Michael Jans: Hello, everybody. This is Michael Jans with Agency Revolution. We make it easy to automate your systems, engage your customers and to grow your agency or brokerage. I want to welcome you to this episode of the connected insurance podcast where we examine the trends, innovations, challenges and solutions to the biggest problems facing retail agents and brokers.
I’m thrilled to introduce today’s guest. He is a friend of mine, a client of ours and a leader in the industry, Neil Robertson. He is one of the principals of the Robertson Insurance & Risk Management Agency. It’s a family owned and operated agency in Lititz Pennsylvania. Neil’s particular responsibilities in the agency deal largely with people, systems, marketing and legal issues. He’s a certified speaker, trainer and coach with the John Maxwell team.
He speaks frequently and teaches frequently on his passion, which is leadership. He will talk about how he addresses that in his agency. He operates his own law firm and is a member of the faculty of the Pennsylvania Barr Institute, where he teaches Business Insurance for attorneys. One of the issues that I think you’ll find most fascinating is how Neil addresses the issue of, “How do you stand out from the crowd? How do you create differentiation?”
He’ll also share with you sort of a secret turning point in his own life where he heard some words from another colleague and client of ours and how it completely transformed the way he looked at his agency really forever, and he never looked back from then. He’s applied those principles to his agency and they have had a major impact on growth and transformation. Without further ado, I want to introduce you to my friend, Neil Robertson.
Neil, hello and thanks so much for joining us today. How are you?
Neil Robertson: I’m doing well, Michael. Thanks. I appreciate you having me here today.
Michael: It’s a tremendous opportunity for us, and of course, have gotten to know you as a client now as a member of our Million Dollar Club. I’ve had a window on your agency. Actually, I think we’ve been working with your agency for more years than I can even remember right now. But as we’ve gotten to know each other more as a client that connect and as a Million Dollar club member, to me it’s been an inspiration to watch the transformation of what you have done. I’m going to start at the very beginning. Tell us a little bit about the agency itself and how you joined the industry.
Neil: Sure. Our agency, it’s Robertson Insurance & Risk Management. We’re located in south central Pennsylvania, the Lititz area. For most people, that’s Amish country. That’s where most people know us. It’s my father and my brother and I. It’s a family owned and operated insurance agency. We’re primarily commercial insurance. That’s where a lot of our focus and discussion and transformation has come from or come into. We just we’ve been in the industry for quite some time and this agency has been around for over 30 years.
Michael: You, however, did not start like you didn’t like, graduate college and joined the industry as I recall. You had kind of an interesting career on the legal side in the legal profession. How was it that you made that transition?
Neil: I grew up, dad was always in the insurance business. I had an introduction early and was licensed in between college. Interesting story, we were in San Francisco at a restaurant, and dad and my mom and I first time there. My dad calls the waiter over and I’m thinking, okay, more sourdough bread and refills on the drinks and, “Hey, the sprinkler head is covered. You need to make sure that gets off so the sprinkler operates properly.”
It’s just how you grow up in the industry and so I was always exposed to it, but took a different path. I went to law school and then ended up working in a law firm that handled litigation for a very large, well-known manufacturer. We handled their employment law discrimination cases all across the country. There, you’re always trying to influence.
It was one of those things that we, as you quickly got involved in litigation, you spent a lot of time working to persuade people by influencing them, so whether it’s the jury or the judge or a court of appeals your client, one of the results. We were always trying to find out, “Hey, what’s the most compelling reason for people to come and believe in us,” and even in what we’re trying to find for us in some of the jury trials.
Michael: It’s not always the fact, is that right? I mean were you also — it’s about other sorts of psycho-graphic and emotional motivators that influence people. Is that something you found?
Neil: Sure, absolutely. You’re always working to find the story that is compelling. You’re always working towards what’s going to connect with these people, what facts, what things are important or not important. It was one of those things for us is you had to make that compelling argument. Some things weren’t going to help you and other things were, but you’re always trying to put that forward. Because for us if we lost, that was probably the size of our firm that we’d probably lose our largest client so you’re really fighting for [crosstalk].
Michael: Stakes are high.
Neil: It’s not like think insurance where I can come back next year and it’s like we needed to win. If we didn’t win, we probably would lose the client. This is my job, so some of the things that it was a lot of pressure. You’re always fighting for your life at that point in time to win.
Michael: Right. At some point, you chose to leave a lucrative career in the legal profession and come into the family business.
Neil: Yes. Having been exposed and always continuing to talk to Dad about what they were doing and how they were doing things. Just, we started talking more of what he was dealing with was legal or other related areas. We just saw a natural fit between what I was doing in law and what the agency was doing here. When I joined, I opened my own law practice which I still have today, and also helped out with people and process and other things that we have going on inside the agency.
We start assume some services to our clients that was new and unique. It’s been nice to be able to serve our clients that way. We’ve been doing that for quite some time. If they have legal questions, they can call in. Sure.
Michael: All right. It’s some of those unique things that you’re doing that I think are most fascinating. When you came back to be in the insurance industry looking from the inside out, what did you see, what did you observe that was different and how did that affect what you chose to do with the agency?
Neil: Sure. I think for us, it was — for me, it was one of those things that it was a difficult transition going from influence via strength of position and ability to really tell a story that connected with people and versus what the industry is really entrenched in, which is I’m going to win on pricing coverage. For me, it was always that is really because I’m the lowest-priced agency, is that really the most compelling reason why someone should come and do business with us. That was the challenge. There was this tension between those things as, is this all we have to offer?
Michael: Was there soul searching that took place in the agency when you raised that question?
Neil There was and I think what was really helpful was that was something, that once we started to talk about that inside our agency, we all came to the conclusion that we really needed to be doing something different. For us, there was like probably one of the most influential moments you had was with me and our agency was during an interview. I don’t know how long ago that was, but you had Umberto Fedeli from Cleveland on.
Highly successful agency, and so we spent a lot of time learning about others that were successful. One of the things that he said that probably was one of big moment for us was, he said, and it was the reason for his success was, “You need to be something other than an insurance agent or an insurance agency.” It just resonated with us to think, “Well, if he’s built that level of success off of that, what do we need to do to be something other than an insurance agency?”
Then there was also one other thing when we started to really think about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it. This resounding, other principle, that came to us was not all risk is going to be handled by writing a check to an insurance company.
Neil: So, how are we going to — for us, he said, “Well, how are we going to serve our clients and make sure that they’re taken care of in all those areas?” We had done quite a bit with the legal and other things to help in those areas for us. But, there was a whole area of operation that we hadn’t even touched on at that point in time.
Michael: Okay. Talk to me about the differences. After you went through some soul searching and probably some maybe kind of a transformation of thinking within the agency, because it was it was your decision to make. You had to collaborate with the other principals. What did you describe? What’s the difference between your agency now and your agency three, four, five years ago?
Neil: Sure. Yes. I mean one of the things that we had to realize at that point in time is that if we’re going to become something different that we needed to change. Really, in order to make those changes, we looked at ourselves first. We started to — we’re looking at other successful agencies, how are they doing it, but then also successful leaders. We became — we started to begin this journey of personal growth as well and we realized that there were some things that we needed to do to become more effective leaders inside our organization.
One of the things — there’s this one of the John Maxwell theories that’s out there or he has a book called The 21 Years of Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. One of the things that we realized that was probably in effect with us was that it was called the Law of the Lid and there it says, “Your business is only going to grow as far as your leadership ability or leadership effectiveness grow.” So, as we grow, then our agency could grow.
That was really the start of those things, is that as we grew, we saw the potential for attracting the right people for building a culture that’s going to adopt and change and really take on a really a whole new persona.
Michael: What do you think customers find from you that they probably don’t find elsewhere in the marketplace?
Neil: Yes. I think really for us it really starts with our view on how we serve our clients. We really start with that. I think probably the easiest way to explain it, I talked about this before, is somebody walked in with a $20 bill attached to their forehead and to the typical insurance agency. Someone’s going to — the training has been, is how much of that $20 can I extract from that person. I’m going to try to take as much of that and put in as much that in my pocket.
What happens is our idea instead is for that $20, how much value can I create and provide that client? It might seem small but it’s a mindset that is all the things that we’re doing is we’re going to provide as much value as we possibly can in exchange for what they’re going to be providing us. So our value proposition is how can we better serve our clients and how can we help them become more successful and better? They’re going to have to buy their insurance from someone we feel that they’re going to get something from us by doing that.
Michael: Okay. Are there discrete programs or offerings? Do you package this in a way that you think is connecting with your market place that accounts for the growth you’re having?
Neil: Sure. One of the things that really we approach it from the standpoint is that, look, without this level of services that we’re providing, you’re really being under-served. So, we really focus on how we can help them. Risk management is one piece. You have a client portal that allows our clients to, 24/7, they can join and pool whatever resources that they’re looking for as it relates to safety, as it relates to compliance and other important information that they need.
We also continue to offer the in-house legal. If someone has a question about HR or other things, they can contact me and we’ll help them through that. Example would be last winter, one of our fuel oil dealers had an issue. They wanted to let a friendly competitor borrow one of their trucks. This was, “Hey, just let them have it,” and we said, “Hey, woah, woah. Hold on. How about we help you address that via contract?” So I put together something to help them with that.
Those are the types of things that we’re doing there. Now, we’ve grown into another area because a lot of times, we were asking people to do or to become better requires them to make changes. We’ve moved into another space there, is how do we help them become better leaders? We ourselves are now on a — we run mastermind programs to help people become more effective leaders. We’ll do training where we’ve hosted events and done other things there.
So, really working on a holistic manner to help these people, our clients, become much better. Some of those things are for our clients and others are for people outside of our agency as well, and just offering those things to help them become better in business.
Michael: You took Umberto’s advice really seriously when he said, ”Don’t just be an insurance agency,” and he was really serious about that. By the way, I’m going to dig up the recording of that interview and I’m going to find a way to publish those transcripts, because they were life changing for a lot of people, that particular interview was.
So you took that really seriously. This mastermind concept, the average agent would probably say, “What does that have to do with insurance?” So, connect the dots for us. Why do you think that’s important?
Neil: Well, it really comes back to, we built — one thing we did was we have that thought where we need to be helping people handle all the risks that face their company. If we say that, we also need to build a culture that helps people understand and helps us actually execute on that. One of the building blocks we have for our culture is that we value others.
So it doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be focused in on how this generates a sale. We live by, there’s two models Zig Ziglar said it one way which was, you’ll get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want. Same thing, John Maxwell, and this is often quoted by my dad and it’s just a principle we run by, is people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.
If we’re always looking as — again, if we’re looking to provide as much value to what we do to a client in exchange for that exchange for that $20, then these things really aren’t — people are a means to an end. If you’re always looking to say, “Hey, what I’m going to give them and I want something in return for that,” we would view that as manipulative. I want a quick pro quo. We think, “Look, we do enough right things for people over time, then the revenue and other things take care of themselves.”
Michael: Got it. All right. Clearly, you made a strategic shift. Tell me what it was like to build an internal culture that supports that strategy? What does it feel like if, I were on the team at the agency? What does the culture feel like and how do you make it feel that way?
Neil: Sure. Really, one of the things is we tie everything back into that. The visualization, it’s really just taking what you value and communicating that to the team. We just we’re clear on those building blocks. We value others. That’s the one part there and we start from there. If someone comes in, we also value the team. So the people that we have here, we are very careful about who we select. If they’re not fitting into the team, then we work to make sure that they are fitting but we spend a lot of time making sure that we don’t bring the wrong people into the team.
We seek their advice and work with them. But, what we do and how we do it, is dependent on the great people that we have here. There’s a number of things but if they if someone comes in, we’re going to do all we can to value who is here. It’s the greatest investment that you make as a business owner and it’s your greatest expense but it’s also your greatest asset. We work very hard to make sure that we’re doing all we can to take care of the people here. We love our team. I absolutely love them and they do a fantastic job for us.
Michael: Got it. All right. I’m going to ask you a question that I think might be a lot of value to a lot of our listeners and it’s slightly personal. I know your dad. I’ve met your dad. I’ve worked with him some, and so I suspect that getting his support and approval to add more value was not hard. That’s kind of the nature of your dad as I know him, but still you were looking at a transformation of the agency. Yes?
Neil: Yes, absolutely.
Michael: Okay. You don’t have to give us the dirty details about whether you had to wrestle it out in the conference room. But, what would you say –Obviously, like you know like everybody, we deal with a tremendous number of multi-generation agencies. Some in families, sometimes not in the family. Where, the younger generation has a different perspective. Maybe they see the world a little bit more the way it is right now and less the way that it was 10 or 20 years ago.
They’re aware of a changing demographic and changing consumer behavior. What kind of advice would you give to an incoming, a second or third generation, so that they can get the support and approval and collaboration of the older generation, who may in fact and probably does own more shares in the agency and so forth?
Neil: Sure, Yes. No, I think the key — and I’ve been very fortunate in that, Jim, my father, has always been wide open to where I’m coming from and listening. Most of time, it’s a matter of, “Okay, where do we agree?” Maybe we didn’t quite agree with the means and methods and we had to work through that, and we learned as we went. I think both of us were very much, “Hey, let’s learn more.” We’re more happy with learning than we are with failing, so let’s push forward. Learn as much as we can. Let’s see what we can do and how we can adjust. We’ve made adjustments along the way.
Neil: It was very difficult to make that change and propose that change especially to everybody else inside, it’s because we were successful. We were able to make it work.
Michael: That makes it even harder to change sometimes.
Neil: It is. When you’re making structural changes like that, it’s like taking a piece of iron and trying to put it in into a set piece of concrete, in a concrete set. Something’s going to break somewhere. It creates its own set of challenges. But where we could agree, and I think that’s the thing, let’s focus on what we do agree on.
I think we were at a point where we were tired of not being valued for what we were doing. It was one of those things that we had to make a decision. Were we going to be the William Shatner’s of the insurance world, where we’re a license price negotiator? Or, are we going to really focus on the people that want to be with our agency, that look at what we do and how we do that?
We were all pretty tired of the renewal cycle that would come up. Each year, we would do a tremendous amount of — we would serve these clients really well and what we’d ended up doing is we have to re-market them and then they’d leave because they could get that insurance program for and for your product for a cheaper price. There was no way to salvage that.
So, we all became — there was very much common ground and we finally said, “You know, let’s find a way to be successful. Let’s help our producers. Let’s find a way to help them be successful.” We’ve invested in all these things to help support them. Connect is one of those things that we’ve invested in as well through Agency Revolution that allows as to support our producers to help them be more successful.
There’s many more ways we can do that, but I think you’ve got to start with the common ground and start there. Once you establish that, then you can start to do that. You’ve also got to be very reflective. If we are unable to say, “Hey, where’s our threats and opportunities?” and be candid about those things, change really isn’t going to happen.
Change only happens when there’s that tension between where you are and where you want to be. Once that happens, then you start to realize that, hey, I need to move forward and I need to make changes. We just realized that’s where we need — we saw this is where the future needs to be and so that’s the direction we’re headed.
Michael: All right. So, speaking of the direction that you’re headed, where do you want to be and what do you see yourself doing there in the agency two to three years form now?
Neil: Two to three years. I would say really just expanding what we’ve done. When you’re looking at how much value you can provide to a client, you’re always going to have the people that say, “Oh, we can do that too.” So, we’re always looking to do more. We are looking at right now is how can we continue to add value to that relationship? It could be any number of ways but, I see it’s just growing in that concept and trying to find a way to make this relationship more meaningful, make the client experience fantastic. They become our raving fans, that they attract others, that want to do business with us, that are like-minded as well.
Michael: All right. Terrific. By the way, you gave me a new term “license price negotiator.” [laughs] It’s like that, right? I was a writer downer. You don’t want to be an LPN anymore.
Neil: Right. But it is. It’s hard — unfortunately, there’s just been a lot of success. Working with you, Michael, things are changing. So, what is that value proposition that we are providing. Because others are able to quickly provide a price and provide convenience and perhaps provide other things. Really, what’s separating us from everybody else? Really sitting down and taking inventory of those things and making sure that you do have a real — you are providing value to your clients is critical.
Michael: Got it. All right. Neil, this has been tremendously valuable. If you can hang with me. I want to spend an intimate moment with Neil. Can we do that? Can I ask you a few sort of more personal questions? Okay.
Neil: Sure. Absolutely.
Michael: All right. So, I obviously, in working with you, I hear your stories and I know that you felt so strongly about the commitment to the agency providing leadership and you providing leadership, you took leadership training. I know that obviously training and learning is really important to you. So, tell us about that process and why that was so meaningful to you.
Neil: Well, It really started back — part of what — we renovated our 9,000-square-foot building two years ago. One of the things that we included was a training facility inside of our building, so state-of-the-art AV. We could put people in [unintelligible 00:24:59] for our clients to use, for off-site meetings. But, we decided that we were going to provide a University or a training place for our clients.
We were working on, what is that going to look like and how is that going to be? So, April last year, learned about the John Maxwell leadership team. John Maxwell’s the number one in the leadership space, and so I took on the task of becoming a certified trainer, speaker and coach, so I can help leaders. I can teach in leadership field. But, we just feel that that’s just a critical point for our clients in order to grow inside their businesses and become more effective.
Long process, we ramped up to a conference that took place in August, and so after that started working with clients and other people. We had an open invitation to like-minded people, who were interested in personal growth. We have masterminds running and run training or if not training, then working individual coaching, try out to help people work through the limiting beliefs that are holding them back inside there personal and in there business [unintelligible 00:26:17].
Michael: How do your clients — how did they respond to that? Obviously, you’ve gone way outside the box here as a licensed price negotiator. So, for example, as clients come to your shop and they go to your University and they take, let’s say, a leadership course or something from you, what kind of — what does that do to the relationship? How does that transform the relationship?
Neil: Well, it really removes — insurance is one of the things that we do. We build a relationship around them. It’s multifaceted with these people. Again, we started from the standpoint of how can we serve them, what value can we provide. So, these are all things that — it’s not forced. There’s no sales pitch during this time. It’s like how do we do enough for them, so that they can grow their business.
Really, if you want to talk insurance as if their exposure, their business grows, and then the insurance premiums grow. It’s one of those things that happen. But if you view it that way, then it’s forced. If it’s one of those thing’s that it’s a byproduct of the way that you serve these people, it really makes a huge difference.
It’s been great to see — especially in follow-up afterwards — We deal a lot in the Amish community and one of the things that I have a huge admiration for these business owners because, what we end up seeing is that they have eighth-grade education but they’re running multi-million dollar companies. I have a lot of respect for them in a sense that they’re able to do that with these limitations, and doing at technology limitations.
What we found is that, this really is something that resonates with them. They’re very much readers. If they come in to visit, I’m giving them books. It could be any number of things that we have here. But, they’re very willing to learn and very excited to learn in these areas. It’s exciting. It’s great to see the light bulb go off and see people moving forward and making necessary changes and adopting some of these things.
It’s exciting for us. It’s a fulfilling. Look, that’s really what we had to look at, is what we want to be. If it’s about being that price negotiator, then it’s about the sale. But for us, it’s like how do we help these — we really care about this people and how do we help them grow?
Michael: All right. You had mentioned reading. I know you read a lot. By the way, thank you for the gift of the John Maxwell’s book on leadership.
Neil: You’re welcome.
Michael: So, Neil, if you were going to pick, let’s say, three books that have been particularly inspirational to you, what would you say?
Neil: I’m a person of faith so I’ll start with the one that’s probably — I’ll start with the Bible.
Michael: Fair enough.
Neil: Fair enough. Take it for, which ever way you want to do that, but that’s been highly influential in my life. Outside of that, there’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws, it’s just a leadership manual. There’s so much inside that — what I love about that is that it’s simple to read, the application is the really difficult part.
Michael: Okay. That’s just John Maxwell’s book for those who aren’t familiar with it. Okay. So that’s two.
Neil: Then, two that I read this past year that I thought were excellent. One, is Extreme Ownership and that’s by two gentlemen, it’s Jocko — I got the book here. Jocko Willink. He is one of them and Leif Babin is the other one. They were two Navy Seals that wrote a book on leadership after they spent several months in Ramadi, Iraq, the same group that had Chris Kyle [crosstalk] sniper.
Neil: Yes, excellent book, very practical and then the other one was by a gentleman named Pat Lencioni it’s called The Ideal Team Player. I thought it was great. I want to take difficult concepts and put them down into very simple applicable terms. I like that one because it finally — we all talk about what teamwork is. Just put a framework around it and so I was able to — I read the book. We had a meeting the next thing is this is we’re looking for when we talk about teamwork. It’s been helpful for our team as well to say, “Hey, these are the things that we’re going to focus on when we talk about teamwork.”
Michael: Got it. All right. I have another question for you.
Michael: If you were going to deliver one sentence to the insurance industry, that you’re going to say, “Do this,” what would you say?
Neil: That’s profound, Michael.
Michael: You can use a semi-colon.
Michael: I’ll let you riff on it a little bit, but yes, if you’re going to boil down the essence of one message to the industry to your peers, agents and brokers throughout North America, what would you say?
Neil: Yes. I would say, “Find a way to provide real value.” That’s where you build the relationships.
Michael: Got it. All right. You guys are doing that. You’re doing that admirably. I’m going to wind up. I want to congratulate you on something that you shared in Million Dollar Club in Phoenix last week. You talked about — I’m not going to ask you to go into the details, but I think the essence of it is profound. Your first meeting with the prospect, in your first meeting with a prospect, you more or less refused to talk about insurance. You definitely don’t talk about price. You talk about why having a relationship with you is different.
Michael: That’s it, and then there is the social contract. If this is interesting to you, do you want to proceed or not?
Neil: That’s correct.
Michael: Yes, very good.
Michael: What does it feel like to deliver that conversation instead of getting swept into the LPN conversation?
Neil: Yes. Well, we like to tell our story, and I’m a firm believer that story is the way that connects with people. What we do may not be for some people and if we invest 30 minutes to get to know somebody, fantastic. If it’s not going to work for us, how or that may be for the business relationship, isn’t something that we want to pursue. Thirty minutes is a great time to get to know somebody, get to know about what they do and they know about us. For everybody, it’s a small investment of time to learn about what we do and how we do that.
Michael: Very good. All right.
Neil: But really, that’s the end of the story Michael.
Michael: Yes, okay. Neil, this has been fun,. Hopefully, it’s given everybody an opportunity to really think deeply about what it is the value that they deliver in the marketplace. So thanks for making us think about that. I appreciate that. I’m going to wind it up. I will say I don’t want to swamp you with phone calls and emails and so on and so forth. I would say maybe the best thing is if somebody wants to spend a little time with Neil, come to one of our events because you’re most likely going to be there, okay?
Neil: I will be there, yes.
Michael: All right, very good. Again, thank you so much and have a terrific day.
Neil: Yes, thank you, Michael. Thanks for all you do for the agencies as well and for our industry. I truly appreciate your hard work and your thoughtfulness in the insurance industry.
Michael: Right on. Thanks so much.
Neil: You’re welcome.