Cynthia Benavidez didn’t set out to work in insurance, but the single mother was smart and anxious to succeed. She wasn’t sure how her multiple tattoos would fly in a conservative workplace, so she hid them when she first began work as an insurance receptionist.
Ironically, her tattoos became a powerful sales tool when she became an account executive. Benavidez’s customers relate to her in a way they wouldn’t relate to someone else, says Quincy Branch, president & CEO of Branch Benefits Consultants.
“We have a huge book of tattoo artists,” says Benavidez, who until recently was an account executive at Branch Benefits Consultants in Las Vegas, Nevada. “They come in for themselves and they refer everyone from their shop. Some eventually want to open their own shops, so they come in when they start their businesses.”
Today, diversity means being willing to step outside of tradition to reshape your agency based on a deeper understanding of both your customers and employees—mirroring how they look and how they work. It’s about strategies to diversify your book. And in the end, it’s about your agency’s growth.
Mirror Your Community
Are you leaving good business on the table? An agency seeking to grow can reach its full potential market by mirroring its community and embracing the diversity of prospects in every sense of the word—ethnicity, culture, gender, sexual orientation, marital status and generational cohort.
“Diversity is more than a person’s ethnicity and gender. It includes a variety of considerations that affect their shopping behavior,” says Drew Dickinson, regional vice president, independent channel, at Nationwide Insurance. “It’s critical to understand and reflect the communities in which you do business.”
For example, the Latin American Association of Insurance Agencies (LAAIA) was born of the need to serve the Latino community. But in Broward County, Florida, “one-third of the board in Broward is Jewish and our African-American membership is growing,” says Javier Naranjo, president of Security Underwriting Managers in Miami and immediate past president of the LAAIA, who explains that members are “not afraid of the differences” but are more concerned with reflecting the demographics of their communities. “Our association understands diversity very well.”
When Stephen Boon’s uncle first began recruiting him to join the family agency—Harold L. Lee & Sons, planted in New York City’s Chinatown 127 years ago—Boon was reluctant. He told his uncle, “‘I can’t speak the language and don’t know if I’ll be accepted into the environment.’ Over time, I’ve had to learn to speak Chinese and have recruited bilingual people.”
Now president of the agency and a member of the Big “I” Diversity Task Force, Boon says the agency has changed to reflect its constituents. “We’re marketing mostly to our culture,” Boon says, adding that the agency’s biggest objective remains “indoctrinating our culture into the ways of insurance.”
Boon is keenly aware that younger workers are key to his agency’s perpetuation. His biggest challenge as a manager? Finding millennial employees who can speak Chinese. “Diversity in our culture equals millennials,” says Boon, who has a son working as an apprentice at the firm. “He’s the fifth generation and a millennial. If it’s going to change in my shop, it will come from the millennials.”
Crescenta Valley Insurance in La Crescenta, California has seen dramatic changes since its founding in 1969. “We’re actually morphing into a microcosm of our community,” says Rick Dinger, principal. “We’re adapting to the changing population and now employ two Spanish speakers, two Armenian and one Tagalog.”
Dinger’s hiring strategy? Draw talent from the neighborhood. “We look within a 5–10 mile radius and find people who reflect the diversity of our community,” he explains. “When an applicant walks in and sees we have people of different ethnicities, they know right away there’s a place for them here.”
Mary Kyzykyan is a customer service representative at Dinger’s firm who speaks Armenian in addition to English. She uses her native language on the job more than ever, and that often translates into growth. “Customers feel like they can communicate better because it’s easier for them to get their point across,” she says. “The next time they come into the office, they ask for me personally and often refer their friends and family.”
Naranjo believes job seekers are attracted to agencies that offer them an opportunity to grow as the agency grows, and he sees it happening in unique ways. “I know a young producer who’s learning to speak Arabic so she can better relate to an emerging customer segment,” he says. “Her agency has a Syrian customer with connections in the Arab community, and she wants to be able to communicate more effectively with those prospects.”
Haywood and Fleming Associates in Gary, Indiana continually looks to bolster its African-American workforce, and CEO Roosevelt Haywood III stresses the importance of showing associates the “why” of their jobs. Haywood says millennials are looking for an employer who cares and will truly engage them.
“You not only show them what to do, you put it in context,” Haywood says. “Show them where they fit into the process and give it meaning. Like I explain to our staff, we don’t follow a process just for the sake of the process. The purpose of the process is to get results.”
Expand Your Concept of ‘Office’
Today’s forward-thinking agencies have a more fluid concept of the office. The workspace changes based on the needs of employees, whether those changes are physical or virtual.
Case in point: Jill Roth is taking her son to daycare. Not to drop him off, but to sell insurance.
As executive vice president of marketing at Ahart, Frinzi & Smith in Alexandria, Virginia, Roth has discovered a clever way to get her foot in the door and generate new business—daycare facilities love kids. And the flexible sales approach helps her balance work and home.
“In my generation, women are drawn to this profession for one specific reason, and that’s the flexibility,” Roth says. “If you’re in an inclusive agency with forward-thinking management, you can be a mom and have a family in addition to work.”
Besides marketing to daycare facilities, Roth is also building a niche in food trucks. Their outdoor location is more child-friendly than an office: Recently, Roth took her three-year-old son with her into Washington, D.C. and walked from one vendor to another, hitting 50 establishments during several lunch hours. All that legwork led to writing the local food truck association.
Roth is on maternity leave but has established a clear understanding with her associates of the work she intends to accomplish while on leave. “As long as you have open communication with the principals and your coworkers, you can create your own hours and sell the way you want to,” she says. “This is one industry that really allows you to do that.”
Agency principal Juan Padron, partner at Safeguard Insurance Agency in McAllen, Texas and chair of the Big “I” Diversity Task Force, feels the industry’s family-friendliness should be more of an asset when recruiting talent. “When we were a smaller agency, we had an employee we didn’t want to lose, so when her maternity leave ended we allowed her to bring her baby to the office,” Padron says. “It worked well for us and our customers loved it.”
When customers can see agency staff reflecting their own life stage, ethnicity, gender, age and more, they will be more likely to buy.
“At the end of the day, an agency needs to have people who understand the target,” Dickinson says. “They have to hire people from diverse backgrounds if they want to go after a more diverse customer base.”
John Novaria is an IA contributor.
Gen Xer Boyd McGehee, commercial and personal lines producer for Talladega Insurance Agency in Talladega, Alabama, sees a near future in which an office is a virtual rather than physical place for producers, thanks to advances in agency management systems.
“We can arm a producer with almost real-time products in the field,” says McGehee, chairman of the Big “I” National Young Agents Committee and past president of Young Agents of Alabama. “That’s how you get the competitive edge,” says McGehee, who believes a flexible, virtual working agreement attracts millennials—especially when combined with good technological tools and motivations. “We can’t wait any longer. Young agents aren’t the future. They’re the present.”
McGehee says he has talked to software engineers who confirm the industry is only a short string of code away from this possibility: “You pass a boat dealership. You pull up an industry-specific questionnaire, walk in, talk to the owner and ask all the questions. You hit submit, and the information uploads into an ACORD form. Then you send it to four different underwriters.” —J.N.