ACG - Agency Consulting Group

The PIPELINE

A national monthly newsletter for agency principals dedicated to agency management topic

The Change Process

Over the last 20 years, we have attended to the growth needs of many insurance agencies and have observed many success stories. A large agency desiring severe growth, expansion and inter-generational perpetuation planned its way into tripling its size within 10 years. Two medium sized competitors decided that they could better profit from joining forces. They planned their way through a merger, professionalization of management and steady growth and profit for fifteen years. The original owners have since retired in favor of internal perpetuation and the new owners continue to plan for growth, profit and continued perpetuation. Many small "mom & pop shops" have perpetuated to children who recognized the changing industry and have created Plans, management systems, and organizations geared for growth. These small businesses have grown toward and through the "Magic Million" revenue mark guaranteeing their survival through this generation of owners.

But for every success story we have encountered dozens of failures. In each case we analyze what we may have done to help or hinder the agency's success. We also look to the owners, managers, and staffs to determine what was done differently between those agencies who have succeeded and those who have failed. Here is what we found:

THE EDUCATION PROCESS

Almost every agent we have ever encountered was busy. Most were spinning their wheels and generating work efforts that were well below their financial need and capacity. For example, most insurance agents need to sell insurance. Today's competitive marketplace doesn't permit agents the luxury of waiting for prospects to call them. Yet many agents we encounter spend most or all of their time in the office managing paper and waiting for people to call them for insurance.

We have tried to educate agents to the difference between being busy and being productive. When agents have implemented this education, they have found themselves growing, making more money and enjoying themselves in their careers. However, too many agents are convinced that a) the way they learned the business from their predecessors is the only key to success, b) the way they manage their business worked in the past and should work in the future (if not, it is the "fault" of the economy, carriers, or industry changes), or c) they have "paid their dues" a long time ago and a resurgence of activity is too much effort for the expected result.

THE PLANNING PROCESS

The Planning Process is a disciplined and difficult procedure guaranteed to succeed if conducted properly. GUARANTEED?? Yes. Without a single exception, every agency we have observed who have planned and have consistently implemented the Plan succeed (most well beyond their expectations). The agencies who abandon their Plans when the activities necessary to achieve the goals become difficult or need changed, flounder.

Question -"If planning succeeds so consistently, why doesn't everyone do it?"

Answer - "Because it's HARD!"

Most agents are, by nature, entrepreneurs. That means that they have vision and the desire to succeed. But there is a big difference between a visionary and an implementer. A visionary sees the possibilities. An implementer makes those possibilities happen. Many visionaries will create Strategic Plans, but only the implementers will follow the path created by the Plan, doing what is necessary to make the objectives happen (even if it means changing the Plan to help achieve the results).

THE PROCESS OF CHANGE - COMMITMENT VS. CONTRIBUTION -

"The chicken and the pig pass a restaurant at breakfast-time. The chicken turns to the pig and suggest that they stop in for a bite to eat. The sign in the restaurant window says BACON AND EGGS, FRESH EVERY MORNING. The pig refuses to go in. When the chicken asks why, the pig says, "Breakfast here is a contribution for you - for me it's a total commitment that I'm not ready to make!"

Some people will 'try' change. They will contribute to it (usually in terms of money) but will not fully commit in fear of failure. If the change works, they will become committed to it (only as long as it works). If the first attempt at change fails, they will go back to what was comfortable. They do not believe that the historical course will necessarily lead them to disaster. Without the belief in the necessity of change, you can not fully commit to it. It's always more comfortable to think that if a change doesn't work you can always go back to the way you've done it in the past. We may think that it ameliorates the business risks. IT DOES NOT.

Change in our industry is inevitable. The Direct Writers activities from the early fifties through today should convince us. The conversion of commercial lines from individually written accounts to national programs is another indicator. The incursion of banks into the insurance business has actually been in process for 20 years. The never-ending soft market is a development that can not be casually dismissed.

If you recognize these changes as a part of a never-ending and on-going process you can view change as an integral part of the insurance business, no less than occasionally selling new business and losing some existing business. A belief in change and implementing actions to change with conditions must be a commitment akin to religious fervor.

If the bridge 100 miles beyond you was destroyed, you would certainly seek other avenues to reach your destination. If one of those avenues was found to be a dead end, would you consider re-establishing your original route toward that gaping chasm? Of course not. You would try another avenue, hoping that it would be a better choice to avoid the bridge and still reach your destination. Regardless of how many detours and false starts, if you were determined to reach your goal, you would continue to try different routes, learning from each and trying to avoid the pitfalls in subsequent attempts.

Why, then, are our desires to change our businesses to achieve long term success treated differently? False starts are as common in business plans of insurance agents as they are in all other businesses. If we believe that our path leads to that chasm, why would any agency continue to do business the way they have done in the past? Why would they continue to follow the same business practices even though they see both growth and profits diminish each year?

Long term success ALWAYS means financial success for the business' owners. It can also mean growth and profit for the business. It can mean handing down a more valuable asset to the next generation. It can mean developing a valued asset for sale when retirement arrives. And it means that retirement is planned to permit time to follow other dreams - not getting out before the business fails completely. It can mean building a business whose scope and importance live beyond its creators. Those are the visions of success that dance through owners' minds as they plan for changes in their businesses.

In too many situations, 3 months, 6 months or one year later, the changes made in a Plan have either been abandoned or were never started. Roadblocks were established that were too difficult to overcome so the agency (and the owners) retreated to the familiar main road that they were traveling when the decision to change was made. Do they believe that the bridge is really out? Or do they hope that, somehow, their business opportunities (and our proverbial bridge) will automatically re-build themselves?

Those agents who have changed and succeeded can attest to the fact that the bridge is, in fact, down. They have created other paths and built their own bridges to cross the chasm. They didn't succeed by retreating to comfortable ground when their paths were blocked. Instead, they tried different business directions until they found their own paths to success. Happily we have been able to lend our assistance in the selection of the right directions for many agencies and hope to do so often in the future.

We are dismayed by the number of fine, strong agencies who fail to pursue change because, while they have been told that the bridge was out, have found that their road is still smooth and easy. "Why rock the boat when we are still making money?" they ask. Growth is diminishing or has disappeared. Profit is decreasing. Yet, as long as they don't personally see the chasm they will fear it and stay on their original path. When the chasm appears before them they will have no choice but to join another, more successful organization who has prepared for the chasm and has built their own bridge. This is not disastrous because, the agency will still traverse the chasm (albeit as a part of a larger business) but it will mark the end of independence. The original owners rarely find having senior partners (or bosses) acceptable and the merger marks the beginning of the end.

Would you rather be the acquirer, or the acquired - the Change Agent, or the employee? I suggest that those agents who have been sitting on the fence consider the difference between insurance agencies in the 1940's, 1970's and 1990's. The changes in the industry have been immense. If you intend to be in the business as an owner in 10 years (or expect to internally perpetuate your agency) and still personally do business today like you did in the Eighties, consider committing to change and becoming a Change Agent. This involves creating and implementing a Strategic Plan and following the advice of Stephen Covey (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) - Be Proactive, Begin With The End in Mind, and Put First Things First.

Putting First Things First involves the principles of personal management. Once you know the important things in your life (business and personal), do them before launching into the normal trivialities that face us daily.

Begin With The End In Mind refers to identifying the truly important goals in your business and personal life, write them down and concentrate on them consistently. You will find yourself generating the activities that will permit you to reach those goals if you are clear about what those goals really are for you.

And, most of all, Being Proactive means DO SOMETHING! To many of us are thinkers and worriers and too few of us are doers. Become a doer - a CHANGE AGENT who makes things happen, instead of a reactor to changes around you.