In the life and health insurance landscape, there are thousands of independent agents and small firms and a few multimillion dollar agencies. What are the secrets behind the big agencies? In my experience, profitable growth is fueled by three simple, yet results-changing aptitudes: discipline, implementation and simplification.
Merriam-Webster provides the following definitions:
- Discipline: A rule or system of rules governing conduct or activity.
- Implementation: To carry out; accomplish; ensure actual fulfillment by concrete measures.
- Simplification: To make more intelligible; to clarify.
Producers and entrepreneurs are not naturally driven by these aptitudes. The optimism, vision, and big thinking that inspire them to aim for growth are often the traits that undermine progress. That’s why it’s essential for every agency owner to learn the discipline, implementation, and simplification aptitudes.
Read on as I explain how to apply these three principals to many facets of agency management.
Goal setting, planning and measuring: Most successful sales professionals work a system. Successful agency leaders do the same. They identify the activities that lead to money and they calculate the exact formula of activities required to reach a goal. If the goal spans a year period, they determine what it will take each quarter, each month, each day, and by each member of the team. Furthermore, they review these goals on a daily basis and adjust the plan frequently. If one activity does not yield expected results, the plan must be quickly adapted to place more focus in other areas. Everyone sets goals. However, 80 percent set them and forget them. Those who are successful see their goals as “do or die.”
Of course, in the busy bustle of the work day, no one really has time for planning and measuring. That’s why discipline, implementation, and simplification are essential. The airline industry discovered long ago that a takeoff checklist is essential for safe operation. Before every flight, the pilot and the co-pilot run through the takeoff checklist to ensure no step is overlooked. Without a checklist, even the most experienced pilots might occasionally be distracted and forget a vital step in the process.
Likewise, the goal setting and planning activities must be programmed into every workday to ensure they’re implemented — not just envisioned. They also must be simplified so they can be effectively reviewed daily without requiring a lot of time. Key metrics must be identified and built into the reporting structure so leaders don’t have to hunt down information — it’s ready and waiting. Leaders must continuously question if they are measuring the right things to avoid tunnel vision. And leaders must want success so badly that they have the self-discipline to follow the process.
Hiring, training and agent retention
An agency’s ability to grow hinges on the strength of its human resource foundation. Therefore, the goal setting, planning, and measuring must extend to the individual employee level. Leaders must ask the question: “To achieve my monthly revenue goal, each producer needs to achieve what?” Once leaders know what each employee must achieve, they need to communicate expectations; help each person identify his or her own takeoff checklist of vital daily activities; support; measure; and hold the person accountable.
There are several aspects to building a strong human resource foundation, the first of which is hiring. Many agency leaders hire experienced rainmakers, thinking these people will get them to the goal line faster. This may be true, but it’s important to note whenever you gain something, you lose something. While rainmakers may individually generate more revenue, they often stand apart — more like a pillar than an extension of your foundation. They can alienate young agents, undermine processes, and resist training. They can also place an agency at risk because when they leave, customers follow. Therefore, strong agency leaders don’t hire based on “what is” — they hire based on “what can be.” They look for personality attributes that fit the corporate culture and they seek the underlying traits of personal discipline, the ability to get things done, and the ability to communicate simply and effectively. Most importantly, they don’t rely on gut feelings. They systemize the process and use aptitude testing to verify the right traits are present.
In addition, fast-growth agencies nurture their people. Leaders recognize that once team members are on board, they need a triage of support to eliminate all possibility of failure. From the first day, they must be oriented to the expected metrics and the takeoff checklist. They need to be mentored and encouraged to grow through the American College, Toastmasters, and sales development courses. They need to know how they’re making a difference and contributing to a common goal. Leaders must never lose sight of the basic human need that most employees possess: They want to contribute to a worthy cause. That’s why fast-growth leaders take the time to share goals and corporate progress with the team on a monthly basis. That’s also why great leaders mingle with their people and connect with each employee keeping the Platinum Rule in mind (Treat others how THEY want to be treated.).
I often say that great leaders don’t make brilliant decisions, they make HARD decisions. Human resource management is no exception. Weak points in the human resource foundation cannot be tolerated because they can ultimately take an entire operation down. Agency managers often postpone the task of letting poor performers go because they don’t relish the idea of confrontation, or because they’ve already invested so much into the person. Great leaders have the discipline to face short-term discomfort because they know that getting the right person in place will lead to greater long-term gain.
Again, effective people processes won’t happen without discipline, implementation, and simplification. Agency leaders figure out what they need to do to effectively manage people daily, monthly, quarterly, and annually, and systemize the process. They determine the right metrics and create the reports so performance measures are readily available.
Prioritization and spending
The last major category is how agencies prioritize initiatives, activities, and spending. Agency initiatives should always line up with agency priorities. It goes back to the idea of focusing time and money on the activities that lead to money. Great leaders make every minute and dollar count.
Marketing is one activity that almost always leads to money, if allowed enough time. I recommend that agency leaders spend as much on marketing as they can afford. Too often, agencies send one marketing piece and stop if they don’t see immediate results. Leaders have the discipline and courage to believe the investment will pay off — even when immediate results aren’t there. As a side note to the marketing topic, leaders also have the discipline to demand that all marketing messages and product/service offerings be sophisticatedly simple. Messages should be so clarified that 10th-graders could understand the “what’s in it for them” factor. This often requires several rounds of questioning and revision. Great leaders don’t accept that the first idea is the best idea. The bottom line: Spend money on marketing, but make sure it’s smart marketing that will ultimately generate leads and revenue.
Innovation and technology also lead to money — particularly if they improve the customer and prospect experience. If automation can streamline processes, eliminate redundancies, save time, provide greater insight, and help employees do their jobs better, those are all things that move great agencies forward. They are worth the investment.
Investing in people is another activity that leads to money. As I mentioned earlier, training and mentoring are essential and should be built in to an agency’s annual budget. These are not “nice to have” activities, they are “must do” activities that will contribute to a brighter future. Agencies must hire and train the next generation of leaders as a prerequisite to any growth or succession plan. Even if the owner plans to sell the agency at retirement, the business will be worth more if the next generation of leaders is trained and ready.
All of the activities above touch the frontline where customer and prospect interactions take place. That’s generally the revenue-generation zone. There are plenty of agency expenditures that don’t lead to money that may require leaders to make hard decisions. Even the smallest expenditures should be analyzed using the “does it lead to money?” rule. This is not about being a miser — it’s about simplifying investment decisions, spending purposefully, and training the next generation of leaders to do the same. It’s about making sure that every dollar and every minute contribute to an agency’s growth goals.
In summary, it’s takes much more than a great idea and great salesmanship to build a multimillion dollar agency. Great leaders remove the ambiguity and red tape that create complexity for the team. They do so by developing simple, disciplined processes to guide decisions, actions, and spending. And they reward employees who support the processes and achieve objective measures.
It’s time to dispel the myth that greatness comes from big ideas. In reality, discipline, implementation, and simplification turn great ideas into revenue-generating actions and transform great sales professionals into masterful agency leaders.