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Sound Marketing, Inc.

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IS SERVICE DEAD?

Author JackBurke , 4/29/2014

From the man who maintains our pool to our attorney, it seems that everyone is bemoaning the lack of service.  Is the concept of service gasping for a final breath?  Despite all the rhetoric about service, it’s clearly an elusive culprit – at least in the eyes of many consumers.

Consider these examples:

An attorney merges with another and finds that they’re both paying $400 per month for identical material.  Rather than cancelling one of the subscriptions, they decide that they’ll simply change the material being supplied to avoid duplication.  A call to the sales representative of the information provider goes unanswered, as well as three calls to the company.  “Do I have to sue them to get their attention,?” asks the attorney.

A friend buys a new house that’s supposed to be finished by mid-November.  To be safe, he sets the closing for the sale of his existing house at the end of the month. Every week, he’s guaranteed that everything is on schedule.  Three weeks before closing, the builder tells him the house won’t be ready until December 8th.  A week later, the builder extends the completion date until December 20th.  Every call to the builder results in the buyer’s being pushed off to another department.  Eventually, the Vice-President of Operations says he needs to talk to the Vice-President of Sales, who in turn says it’s an operations problem.  Twelve phone calls and not a single straight answer! “Do I have to sue them to get their attention,?” asks my friend.

The head of a major advertising firm told about an insurance company that wanted his agency to compete for their account.  Explaining that it had more than $ billion in revenue with an advertising budget of $15 million, the insurer requested his agency to come and make a presentation. The ad exec boasted that he told the company that if they wanted his agency, it had to come to him.  Although I applaud his nervy salesmanship, I have to wonder how this attitude might affect the service the firm would provide.

I recently began to question whether AT&T was worth a 40% premium as the long-distance provider for our business.  I called our local phone company (GTE), MCI, and Sprint requesting that a business representative come out, research our phone needs, and offer a proposal  (Note: Studio recording over telephone conference lines has some unique needs).  Sprint was the only one of the three willing to send a representative.  Guess which company will be our new long-distance provider.

Based on those and similar stories, one might conclude that indeed service is dead --but it isn’t.  Service still ambles along upon the happy road of destiny, often good, sometimes bad, and occasionally exceptional.  However, the recipients of service (consumers) are more educated than ever before.  As a result, their expectations have increased dramatically.  Unfortunately the service level of most companies has not!  Even the real-time service potential of the Internet often falls victim to tardy (or no) response to e-mail inquiries.

I’ve always maintained that service is the critical component of success.  Today, more than ever a truly service-oriented agency enjoys a significant competitive advantage.  Instead of basking on your laurels of past service, ask what you have done for your clients and prospects lately.

Here’s a little test based on today’s most precious commodity time:  Many agencies open at 9 am, close from noon to 1 pm, lock the doors at 5 pm, and don’t operate on weekends. 
If you were a client or prospect, how easy would it be for you to do business with a company that maintained those hours?

Have you matched your hours to the needs of your clients? Are you operating in the way most convenient to them – or are they bending to your convenience.  Would they appreciate if you kept your office that open during their lunch hour and perhaps until 6 or 7 in the evening?  Before you answer this question, ask your clients what think. 

The agency that puts its clients first will place itself s at the top of its market. This historic truth holds sway today more than ever.

Service is alive and healthy!


PRODUCERS: THE ZEN OF PROFESSIONALISM

Author JackBurke , 4/16/2014
Over the years, I’ve tried to differentiate between a customer and a client.  A customer is primarily a single sale that might or might not recur.  A client, on the other hand, represents a relationship designed to grow into the future.

LESSONS FROM A HANDYMAN

Author JackBurke , 4/9/2014
I never cease to be amazed by the teachers who appear in my life.  Most recently it was a young man named Dan Johnson. Dan is ex-military, married with two children, and living in Branson. After a bad economic venture into hotel ownership, his wife went back to teaching and Dan began working as a handyman.

CLAIMS HANDLING: IT'S A SMALL WORLD

Author JackBurke , 4/3/2014
Thanks to technology, pundits say the world is getting smaller; it’s become easy to communicate worldwide in real time at relatively inexpensive cost.  Thanks to technology, insurance agents say that their world is getting bigger – the Internet has made the world their oyster. 

RESTRAIN YOUR PEN, TONGUE, AND KEYBOARD

Author JackBurke , 3/26/2014
The next time something lights your fuse, exercise restraint.  Don’t make that call until you’ve had 24 hours to cool off.  If you write a letter or e-mail, wait 24 hours and then read it.  If it still makes sense to you, send it.  Or, as is often the case, you’ll soften the message or won’t even need to send it.

GETTING INVOLVED: LESSONS FROM COMMUNITY BOARDS

Author JackBurke , 3/20/2014
Community involvement is essential for any successful business.  Most business owners realize the value of “giving back to their community, whether it’s through a non-profit fraternal or civic organization.” Independent insurance agents, by and large, have been exceptional in this regard.

SET CLIENT EXPECTATIONS – AND MEET THEM

Author JackBurke , 3/12/2014
I recently met noted trainer/speaker Chris Amrhein here in Branson for lunch.  Chris was in town for a presentation, so we took advantage of his travel to catch up with each other.  As speakers, we both agreed that the travel to and from events always provided fresh and interesting material for our talks.  Seldom, if ever, does a trip go perfectly – and human interaction is always eye opening.

RECRUITING PRODUCERS: FORGE, DON’T FORAGE!

Author JackBurke , 3/5/2014
Every agency owner I’ve met tells me that they have a difficult time finding and hiring “good” producers. Unfortunately, many of us who own businesses are the problem.  We don’t think long term. We don’t plan and implement recruiting strategies that might take years to bear fruit.  Instead, we react to immediate situations in a helter-skelter manner.  We forage for potential producers because we never forged a proactive policy of recruiting them.

Webster defines the verb “forage” as “to wander in search of food.” Forge, on the other hand is defined as “to form by a process of heating and hammering.”  If we succeed in foraging for producers, it’s a matter of luck.  If we forge a process, over time, luck has very little to do with it.

This process begins with a commitment to the educational system.  Start cultivating interest in insurance as a career by interaction with schools. Make yourself, an insurance executive, visible to the young people who will form our future.  Attract them to an insurance career, consciously or subconsciously, by acting as a role model. Show them that you’re happy and excited about your career, and have the time to serve the community and youth.

Here are a few suggestions for attracting young people: 
  • Sponsor a sports team and get involved as a coach or some other volunteer position 
  • Rather than just speaking to parents about teenage insurance at PTA meetings, bring together teenagers for a talk about responsible driving and the impact of a safe record on their future insurance needs.
  • Sponsor a Safe Driving Awards Program for high school juniors and seniors.
  • Teach a class on insurance at the local high school or junior college. Along with Auto, Home,     Health and Life insurance, explain how your career allows you to help people protect their future.
  • Start a scholarship program for needy high school or college students 
  • If your office is in a retail trade area, make the grounds available for a weekend fund-raising car wash by a local high school.
  • If you’re in a rural area, conduct a class on Farm insurance for local 4H Clubs.
  • Volunteer to teach Commercial insurance at local colleges that offer majors in business.
  • Participate in Career Day programs at local high schools and colleges.
  • Invite students to write articles for your client newsletter (if you have one).
These are just a few top-of-mind ideas on how you can help create a positive attitude toward insurance among students in your area. They won’t be ready to go to work with you tomorrow.  But a few years down the road, they just might remember the role model you presented to them.  

This approach will have a positive impact on you.  Spending time with students will keep you re-charged and motivated about your own career and life – and, as an employer, you’ll relate more easily to younger employees.  It’s a win-win!

Every successful person I know has a role model, guide, or mentor in their past.  Whether yours is a school, a teacher, a parent, an early employer, a neighbor –- or a combination of people – hindsight places a greater value on the lessons they taught 

What better way to pay back this favor than by paying it forward? Become that same role model to the youth in your community.  These “connections’ will pay dividends in future years.  Instead of foraging for your immediate needs, forge a process that will fulfill your needs for years to come.



THE ART OF LEADERSHIP

Author JackBurke , 2/26/2014

I usually turn a jaundiced eye toward comments by politicians.  It’s not really fair, but I seem to become increasingly cynical over time.  However, I recently saw a newspaper column by Missouri State Representative Dennis Wood that struck a chord in my heart. I’d like to share some of his thoughts in this blog.
He began with a quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”
Wood likes to describe himself as a “servant leader”.  That coincides with my belief that we are all “workers among workers,” and that the highest calling is to be of service to another human being.  Wood goes on to differentiate between a boss and a leader with the words of Russell H. Ewing’s, “A boss creates fear, a leader confidence.  A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects his mistakes.  A boss knows all, a leader asks questions.  A boss is interested in himself; a leader is interested in the group.”
These powerful thoughts struck home with me.  As a corporate executive in the 70’s, I now realize that I was a “boss,” not a “leader.”  When business leaders were preaching the credo of MBO – Management By Objectives, we jokingly referred to our style as MBI – Management By Intimidation.  Part of this was the cockiness of youth, but a greater part truly described our management style.  We believed that you could only manage people by engendered an atmosphere of fear that would force them to perform.  We were wrong!
Wood’s article went on to say, “There are ‘leaders’ who think they have to scream and shout so they can be heard.  They yell and throw tantrums because they believe it’s the only way to make change. Other ‘leaders’ fell they must be quiet and hidden, operating behind the scenes as manipulators.  However, the true leaders are positive servants – people willing to help other people accomplish their best.”
Many people will find fault with the term “servant leader.”  Maybe they think that it’s a little soft or that such an attitude can’t engender motivation and loyalty.  They might even think that “servant leaders” ignore and avoid problems – sticking their heads in the sand.
Woods takes issue with those beliefs.  “Servant leaders acknowledge the problems, but also dwell on the positive accomplishments, as well.  Their positive attitude helps find the best ways to solve problems in a constructive way – as opposed to becoming a bull in a china shop.  They use wisdom and discernment to help foster communications and solutions.  They maintain a positive ‘can-do’ attitude.”
Positivity is hard, negativity is easy!  It’s far easier to moan and groan about the difficulties that face us than to nurture a positive attitude.  People tend to gravitate toward gossip, whining and complaining – rather than focusing on the good while solving the problem. That’s part of why change is so difficult.  The devil we know is easier to handle than the one we don’t know.  
On the management side, do we tend to be sarcastic to the point of putting people down and talking behind their backs?  Do we find it easier to instill fear or create skepticism?  Do we tend to assign blame and make accusations rather than investigating root causes in order to develop solutions?  This approach might resolve a problem temporarily, but a true leader solves problems for future generations.
Leaders don’t bask in accolades for personal gain and ego boosts. Leaders serve as a conduit, passing the accolades down to the workers who really earned them. Leaders boost people, rather than tear them down. Leaders revel in the accolades earned by their staff!  
This does not mean that leaders are pushovers.  Leaders are willing to take the stands necessary to implement change.  Leaders will fire people – but only after determining that the person is at fault – rather than inept management, poor training, or placement of the person in the wrong job.  Leaders determine the source of the problem and then take the necessary action.  Leaders must be tough when toughness is indicated.
Above all, leaders create emulation!  People who work for leaders strive to develop similar attitudes and standards.  People who work for bosses become “bossy.”
Are you a leader or a boss? Are you creating leaders among your people?  These are questions we need to ask ourselves on a regular basis.  Because we might sometimes be blind to our own faults, it makes sense to check our own best thinking and personal assessment with a trusted friend who is willing to be honest with us.


USE YOUR CLIENTS AS ADVISORS

Author JackBurke , 2/21/2014
As business owners, our arrogance sometimes precedes us. That’s a strong statement and some might have already taken offense. If so, I’m sorry. However I include myself in this category.  Loosely defined, arrogance is a feeling or posture of superiority due to exaggerated or presumptuous claims.  The arrogance to which I refer is the sense that we, as business owners, know what’s best for our clients and prospects – a feeling that’s highly presumptuous. 
Our clients need to access our expertise as advisors, evaluators, guides, and educators in guiding them through the intricacies of insurance and risk management. 
Our presumptuousness lies in the fact that we believe we know exactly what they want and what goes into their decision-making process.  We don’t – unless we have the courage to ask them.
Over the years, I have recommended a simple focus group session that requires you to buy your client a cup of coffee, lunch. or dinner.  During the conversation, ask the client three questions:
1. What are we doing right?
2. What are we doing wrong?
3. What do you need us to be doing in preparing for your future needs?
Although asking those questions takes courage, this simplified focus group approach is no longer enough in today’s world.  We need to involve our clients as partners in our business. After all, we think of ourselves as partners in their business.  It’s time to think of them as partners in ours.
So how do you involve our clients as partners?  All you have to do is think CIA –
 Communication, Involvement, Action.
Communication  
All too much has been written on this topic, but it bears repeating.  Communication is not a monologue, it’s a dialogue. 
Here’s an example from one of my clients:
 We send a monthly electronic newsletter.  Each month we would review a number of potential articles to determine topics that we believed would interest the customer’s readers.  We never asked them because it would make the process too unwieldy, particularly with deadlines.  Suddenly the light went on!  The tracking results of each newsletter showed how many people clicked through to each article.  The readers were already telling us what they wanted – we just weren’t listening.  (By the way, the articles they wanted weren’t the ones we were choosing for them.)  Today we maintain running tallies of article topics and reader response.  This enables us to provide articles on topics that we know will interest the clientele.
Communication in and of itself can be worthless, even annoying – unless we provide what our clients want.  This means that we have to listen to them.
Involvement
Now we’re getting into the danger zone, dropping our defenses and inviting clients into our inner sanctum.  I recommend that every agency shave a Client Advisory Board.  The members shouldn’t be your top clients, but represent a mix of your business.  Maybe it’s three “A” clients, two “B” clients, and one “C” client.  Remember many C’s become B’s and B’s become A’s over time.
Before you nix the idea, remember that most business owners are problem solvers.  So doesn’t it make sense to surround yourself with people who know how to solve problems and are willing to help you become the best agency you can be?  
Your board can critique advertising and marketing campaigns, help plan risk management education seminars, etc.  But more than that, the board is there when the excrement hits the fan.  For instance, let’s say a market pulls out.  Wouldn’t it be nice to lay the problem out to your board, review available options, and come to a consensus on the best way to move the book?  The critical aspect is to be honest, open, and forthright with your board members.  If you aren’t, they can’t help you.  By vesting them as your partners, you are also instilling in them a sense of loyalty because they become part and parcel of your agency process.
If you fear making a total commitment to an advisory board, start with some baby steps.  Select several clients who you respect and seek their advice on an informal basis.  It’s a start and everyone wins.
Action
Here’s the kicker: anytime you involve clients in your business, you need to take action on their suggestions and comments.  That doesn’t mean you have to implement everything they suggest; however, you need to take time to review their suggestions and then advise them about any actions you’ll be taking – even if this means taking no action.  If you don’t, they will consider their involvement an exercise in futility and question how much you really care about their input.  So unless you are willing to take action, don’t get your clients involved – you could lose them.
Although your agency can take a number of actions to serve the needs of your clients more effectively, don’t tackle them all at once.  Take time to research, review, discuss, and prepare for any actions that you will be taking.  Determine when you’ll implement the plan and how to implement and monitor it.  If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.  Once you’re done with one action, move on to the next. Too many good ideas self-destruct because the agency failed to focus on the necessary implementation.  
Remember, your greatest asset is the loyalty and goodwill of your clients.  Solicit their input and feedback, respect their thoughts – and enjoy the success that they will give you!