West, Texas – Looking Back a Year After the Explosion

by Tommy Muska
Tommy Muska, Mayor of West, Texas, and insurance agent.

West, Texas Mayor and insurance agent Tommy Muska

A Day I’ll Never Forget
Last year, on April 17, two fertilizer plants exploded, and life changed in West, Texas. Nearby houses, the plants and the school were all on fire within minutes, and more than 200 homes were damaged or demolished that day.

I serve as mayor, a fireman and an insurance agent in West. As a fireman, I was at the plant immediately after it exploded. We had to totally evacuate the north side of town, so as mayor, I opened the football field and led the evacuation, and started running triage and search and rescue. It is a day I will never forget.

Fortunately, My Agency Had a Business Continuity Plan
The following day, it was insurance time. We used my wife’s antique shop as a claims center. Fortunately, my agency did have a business continuity plan in place and accessed Applied TAMOnline to service customers. As the calls came in, we looked up clients. We actually began pre-processing all of our clients on the north side of town because we knew they would be coming in with claims very soon. We proactively pulled their files and started the process.

It was an emotional experience meeting with clients – some had lost everything. They were shocked, dismayed and confused. They didn’t know what to do. So we took them by the hand and walked them through the process. If they lost their home, we got them a place to stay. We approached customers one at a time and personally walked them through everything. There were a lot of tears. The explosion and resulting fire did $250,000 worth of damage to my house, so I could relate to everyone who came into the office with home claims. Luckily, everyone had coverage and felt assured because of the policies we had put in place for them.

We Helped People Get Their Lives Back on Track
It was critical that we had a business continuity plan in place. I’m so thankful that we had already considered what to do in the event of a disaster and the technology was already there. Because we were able to access our agency management system through the cloud and stay operating during this tragedy, we greatly helped the people of West deal with the aftermath and get their lives back on track.

Do you have a business continuity plan in place? How do you help your customers safeguard and protect what matters most? Share your comments below.

Tommy Muska, Mayor of West, Texas and Insurance AgentTommy Muska, Mayor of West, Texas, is an insurance agent and volunteer firefighter. Following the April 17, 2013 West Fertilizer Co. explosion, he restored the small Texas town back to normalcy. Muska began his insurance career at Walla Insurance Agency in 1978 and in 1991, he purchased the business. In 1998, the agency incorporated and the name was changed to Muska Insurance Services, Inc. Muska holds an ACSR designation in commercial and personal lines.


How We Stay In Touch: Educating Consumers and Engaging Customers

by Tommy Dies

My “Ah Ha” Moment
The other day, a colleague suggested that we add an online chat feature to our website. I was hesitant at first, but he said to me, “People are going to communicate with you one way or the other. If they want to reach you, they will pick up the phone, email, send a letter or chat online, but they won’t do them all at the same time.” His point was that the online chat provides another channel for potential communication. That was an “ah ha” moment for me, thinking in terms of multichannel communication. You must mMultichannel communication devices.ake available every type of communication to reach consumers. Otherwise, you’re missing out on business opportunities. As an insurance agency, we have to constantly think about the future consumer and adapt our communication methods as technologies change.

A New Normal
When I was growing up, computers were new. I can remember being in college and using WebCrawler – one of the first Web search engines! Obviously, things have changed. My daughter, who’s in college, sends more than 10,000 texts a month. It’s outrageous, but that’s how she prefers to communicate. It recently became clear to me that there was a communication gap between us. For her, email is too slow – she wants instantaneous communication. Soon, this new generation will be needing insurance for their homes and families. The change in the core consumer is something we need to examine and embrace.  Independent agents need to realize that we are no longer the gatekeepers of insurance knowledge that we once were. People can search online for all the insurance information they need. In order to remain relevant, we need to position ourselves so that the consumer searching for answers finds us.

Engaging Customers
At Bryan Insurance we use FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, a mobile app, radio show, YouTube channel and customer support software to communicate with our customers. I try to post things that are relevant to what’s happening in the world. It’s extremely important to post educational materials to build that trust and loyalty. For example, if there’s a news story about earthquakes, I might send out a post about earthquakes in Texas and how to insure against them. It is important to address what’s on people’s minds. I try to post information that makes people curious and think, “Wow, maybe I need earthquake coverage.” It’s meant to be thought-provoking.

Educating Consumers
Social media is about distributing information. One of my producers likes to say, “I’m not in sales, I’m in education.” We must educate consumers about their coverage and help them understand that, as insurance agents, we can provide guidance, not just products. Bottom line, if direct insurance writers are engaged in social media and we’re not, when it comes time for people to buy insurance, the direct writers will be “top of mind,” and we will lose business. If you push out educational content through a variety of channels, people understand we just want to help them, and that’s a value-added service.

How do you communicate with your customers? Leave your comments here, and join the conversation on Twitter @AppliedSystems and facebook.com/appliedsystems.

Tommy Dies, CFO Bryan InsuranceTommy Dies, CFO, Bryan Insurance, left an accounting firm 10 years ago to join Bryan Insurance which was an Insurance Journal “Best Insurance Agency to Work For in 2012.” He served on the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas (IIAT) Finance & Budget Committee and is part of IIAT’s Agency Financial Managers Affinity Group. He has held various local board positions and now serves on the Young County (TX) Appraisal District’s Appraisal Review Board and as a third-term Rotary Club board member. Connect with Tommy and Bryan Insurance on Facebook and Twitter @BryanInsAgency.


“Get Weather-Ready” Resources Insurance Agencies Can Share with Customers

by Greg Shiple

The value of the independent agent as a trusted advisor is more important than ever, especially in the case of extreme weather. This week is National Severe Weather Preparedness Week, sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). For insurance agencies, this is the perfect time to advise your customers on the best ways to prepare for weather emergencies.

Free NOAA Online Marketing ToolkitNSWPW Logo
NOAA offers a free Online Marketing Toolkit that has everything you need to provide a tailored campaign for your agency to educate your customers about being prepared for severe weather, including:

  • “Get Weather-Ready” videos
  • Talking points
  • Blog post
  • Social media plan
  • Graphics and more

You can also share these resources with your customers to help them stay informed:

  • Know Your Risk: Hurricanes, tornadoes or storms – every state in the U.S. experiences severe weather. Visit www.weather.gov to get the latest on weather threats in your area.

How to Prepare at Your Agency
This week is also a good time to take a moment to stop and think about your business continuity plan. What is your course of action if staff cannot be in the office? What if your servers crash due to a power outage or flood? Will your agency be able to maintain uninterrupted access to customer data? These questions are important to consider so you can be prepared in the event of a disaster. Remember, if you aren’t prepared, you can’t help your customers protect what matters most.

Create a business continuity plan: Make sure your agency is protected in the case of a weather emergency. Follow these business continuity guidelines and use this checklist to ensure you are prepared. This industry brief and business continuity white paper also contain valuable information on disaster planning and preparedness.

How do you help your customers prepare for severe weather? Are resources like these helpful to your business?

Greg Shiple, Sr. VP of Support at Applied SystemsGregory Shiple, AIS, Senior Vice President of Support, leads client technical support for Applied Systems in the U.S. and Canada. Greg began his Applied career as a programmer in 1986. Before he assumed his current role in 2007, he was responsible for data conversion development and systems development. 


Moving Forward with Business Intelligence for Your Agency

by Mark Breading

Business Intelligence
Agencies and brokerages – large and small – are interested in the potential of business intelligence (BI) capabilities. Some have already implemented BI tools and are leveraging them to make better decisions, while others are in the investigation phase.

Business intelligence describes a class of automated tools that help to analyze and visualize information about your business so that you can make more informed decisions. Traditional or basic reporting is considered:

  • Static
  • Done at periodic intervals
  • Descriptive (i.e., it tells what has happened)

True BI ventures into the here and now, allowing a view into current results and enabling interactive analysis and ad hoc queries to uncover trends and investigate why certain things might be happening.

Agencies are already using BI tools to:

  • Gain more insights into sales and premium trends
  • Assess the profitability of the business they write
  • Track the operational metrics of an agency or brokerage

An SMA research survey of 202 agents and brokers revealed that about one-third of agencies are actively leveraging BI, while the other two-thirds have limited or even no usage of these tools. But there is an undeniable trend toward greater usage of BI as more and more agencies recognize the high business value of these capabilities.

The most logical questions, then, are how do you get started – or for those agencies with limited usage – how do you accelerate your BI program?

The best approach for most agencies is to link BI capabilities to the agency management system (AMS). The AMS is the hub of operations and has access to the data needed for the analysis.

Smaller agencies probably want to look at a solution that is packaged and has standard capabilities so that you don’t have to start from scratch to define what metrics you want to look at, how to visually display them, or how to interact to drill down for more detail.

Larger agencies can still benefit from that approach, but you may also want to consider designating a person to become the BI expert. Large agencies and brokerages may want to do more BI customization and even explore some of the more advanced analytics capabilities.

But even before you consider the technology approach, your first step should be to map out what you want to know about your business, how frequently you need to do the analysis, and how you want to view the information. Understanding the business value you hope to gain and the business capabilities you need will help to position you to have informed discussions with solution providers about BI options and approaches.

How is your agency using business intelligence today? Share your comments.

Mark BreadingMark Breading, a Partner at SMA, is the one to turn to for provocative thought leadership concerning insurance industry challenges, opportunities, and technology options. He has exceptional knowledge and experience in all aspects of Customer Centricity – CCM, CRM, customer insights, ECM, data and analytics, and more. Both insurers and IT solution providers look to Mark for everything from future vision to strategic key account marketing. Follow Mark on Twitter @BreadingSMA



Enhancing Customer Service for Today’s Digital Insurance Customer

by Jim Kerin

We all know that with today’s new technologies, the insurance landscape is changing. This means two things: 1) As an agent, I must continue to offer valuable guidance to my customers, and 2) I can utilize this technology to maximize the time spent with them.

At Millennium, we are dedicated to incorporating the latest technologies with the personal interaction clients need and deserve so we may truly act as a trusted advisor. Technology enables our agents to succeed, and my staff consistently leverages technology to gain operational efficiencies and stay productive. Plus, it allows us to provide our customers with exceptional service by enabling direct interaction with them across multiple channels.

How does technology enhance our agency’s customer relationships? Here are a few examples.

Provides a faster disaster-recovery response
We strive to provide clients access to our agency 24 hours a day, seven days a week — and that access becomes even more crucial during extreme weather events. Hurricane Sandy taught us the value of having the right technology in place. Millennium agents were taking calls as the storm made landfall, and our customers were able to utilize self-service options to access what they needed. Team members were not in the office, but cloud technology enabled us to be operational — gaining secure, remote access to clients’ records and providing them key information related to their coverage. While many other insurance companies were either shut down or overwhelmed due to the storm, our agents were accessible and responding.

Keeps agents engaged with clients
We have implemented agency management software that lightens our team’s workload, allowing agents to spend more time with clients. Cloud-based software, for example, frees up time previously spent backing up data and upgrading software. Today’s online self-service features allow clients to access their own documents whenever they choose, reducing the need to call the agency with small, easily answered questions. Clients love the feature of accessing their own insurance certificates. Simultaneously, this creates less work for our agents.

Increases client satisfaction
Our agency’s quick response during Hurricane Sandy helped us strengthen our relationships with existing clients and continues to help us promote our business. We have found that offering technologies that enhance relationships not only support client retention, but it boosts our new client growth rate. Adopting the right technology has increased our clients’ satisfaction and, ultimately, their loyalty..

To learn more about how online, self-service technologies can increase client satisfaction, watch the on-demand webinar, “Driving Customer Satisfaction with Self-Service.

Jim Kerin is CEO of Millennium Alliance Group, an independent insurance agency that provides an extensive array of products and broad access to insurance carriers and markets. Millennium has offices in New York’s Nassau and Suffolk County. Find out more about Millennium Alliance Group at www.millenniumag.com.

How does your agency provide personalized customer service? Share your comments.


How to Make Your Insurance Agency a Great Place to Work

by Hanna Ogle

Watkins Insurance GroupInsurance Journal recently released the winners of “America’s Best Independent Agencies to Work For,” and Watkins Insurance Group is proud and excited to have been selected as the South Central winner. We attribute this award to our culture of mutual respect and an enjoyable workplace, but we also realize that streamlining our processes through technology makes our employees’ jobs easier.

Fostering a Culture of Openness
For us, it’s all about a culture of openness so that everyone feels like part of the team. The offices of our partners and managers are always open, fostering a feeling of togetherness. Annual surveys keep the flow of feedback from staff to partners and managers going strong. This creates a sense of team unity at Watkins, which everyone appreciates. We all work together to make this the best workplace possible.

Remembering to Have Fun
We also make it a point to have fun and reward our employees for the hard work they put in throughout the year. From an annual Halloween cookout complete with costume contests to our festive holiday party, we are always trying to find ways to have fun here. These things come at a cost, but for us, the relationships we build with our staff are priceless and well worth it.

Making Jobs Easier Through Technology
Our focus on technology is not only instrumental to employee satisfaction but also to overall business success. We leverage technology to automate and manage day-to-day operations. With multiple Watkins locations, our agency management system, Applied TAM, centralizes our customer information database. Our employees love the real-time communication capability, which is now our standard for communicating with carriers.

We use Applied CSR24 to provide access to policy information, anytime and anywhere, which our customers have come to expect. The same technology that supports customers’ on-demand access offers a similar benefit to employees who may need remote access. Our employees feel confident knowing the technology in place supports them and fosters a sense of pride with providing our customers solutions that enable them to access insurance information how and when they want it.

Technology is imperative to our agency running smoothly and successfully. But our success is also derived from the innovative culture and positive work environment we have worked hard to develop at Watkins.

Join the conversation – how is your company leveraging technology to boost employee satisfaction and improve business operations?

Hanna Ogle Watkins InsuranceHanna Ogle, CIC and CRM, joined Watkins Insurance Group in 2005 as the Personal Lines Manager in the Austin office and has since expanded her role to include Director of Agency Automation.  She is a Summa Cum Laude graduate of St. Edwards University in Austin where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Organizational Communications. In addition, Ogle is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University with an associate degree in Business Management. She has served on agent advisory councils for various insurance companies and other industry-related organizations. Find out more about Watkins Insurance Group at www.watkinsinsurancegroup.com.


Drive Insurance Agency Brand Awareness with Digital Marketing

by Jim Schubert

Drive Insurance Agency Brand Awareness with Digital MarketingPreviously, insurance agencies had more control over how and when they interacted with customers. However, in today’s increasingly digitalized and connected world, most consumers expect anytime virtual access to the companies they deal with via laptops, tablets or smartphones.

Agencies that work to stay ahead of the curve and better serve today’s consumers must offer them on-demand solutions that provide anytime, anywhere communications. Whether customers are requesting a policy change or need to obtain an insurance certificate, an online portal that provides self-service functionality can provide the 24/7 access they demand.

In addition to benefiting customers, agencies that deploy on-demand solutions experience higher levels of customer satisfaction, better sales and greater operational efficiency. Furthermore, these innovative technologies offer many similar advantages including insights on customer demographics, which are essential for deploying effective marketing. By integrating digital marketing tools into an insurance agency, a two-way dialogue with customers and prospects within their preferred communication channel will drive business growth.

Essential Digital Marketing Tools
As emphasized in the book “The Open Brand,” brands today must become O.P.E.N.:

  • On-demand
  • Personal
  • Engaging
  • Networked

At Southern States Insurance, we have successfully leveraged several digital marketing strategies to achieve this goal.

Here are five tools that can assist your agency in becoming O.P.E.N.:

  • LinkedIn and Facebook: A presence on popular social networks allows you to create an on-going conversation with customers and prospects, and is a natural channel for providing timely content and information.
  • SEO: Customers can search to identify which agencies to conduct business with. Ensure your website is optimized with different search engines like Google and Bing to drive prospective customers (and current ones) to your site.
  • Webinars: Online seminars, or “webinars,” presented by an engaging speaker that covers timely and interesting topics is an effective way to offer customers valuable content. Webinar topic ideas can often be gleaned from comments in conversations on LinkedIn or Facebook.
  • Email: Emails can be highly segmented and personal, acting as an effective method for offering useful tips or showcasing achievements. Also, with regular dissemination, it is a useful tool for relationship building and staying top-of-mind.
  • Video: Short videos can simplify a complicated topic and reinforce your brand’s message. Consider recruiting employees to provide industry perspectives or engage existing policyholders for compelling testimonials.

To learn more about digital marketing and gain additional tips from Jim Schubert, watch the on-demand webinar “Drive Brand Awareness with Digital Marketing.”

How is your business engaging with customers in the digital age? Which tools have been most effective for your agency?

Jim Schubert is president of Southern States Insurance, one of Georgia’s largest independent insurance agencies. Southern States is a full-service insurance agency with seven offices in Georgia and Florida. Find out more about Southern States Insurance at www.southernstatesinsurance.com.


New Opportunities for UK Insurance Brokers

by John Haber-Smith

Applied Systems UKForces Reshaping the Industry
Technology continues to change our industry, reshaping the ways brokers conduct business and creating new opportunities for growth and enhanced service to customers. More than ever, embracing technology and leveraging the benefits it delivers are critical to achieving these goals.

Customers increasingly conduct business online, meaning brokers should seek opportunities to meet customers and prospects in the digital world where they are now regularly accustomed to interacting with businesses. In this dynamic marketplace, insurance businesses continually need to assess changing customer demands and align business priorities accordingly, leveraging technology as a means to reach them while driving business efficiency.

A Natural Extension of Their Business
For many years, Insurecom, now operating as Applied Systems UK, has been a valuable partner to UK insurance brokers, and we see tremendous opportunity in Applied Systems’ acquisition of Insurecom last week. Applied Systems is a leading insurance software company and provides the Applied TAM UK system many UK brokers use to automate their brokerages. As longtime partners, the combination of Applied Systems and Insurecom is a natural extension of their businesses.

Increased Support for UK Brokers
The acquisition will increase the support delivered to UK brokers, enabling us to automate more aspects of insurance business as Applied Systems delivers new products and innovation to the industry for efficient brokerage management, customer self-service, mobility and insurer connectivity. It creates new opportunities to increase revenue and, more importantly, to build stronger relationships with customers, allowing them to deliver more to those they serve. There will be much more to learn about this at the upcoming Team-One conference this October 14 in London. To ensure a strong future for brokers, I welcome Applied to our marketplace.

Learn more about Applied Systems UK and Team-One.

John Haber-SmithJohn Haber-Smith is a chartered insurance broker and Director at John Ansell & Partners Ltd – a specialist commercial insurance brokerage. He was the former chairman of Team-One (the Applied Systems UK user group) and plays an active role in ASCnet. He is a well-known and well-respected member of the insurance community.


Insurance Agency Best Practices to Enhance Value and Growth

by Shirley Lukens

Insurance Agency Best Practices Blog Two key factors contribute to an insurance agency’s long-term success and value: organic growth and profitability. Organic growth refers to the rate in which an agency grows its revenue through expanded sales efforts rather than the acquisition of existing revenue from another agency or agent. The second key factor, profitability, is the measure of an agency’s true financial viability. If an agency isn’t turning a profit, it’s unlikely to hold significant long term value.

So, how do you take your agency’s organic growth and profitability rates and figure out how you stack up in the industry? Below are insurance agency best practices and key performance benchmarks that indicate if your agency is headed towards long-term success.

Performance Benchmarking: Critical for Improving Operations
The Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA) provides a best practices study to assist agencies in comparing their performance against the leading U.S. agencies. Performance benchmarks include focusing on measurements that are specific to increasing an agency’s value, such as stronger operations or making an agency more attractive to potential buyers. As a result, there are a variety of benchmarking tools that measure agency value and its performance, including organic growth rate, EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortization) margin, and productivity based on revenue per employee.

The Rule of 20The Rule of 20
An extremely useful benchmark is the “Rule of 20,” a simple tool to determine if an agency is creating value for its shareholders. Generally speaking, an outcome of 20 or more, regardless of the different combinations of growth and profitability, indicates that the agency’s shareholders can expect to earn 15-17 percent per year through stock appreciation and/or profit distributions.

Beyond the Rule of 20, other helpful benchmarks involve measuring risk, productivity and financial management. A risk benchmark, for example, would factor in an agency’s diversification. If a company’s revenue is exclusively with one carrier, it is considered high risk. It is also considered high risk if all agency clients are within a particular industry or, worse, if the majority of revenues come from one key client.

Understanding your agency’s performance and management as compared to your competitors, both financially and operationally, is essential to its vitality.

If an agency’s resources are ineffectively managed, the agency most likely will suffer eventually, regardless of the current growth and profitability. Effective management will lead to long-term success and, ultimately, increased value.

To learn more on best practices for enhancing agency value and to hear from Shirley Lukens of Reagan Consulting, watch the “Agency Best Practices” webinar on demand.

What performance benchmarks is your agency measuring, and how have they contributed to your agency’s success?

Shirley Lukens is a principal and senior consultant at Reagan Consulting. She is responsible for researching and developing various industry studies including the annual Best Practices Study, a joint project of Reagan and the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America (IIABA), a national trade association, in which she served for 12 years before joining Reagan in 1998. As VP of Industry Affairs for IIABA, Shirley conceived and launched its highly regarded Best Practices initiative, and was responsible for all its performance enhancement programs, products, and services. Shirley is a frequent contributor to insurance industry publications, and a popular leader of Best Practices workshops at agencies, industry meetings and conventions.


Gaining Success Through Specialization

by Scott Lindsey

The insurance industry is changing rapidly. Insurance organizations face competitive pressures, market demands and government regulations. Insureds are more sophisticated and informed than ever before. Gaining Success Through Specialization

Given these trends, the natural inclination for insurance agencies may be to become generalists and ensure that agents have broad expertise in every type of product and coverage. However, that may not be the best course of action.

On the contrary, the most successful insurance organizations of the future will likely be those that choose to specialize. Through specialization, an insurance agency can differentiate itself from competitors by providing in-depth and unparalleled expertise in one particular area — essentially dominating that niche.

In essence, specialization means an agency develops a practice area comprised of agents with in-depth knowledge of an industry, business or personal lines. Agencies can then take a position of thought leadership, thereby offering information and insights to their clients.

At Hylant Group, we maintain a team of generalists, as well as specialized resources, including agents with a specific area of expertise. Our specialization is broken down by specific client industries — manufacturing, financial or legal services, for example — or by having agents focus on certain business lines, such as aviation, executive risk or environment.

Here are four key steps to becoming a more specialized insurance organization:

#1: Identify the focus area(s)
Determine which areas to specialize in by evaluating the agency’s portfolio. For example, an agency with many healthcare industry clients might choose to specialize in medical malpractice. If an agency has a wealth of knowledge in this area and a large portfolio of clients in the industry, it is likely in a strong competitive position to hone that area of expertise. A critical factor, however, is ensuring that the agency and its agents are passionate and knowledgeable about their areas of specialization.

#2: Become an expert
Next, immerse the agency and specialized agents within the focus areas. Encourage and invest in continuing education for agents in their area of specialization. Ways to do this including tapping into resources of carriers such as educational tools and product knowledge, along with industry resources such as risk assessment tools.

#3: Manage change
Managing change can be challenging because it may entail forgoing revenue from previously core business lines in order to focus on building a book of business around the specialization areas you have identified as growth areas for your agency. However, embracing change and helping employees understand and manage it is essential to making specialization work.

#4: Embrace technology
Technology is instrumental to supporting agency processes. Content management systems can be instrumental in helping agencies keep clients updated on changing laws and regulations in their specialized areas. Cloud technology, robust web sites and management systems integrated with self-service tools can be leveraged to break geographic barriers, reach customers across time zones, and serve as a source of information – any time of the day.

To learn more about specialization and hear additional tips from Scott Lindsey, sign up for the webinar, “Gaining Success Through Specialization,” which takes place July 19 at 11 a.m. ET.

How does or could your agency use specialization to differentiate or maintain a competitive advantage?

Scott Lindsey is chief technology officer at Hylant Group, a full-service insurance brokerage with 14 offices in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, and Florida.  As a member of the Worldwide Broker Network, Hylant offers complete risk management services, employee benefits consultation, loss control, healthcare management and insurance solutions for businesses and individuals. Hylant is one of the largest privately held brokerage firms in the United States and serves a wide variety of clients locally, nationally, and internationally.