Tuesday, March 27, 2007

All things to all people

I'm developing a coverage training program for agents in PowerPoint using a master slide that the carrier designed, which they are going to put into their own computer-based program once I've completed it. I ran across a technical problem with the master that I couldn't solve. When I have technical problems, I call my website designer, who is not a PowerPoint pro, and he couldn't solve it, either.

"Call the client," he said. "Describe the problem you're having and ask for their help. They're paying you to write, not to be a techno-geek."

I ultimately solved the glitch, paying what I call a "stupid tax," because the solution was so simple that I complicated it too much to see it. But here's the point. I can't be all things to all people and there's no shame, when I can't do something, to admit it.

I taught ARM and AIC classes for a few years and I learned a valuable lesson from the instructors who'd taught me when I was earning my designations. If they didn't know the answer to a student's question, they'd take a note, promise to get back to the student, and the next week they followed through.

There is no shame in not knowing the answer to a question. The shame is bluffing your way through. In today's instant society, we want answers now. Don't fall prey to pressure from clients who want answers you don't have. When we answer questions without thinking them through, quote prices off the top of our heads because we're pressured, guesstimate the cost of coverage, say "you've got coverage for that loss," or assume because the underwriter liked flooring contractors last month they still like them this month, we're heading "up fool's hill," as my grandmother used to remark as she watched her 16-year old grandkids drive off in cars.

It's better to say "Let me do some checking and get back to you with an answer" than to proffer an answer you're going to be forced to defend.

BNet a great resource

I preview a lot of business blogs to make my blog sharper. Let's face it, today, blogs proliferate, many with little content. One that I am impressed with is BNet.

BNet bills itself as "the go-to place for management." You can either surf the site or sign up for newsletters, which I prefer since the day usually evaporates before I have time to search the sites I enjoy. You can manage the types of newsletters you want to receive, such as marketing, enterprise spotlight, or the BNet report. The marketing blog is one I highly recommend.

BNet's marketing blog just had an article called the Marketing ROI Calculator. It's an Excel spreadsheet that you can download that allows you to plan your marketing campaign by quarter, calculate your response rate, which can be adjusted each quarter after you track how your leads are discovering you, and then calculate the return on investment projected or received from your advertising efforts.

Here's the link to the marketing calculator:

As we all know, it's imperative that we track our advertising efforts so we can figure out how to best spend our advertising budget. You'd be surprised how many advertisers fail to do just that. Even a simple check sheet that asks potential clients where they found you provided to all employees who deal with the public is a start toward managing your advertising efforts.

If you're interested in BNet, spend a few minutes searching the site by topic or just cruising through its many articles. I'm not easily impressed and BNet impresses me.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Dry humor still works

One of my favorite newspapers is the pink Financial Times (FT), a British-based daily that often has articles that often are buried by American media and are often very funny. British humor is usually pretty dry and the article I read from the weekend edition of the Times was no exception. (See www.ft.com)

The article was titled "Merkel heals rift with Prague on EU celebration" and covered the divisions that occurred between the Czech Republic and Germany preceding this weekend's festivities set to mark the 50th anniversary of the EU. These divisions were apparently based on what Czech president Vaclav Klaus thought was unilateral wording regarding the establishment of a constitution in the Berlin Declaration.

The FT's article went on to characterize the high points of the Berlin Declaration with the FT's own counterpoints. Here were a few that I found very funny.

Berlin Declaration: "We are united in our aim of placing the European Union on a renewed common basis before the European parliament elections in 2009."

What it really means, according to FT: "We have to save something from the wreckage of the EU constitution by then."

Berlin Declaration: "This European model combines economic success and social responsibility."

What it really means, according to the FT: "We can have it all: economic liberalism, job security, social benefits and long holidays."

Berlin Declaration: "The European Union will continue to promote democracy, stability and prosperity beyond its borders."

What it really means, according to the FT: "But don't count on ever being allowed to join if you're Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova."

Good writing can be humorous, witty and even slightly mocking to be effective, but of course, you must be careful. The British press is much braver than the American press in this regard, but the effective use of humor can help ensure your readers finish your latest article, commercial or advertising.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Musings on the insurance industry . . .

Before my mother died, I called my insurance agent to ask if I could endorse workers’ compensation coverage onto my homeowner’s policy when my mother required in-home care. My agent was out of the office, but one of the other agents in his office gamely offered to help. He said he would research my question and get back to me.

A few days later, he called. “No,” he told me, “[the carrier] doesn’t offer an endorsement to add workers’ compensation coverage to your homeowner’s policy. But you don’t need it,” he counseled me.

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Well,” he said, “you have medical payments coverage on your policy that is no fault and liability coverage in case you’re negligible.”

“Negligent,” I said.

“Right, negligible,” he responded.

I didn’t correct him again. Maybe, I thought, after working in this industry for twenty years, I am negligible.

My father was the first independent agent in Sun City, Arizona. When he opened his agency, my mother soon began working there, earning her license. As a child, I believed being an insurance agent’s kid was a special kind of torture. Not only was insurance the scintillating topic at the dinner table most nights, my mother’s “you’re going to get us sued” lament seems to be permanently embedded in my brain.

Dad carried extra shingles in his car, and after windstorms he would climb onto his clients’ roofs to inspect them. He was never without his “bag of tricks,” as he called his tool pouch. His clients depended on him and appreciated him and his family dearly.

Our phone rang in the middle of the night. One of his insureds called my dad and told dad that his house was on fire.

“Have you called the fire department?” my dad asked.

“No,” was the panicked reply.

“Hang up the phone and call the fire department.” My father got up and went to his client’s house to help him.

I can’t count the times, late Sunday afternoons, my father would take me with him to see his insureds. We’d glide down the street in his Ford to the sounds of Lawrence Welk drifting out the open windows. I recall how their faces would light up when they opened their door to him. His clients were more than their premiums, most were his friends.

I learned what a sideswipe and a binder were before I knew how babies were made. It wasn’t so much that I chose this industry, but I knew the vernacular and I took my first job in an agency, never dreaming that I’d be in this business twenty years later. But my father instilled in both my brother and me, who now owns my parents’ agency, if not his love of this industry, at least a deep appreciation and respect for it.

The industry he knew was built on relationships. You knew your underwriters and you flew to the home office of the carriers you represented to meet the employees there. You interacted with your carrier’s claims adjusters, who were still in the field meeting with insureds and claimants and who—gasp—had undergone months of training both by the company and by older adjusters who mentored and taught them.

You supported industry associations like the Blue Goose and the Big I, and took pride in your reputation, built on honesty. It went without saying that my parents conducted themselves ethically both with their insureds and with the carriers, even when it meant losing business.

My father loved this industry because of the relationships he built, both with other industry people and with his clients. Even when he could barely see, his eyes blinded by macular degeneration, Dad was still writing business.

“This isn’t the industry it used to be,” he’d tell me with a sigh as we sat behind his barn, his place to unwind. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood why he came home so many nights and didn’t want to talk. I began to feel that way now, too, not long before I opened my own business.

A few years before she retired, my mother submitted a homeowners’ application to one of her carriers. The application was turned down.

“I was really puzzled,” she told me, “because it was a really clean risk. (She knew because my father had visited the home and photographed it before he submitted the risk.)

“I decided to call the underwriter, whom I’d never met, to find out why he declined the risk,” my mother told me. “When I finally got him on the phone,” she said, “I asked him why he wouldn’t write the business.”

“Well,” he told her with irritation, “The roof has a two-ton air conditioner on it and it could come crashing through the roof at any moment!”

My mother, one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, patiently explained to him that a two-ton unit didn’t mean it weighed two tons. After she slowly described the risk to him, the underwriter agreed to write the policy.

My colleagues and I laugh about the stupidity we encounter in today’s industry, the lack of training, the lost work ethic, the unethical actions of some insurers that give the rest of the insurance professionals a bad reputation. But it’s a gallows humor. Mainly, they agree they're counting the days to retirement.

Maybe I’m wrong to be so negative. Perhaps the next generation of agents and underwriters, even the insurance MBAs and CEOs who now run the industry, will be the caliber of people my parents were. Perhaps, like a pendulum, the industry will eventually swing back toward common sense, professionalism, fairness and solid relationships.

But just when I despair that our industry is the only one gone mad, I see that we’re not alone with our problems. One of the adjusters who used to work for me talked to a plaintiff attorney about his client, who allegedly had fallen into a manhole due to a faulty cover. The adjuster was chortling over the attorney’s mangling of the phrase “res ipsa loquitor,” which the attorney pronounced “res ipsa loquashitor.”

Laughing, I suggested he call the attorney back to tell him we had completed our investigation and were denying the claim because we weren’t negligible.

If nothing else, this industry is still good for a laugh.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Customer service is king in Charleston

I just spent a week in beautiful Charleston, South Carolina. I had ample time there to wander around Charleston and in and out of the shops and restaurants. One thing that struck me is the extreme friendliness of the people who served us.

The shop owners, the waitstaff and even the tour guides went that extra mile to learn a little bit about me and why I was in Charleston. They recommended sites to see, good restaurants and in short tried to make me feel important. At one restaurant when we asked about a particular dish, the waiter recommended a competitor's dish over her restaurant's version. When was the last time you recommended a competitor?

Customer service seems like a lost art to me and lately I've been frustrated plenty with poor service I've received. I have little control over my customer experience in a store or with a company; what I do have control over is where I open my wallet!

It pays to nurture your customers. Just one bad service experience may mean you not only lose that customer, but that madder-than-a-wet-hen customer spreads his or her service experience to many, many others, often years after the experience.

Stepping into Charleston reaffirmed my belief that customer service is still king.

Friday, March 9, 2007

New training module available

Those who manage workers' compensation claims know what I'm talking about. It is those sticky claims that linger on your loss runs year after year after year.

I'm just making available a training module called "Twenty Tips for Closing Workers' Compensation Claims." Drawn from my experience as a workers' compensation claims manager, the presentation presents practical and unusual methods that close those lingering workers' compensation claims.

I presented this module in a national teleconference to great reviews. I guarantee that the money you spend on this presentation will be recouped many, many times over by the claims you close as a result.

If you'd like more information regarding the presentation of this topic to your organization, please call me at (573) 638-3738.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

"Everybody act medium"

In the course of developing a customer-service training program for a claims department, the manager I'm working with attended a customer-service training program in his hometown. I reviewed the handout he was given and one thing struck me.

It was a simple "saw" or saying that will stick in people's minds. The instructor gave a golden rule of customer service and cooperation. It's "Nobody act big; nobody act little; everybody act medium."

I'm not sure if that hits you, but it sure strikes me that there's a great deal of truth in that slogan. One of the problems in customer service is that usually due to one person's irritability, anger or rudeness, the other half of the equation gets his or her back up. Then, instead of solving the customer's problem, you have two angry egos scratching and clawing their way to nowhere.

If we can teach employees "not to act big" no matter how difficult the emotions of the person we face, we can resolve almost any problem.

When developing training, it's important to incorporate humor and anecdotes into your presentation. If you're relying on PowerPoint, it's simple to put speaker notes into each slide with one mouse click to remind yourself to conduct exercises, use a slogan, make a joke, tell a story, or even take a break.

I'd love to help you with your training needs. Call for a free consultation at (602) 870-3230. Until my next post, I'm going to act medium. How about you?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A.M. Best seeks top brokers

Each year, A.M. Best completes an annual review's of top global insurance brokers. If your brokerage would like to participate, you may submit your information to http://www.bestreview.com/brokersurvey.html.

Listings feature key business data such as brokerage revenues and total revenues, plus top lines of business, significant developments in recent years and priorities for 2007 and 2008.

There is no cost for this service, but because of the wide readership of Best's, this may be a great investment in building your brand.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The ghostwriter

Most magazines have editorial calendars with monthly publication themes. A great way to get your message across to your public is to advertise in a trade journal.

Before you pay to advertise, however, how would you like to receive an entire page of free advertising? If you write a professional article for one of your favorite journals, you can.

If you've never written an article for publication, this may seem difficult. It's easier than you think. Most professionals have one or two or three areas where they consider themselves "experts." Why not share your expertise with an audience that can benefit and perhaps refer business to you based on your expertise?

Because of my background in public sector risk management, I often write for Public Risk, the magazine of the Public Risk Managers Association. It dovetails perfectly with my experience and allows me to keep my name in the public sector spotlight since public sector risk managers subscribe to this magazine. Best of all, it's free advertising. Articles build my credibility just as a published article can build yours.

You don't have to be a great writer to write an article. If you have a good idea, a ghostwriter can work with you and develop an article geared to your favorite publication, as well as write the query letter for you. All you have to do is devote an hour or two of time and a good ghostwriter can make you a expert in your field.

Becoming successful means building your brand by keeping your name and your knowledge in the spotlight. A ghostwriter can help. I'd be happy to provide a free consultation on your article idea.

P.S. No one needs to know that you didn't write every word. What happens in Missouri, stays in Missouri.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Strategic Alliances

I was at a seminar recently for women entrepreneurs. It was amazing to see so many successful, networking women in one place. The interesting part I found as I visited the various trade booths and chatted with participants was how many people seemed genuinely interested in helping me to succeed.

My business motto is "Making you successful makes me successful." Simply put, much of that means building strategic alliances. Is your company making the most of its strategic alliance capability?

I love Wikipedia, an encyclopedia written by the masses. Wiki defines "strategic alliances" as "a formal relationship formed between two or more parties to pursue a set of agreed upon goals or to meet a critical business need while remaining independent organizations. . . . The alliance is a cooperation or collaboration which aims for a synergy where each partner hopes that the benefits from the alliance will be greater than those from individual efforts."

I agree with that definition with one caveat. The smaller the business organization, the less "formal" the relationship must be. For example, at times I work closely with design houses, advertising agencies and printers to ensure finished products I create look professional. I give them business and in exchange, they refer people to me. That's a strategic alliance. There is no "formal" agreement; there is only an informal relationship that I build through my integrity, excellent work product and referrals.

Independent adjusters are struggling in today's market as carriers reduce outsourced claims handling. The assignments that are coming in are usually from national carriers. I have friends who own firms in Phoenix, the East Bay in California, and Los Angeles. I've long recommended they team up. The Phoenix adjuster can pitch their counterparts' services from the East Bay or their strategic partner in Los Angeles, and the L.A. adjuster can do the same for the East Bay or Phoenix adjusters.

I'm confident referring these three to each other because I personally know their work product is impeccable. Based on my referral, have these adjusters taken that step to ally? You probably can guess the answer.

One is too shy, one is too busy, and the third procrastinates. I've stopped recommending they do so. There's a lesson in this. If someone offers to introduce you to someone or refer you to someone, jump on it like a cat on a canary. They probably won't offer a second time.

Are you making the most of your strategic alliances?