It seems like insurance has been around “forever.” We see it as being an old school, traditional, conservative industry that is slow to change. For many, insurance doesn’t seem innovative. It’s not considered a cutting edge industry to get into. It’s full of grey hair. With the grey hair comes a bias to sticking with the way things have always been done. Industry participants are seen as having more in common than not. How does one stand out? How does a brokerage set itself apart? It sometimes seems like it’s too hard to stand out, why even bother? Strategy becomes sustaining the status quo instead of figuring out where to go in order to grow. Vision narrows. The world shrinks. Preservation becomes a focus.
If we feel our industry is cookie cut and all the players are the same within it, this will influence our strategy. We will begin by assuming our role is to fit in and not stand out. We’ll be less likely to try things and we’ll be more likely to complain. We’ll see ourselves as victims in a big, bad, unforgiving economy. We’re more likely to lean towards the need to lobby for governmental protection of our place. Do you know those within the industry that suggest that insurance isn’t interesting? Do they reflect the perspective that some clients may have toward insurance in that they look forward to paying for it as much as they look forward to a root canal? Some suggest there’s very little brokers do. Do they complain that it’s difficult to differentiate? They’re mere pawns in the game of others. They have a list at the ready of all the things brokers don’t do and aren’t responsible for. Brokers don’t back the risk. Brokers don’t price the risk. They don’t determine who qualifies for protection. Ultimately, they don’t even determine who gets what for a claim. Brokers simply pass papers between two parties. Having this attitude discounts your value and ushers you into irrelevance with both your vendors and customers. Consider that there may be nothing sadder than a service provider that’s not sold on the value of its service.
That’s a pretty pessimistic perspective. In contrast, consider the introduction to an annual report written to his shareholders, where Warren Buffet wrote, “Our tale begins around 1688, when Edward Lloyd opened a small coffee house in London. Though no Starbucks, his shop was destined to achieve worldwide fame because of the commercial activities of its clientele — shipowners, merchants and venturesome British capitalists. As these parties sipped Edward’s brew, they began to write contracts transferring the risk of a disaster at sea from the owners of ships and their cargo to the capitalists, who wagered that a given voyage would be completed without incident.” Buffet was writing of the early days of insurance and it seems like compelling reading.
Business guru Tom Peters in his 70s released his book The Excellence Dividend. In it he notes that he’s purchased insurance for 50 years from USAA. USAA is the insurance company focused on providing coverages for members of the US military and its veterans. The business provides its services not through local branches, but from a single call center in San Antonio, Texas. Peters offers his experience with them as an example of how big, bureaucratic businesses can still serve. Each year as his policies renew, he looks forward to a call with someone there. Even though it’s not the same person, the experience is similar. The person on the other end of the line acts as if they have all the time in the world and that he’s an important, valuable client. He remains amazed that the service representative on the other end of the line is able to make him feel like they care year after year. USAA aren’t evaluating their staff based on trying to shorten calls and handle more customers. They aren’t cutting corners on service. The customer service offered by USAA can become a constructive example guiding our own efforts. We should focus on how we add value to our customers and lean in to doing more of this instead of adopting the defeatist attitude of a victim blaming a boring industry or factors outside of our control. Counter this by seeing the importance of the role of a broker. Identify how you are an asset to customers as well as to your markets. Welcome your worth and embrace your place.
A way to differentiate in insurance remains customer service. In a blog post Seth Godin writes about the four reasons a customer service center can be a center for profits. The primary purpose of caring about customer service is because your competitors aren’t. Service separates. It allows you to stand above the crowd in a competitive field. Your service becomes interesting in a way your industry may not be. The service you offer customers, builds a relationship. Their appreciation of the treatment received builds both trust and interest in sharing their good experience with others. This goodwill becomes your most valuable marketing asset. Not only does your retention grow, new business opportunities are created from existing clients.
There are plenty of “boring” businesses out there. This doesn’t mean that one can’t distinguish themselves. A culture of learning is cultivated in the best of boring businesses. Mike Michalowicz recently wrote Get Different: Marketing That Can’t Be Ignored! In it, Michalowicz quotes Robert Stephens one of the founders of the technology service Geek Squad which was acquired some years back by Best Buy as saying, “I would argue the more boring a business is, the greater the opportunity there is to differentiate.” Michalowicz expands noting, “boring offers massive opportunity, because the definition of boring is sameness. Computer guys are boring, pizza delivery is boring.” Joey Coleman in Never Lose a Customer Again notes that as competition heats up things like quality, price, and options become less meaningful as differentiators. Coleman writes, “With zero product defects, customized offerings, bargain basement pricing, and ubiquitous availability becoming the norm across all industries, the only thing left for a business to differentiate itself from the competition is the customer’s experience.”
Peters’ experience with USAA would seem to be more the exception than the rule. Typically, big businesses see customer service as an expense. Their focus seems to be on advertising in order to advance people through the front doors. Their commitment to existing customers is much less. When was the last time you had a positive customer service experience with a large corporation? Have you had to try to call your cable, internet, or phone company recently? Was that much fun? How long did it take to get through? How long did it take to speak to a person? Did you even know if you were talking to a person? Do you even know where the person was located to whom you were speaking? Were they in a position to resolve your issue? If your question didn’t fit precisely their wheelhouse, were you transferred and problem passed elsewhere? Maybe beyond death and taxes, we can add to the certainties of life the promise that customer service deteriorates the larger the organization. They’re trying to do as little as possible and cutting corners on service.
This pain point and inevitability is your panacea. It’s your opportunity to step up, stand out, and serve. Making customer service the heart of your business strategy offers the opportunity to differentiate from bigger players. Treating customer service as a profit center instead of an expense item changes entirely your mentality and approach to service. Retention becomes a bigger business priority. Boring is beautiful. No, you can’t control everything, but you can influence your own actions. This begins with a commitment to creating value for your customers. Suggesting insurance isn’t interesting is an excuse. It removes responsibility and takes you off the hook placing blame on circumstances outside your control. We can choose to not try and be a victim of our regulatory environment at the mercy of direct writers, technology, and consolidators. Or we can choose to see the value we add and devote ourselves to customer service.
In The Excellence Dividend, Peters encourages business leaders to invite staff to bring examples from their personal shopping experiences. Encourage staff to pay attention to both what they like and don’t like about any shopping experience over a few weeks or a month. Whether it is picking up their morning coffee, dropping off dry cleaning, visiting a doctor, going to a movie, or something else, what are others doing that makes the experience more difficult or easier. Commit to then collecting these experiences and discussing together with your team. Are there any that can be applied to your business? Are there examples of things you can start doing or try to stop doing that would work in your company? Every member of your organization has the potential to bring their personal shopping pains and pleasures to help you improve. Many of the suggestions that come up may cost little to nothing to implement and can be put in practice in short order.
One way to prioritize customer service in your business strategy is to consider our framework of the 4Cs of customer service. We crafted the 4Cs of Customer Service to help guide our customer service efforts. It offers a framework for building service initiatives around four ideas: Choose. Control. Custody. Care. In a future article we’ll offer detail around each of these Cs. In short, choosing is about deciding with whom you want to do business. Control is about working to maximize the number of interactions with your customers. Custody is about allowing relationships between individuals in your business and your customers to grow. Individual customer service representatives work with and have accountability for specific customers. Finally, care is about adopting a customer facing perspective to see and learn to anticipate their needs. Adopting the 4Cs Customer Service framework will allow you to consciously craft a service strategy that differentiates from competitors and endears customers to your business.