Ashley Fitzsimmons – Customer Experience Manager at Ohio Insurance Agents Association on the Connected Insurance Podcast presented by Agency Revolution

The “Beyoncé of insurance” delivers insight into how to bring fresh energy into your agency—from a millennial’s perspective

Ashley Fitzsimmons has been living and breathing insurance nearly all her life. While she officially started her professional career as a licensed agent for her family’s business, Fitzsimmons Insurance Agency, Ashley has since spread her wings at the OIAA, bringing her knowledge and passion for our industry to as many agents as possible.

In this lively discussion, Joel Zwicker and Ashley Fitzsimmons dive deep into:

  • Why meeting the expectations and embracing the values of the millennial workforce will benefit everyone in your agency—and which traditional concepts you need to leave behind if you don’t want to scare them away!
  • What multi-generational insurance agencies need to consider if they’re thinking about bringing their kids into the family business.
  • How Ashley became known as the “Beyoncé of insurance”… and the important lesson on branding she learned in the process.

Listen to this important discussion with one of the industry’s most passionate advocates, and make sure your agency is prepared for the workforce (and customers!) of the future.

What are other agents & brokers doing to thrive? What are the biggest trends affecting the retail insurance agent & broker? What are the most important strategies and tactics you need to grow faster? Find out here in the Connected Insurance Podcast, where our hosts discuss the biggest issues affecting the independent insurance agent and broker with the industry’s leading figures.

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Joel: We’ve had discussions about millennials and how to get them involved and interested, but I think there’s been one thing missing from that conversation, a millennial and so what we have today is not only a millennial, but I think the absolute best millennial to talk to when it comes to getting them involved in the insurance industry, so welcome, Ashley.

Ashley: How’s it going? I’m super excited to be here, that was a great intro for me. I appreciate that.

Joel: Well, I think it’s very real and I’ll tell you I know on some of our previous webinars, you’ve chimed in with some great questions and that’s what led me to say, “We should just– why has she not been on the podcast?” I got to lead off as I started doing research and one thing that I loved as I looked at your LinkedIn profile, it says, “The Beyonce of insurance.” Tell me where that comes from?

Ashley: Honestly, it all started out as a joke., when you’re going through LinkedIn and you’re looking at other insurance people that are connecting with you on there, they all say, Agency principal or producer or agent or licensed agent, risk advisor. They all say the same thing and if we’re not in the insurance industry, and you’re scrolling through LinkedIn, it’s incredibly boring to see that over and over and over.

So I thought, “You know what? I need a name that’s going to make me stand out to the rest of the world and make somebody stop and look at my LinkedIn profile and say, ‘Okay, the Beyonce of insurance, what does this even mean and why does it make insurance sound fun?'” Because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do is attract more people into this amazing industry. So what started out as a joke led to me being on this podcast with you three years later.

Joel: I couldn’t agree more, number one and number two, and what I think what you’re suggesting there is something that I think is sorely missing from this industry is a little bit of fun. Can you talk just a little bit about what you’ve seen as far as maybe some success stories or some things insurers do to try to make this industry just a little more fun?

Ashley: Yes, I mean, I think as a whole, we can all make this industry, I mean, it takes a special breed to be in insurance. If you don’t actually enjoy what you’re doing or love what you’re doing or have one little specific reason that you love insurance, most people don’t stay in insurance. I think the part of the issue is that people aren’t standing up and going and proclaiming why they love this industry so much.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are some people doing that, but we need to be doing that, like definitely more on a daily basis and trying to attract people here. I mean, definitely, I would have not traveled to, I think it was like six or seven cities in the last two years if it weren’t for insurance because I went to an event or I got asked to speak at a conference or I won an award and I was flown out to Vail in March of 2017 and none of that would have happened if I wasn’t in the insurance industry.

It’s just afforded me some incredible experiences that I never would have guessed I would have in insurance if you just sat me down and said, “Hey, this is a cool industry, you should join it.” I think it’s so important for us that are having fun in this industry, my friends included that I’ve met throughout these experiences really need to start preaching about how amazing this can be, and the experiences that you can get through it and just the gratification you can get from helping people.

Joel: Yes, we discussed this in a previous webinar, excuse me about how we maybe have not done a great job of that and I think it’s people like yourself taking the lead in that and I think overall, we’ll be well served at the agency level, in our communities to start advertising that the benefits of this industry and it’s not as boring as some were led to believe.

Let me ask you this, from a millennial standpoint, what does a millennial want or what do you feel that we want in a job? I don’t think this is specific to insurance agencies, I think insurance agencies have to incorporate that in their workplace. What do you think the key maybe three things or key things that really if we want to attract millennials to work in our agency, what do we got to do?

Ashley: I’m even going to take that a step further because everybody harps on millennials. It’s not just millennials that want this, the things that millennials want, I feel like it makes sense that anybody would want these features in the workplace and it’s just maybe the millennials that are finally standing up and saying, “Hey, this is what we want, and we’re going to find it somewhere whether it’s with you or a different industry, or somewhere else.”

I think it’s just the fact that we stood up and said, “This is what we want.” Definitely work-life balance, that’s one of the biggest things, we want to also have an awesome culture in the agency or whatever place that we’re in or in the office. We want to feel that we’re actually giving back and actually doing things to better the entire company as a whole and we want to be able to feel that we can talk to the leadership and not feel like their door is shut all the time and we can’t talk to them.

I think those are two big things and I mean, just tying into that, we want to give back to the community as well, which I think is awesome that more companies are getting into that and doing group activities and running five K’s together and raising funds for things. I mean, it’s kind of common sense stuff that I feel like anybody should want, not just a millennial.

Joel: Yes, I think you’re 100% right and I think we, in previous generations, it was like, okay, I go to school and then I find my nine to five and then I raise my family and then I retire and I think millennials we- and I’ll include myself in that millennial. I think I mentioned this previously, I think I’m the first-ever millennial. I think my birth year is like the first year, but I think we want more than that.

We’ve come to– our parents raised us to want more and now we want more in life, but also in work but getting back to that work-life balance that you mentioned, like, talk to me about that like work, does that– do you feel like agencies need to open up the idea of extended hours or you work remote? What are your thoughts on that?

Ashley: Yes, maybe not necessarily extended hours, I mean, unfortunately, regardless, claims don’t happen between nine and five, so even when I was in my agency, yes, our hours may have been nine to five, but our clients knew that if there was some major, major issue, we were going to be there, we were going to be accessible.

I don’t think they necessarily need to adjust their hours but obviously having the communication abilities to have somebody contact them in the event that there is a big emergency of some sort would definitely help and obviously Millenials can help with that because there are chat features you can put on your website. There are social media now and they can reach out to you there.

I mean, frankly, there were some clients that I just gave my cell phone number to and for the most part, I’m going to say 90% of them did not abuse it and they handled it professionally and didn’t go overboard. Also with the work-life balance, working remotely is a big thing and I think with the right structure in place, it can work. I need to be around people all the time.

I am a people person, I like to be in an office, we had to work remote while we were transitioning from our office here in Columbus for about a month and a half and I thought, “This is going to be awesome, I’m going to work from home.” I hated it, because I wanted to be around people, but there are just some of those days where you have a lot on your plate and you need to focus and having the ability to leave the office and just go and work from my apartment and just crush a couple of hours it’s so incredible.

When it gets to that point, when you feel like you have that freedom to, “I have to go to an appointment for this hour?” You don’t feel pressure to say, “Hey, I’m going to wake up on a Saturday and catch up on some work.” Because you enjoy what you do and there’s not that like, you need to be here from nine to five and not look up from your desk and not move.

Joel: Yes, and I’ll speak to that, I work 100% remote and obviously I am in the technology, we’re working with independent insurance agencies, not as an independent agent myself but you made a great point and I think it’s a worry and I talk to insurance agents every day, all day. There’s this fear that if someone works remote, they’re going to end up being lazy and I think it’s totally opposite.

I think of myself, I get way more done in five or six hours working at my home office than I ever would in eight or nine hours in an actual office. In your experience, I know you work with agents as well, do you find that fear of people not doing anything if they work remote is real?

Ashley: I personally don’t think it’s real. Of course, if you work from home, you might stop and do something else like throw a load of laundry in or whatever. Clean the dishes or something, but then you’re not doing it from nine to five. Maybe you’re typically tired and unproductive at three o’clock and then at six o’clock you pick back up and do some more work and you get even more done.

I’m looking at it from this perspective. First of all, you’re going to know if your employee is getting their work done or not. You’re going to start to see red flags that are showing, maybe they’re slacking a little bit, maybe they’re not getting their work done and it’s not the right situation for them.

Also, if somebody is that adamant about working from home, and they’re not taking that seriously, and they’re not realizing that that’s something that you’re letting them do because you trust them, then maybe you shouldn’t have hired them in the first place. Maybe they’re not the right fit for your agency to begin with. Who knows, maybe they’re not being as productive at the office either and you just never caught on to it because they were always just sitting there and you thought they were doing work. I mean, you have to be able to trust who you’re hiring.

Joel: Yes, you have to have your process. I love the idea of just giving some sort of flexibility there. Also with the idea of working remote, don’t limit yourself to your immediate area. There may be an ideal person to work for you. They may be 300 miles down the road, but if they’re the right person, give them that option.

Let me ask you this. I believe and I don’t believe, I know, talking to agents, they talk about the lack of staff. I think giving them that flexibility, opening the idea of hiring millennials and giving them flexibility is an important thing. Let’s talk about what advantages of bringing in a younger generation to your agency does for the overall culture. You talked about culture. Talk about, in your experience, when agencies bring in that youthful generation what that does overall.

Ashley: I mean, simply enough, you’re going to get new ideas. They’re going to rock the boat a little bit. I mean, I did that in my agency and I’m sure it’s happened in other agencies because, “Oh, here’s the new young person coming in and they’re going to change everything.” That’s not true. We don’t want to change things. We want to question things and question their processes.

I don’t want to do something and have someone say, “This is just the way we’ve always done it. I can’t explain it, but this is just how we do it.” That’s not good enough for me. I want to know the process behind something. I want to know why we’re doing it and then I want to make it more efficient, so then everybody can benefit from it.

I feel like sometimes people just get a little bit complacent and that’s the way we always did it and they just keep doing it daily. If a millennial can come in and look at the process and have that desire to make that more efficient, everybody is going to benefit from it. Like I said, it will rock the boat because some people don’t like change, but they’ll get weeded out eventually anyways.

The people that should be insurance are open to change and open to that. Yes, it does take a little bit of time and patience to definitely bring them in, but it’s 100% worth it.

Joel: Yes. That overall culture, I think if you want your agency to be here in 5, 10, 15 years, and you’re not open to change. I don’t think those two things jive at all. Another thing that comes to mind, as I talk to agents every day is we talk about social media and content. We kind of touched on it previously. For me, personally, I think a great strategy is if– You can ignore the fact that social media is out there. The reality is it’s there.

I think, if I’m an agent and I agency owner, and I don’t see the value in it, and I don’t understand it, and I don’t have the time, what better way to take care of that to bring someone new into the agency, teach them the ropes about insurance, but turn them loose on social media as well. Can you talk it?

Ashley: Yes. This is my wheelhouse. I love social media. If you’re an agent and you’re looking to retire or to perpetuateyour agency, the last thing that you’re going to want to do is try and figure out your online presence, your digital presence. I mean, it’s a headache and you shouldn’t have to learn that. You should just have somebody come in that can take care of that for you, and work with you.

We still want that agency owner’s knowledge. We still need them to give us direction. They did something right for the last 30-40 years to make their agency what it is. Regardless, a lot of the time I get the answer, why do we need a social media or digital presence? We can’t handle the referrals that are coming through the front door.

Trust me, I can attest to that. For the last 10 years in our agency, we were fortunate enough that we really didn’t have to do any marketing other than just the general like putting an ad in our local newspaper, because we couldn’t handle the referrals that were coming through the door. Every agency out there is typically short-staffed, and it was tough to keep up on that.

If you don’t have a digital presence, not only for lead generation but if you don’t have a digital presence period, think of all the things that you’re losing out on or are missing out on if those referrals walk in through because your neighbor said, “Hey, you should check out this insurance agent for our city.” Then they go online and they type your name in and you don’t have a website.

What’s the first thing we do when we hear something new to try? We go to Google and we look for reviews, or we look for just some web presence in general. If you told me to try a new restaurant, and nothing came up online, I think you’re probably trying to murder me. Like, “Where am I going?” You need to have a digital presence even if it’s just to prove that you’re real, you’re a real human being, you’re authentic, you do actually own a business.

That’s the perfect reason to have somebody come into the agency and help you with that, because you’ve done enough and you can focus on being that great agent and taking care of the clients and the millennial who loves doing this stuff and who grew up on this stuff could focus on that for you.

Joel: In my opinion, not only can they focus on it, but it’s so built into our daily life and what we do. We can multitask that stuff like creating a Facebook ad or a LinkedIn article and getting that out or tweeting something appropriate or Instagram, whatever you’re into is second nature to this demographic. You can bring them in, leverage that and they can still be effective at a CSR producer whatever role you want them within an agency.

Ashley: Exactly, because they could be producing business right from their phone or right from their laptop. I joke, back home, I was on a dating app, and when I would go on a first date if I realized, “Hey, I’m probably not going to want to date this person.” I ended up turning into leads and I was using my dating app to write policies. I mean, you just have to– That’s when you know you love insurance. That I need a life. I’m not sure which one yet.

You can literally prospect from anywhere, and what better person to use than a millennial who has grown up with it to try and take full advantage of that.

Joel: They’re going to know the content that’s going to engage people, that are authentic real stuff that most agencies are struggling with. You mentioned something previously. Something about typically most agencies are short on staff or lacking staff. I couldn’t agree with that more. That’s the most common thing I hear when talking to agencies day in and day out.

I think most agencies have this idea and just shifting a little bit here, that they know that technology can help with that. Once again, they’re scared to make a mistake, they don’t know where to go or whatever have you. To me, this is another place with having that younger millennial generation working within your agency can really help you with that.

Ashley: Yes, 100%. I mean, I think a lot of the staffing issues also stems a little bit from 80% of the members of OIA, Ohio Insurance Agents and I believe the statistic stands true for Pennsylvania when I was previously there. 80% of the members are second, third, fourth generation insurance agencies, and they’re right on that border of, “Should we hire someone new? Do we have the funding to hire someone new?”

They’re right on that tier where it’s like, “Okay, now, do we just sit here and kind of cross our fingers that we keep doing well or do we spend money to make money?” That can be hard for an agency owner to decide. If you’re 55 or 60 years old, how are you going to afford to get that millennial in the agency? How are you going to attract them there? Then you’re worried about, “Okay, are they going to come in and really shake things up? Am I going to lose some of the staff that I already have? Will I be able to keep up with the technology?”

They don’t realize that there are so many things out there that don’t cost any money when it comes to technology and digital presence and all of this stuff. I mean, it’s a matter of educating them and showing them that there are so many free features and things out there that they can use for their digital presence strategy.

Joel: I love it. It’s 100% accurate. I think we’re in an industry where technology has always been a little bit slow. We have these technologies that are almost a necessity, that cost, that end up on the expense side of the operations. I think you’re right. There’s a lot of things out there that are inexpensive or even free. On the flip side, now, there’s technologies that they may “cost you something”, but the efficiencies they can build into your agency and take away the need for additional staff. I think millennials can help you run that.

Ashley: Yes, 100% completely agree.

Joel: Let me ask you one other question here. I got a couple of other questions. We’ve talked about all these things that this generation can do or what they want to see or the ways they can help the agency. What don’t they want? Is there one thing that you can like really or a couple of things that you can red flag to say if this is going on, it’s a red flag and you got to figure a way to change it, if you want newer younger people to come in your agency.

Ashley: I know personally a lot of it comes down to culture. If I walked into an office where it was all cubicles, everybody had their head down and they all had headsets on. You could tell that nobody talk to each other, no one communicated. Everybody was being micromanaged. I don’t think anybody wants that. You walk into our office at OIA and it’s all open. Everybody is within earshot of one another. We’ve got a ping pong table, and there are all age ranges in there. That’s just a welcoming environment.

I think any sort of unwelcoming environment would obviously make someone shy away from wanting to work there. If you walk in and you’re in a three-piece suit, that’s not how the insurance industry is anymore. Just because I’m wearing maybe khakis and a pullover or something with our logo on it, doesn’t mean I can’t do my job just as good as the guy in the three-piece suit. I think it all comes down to culture that we just don’t want something that is stuffy and stale.

Joel: I love it. Let me ask you one other question here. This stems from the last webinar we had about attracting millennials to our agency. I think you’ve done a great job talking about the benefits of bringing younger generation, things they can do. Their question popped up and I absolutely loved your answer. Unfortunately, you weren’t on that webinar on that round table, but trust me when I say we’re going to have you on one.

You said it that 80% of agencies in Ohio and potentially a large percentage across the country. That’s second, third, fourth, fifth generation agencies and chances are, they’re sitting there wondering where their agency is going to go in the next 5, 10, 15 years and maybe they have that next generation coming up.

The question asked, and I’m going to pose it to you, what do you recommend? If I’m the agency owner and I have my son or daughter or whoever it is coming up, do I bring them into my agency or not? Like what do you recommend?

Ashley: First of all, I want to preface my answer with the fact that I was never, I was absolutely positively never pressured to come into our agency. My family never made me feel like I absolutely had to do it, but that was it. It was totally we sat down and had a conversation and then just all happened to work out, so I’m super grateful for that. I would think from the other side of things, I would say, make them go out and work.

I don’t even care if they work in the insurance industry, but they work for a company. Maybe they’re an underwriter. Make them go out and get I’d like to say real-world experience first before they come in to the family agency.

It’s definitely something that you want to bring them into eventually. It is an awesome opportunity, and I’m super fortunate to have had that opportunity in my life for the last 10 years. I’m sure someday I will go back, because I absolutely love the agency side of things. I love helping my clients. It’s tough to just go directly into that after college and having not experienced anything else.

I think my dad also got to go away for six months before he came to the agency. My uncle worked somewhere else for a couple of years before he went into the agency. That opportunity just wasn’t available for me and the timing worked out that they needed some extra help. That’s why I got thrown into it quickly, and I’m super grateful for that. I would 100% say never make someone feel pressured.

If you have a child and you want them in there, do not pressure them. Absolutely not, because that will make them resent you five years down the road if they’re not happy there, and they’ll feel stuck there. Absolutely let them go out and try other things and then say, “Hey, why don’t you come in and give it a shot and see how it goes?” Because they will 100% appreciate that more.

Another thing, just for all of you agency principals out there that have children in the agency, make sure that you have open lines of communication. You may feel like you have open lines of communication, but if in your mind they’re your perpetuation plan, you need to sit down with them sooner than later and at least start that conversation. I’m not saying that you have to go out and create the perpetuation plan right then, but you really do need to sit down with them and say, “Hey, here’s my timeline. Here’s what I’m thinking, what are your feelings on this?”

Because I joke I was our agency’s perpetuation plan. I was the fourth generation in our agency for the last 10 years, and now I’m in Columbus, Ohio. Let me just tell you that that was the absolute hardest conversation that I guarantee you I will ever have to have in my life with my father. I hope no one ever has to go through that again. I would say definitely set your expectations from the beginning and say, in 5, 6, 7 years, this is what my plan is and just have that conversation started.

Joel: Ashley, I think that’s advice that obviously a large percentage of independent agencies can use. I truly value you sharing that with us and the honesty. If your dad’s listening to this, I’m sure he knows yet that you still love him, the family business. I’m sure someday you’ll find your way back. If people want to find you, what’s the best way they do that?

Ashley: Yes, I would definitely say absolutely follow me on Instagram. My username is A-D-S-H-H_fitz, F-I-T-Z. That’s the thing that I’m pretty much most active on, but you also want to go ahead and follow Ohio Insurance Agents on Facebook. Because we do have our whiteboard Wednesdays that I’m putting out with quick little one and a half minute tips and tricks that you can implement in your agency on multiple different things. Whether it’s customer experience, or it’s culture. Lots of different topics.

Joel: If I might be so bold, I would love to provide a testimonial to the whiteboard Wednesdays. As I was doing some research, making sure I had as much information about yourself as possible, I, of course, found the whiteboard Wednesdays. I found them hugely valuable, so kudos to you and the team there to put those together. I think they’re awesome.

Ashley: Awesome. Thanks so much.

Joel: Once again Ashley, thank you so much, and thank you.

Ashley: Thank you.

Joel: That was fun.

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