Benefits Pro

It’s time: 7 insurance agency trends that will get you to 2017

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If you don’t take control of your business in 2016, you won’t make it to 2017. Like Marty and Doc in an insurance sequel to “Back to the Future,” independent agencies seem to have landed in 2015 and found a business world they don’t entirely recognize. While other businesses have been innovating and evolving at an exponentially faster pace, many independent agencies have changed little from their fax machine and spreadsheet beginnings.

I asked a few friends, who I respect as some of the most forward-thinking professionals in the industry, what insurance agency trends they think 2016 will bring. Their collective responses support my overriding prediction:

2016 is the year independent agencies emerge as independent businesses.

As much as we tell ourselves we are independent and work for our clients, until now, agencies have largely existed primarily as the distribution and front-line service departments of the carriers. As the saying goes, follow the money and you’ll find your answer.

That path leads to one conclusion: Agencies haven’t been paid based on the value they bring to their clients, they have been paid generous commissions because they are the most cost-efficient way for carriers to sell and service their products.

This reality has left agencies unbelievably vulnerable and has resulted in countless unhealthy business practices. 2016 is the year agencies seize control, make tough business decisions, and take even tougher actions. They have no choice.

PPACA has hand-delivered a permission slip to the carriers to cut their distribution/service costs. Many of you yell and shake your fists at the carriers and argue that you can’t afford to serve the needs of your clients for their reduced commissions. Guess what? It’s not the carrier’s responsibility to pay you to serve your clients, it’s their responsibility to pay you to distribute and help service their product.

There is an upside to this: It will force you to create a business that truly gets paid for delivering value to your clients; clients will always pay for results that make their business stronger and more successful. When you make that transformation, you will start to truly enjoy your business again and no longer live in constant fear.

2016 will be another challenging year, but those who make it to 2017 will find they are stronger, more confident, and more profitable than ever before. Here are a few of the trends that will help you get there.

1. Eliminate the two most damaging words in our vocabulary: “I’m free”

If you don’t become comfortable having a compensation conversation with clients, “I’m free” will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to control your revenue.

Karen Kirkpatrick, owner of On Your Mark Consulting, sees the same thing. “Brokers must manage their business as a business. In other industries, businesses have clear pricing for every service/product they offer. Yet, our approach is to take what we get in initial commissions and make it last the whole year. If the client demands more service, instead of charging appropriately, it erodes our profit margin.”

The industry’s unhealthy relationship with money doesn’t stop with revenue, it continues with employee compensation. If compensation programs are designed to reward the right behaviors, it should be no surprise that so many agencies struggle with growth.

Karen promotes a compensation structure that rewards growth, not stagnancy. She believes commission should be part of the compensation formula for the support staff, not just producers. If the service team is expected to retain business, they should be paid for those results. At the same time, paying producers too much for renewals keeps them from focusing on the new business you hired them to produce.

2. Marketers, not producers, become the biggest driver of agency revenue

Many third-world countries have gone from no phone system to mobile phones in a relatively short timeframe. Wendy Keneipp, partner at Q4intelligence, insists that agencies must make a similar leap with their marketing efforts.

“In 2016, marketing will be the difference-maker for agencies. Those that embrace quality content marketing are going to enjoy explosive growth and will do so at the expense of those who don’t.”

Keneipp recognizes it won’t be easy, but says agencies have no choice. Those who realize that marketing is about educational content, audience connection and client empathy will put together content that speaks to the audience, grabs attention, and has prospects knocking on their door.

As she reminds us, “Agencies need to see that effective marketing is not only the first critical step of the sales process, it’s what makes the rest of the sales process infinitely easier.”

3. Politics will make for strange bedfellows

In the past, most of us assumed that, in terms of industry-related legislation, Republican = good and Democrat = bad. Not so fast.

As explained by NAHU CEO Janet Trautwein, “Brokers should take a good look at the health reform proposals of all of the candidates in detail, and not assume that either party’s proposal is good or bad.”

Janet points out, “As an example, we have a new Speaker of the House who is very interested in overall tax reform and is likely to take a serious look at the tax exclusion on employer-paid benefits. This is not the deduction employers have for the benefits they provide, but addresses the fact that the employer contribution is not considered taxable income to the employee. This is a potentially significant new tax liability for those who have employer-paid health insurance.”

This is the year to pay attention to the details. There will be new legislation introduced and attempts to fine-tune existing legislation. This is legislation that will make a big difference for both you and your clients. Do not automatically assume either “team” (D or R) is fighting for your best interest.

Whoever thought we might look at “Hillary-Care” as our best option?

4. He who controls the data, rules the world

This should scare the hell out of an industry that “pushes the envelope” with fancy Excel spreadsheets. If 2015 was the year that the industry finally faced the reality of technology, 2016 will be the year they experience the power of the data captured by that technology.

George Reese, CEO of Employee Navigator, paints an intimidating picture. “If we start aggregating all of the data, prospecting for individual insurance sales will never be the same. Think of this: I now have 1.6 million employees and dependents on my platform. I know when someone has a baby and when someone gets a pay raise. Imagine what happens when I identify the 29-year-old person who has gotten 20 percent pay raises for the last three years. We know he is a ‘future high earner.’”

Think about that. How easy is it to market/sell to someone when you are armed with that much information?

But it won’t stop with individual insurance. You have to capture the data that will tell you about the prospects coming to your website. Do you know who visits? How often? How long they stay? What they read about? How they are responding to your other marketing messages?

If you don’t know, you need to, because in 2016, your competition will be capturing that information as the same prospect repeatedly visits their site. Who do you think will be in a better position to win that client? Yeah, scary isn’t it?

5. Your role evolves from insurance broker to performance broker

We can no longer be in the product business; we have to be in the advice and results business. Sure, we will still be giving advice around, and driving results with, insurance products, but our clients need us to be so much more.

Alan Katz, CEO of Take44, agrees. “Brokers will become a critical hub to their clients. Whether it’s figuring out PPACA, reporting/coverage requirements, or compliance, being an employer has never been more complicated. Employers need help in new ways and, of all their advisors, it will be their benefits broker to whom they turn most often. This doesn’t mean employers expect their broker to have all the answers, but they will expect them to know where to find those answers.”

This role may sound unattainable, but you’re closer than you realize. As Katz said, you don’t have to have all the answers or deliver all the solutions yourself, but you do have to be the architect of a collaborative team that, together, can be the hub your clients need.

You have always collaborated with the insurance carriers to meet your clients’ insurance needs; 2016 is the year you have to apply that same approach to the non-insurance areas of their business.

6. Put your mouth where your money is

A 2009 McKinsey study found that, if communicated effectively, the cost of the average benefit program could be reduced by up to 20 percent. Brokers advise their clients to move carriers and slash benefits for a premium reduction in the single digits, but won’t go to the effort to put together an effective communication strategy that would have a significantly larger financial impact.

Jen Benz, CEO of Benz Communications, confirms that nothing has changed. She sees a relatively easy answer. “Most companies greatly under-invest in communications. It would be revolutionary if they would simply do the basics; have a good user-friendly Web resource for employees and families and communicate year-round to help them understand and use their benefits.”

As boomers finally retire, it will be harder than ever to attract and retain top talent. As I see it, the cost of not communicating effectively isn’t limited to wasted premium dollars; it could cost employers the very talent they need to be successful. In fact, it may already be happening. “We are already seeing that the employers who invest in engaging employees can leap ahead of their competitors and take average benefits and make them feel exceptional,” Benz says.

7. An adaptive culture becomes your biggest competitive advantage

Ours is an industry that has been painfully slow to change. Sure, we have seen incremental shifts, but we largely work the same way we always have. It can’t be that way anymore.

Our reluctance to change has left us vulnerable and too far behind the pace of the rest of the business world. If you only focus on one thing in 2016, let it be your organization’s ongoing ability to change and evolve.

As Michael Lujan, co-founder of Limelight Health, explains, “Agents should change… and then change some more. The health insurance and benefits market will continue to adjust and settle, in much the same way a building settles after an earthquake. If PPACA is an earthquake, some structures will be found stable, some will retrofit, and others might be ‘red-tagged’ for demolition.”

2016 will be a year of tough decisions and tougher actions. But, if you want to make it to 2017, you have no choice. Not only does your business depend on it, your clients are depending on you to make that change happen.

When you start to operate as the independent business described above, you’ll emerge as the single most important business relationship enjoyed by your clients. They will value your partnership more than that of their attorney, CPA, or banker. And the reason will be because you have transformed your product-focused agency into an advice and results business that impacts clients strategically, financially, operationally and emotionally. They will be more successful because of you.

Not that is a future worth fighting for. So, take a deep breath and let’s all make a New Year’s resolution that 2016 is the year we go out there and kick some ass.