Becoming a Social Business: A Model for Success
By Rick Morgan
“Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17, King James version of the Bible)
This parable accurately identifies the dynamic our industry grapples with as it tries to adapt, stay relevant, and make sense of the many challenges it faces in today’s rapidly evolving business environment. More often than not, agencies try to make social and mobile technologies work within the constructs of outdated business models, organizational structures and traditional processes. The result is an effort that fails. For example, social media is treated simply as a marketing tactic; a Facebook Page is launched and an administrative employee is put in charge. Disruption in day-to-day office procedures results with little if any real benefit.
Clearly, there is a difference between organizations that simply engage in social activity and execute social media tactics, and those that actually become social businesses.
What is a Social Business?
A Google search will turn up hundreds of definitions. Understanding what a social business model is and how it differs from a traditional business model is not all that simple. The concept of social business is new and still evolving. Yet, the definition below is a good start. I have followed Amber Naslund on several social channels for the past four years and consider her to be a pioneer and thought leader in this space:
“Social Business is the creation of an organization that is optimized to benefit its entire ecosystem (customers, employees, owners, partners) by embedding collaboration, information sharing, and active engagement into its operations and culture. The result is a more responsive, adaptable, effective, and ultimately more successful company.
Social business can encompass using external social media, but it’s not a requirement. Technically, an organization can be a social business without engaging publicly in social media at all.” (Amber Naslund, President, Sideraworks)
The concept of social business is more than theory. A growing number of agencies realize the need to adapt and understand that their business must be transformed or reinvented. They realize the need for a comprehensive social strategy that is clearly aligned with business goals. (Too often this is not the case. An Altimeter survey of nearly 700 social media professionals and executives found that only 34% of businesses felt that their social strategy was connected to business outcomes.)
Further, these agencies have senior management involvement, organizational alignment and operational processes in place that enable execution of their social strategy. They also understand the need to integrate social methodologies into their organizations in order to enable their businesses to adapt to the fast and ever changing business environment.
These agencies know that use of new technology, as well as social and mobile initiatives, will only be successful if there is an organizational and cultural transformation that changes the way employees work, interact with one another and communicate with customers and prospects – in essence, a reinvention of the agency.
The concept of reinvention is not new to our industry. When we first started installing agency management systems, we found that there was a big difference between just using “automation” vs. becoming an “automated agency.” Only when agencies reinvented operational processes and procedures (remember Transactional Filing?) did their investment in technology start paying off. Only when management became involved did agency management systems transition from being primarily accounting systems to tools that supported agency service, sales, and marketing activity.
As difficult as process change is – changing an agency culture and the “people” part is even harder. It all starts with leadership.
Charlene Li, founder of Altimeter Group, and Keynote speaker at the 2013 ACORD Insurance Systems Forum said this about social business adoption: “The biggest determinants, by far, of whether you will be successful at social business are leadership and culture.”
As mentioned above, all the technology in the world is useless if operational processes and organizational behaviors aren’t changed. Change starts from the top and an agency’s senior management and leaders are the ones responsible for facilitating this change. That is, success depends on change management initiatives being driven by agency leadership and practiced at every level from senior management down to customer service and support personnel. Thus, executives must not only talk about changing the organization; they must also become involved and demonstrate the behaviors that drive change.
This is often referred to as “transformational leadership” where the leader provides employees with an inspiring mission and vision for the organization and encourages them to challenge the status quo and to alter the landscape in which the business competes.
What does a Social Business look like?
It is difficult to understand exactly what a social business is and how it is different from a traditional business by a definition alone. Perhaps looking at some examples of the operational and organizational changes a growing number of agencies are making will make it easier to understand what becoming a social business means.
Empower and trust your employees to participate on social sites on the agency’s behalf and trust that they will do the right thing. Consider starting a blog and use it to educate your customers and prospects and demonstrate your subject matter expertise. But also use it to build and strengthen your brand personality.
Agency staff will be the foundation for building a fully collaborative social business. A shift in employee behavior becomes a key success factor in driving organizational change. Encourage your employees to build personal brands on social sites. Thus, opting out of social networking activity is not an option.
Successful social businesses depend upon a team effort. They create processes that support organizational consistency. For example, when a new employee joins the agency and wants to start blogging or Tweeting on behalf of the agency, a process should be in place that governs employee training and certification in the social media policy that the agency has in place. (See ACT’s guide to creating a social media policy.)
Flexible and responsive work
The definition of work changes – the incoming workforce will demand a more open and flexible work environment. Options as to how, when, and where work happens are expanded. For example, new models in the form of small virtual offices, expanded geographic locations, flexible work hours, 24/7 availability, outsourcing, niche or expertise-driven agents are transforming how we define work.
For example, becoming a social business means producers – in addition to using social tools to create personal brands – spend less time behind desks and more time in the field making “real life” contact, meeting in places like Starbucks.
Collaborative work environment
Develop a collaborative (vs. hierarchical) organizational structure. The new social and connected cultures have set new expectations when it comes to speed of communication and response. Traditional hierarchically structured agencies will not be able to adapt to this new standard of consumer expectation. Further, information must be available and shared – not horded, restricted or reside in silos. In fact, many agencies are inviting customers to participate in agency decisions. For example, they have customers sit on the agency’s board of directors or participate in advisory councils.
Become transparent in your communication. Customers and employees expect to communicate more seamlessly and develop personal relationships. Agencies have found that this is one of the best ways to build trust.
Become personally involved in your real-life community, including active involvement and support of charitable initiatives. The profiles of successful agencies reflect social values that are embedded in the core of the organization. This is also a key value for customers – they want to do business with a company that is socially responsible.
Deploy technology that facilitates collaboration. Technology will not change an organization’s culture. However, having a strong understanding of your agency’s cultural objectives will have an impact on your technical requirements, choice of technology and how to implement and configure it. Clearly, there will be need for agency management system technology to support the new social business model.
Most personal lines and small commercial customers are interacting with agents and insurers across the full range of channels: in-person, by mobile device, by phone, and even through services like Skype or Google Hangouts.
It is necessary to understand your customer and adjust your marketing and communications accordingly. For example, shift marketing dollars from traditional marketing channels to digital ones. (i.e., Yellow Page ads to digital/on-line marketing). Keep track of the communications preferences of your clients and be prepared for communications of differ types from a wide variety of devices.
Reinvention of Agency Processes
In addition to organizational and cultural changes, many traditional processes are also in need of reinvention. We need to think through how many of our everyday processes might and should change, enabled by the new technologies available to us. Everything from managing passwords, e-signatures, certificates of insurance, ID cards, online self-service, mobile options, policy delivery, billing and payment options, and even coverage offerings must change to meet current customer service expectations.
It is important to remember that consumer expectations are set by the culture, not the industry. The culture is shaped by new technologies and innovative applications of those technologies by other industries and social institutions. We have become a “social culture” and a “connected society,” where consumers are increasingly connected and empowered through changing technology to interact with and shape the world around them.
Local agents are not on the verge of extinction, but we do need to change and adapt. We are past the theoretical stage – there are a growing number of agencies that have started to make the shift/transformation. Agencies that are able to make the transition and become social businesses will be well positioned to meet the challenges of the new business landscape and the demands of the new social culture and connected society. Tying this to the opening parable, they are putting new wine in new bottles.
For additional examples as to how agencies are reinventing themselves for the future, please see:
Rick Morgan (rick@Aartrijk.com), in addition serving as a consultant to ACT and chairing the ACT Social Web Work Group, is senior vice president with branding consultancy Aartrijk. He has four decades of experience in innovative technology, marketing, and publishing in the independent insurance agency system. Rick produced this article for ACT (www.independentagent.com/act). It reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.