Find Your 'Soft Underbelly'


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Ask yourself: “If I were to leave my own agency and start a competitor licensed with the same companies that were in my old agency, what would I do to take business away from my old agency?”

We all know our own strengths and weaknesses far better than we consciously admit. We're proud of what we do well, but we're always a little unsure of whether our success is accidental or due to the fruits of our labor. But we hide our weaknesses very well. Because it disturbs us that we have a “soft underbelly” we diminish it in our minds. Yet there it lies, exposed and unprotected.

Is it the fact that our service isn't as “stellar” as we boast? Does it take too long for our CSRs to return calls? Have you heard some grumbling from your clients that, when you're not around, no one from your office seems to know them?

Have your salespeople RIP'd (Retired In Place)? Do you make excuses for them? Do they make excuses for themselves? In both hard and soft markets, do they complain that they don't have time to sell because of market conditions?

Is your management spotty? Do you know what needs to be done, start programs, then lose interest and sort of peter out? Knowing this, are your employees less keen about changes that you desire because they think that they're just the most recent “flashes in the pan?”

The challenge is to find your soft underbelly as if you were your most aggressive competitor seeking to take your business. Approach your organization, service efficiency, production capability, and management consistency with the thought that someone like you is trying to invade your book of business and take away your livelihood.

Believe it or not, complacency is your greatest enemy; and it's been fed by the lack of proactive competitors in the industry and in your area. If you'd been attacked because of service inefficiency, producer inadequacy, or management paralysis, you would have taken action already. However, the reality is most of your competitors are no more proactive than you (and many are far less so). This means that, although mediocrity might keep you from achieving high growth and profits, the hard market might accomplish this goal for you. And, when the inevitable soft market returns, you can join your competitors in complaining about lower premiums and lower commissions cutting into your revenues and profits.

However, some agents have snapped out of this cycle. We've encountered a small but aggressive core of agents for whom “hard” and “soft” are simply market conditions, not excuses for failure. Our client base includes agents who have shown double-digit growth for each of the last 15 years! They grew throughout the soft market by shifting into higher-margin lines of business and by selling “against the grain.” They recognized that their weakness (or “soft underbelly”) was price sensitive clients and they sold against this weakness. Their mantra was “customer loyalty” and they found ways to serve their customers so well that they refused to move.

I know this concept is foreign to many agents who feel that price is all that customers rely on. But deep in our hearts we know that's not true. If it were, more than a few companies would've gone out of business in the soft market. Yet clients (and agents) stayed with them. Why? It can't all be inertia!

Other agents found that their weakness lay in the service that they offered their clients. Do you really think that your clients measure service by how well you process endorsements and renewals? The agents who recognized service as their “soft underbelly” asked themselves and their clients what was important to them. The answer was usually unexpected: “Give us value for what we pay you as agents. Testing competitive companies means more than just submitting an app to a carrier for a quote, then begging them to accept an account below their pricing.” The clients were looking for: (1) respect and a feeling that they were important to the agency; (2) tangible added value for the commission ceded to the agent; and (3) the feeling that the agent was working on their behalf every year to get needed coverage at a reasonable price from a carrier who would treat them fairly in case of a loss. Strangely, these were the same issues that the agents themselves said were important when they were customers for cars, property, or any other important purchase.

The agents who recognized non-producing salespeople as their soft underbelly have re-trained or replaced their producer force with people who have the “fire in the belly” that most agents once had before they reached their level of satisfaction. And the agents who recognized that their skills lie in selling rather than managing personnel, systems, and procedures “found” professional managers who can keep a business humming (or lose their jobs).

Many agents will never acknowledge their “soft underbelly.” If active agents ever penetrate their territory, they'll be eaten alive. But they're so afraid of the hard steps needed to change service staff, producers — and themselves — that they'll settle for mediocrity rather than identify their weaknesses and make the changes needed to solve them.

Don't be one of these agents! Analyze your agency from the inside out. Ask your employees, your customers, and your companies for help. When they realize that this isn't just another temporary “flash in the pan,” they'll gladly help you because in doing so, they're helping themselves, as well.
The goal of the CompleteMarkets editor is to bring valuable content to the CompleteMarkets members. Providing content to insurance professionals to enhance their sales process, increase revenue streams, understand their clients and provide value to their agency. 
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