Cindy Donaldson, CEO – Red Barn Consulting

Author:  ACT News Staff

When Cindy Donaldson started Red Barn Consulting, she already knew a ton about business and networking; Red Barn specializes in marketing, sales and business operations. She had also had exposure earlier in her career to the independent agency channel and to ACT's Social Media Work Group. Becoming an ACT member in April 2016 was just the next logical step. 

Cindy, who previously worked as the director of marketing and sales for an agency, has kept her finger on the pulse of the industry and now uses her knowledge, experience and skills to help businesses get to the next step in their growth cycle. Of course, Red Barn has a busy client list, but Cindy feels there's more to a career than just contracts. That's what motivated her to dive into ACT and sign up for the Changing Nature of Risk Work Group. She's already co-authored three risk advisories—on the sharing economy, 3D printing and the work-from-home economy. 

If you're wondering how much time and effort participating in an ACT work group takes, Cindy says it is made easier by the collaboration of fellow work group members.  

"We divide and conquer," she says. "We put our notes and research on Google Drive so others can see them and comment. Then we eventually post a draft of what we want to publish so the whole work group can read and comment on it via 'Slack'. We also receive suggestions on our publications during our biweekly phone conferences. Finally, Ron Berg [ACT's executive director] works his magic to get the pieces finalized for posting online. It really is a great process, and we are covering a lot of important topics." 

The online nature of the collaboration makes it easy to gain diverse input without a lot of expensive travel or time. And as far as technology making the whole thing impersonal? That's nonsense, Cindy says. 

"I have a lot of industry contacts I have not met face to face. Years, in fact, we have worked together without seeing each other in person. But I still know them in a personal way. We share stories on the phone or by email, and I see their activity and work on LinkedIn and other networking sites. I know what they are up to, and they know me," she says. "Isn't that great! Especially for us in the Agents Council for Technology—to use technology to connect!" 

She says that a little tongue in cheek, but it points to a social train that Cindy says agencies need to board. The world is going digital in many ways, and agencies that don't or won't participate will be at a potentially fatal disadvantage very soon.

"I'm shocked in my consulting business that there are agencies out there that are still paper-based—no website, producers who keep leads on index cards. I've seen it all," she says. "Agents are often reluctant to embrace new technology because of the upfront pain and time, so we [Red Barn consultants] go in and set up the technology they need. Then maybe someone in-house wants to take it on and keep it going. 

"Social media is absolutely needed for brand recognition and connectivity with insureds the way they want to connect. LinkedIn for business to business is huge. If you don't do anything else, you've got to do LinkedIn." 

Some agency owners, however, balk at the value of social media. Are all these tech bells and whistles worth the startup costs, the maintenance time and money, and the headache of coordinating all of them?  

Cindy says it's worth it and says companies that are the most successful follow her advice regarding their technology investment.

"Really successful clients hear what I'm saying and put in the resources," she says. "The biggest technology change most of them face is using a CRM [customer relationship management] system. A lot of agencies still don't have that, and it's critical. 

"Many also need new websites. They might have one, but it's flat; it's just a page with an address and phone number and some basic company information. They need something new that says they're professional, serious about interacting with customers. Their website needs to show their WHY, what makes them different, and truly highlight their culture. It's what sells.

"They also really should have a social media presence. I can't emphasize that enough. If they can't do it, they can outsource. For instance, we do that sort of thing for clients—present online the agency's culture, voice, team, and message. That's all aligned specifically to the agency's business and sales goals, presented in a cohesive manner, and they don't have to manage it. Outsourcing that online presence is an affordable way to make sure the agency is seen and is relevant to all consumers, not just the ones producers and owners meet in person." 

The importance of a competent, attractive online brand cannot be overstated, Cindy says. That is largely because the economy and consumer expectations are changing. 

"Agencies never really had to sell before. Business just kind of came to them. With the Internet and direct marketing, agencies now have challenges that some are just not up to. They need help," she says.


Agencies Looking for Buyers

Today's M&A market is hot, and that jibes with an aging agency workforce and ownership tier who are interested in selling their businesses. A lack of perpetuation planning and capable or interested internal buyers makes selling to an external party more likely, especially since there is a great deal of capital looking for acquisitions. If your agency isn't up to snuff on technology, however, your value in the M&A market could suffer.  

"Sometimes agencies hire us just to clean things up before they put the business on the selling block," Cindy says. "Poor technology can hurt revenue numbers. We look at their overall internal health, then move on to their marketing and branding. They might need to hire producers. We help them with that and help them run their sales meetings. This is for agencies that are gearing up to sell or want to prevent having to sell. 

"In some cases, there is a perpetuation plan. The owner will come and say, 'My child is ready to take over but needs help in certain areas.' That's where an external business consulting firm can help. We get the younger generation up to speed so they can take over and make a profit. Sometimes agencies just need a third party to jump-start things; then, they get the hang of it, follow our advice and get to where they can do it on their own. That's a success story for us."


Where ACT Comes In

One of the great strengths Cindy sees in becoming an active member of ACT is the networking. Members share advice, war stories, references on vendors, hardware, strategies, software and dozens of other tips that are highly specific to the independent agency channel.  

"ACT is a really cool group of people, really smart," Cindy says. "They keep me up to speed on industry issues that I might get stale on without them. 

"It's also great to see people from ACT at other industry events. I introduce them to new people, and they do the same for me. That's a huge benefit both personally and professionally." 

The knowledge that is shared between ACT members can improve agency performance, as well. And ACT is leading the charge when it comes to drawing agencies into the future. 

"Being part of the culture change in the industry is very cool," Cindy says. "The Changing Nature of Risk advisories are a big part of that. We're helping underwriters and agents not get caught unprepared."