The independent agency channel is at an inflection point, and future-minded agencies will choose to evolve. Here are four key pillars agencies should look to when creating a transformation action plan.
We often talk about the enduring value of the independent agent. But following a year of so much hardship, uncertainty and loss, that value is being put to the test like never before.
Risk profiles have changed, consumer behaviors have evolved and trends that were once emerging are now ingrained. In a world that looks very different than it did a year ago, we can no longer follow the same rules and expect the same results.
As a channel, we are at an inflection point. One where we can choose to continue the same course despite changing market conditions—or one where we can evolve, knowing the transformation won't be easy but will allow us to emerge stronger than ever. Future-minded agencies will choose to evolve.
To help guide future-minded agencies through this period of transformation, we need to look to a greater vision for how we can do better. This vision is vital to how we plot a path forward and rewrite the rulebook for how we grow and evolve as the world continues to change around us.
There are four key pillars that future-minded agencies should look to when creating a transformation action plan. These pillars are grounded in the belief that digital isn't just a fleeting fad, but rather is fundamental to everything we do. They are informed by the societal changes around us, which demand we bring more purpose and greater diversity into our organizations. They carry through the best of the past and drop the things that no longer serve us.
As of August 2020, nearly 100,000 small businesses had permanently closed their doors due to the impacts of COVID-19, according to the Yelp Local Economic Impact Report. Pair that with temporary layoffs that are giving way to permanent job loss and the estimated 8 million Americans that slipped into poverty since May, according to a Columbia University study in September 2020, a view of an economy in deep turmoil starts to emerge.
No matter how prepared your agency was going into 2020, such a volatile economy will leave even the most resilient of businesses in a place of uncertainty. But out of uncertainty can also come greater clarity, especially in the way that we think about and measure success.
Independent agents are well known for their focus on growth. Although revenue will always be a critical measurement of agency health, given just how disruptive the last year was, there are other points of measurement beyond the bottom line that independent agents can and should prioritize.
Instead of focusing on growth in the traditional sense, growth can also be measured based on progress and improvements. Retention rates, for example, are more important than ever; it will always cost more to acquire a new customer than it will to retain a current one, and even more so during an economic downturn. Focusing on improving retention is a solid growth priority for the year.
Embracing digital marketing as a growth engine is another important area future-minded agencies will prioritize. More than any other growth strategy, digital marketing allows you to pull different levers and test different tactics to determine what drives results.
Independent agents will need to strike the right balance between investing in tools, tactics and talent that drive short-term returns and investing in those that offer long-term outcomes. One shouldn't be sacrificed for the other, but growth in 2021 for agencies looking to go digital quickly—perhaps for the first time—should focus on integrating new tools and building new processes that allow your business to evolve.
No matter where your agency is in its transformation journey, a growth mindset should be at the center: Learning, adapting and growing at every turn can set your agency up for long-term success more than any other growth strategy you could deploy this year.
Seemingly overnight, the pandemic changed the ways consumers go about their daily lives. This shift has challenged businesses to meet a new set of customer needs and expectations, many of which are fundamentally digital.
Nearly 9 in 10 customers—88%—expect companies to accelerate their digital initiatives due to COVID-19, according to the Salesforce State of the Connected Customer Report from October. A further 68% indicated that the pandemic has elevated their expectations of companies' digital capabilities.
It's a trend that has been building for the last decade, and the pandemic is simply the tipping point that confirms digital is here to stay. But just “going digital" isn't enough. Digital transformation needs to be strategic and focused on improving the customer experience.
The Salesforce report shows that 76% of consumers prefer to interact with businesses via different channels depending on the context. Texting, for example, won't replace a phone call the moment a customer experiences a loss, but it can ease the process for handling the subsequent claim.
It all starts with understanding the customer journey, or the full story of how a customer experiences your business with every interaction. It's only once you understand the journey that you can identify what areas need improvement and start building a truly customer-driven digital presence.
In a year that budgets will be stretched thin, it's even more important to know what parts of the customer journey cause friction so you can make strategic investments to improve those areas. The good news is that many carriers offer independent agents a variety of digital tools at no cost. By taking advantage of those offerings, you can invest more in technology solutions or partnering with a vendor like an agency management system provider that creates ease for the customer and efficiency for your business.
Investments in efficiency also help you keep the relationship at the center, freeing up your time to focus on high-impact relationship-building activities that require a personal touchpoint. Ultimately, being digital-first in today's world means being customer-first.
As with shifting consumer expectations around digital, there is also a wave of changing expectations around doing business with organizations, with a growing emphasis on purpose.
More than half of customers have reevaluated the societal role of companies in 2020, with 75% of business buyers saying a vendor's ethics increasingly factor into their purchasing decisions, according to Salesforce. Younger generations set an even higher bar for corporate accountability.
Beyond customer expectations, organizations that are driven by a purpose bigger than profit outperform competitors in terms of customer loyalty and employee engagement—both of which positively impact long-term revenue.
The trend highlights a need to find alignment between growth efforts and your company's transformation into a purpose-driven community leader.
Being purpose-driven is about creating a core compass that drives all decision making. It means putting pen to paper to articulate corporate values in a statement. Most importantly, it's about institutionalizing that purpose and intentionally building a culture around it.
For us at Liberty Mutual and Safeco, our core compass is to help people embrace today and confidently pursue tomorrow. How does that manifest in the independent agent channel? Championing all independent agents and doing what's right for our independent agent partners in both times of growth and times of disruption—a purpose that every team member is empowered to make decisions around.
When considering how to find that purpose, it's also important to reflect on what your agency does best.
Many agencies are looking to build books in niche and new markets, an inherently purpose-driven approach. For instance, a core compass could be built around the concept of hospitality—both in the types of customers you serve, but also in the way you serve customers.
That purpose should extend into everything your business does, from content marketing and customer service training to how you support your community and even how you make decisions around which technology you purchase.
Talent and Culture
Talent and culture may be the last of these four pillars but it is possibly the most important. Employee engagement is at the foundation of every successful business.
Following a year of such crisis, how invested employees are in your business will determine its outcome for the years ahead. One of the greatest benefits of a core compass is how it connects people to a higher purpose, creating happier employees that bring more energy and creativity to their jobs.
Employee engagement drives real business results, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace report. Highly engaged business units achieve a 10% increase in customer ratings and 20% increase in sales. Additional research from Gallup indicates that “employee engagement is an even stronger predictor of performance during tough periods such as economic recessions like we're in today."
As a channel, industry and society, we are at a crossroads for what employee engagement looks like in the year to come, defined by the two issues amplified by the events of 2020: remote work and diversity and inclusion.
Many agencies aren't planning to return to the same in-office model they followed pre-pandemic. As employees prove they can remain productive while working from home, a more hybrid approach that allows both in-office and remote work is gaining in popularity.
The racial justice movement shined a light on how businesses navigate inclusive leadership and the importance of employing teams that look more like the customers they serve. Through intentional efforts to recruit and retain talent of greater diversity, agencies can better position themselves for long-term success—“the most diverse companies are now more likely than ever to outperform less diverse peers on profitability," according to the McKinsey Diversity Wins report released in May.
Agencies will be defined by how they lead through these changes. Those that make positive strides in these two areas will be well-positioned to continue prospering in 2021 and beyond.
The Future of the Channel
From my seat, the future of the independent agency channel is bright. We have an opportunity to make insurance friendlier to a more diverse talent pool, to find greater purpose in our work, to improve the way we serve customers and to continue growing in new and interesting ways.
Central to it all is the enduring value of the independent agent. Independent agents can and will continue thriving in the marketplace, as long as we have the courage to go confidently into this brave new world together.
Tyler Asher is president of independent agent distribution at Liberty Mutual and Safeco Insurance.
This article was published in the January 2021 issue of Independent Agent magazine.