And inside-the-agency perspective from our long-time Q4iNetwork member, Bret Brummitt.
Being an insurance agency owner has been one of the greatest journeys you have likely embarked on. You have felt the immediate financial reward for doing a good job and you’ve been able to impact the lives of your clients in profoundly positive ways during their times of distress and turmoil. There are few professions that let you experience that combination punch of intrinsic and altruistic rewards simultaneously.
Typically, if you have survived in the industry long enough to gain perspective, you have enjoyed both the lows of those negative revenue months and the elation of those ridiculously high revenue months. And with perspective has come a leveling of revenue that has allowed you to operate and grow a real-world business consisting of leadership, sales, internal support staff, and outsourced vendors who all now survive in an ecosystem you built. And, they all partake in the same value proposition of growing the financial reward, coupled with positive social impact that first got you hooked on this industry.
Of those components in your business ecosystem, the one area you were originally trained to focus your biggest efforts in was sales. Sales is what you were trained to do. Even if your sales training was completely informal, that joy of the immediate financial reward was the behavior modification tool that had you salivating for the next sale at the sight of every new person who entered your doors. And if you worked in an advanced commission environment, you really got hooked fast.
The rest of the components of your ecosystem were typically byproducts of a growth need, and in most agencies, they were randomly grown. Unfortunately, they are also randomly nurtured. Sadly, when you personally wear multiple hats on the leadership, support, and sales roles, you likely neglect yourself. And if you neglect the personal development and oversight of yourself, you might just be likely to do the same to your people, vendors, and software. Because you know the disproportionately positive reward of sales.
Sales are somewhat controllable and that positive reward is a high. Many of us have lived through all or parts of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and even in this current decade, where the financial reward of new sales vastly outpaces the expense costs of the remainder of your business operations.
Yes, your sales - and in turn your revenue - cover the multitude of your business sins.
If you take a survey of your sales team and ask them about their ideal client, most of the answers will be in terms of premium dollars, commission dollars, or number of covered lives.
If you take the same survey of your support team, you’ll hear characteristics that focus on phrases like nice, easy to deal with, funny, and captivating.
Both sides of your agency have lusts when thinking about new clients. Even if you are both the sales and support, you lust over these characteristics of high revenue and low need.
What you haven’t looked at is anything beyond a relationship built on a random, upfront reward. So much focus is put on how that new client will make your sales or support staff feel about themselves, that your team (or yourself) is lusting and not looking for the impact opportunities where you can provide real value.
You end up with one of those bad dating relationships or, even worse, a loveless marriage with a client where everything looked great for the first few years, but once the newness wears off, you see the relationship is built on aversion to change instead of meaningful impact.
Where can we focus to right our wrongs? The seven deadly sins of course.
I mentioned value in the client relationship above. Gluttony in the client relationship hits home here when it comes to the value you provide.
I once had the opportunity to share a nightmare I lived during the early 2000s when I was a relatively young producer. My nightmare was based fully on guilt about my overpaid compensation. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I kept selling a product that paid me well, did a mediocre service to my client, and then once it was placed, maintained, and put on autopilot, I got paid more and more and more with every renewal.
Yes, the overpaid and increased renewal revenue lead to gluttony and a disproportionately one-way street.
The sad part of the nightmare was my fear the client would actually need something from me in the future. Some advice, some tool, some actual human interaction.
The gluttony of revenue and the focus on the next big sale can create an emptiness that at times goes back to the lust relationship in the first sin.
But, the bump or the hit of a new sale erases this fear for a long time. Until you wake up in a cold sweat from running down the streets, away from your clients, in your dreams and maybe even in your reality.
This one starts to hit home in the culture of your organization.
Most often when I look at the profits, losses, and expenses of an agency, there is a telling chasm between owners and producers and everyone else.
Greed is one of the easiest sins to cause me to utter the phrase “your culture is showing.” Agency owners and highly compensated producers often look at me with that deer-in-the-headlights face when I say it. But nothing is more deadly to a great organization than a display of disproportionate growth at the top. Even just focusing on training and professional development for the lower levels could be a great opportunity to create a better, less greedy culture.
High historical revenue has created oddball scenarios, such as perpetual revenue relationships for retired producers who make more than the current servicing producers and support staff combined. Or more commonly, revenue sharing for outside agents at the similar, or in some instances, even higher compensation outlays than their actual servicing counterparts.
Stuff like this should be heresy, but it’s strangely common. And why? Because the revenue relationship has maintained a level that covers the sins of not creating a sustainable agency.
I would like to say that the industry awakening caused by Obamacare and Zenefits has fixed the sloth. It hasn’t. And the shift from those two industry-driving forces being head-on collisions to a current speck in the rearview mirror has created an uprising to the return of sloth.
Sure, everyone in the agency arena got a touch of burnout during the learning curve ushered in by the ACA. And yes, for those that took the mantle of either playing offense or defense against the insuretech/HRtech rise of players like Zenefits also had some burnout.
I would argue that burnout from actually having to evolve and meet client needs against a changing economy and changing service industry is just a byproduct of years of revenue covering the sins of sloth.
A mediocre advisor and service team in most other industries understand that evolving needs and outside threats exist constantly. The beginnings of our current decade finally pulled the insurance agency curtain back to reveal a world reality that our clients already knew and adapted to long ago.
It doesn’t and shouldn’t be this way for our agencies. We should be ever desiring to evolve and adapt with those we service. But that next injection of a new client to onboard will cause a hot-boxing haze over your organization that you can’t really afford.
It’s not time to sit back and relax in the lull of outside threats. This is the optimal time for development. Sadly, the sin of sloth can rob you of your greatest opportunity, leaving you to seek the hit of revenue that you might feel is shrinking if you are this far down the list of the deadly sins.
Think you are immune to this one, don’t you? Sure, you aren’t a vengeful person. No one is.
But wrath has a weird component in the agency. Most will admit they’ve expressed a less than stellar moment at some point in their life when they get notice of a client choosing another broker during a sales process. Or even worse, that moment of anger when you open the carrier letter that tells you about a client assigning someone else as their agent or broker of record.
Yep, wrath just hit.
You and your organization both experience emotions and corresponding justifications when this happens. You are hurt and it doesn’t feel good to have someone tell you they don’t value you anymore. And then, in moments of weakness, you rehash your former client’s personal, professional, and organizational deficiencies whether in your head, or worse yet, with your peers. Sometimes you can’t help but to lay bare your worst experience with that former client over lunch or cocktails.
Wrath has a passive-aggressive component of misery-loves-company behaviors that play out amongst your team.
And, as the leader or producer, the answer is new revenue. Sure, this time there is a real need. You just lost operational revenue.
I would suggest that you not only cover over the sin of wrath, but that you become the outlier that covers over the sin not with revenue alone but with a root-cause analysis that doesn’t accept anything other than exposing internal deficiency as an answer. Even if the former client says it’s not you, it is. It is always you. They are just lying to make you feel good. If it wasn’t you, other opportunities wouldn’t have presented themselves.
But a new and larger revenue hit might just feel better than self-analysis.
You just raised your hand. You want to admit to this one and you want to tell me all about this software or technology vendor you have under contract that you don’t use or utilize well.
You didn’t want to be “not enough” because that agency downtown or two states away had this great product that led them to win tons of business.
You want to win new business, don’t you? You need to win new business because your margins are shrinking, right?
And as soon as you have that new tool, that new software technology, that new paperless, mobile app, AI or that new exclusive white-label product… then you will have a windfall of new sales. Just like So & So, LLC just did.
Envy, it’s turtles all the way down.
This is where the disproportionate spend on stuff and not on problems starts.
And the answer: If we just sell $XX,XXX on Y# of cases, it’s all paid for and we can get back to profits.
Been in that meeting or decision-making process, huh?
Revenue covers a multitude of sins, and your envy comes with a recurring price tag. Yes, it can bring you more money and serve your clients well. I even have a wild success story from my agency about how we turned an $8,000 expense into several $100k of revenue. I also have a plethora of example failures with recurring $5k to $50k technology expenses that didn’t realize $1 of ROI.
Envy is perpetuated on the anomaly of success and ignores the disproportionate failures.
And yes, you must sell more if you purchase on envy and not executable need.
Revenue man, revenue. Need some more of it yet?
Sin number seven on the classical list of sins is often considered the most serious in many faiths. Why? It’s the one where you put your own desires ahead of the welfare of others.
Why is this the most dangerous to the agency? It’s the self-fulling, self-aggrandizing and cult-of-personality nature that most agencies are shackled with from inception that they can’t shake.
Someone, whether producer or owner or both, carried the load of the revenue production once upon a time in history. Someone (or a small team of somebodies) led the way to the revenue that sustains the machine. They were rewarded for their accomplishments through office recognition and likely compensation rewards. They are the “heroes” of a sales organization.
Unbridled or unchecked, those moments of heroism lead to a false sense of perpetual hubris. And with each new revenue dollar or each new win, everything is okay.
When the revenue slows down and margins shrink, a history of corrupt selfishness and business decisions based on personal desires and whims rise to the surface faster than a pimple during puberty.
Once an agency DNA is laced with pride and selfishness, decreased revenue exposes all kinds of ideas that were fine and acceptable when the money was right. Remove the revenue, and hindsight is more like laser-vision than 20/20. It’s one of those “your culture is showing” moments that isn’t stellar.
The answer for most? Let’s right the revenue ship so we don’t have to deal with this. Or, let’s sell to someone who will take on our warts and cancers so it will all be their problem. Oh, and if we do sell, it’ll prove all of our business decisions were right after all.
Dang, that pride sin is a tough one.
Enlightenment calls you to action
So, there you have it. You have two choices.
- Go find more revenue and pile on the money in your agency house of cards.
- Do the hard work to build a sustainable and equitable business model based on principled decisions that you can be proud of way past your retirement as part of your legacy.
Oh, and one last note
You have permission to fail. You aren’t perfect and neither is your agency. We can only go on this journey together to right our wrongs and build a better agency, community, and society around us.
Don’t judge failures purely in light of growing and shrinking revenue or profitability margins. If you don’t do good, if you don’t make the hard long-term decisions that impact you, your employees, your clients, your clients’ employees, and the communities you exist within, you’ll never have enough revenue to cover over that sin.
Photo credit Elnur Amikishiyev