Agency Strategies to Manage Change Successfully
By Jeff Yates
Few would dispute that we are living in a time of rapid and profound changes. Consumer expectations are changing fast, often shaped by their experiences in other industries. More and more consumers are “connected” and will communicate with their business partners using any device that is handy to them at the time. These consumers are also empowered by social media and will use these tools to research their potential business partners, as well as to spread the word when they receive bad service. New technologies are enabling businesses to enhance the consumer experiences that they provide and to differentiate themselves from their competitors.
Managing through all of this change has become a major challenge even for the most tech savvy agencies, as well as for our carriers and vendors. What are the key trends that will affect my business materially? Where will my major competitors be in five years? Which new technologies should I implement and when?
Agencies can position themselves to prosper in this rapidly changing environment by creating a culture that embraces innovation and implementing a defined change management process. Below are several insights gleaned from ACT discussions to assist agencies in managing change successfully within their firms.
Management Sets the Tone
Agency management plays a key role in creating a culture where innovation is prized as a core value of the business. These agency leaders look at new technologies and other innovations strategically, as tools that will give them a competitive advantage. They encourage ideas from every source – most especially from their employees and clients – as to how the agency can do things better.
Clients are surveyed regularly and some agencies have even set up client advisory councils to test ideas and get fresh thinking. These agency leaders are involved in their associations and organizations like ACT, AUGIE (ACORD User Groups Information Exchange) and their user groups, as well as with their carriers, to keep up with the latest innovations available to them and the benefits other agencies are deriving from these implementations.
Keeping up with Innovation in Other Industries
Innovative agencies also are keeping up with the innovations taking place in other industries, because consumer and business expectations increasingly are being shaped by the experiences they have in these other industries. Agents can also learn from their business clients by asking them about their recent innovations and their resulting impact.
Daniel Burrus, the author of Technotrends, notes that successful businesses of the future will not only need to be “agile” but “anticipatory.” Agility is important in reacting to competition. But being anticipatory enables you to become the competition because you are thinking through the “hard” trends that will affect you and you foresee where your consumers and your competitors will be in the future in light of these trends. (“Hard” trends are those that are certain and permanent.) The anticipatory firm begins to make the changes now to position itself to be where its consumers and competitors will be in the future.
The other key for successful implementers of change is to create metrics, so that you can quantify whether the change has been a success or not.
Employee Involvement & Training are Key
The agencies that are implementing change successfully involve their employees in the shaping of that change. Employees – representing all of the disciplines affected by the change – work together in teams to implement it. Employees are empowered to innovate based upon the firm’s principles and are rewarded for doing so. There is an understanding that many innovations will not work perfectly at the start and will need to be modified and enhanced. These employees are also encouraged to work through these issues and to pursue problems with their carriers and vendors until they are fixed.
The innovative agency makes sure it has the right employees in the correct spots. These agencies are looking for employees who are willing to embrace change and who know how to ask the right questions to get their jobs done correctly. These qualities have become the top factors these agencies look for in candidates – even more important than the individual’s insurance expertise.
Some agencies also are striving to have a staff make up that reflects the multiple generations and ethnic groups their firm is serving, to encourage diverse thinking and more effective understanding of each of their client segments. These agencies are also more willing to delegate authority and responsibility to employees in areas where they have a special interest and skill (in social media, for example).
In order to achieve a successful implementation, these agencies tell their employees the “why” for the change, how it fits with the agency’s vision (which the employees have bought into) and then thoroughly train them on how to implement the change effectively. Once the agency implements the new workflow or technology, the employees are expected to use it, so that there is consistency throughout the agency.
Innovative agencies also provide their employees with training that helps them to become more effective employees in areas such as teamwork, leadership and management.
“Slow Down in order to Speed Up”
This expression, coined by Paul Fuller of Strategic Insurance Software, expresses so well the importance of the agency’s taking the time to make sure the change it is pursuing – whether a new technology, workflow, etc. – is the right solution. Employees should be given uninterrupted time to confirm that their defined solution is the correct one. In addition, rather than just automating a traditional workflow that was devised for a paper world, these agencies rethink the workflow from the ground up in light of the new possibilities that have been enabled by technology.
Willingness to Experiment
Successful agency innovators are willing to experiment with new technologies and continue to “tweak” them based upon feedback from clients and others. Creating a mobile friendly website and mobile apps provide great examples. There is no question mobility and the “connected” consumer are both “hard” trends that will increasingly affect us. Steve Anderson reports in a recent TechTips that 43% of Google searches are local and 74% are performed via a mobile device. So, it makes good sense for agencies to position themselves for this inevitable change, fully realizing they are going to have to enhance these mobile tools over time based upon the features that consumers ask for and use.
Another good example where agents are experimenting with new technology tools involves Internet marketing. Agencies continue to measure the effectiveness of the social media ads they run and modify the criteria until they hit upon a strategy that attracts the most correct leads, most cost effectively.
The keys for these innovative agencies are: (1) to be willing to experiment; (2) to measure the effectiveness of each change they make; and (3) to refine the implementation as needed.
Innovations Save Time & Money
Successful innovations often cut the time it takes to accomplish particular processes. For example, Stu Durland, a New York independent agent, found that he was able to cut his agency’s turnaround time to receive signed client documents from an average of 23 days to 3-5 days by implementing an electronic signature tool. Think about all of the time and follow ups this one innovation is saving his agency!
Similarly, Applied Systems has been able to greatly speed up its responsivenss to customers by creating faster communications vehicles for reporting issues and implementing an Agile development process, which brings together multi-functional teams to work with customers to devise and implement solutions without delays.
There are numerous technologies available to agencies today that can enhance their competitive position. None of these specific implementations, however, is as important as positioning the agency to implement change successfully. The agency that embraces innovation as a basic value, keeps up with key trends and opportunities both within the industry and in other industries, empowers its employees to participate in the change process and implements a defined change management process – will position itself effectively for an environment that will continue to experience rapid and profound change.
Jeff Yates is Executive Director of the Agents Council for Technology (ACT) which is part of the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America. Jeff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ACT’s website is www.iiaba.net/act. This article reflects the views of the author and should not be construed as an official statement by ACT.