, reasonable work-life balance, great financial reward, and, most important of all, the opportunity to make a meaningful difference in the businesses and lives of your clients. I can’t imagine another industry that offers such rewards. Without realizing it, those producers who are fighting to maintain the status quo are fighting against the very actions it will take to maintain the rewards they value so much.
Yes, this industry has provided great rewards; however, with rewards comes responsibility. It is the producer’s job to help protect those rewards.
- Show up every day ready to produce new business.
- Embrace a compensation formula that rewards the hard work of selling.
- Expect their agency to provide a unique value proposition and powerful sales process to follow, and commit to using both.
Where should the battle really be fought?
The lifestyle producers enjoy is worth fighting for, but they have to fight together as a group against the competition, not against their agency owners. That’s a losing battle.
Agency owners have two choices: make the tough decisions I’m suggesting here or sell. And, when I have seen independent agency owners make these tough decisions, the results of the new normal in the agency are nowhere close to changes as drastic as the situation found in a typical national broker.
If producers think that they can keep things the way they have been and still receive the same rewards, they’re living in a dream world. If their agency owners end up selling, those producers may soon be living a personal version of a nightmare.
A version of this article originally appeared on BenefitsPro.com.
Illustration by Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig.