Long-time insurance software executive warns, ‘pay attention to the changes. Know what’s happening!’
Bruce Dickhoff was a coder, crashing through barriers of ‘old school’ insurance agencies 32 years ago. And, he never stopped. As CEO of North American Software Associates—commonly known as NASA—Bruce has been delivering solutions to insurance agencies for decades. (Little known secret: Once upon a time The Home Shopping Network had an insurance agency, and Bruce provided their agency management system.) In this interview with Michael, Bruce shares his insights on:
- What the future may look like for today’s agents… including their use of software solutions, ‘getting modern’, and emerging competition.
- The mindset shift agents must make about technology. (Not-too-subtle hint: make it your friend, not your enemy!)
- Why and how agents must become ‘lifelong learners’ to survive in a turbulent, fast-moving marketplace.
Please don’t miss this conversation with one of the industry’s most respected providers of agency management systems – and a long-time industry observer and thought leader.
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 Michael Jans discusses the biggest issues affecting the independent insurance agent and broker with the industries leading figures.
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[Transcript] Bruce Dickhoff – President & CEO of the North American Software Associates
Michael Jans: Bruce Dickhoff, thank you so much for joining us. How are you?
Bruce Dickhoff: I’m good.
Michael: All right. I want to start by giving the audience an opportunity to get to know you. If you would kind enough, share a little bit of a thumbnail about how you got to be where you are now, and then, of course, we’re going dig into some of the stuff that you’re doing now. I think there’s some fascinating parts in your background, so a little bit of the story would be fun.
Bruce: All right. Well, I started with North American Software back in 1986. I was fresh out of school, with a two-year degree in computer programming, thinking I’m going to be a technical person-
Michael: I’ve got to pause here just for a moment here. Back in 1986, it wasn’t exactly the cutting edge of the insure tech movement [laughs]. How is it that you thought insure and technology was going to be a really cool thing? Now you’ve been doing it forever. Back then, what was it that motivated you?
Bruce: Honestly, it was probably a lot by just chance.
Michael: Okay [laughs].
Bruce: A roommate of mine from college had gone and accepted a job in this company, I’d gone elsewhere for a short time. He called me up and said, “There was an opening, you should come on out and give this a try.” I went, interviewed and got a job with the company. At that time there were all of about, including the owner, like five people in the company.
Michael: Okay [laughs]. Were you a programmer?
Bruce: Yes. I was a programmer but because of our size, that meant I was a programmer, I did customer support and training over the phone and both traveling to insurance agencies, so a little bit of everything.
Michael: Okay. The company, you referred to as North American Software, and the “A” stands for something at the end.
Michael: Associates, okay. I don’t know if this is common but I have always, always, always referred to it as NASA.
Bruce: Yes, everybody pretty much does.
Michael: Okay [laughs]. And this is not the other NASA.
Bruce: No, it’s not.
Michael: Okay. But you’ve got your moonshots, you still can have your moonshots you’re shooting for, so won’t that away from you. You started there out of college and then what? That was a long time ago. You have been there ever since.
Bruce: Yes. Myself and another individual who was a salesman for the company at the time, we were at the sales side, both of us we just seemed to be a constant there. There were other programmers and people who had come and gone but we were there still. He had been there for a couple of years prior to me because the company actually started in 1982. In 1985, the original owner of the company who, for those who don’t know, bought our background as we were located in the basement of a bank, because the owner of the company was the son of the president of the bank at the time.
Michael: Got it. Okay.
Bruce: They were talking mainframe computer, not PC like nowadays. They had the big mainframe computer there for the bank to run off of, so we just piggybacked on that and wrote the software using the same computer the bank ran on a daily basis. In 1985, the owner, who by that point wasn’t involved as much, he was getting more involved in the banking side of things, he offered the company to myself and the other individual who was a salesman at the time. At that time, we took over, we did actually stay in the basement of the bank for another four years before we finally decided we’d outgrow [crosstalk]
Michael: Did the bank have an agency?
Bruce: Yes, the bank had an agency.
Michael: So they were a client, okay.
Bruce: Yes, they were our initial client. They were always the ones that tested everything. Our forte at the time was agencies that were owned by banks in the Midwest, that was probably all our customers.
Michael: Interesting. I bet that customer base has changed a lot.
Bruce: Absolutely, yes. Now we’ve got little mom-and-pop shops, or we’ve got people that, “Okay, I’ve got this insure agency, I run it out of a room in my house.” We’ve had every different side.
Michael: Okay. By the way, for listeners who maybe they don’t know what you deliver, we can dig into what NASA does later but, in general, what’s your product offering? What is the problem you solve for independent insurance agencies?
Bruce: We have the Eclipse Agency Management System. A front to back system for running your office paperless. We have accounting built in. That’s all we’ve ever done. We’ve stuck with that, we haven’t veered from that. That’s what we’ve been doing for 30+ years here.
Michael: Got it. All right. By the way, also, maybe full disclosure for the audience, Bruce, I’ve known about NASA forever, but we never really had a relationship and recently, Agency Revolution and NASA integrated.
Bruce: That’s correct.
Michael: Boom, seemed like, “Okay, I’m going to get this guy on a podcast.” All right, you went from coder, customer service and three of four other jobs, now you’re the CEO.
Michael: Which means you still have three or four other jobs [laughs].
Bruce: Yes [laughs].
Michael: All right. As I recall, you had mentioned, in one of our earlier conversations, that you had Home Shopping Network as a client or they had an insurance agency, yes? We go back in the day, yes, right?
Bruce: Yes, we’re talking 1988.
Michael: 1988. Home Shopping Network was not old.
Bruce: No. They were growing, booming and throwing around money like there was no end to it. They had a little insurance agency that started out selling life insurance on TV.
Michael: Yes. Somebody actually liked the HSN style, somebody was giving a pitch.
Michael: Was there also a countdown timer?
Bruce: I’m not sure about that. I never actually saw it.
Michael: “This deal is going to go away.” That would be a classic piece of footage, if you could ever find it. I’m sure they shredded it. Just out of curiosity, do you know how long did that insurance agency last?
Bruce: I would say in the time we got involved with them anyway. As a matter of fact, I believe they’re still– It was actually sold off to one of the managers or something at some point in time over the years. I believe they’re still a customer of ours.
Michael: Okay. [laughs] It’s funny.
Bruce: They’re much smaller than were at that point.
Michael: Okay. They don’t have quite the immediate access to the medium that they used to either.
Michael: Yes, okay. Now, that brings us to now, so very quickly. Obviously, you’re working with hundreds or thousands of agencies. What states is your customer base primarily in?
Bruce: Well, we’re spread across the nation. I believe we have clients right now in 36 or 37 states.
Michael: Okay. Is there a concentration? Because we often see that happen, is if a company starts somewhere, they’ll grow from there.
Bruce: Absolutely the Midwest. Minnesota being our largest and that’s where we’re based, and probably our second site state is Michigan.
Bruce: Heavily into North Dakota, South Dakota region.
Michael: Your turf, but you’re expanding and now you’re in 36 states. All right. Here’s part of what– this is what I really like about talking to people that have the length of experience in the industry that you have and also such a bird’s eye view. You’re not in the agency, consumed with day to day operations. You get to look at agencies from a little bit of a bird’s eye view and you’ve now done it for a long time. Back in the day, home shopping network notwithstanding, the average independent insurance agency worked in a certain business environment. Now, slowly boil that water over the years and boom, things are quite different now.
From your perspective, what do you see as the things that are changing the industry? What makes it different to be in an independent insurance agency? What are the challenges that an agent today is facing that maybe mom or dad or uncle didn’t have to have to deal with?
Bruce: One of the big things I’m seeing different is, it’s rare that we come across agencies that are just the little the insurance office in one location. They have their employees that come to work and in that spot, that’s what they do. That’s getting to be rare. That’s what it used to be. Now, agencies are merging. Older agency owners are selling out, so they may be transferring it down to others in a family. They may be selling it off to a group of agencies. We’re seeing a lot of agencies forming groups to have access to markets that they don’t have individually. With that comes all the differences of, okay, now we’re spread across a geographical area, and we’re not just all sitting together in the same office. How do we communicate? How do we keep up? How do we keep everybody up on what we’re all doing? Which really ties it back to an agency management system, and having one that is accessible no matter where you’re at. No matter where you’re at, if you have an internet connection, you should have access to your system, because that’s where everything you need to know about all your clients, which is where your money comes from, that should all reside there so that no matter where you’re at or who else in your office needs to know something about it, they have access to that data at their fingertips so they can serve the clients quicker, more efficiently, because that’s what everybody wants.
Michael: To some extent, I think part of what you’re seeing is agencies are bigger than they used to be on average.
Michael: Right? This is interesting, and I don’t know if you’re seeing this. Back in the day, when the previous incarnation for me when the economy went through recession, I was the CEO of Agency Revolution, we were getting a lot of inbound calls from startups. It was little teeny-teeny operations where somebody just got ruthlessly and brutally tossed out of the mortgage business or the real estate business or a loan origination or something like that. They thought, well, they could sell insurance. I don’t know if that’s happening much.
Bruce: We don’t see near as many startups anymore.
Michael: Okay. You probably did like I did 10 years ago or so. I was surprised because I thought well now, this is a time where we’re really going to see consolidation in the marketplace. We’re going to have fewer agencies because somebody or we’re going to just be threadbare. We did see an influx of mergers and acquisitions. I know some of our clients went through that process, but we also saw this influx of these small startups. My suspicion has been this isn’t the environment where that happens. Maybe the next recession, but not this one. We’re seeing larger ones, but now these other phenomena that you referred to, and some of it has to do with size that now, the agency got half a dozen locations spread around through some region of the state or maybe they got 15 locations in three states, whatever.
There is size, which means that some team members never meet other team members. Boom. I’m curious what your observation is about this. We’ve also got a growing demand in the marketplace for the ability to work remotely. Number one, clearly, you’ve got the agency management system, you can log in anywhere, right?
Michael: Also, it does present other challenges for leadership. I have noticed that a number of our clients, number of my clients are drifting toward certain collaboration software platforms like Slack, for example, as a way teams can talk to each other. Are you seeing anything in that direction?
Bruce: Not a lot.
Michael: Not a lot. Yes.
Bruce: Not with our clientele.
Michael: I think it’s coming.
Michael: I think it’s coming. I think we’re in the period where agency principals are feeling the tension and some of the frustrations that happens with remote workers. They’re looking for solutions.
Bruce: We see from our side of it where they’re wanting more things. Through the system, how can I keep an eye or be able to tell better what people are doing? How can I see premium numbers? How can I see new policies that are coming through? How can I have some way to know that, okay, they’re out there working somewhere and they’re actually producing.
Michael: Okay. For a principal, they are able to look like into the agency management system and see how much activity transpired. Right?
Bruce: Exactly. Yes.
Michael: That’s pretty transactional. It’s not really relational. The conversation, the rapport building, that intimacy of face to face needs to be cracked through other means.
Michael: Technology helps.
Michael: Okay. Got it. All right. My original question was trends and forces, what do you see changing the industry? Number one, you’re seeing consolidation and you’re seeing a distribution of agency teams, geographic distribution of agent teams, which has challenges. Other forces and trends you see that today’s agent needs to deal with?
Bruce: Well, there’s an obvious one is some that the different types of competition they’re going up again.
Bruce: With the GEICOs and progressive online. These big call centers that people can call into and having access to their data over the access. I think a lot of it comes down to, at least for some of the agencies that are maybe been around for a while, is they really have to take advantage of the technology that they have in front of themselves right now. There’s definitely new technologies coming out that they need to keep an eye on and use. For instance, whether it’s our system or anybody’s agency management system, they need to use it. They need to know what’s there.
On a regular basis, we talk with our clients, or when we have a user conference to bring our clients together, we talk to them and we find out that all of a sudden as we start showing things to them, they’re like, “I had no idea that I could do these.”
Michael: [laughs] Or you get change requests from your customers. “Hey, can you guys develop this thing?” “Oh, you mean that thing that’s in your system right now and has been for the last 10 years?” [laughs]
Bruce: Yes. They’re really– they don’t– I haven’t seen over the years the agencies do a good job of making sure that their staff knows what they have to use at their fingertips now. Not in a worry too much about looking at other things. They need to know what they have because that– They need time. That’s what they really need because they need to interact with the clients. You mentioned a rapport. They need to have that rapport with their clients too. Whilst to do that, they need to make sure that they’re efficient in any type of other– the paperwork, the grind that they have to do. There’s certain things that have to be done, but keep that to a minimum, let the system do it for you so you have that time when you need to talk to a new prospect, and go out and visit them and look at their business to be ready to quote them. Things like that. Keep existing customers, get new customers. You’ve got to be available, for that, you need to make sure you have the time.
Michael: You’ve presented a little bit of an interesting conundrum. On one hand, I think what you’re saying is absolutely right. The agency principal needs to make sure that their staff really understands the capabilities of the tools that they have, the power of the capabilities of the tool they have, the features. Yet, in many cases, the expertise lies with the staff, not the principal. How do you overcome that problem?
Bruce: Yes, that’s definitely interesting because it’s not uncommon to see the agency principal be the person that talks to us, purchases the system, turns around and says, “Here you go” to his staff.
Michael: Sally, you deal with this, right? Yes, she and the team develop expertise and the principal maybe never puts their fingers on the keyboard to manipulate it.
Bruce: Absolutely. He just tells his secretary or whoever, somebody that get him a report or get him this and that.
Michael: Yes. Then, roll the clock forward three years, and they’ve developed a habitual comfort level that determines how much of it they’re going to use, right?
Michael: They’re too busy to explore all of the other features, and it may not have quite the same interests or perspectives that the agency leadership has. Boom. We got a problem here. [chuckles] Right?
Bruce: Yes. Actually, I would say some of our top performing agencies that we see doing the best job and growing, they’re the ones where the principal is directly involved with the system. We had some of those where the principal, he’s the one that will call us up and say, “Hey, I’ve got an idea here. You think the system could do this? Could we get this information out of the system? Could we store this or whatever it might be?” He’s actually the one that will call with the idea for us. Those are the really good agencies.
Michael: Okay. You are, on one hand, jumping the gun on my next question, which is fine. Which is, what do you see the really successful agencies doing that others aren’t? You identified a behavior that might be critical, but my guess is that there’re listeners who just heard what you just said and are quietly internally resisting what you just said. Right? I want to drill into that one for a moment. You chose to engage in technology as a career and you were, whatever, 22 years old. Perhaps, I mean somewhere along the line in the early days, you decided you were going to learn the technical skills of programming. Safe presumption here, you’re comfortable with technology.
Michael: Right? I’m going to make a generalization that may be dumb, but we have to make some generalizations because I’m now working with my own clients. Millennials are digital natives, and so technology is not a foreign language to them, and the use of contemporary technology is not foreign to them. More than likely, they’ll get their hands on a great deal of insurance software and think it’s, “Gosh, this is awfully old school.” Okay? It’s never the millennials, in my experience, that need to overcome this technology resistance barrier. Then, Gen x probably could throw pretty much into the same bag, but among the boomers, there are those who for some reason, and I have to consider myself in this group, we’re just comfortable around technology, right? We whatever. I mean, I could various reasons that I might be in that group and just as easily could have been in a different group, right?
Michael: Those guys, yes, they generally like technology, may be willing to buy, download apps, their phone might have a lot of apps, they might play with certain productivity technologies just to test out the freemium version before they buy the premium version, all that jazz. Technology has become such a central part of the insurance as a business, and frankly, there are those who just not super comfortable with it. It’s a source of maybe frustration or makes them uncomfortable. I’m not going to say that the world’s just going to pass them by, what do they need to do?
Bruce: One of the things at the agencies we’re seeing is they need to obviously embraced and work toward bringing in more of these millennials and the younger generation into their agencies. They can learn from them. They can learn how to use some of this technology, and they don’t need to be the experts in it. I mean, yes, I love technology, it’s what I’ve done, the developing, programming, all that over the years, but the whole idea that we try to look at it from, is, okay that’s great, but what we put out, we need to try to make it as untechnical as possible for those end users to make it easier for them and help them not fear that this is, “Oh no, I’m going to press a button and I’m going to delete everything” or, “I just, uh. I don’t want to.” I mean, it’s rare that we come across an agency nowadays that does, if they’re coming to us or whatever, that they don’t already have something that they use for technology, for a system. Every so often, we just had one the other day, and they were small of five or six person agency, but they were working with files still. They didn’t have a computer system that did anything for their agency, maybe they had a rating vendor-
Bruce: – something like that, but they did not have anything to bring all that data. I can’t. It boggles my mind. After the years of sitting at agencies and seeing the filing cabinets as I was training them, over along the wall and while we were there, someone would call in and they just admitted, they’d set the phone down and they’d start digging through files, pull this big chunk out. It’s a different world, but it’s- you got to- they need to embrace it little by little. Use the people around you that are using it and feed off of them. Ask them questions, see what they’re doing, learn from them. An agency principal doesn’t have to do all the details, but there’s a lot of things that they can pretty simply use that system for to access data and information to help them run and grow their agencies and be more successful. Some of it, it’s not all that complicated.
Michael: I agree with you. I mean, break stuff down into little bitty chunks and then life’s not all that complicated. Let’s dig into the life of the agency principal, okay? You and I, I mean right now, we’re having a- we can have a conversation right now and talk about topics of extreme importance, and agency principals might be listening and looking for tips.
Meanwhile, in the real world, we are seeing a pace of change that we’ve never seen before. Emerging technologies, massive changes in consumer behavior, the emergence of this huge 83 million millennial generation that, have a slightly different set of values, have certain behaviors that are different, and then we’ve got Insuretech and $10 billion swarming into the industry looking for a return on investment that comes about from successful launches of technologies and companies.
That pace of change, in my view, is also one of the changes. In other words, it’s not just the things are changing, it’s also that the pace in which things are changing is different. It’s faster. Well, what I don’t want is agency principals get off this if they’re feeling behind. They think yes, I’ve got to get around to doing some of that one of these days. It strikes me that that’s a dangerous approach that tomorrow. The speed of change within agencies need to dial and we have to dial it up. How do you think leadership in agencies need to do that?
Bruce: Oh boy.
Michael: Yes. Hey, I didn’t say I was just going to throw you softballs and ask you about technology.
You work with these guys, and I know that somewhere in your head, you probably have some demarcation. These are the guys who are going to kill it, I’m really impressed with what they’re doing, and these are the guys who probably are going to sell because they’re going to get hurt.
Michael: That first group, [laughs] how does that first group pull it off?
Bruce: They’re involved in the agency with the people that are there. Again, down to the technology, they’re using it there. There’s plenty of blogs, there’s insurance places, we can go online to see what’s happening, what’s changing, what’s new coming out. The PIA in different associations when they put on meetings, they have speakers that are into this stuff and we’ll bring them in to talk about what are the trends? What do we see changing?
You’ve got to be involved. You can’t just sit back in that office and never look at what’s happening out there, never try to be part it. It definitely is changing at a breakneck pace. Every time you turn around and that’s, us as vendors, we have the problems, that self are trying to keep up every time you turn around, there’s new things to do. There are changes in the insurance industry. How do we fit that in? How do we make that easier for the agencies?
Like you said, they can’t say someday I need to get around to doing that. They need to start now.
Michael: I’m going to ask you one more question here, and your answer can be as kind or brutal as you want it to be. All right? For the agent who maybe they have been in the industry 15, 20, 25 years. Right? And it was a different industry back then. For the agent who’s thinking, well, God, Bruce, this isn’t what I signed up for. What do you say to them?
Bruce: It’s what we’re dealt with now. You are going to have to either– If they’re not too small or big enough, you can find the expertise that you need to bring in those people that will be engaged and be involved. Sooner or later, if you’re not active in that agency, it’s going to come back to bite you.
Michael: Got it. All right. Maybe quick summary on this one. When you look at your most successful clients and compare them to the rest, what do you think distinguishes the most successful from the rest?
Bruce: For us, I see the most successful ones are the ones that are trying to at least embrace the technology that’s changing. Trying to use it, some of them they’ll look at and say that’s not how we’re used to doing it. Well, but some processes work better, different than how you were doing it manually when you’re doing it using technology. You’ve got to be willing. The ones that are willing to take a step back and go, okay, I see what this technology can do, so how can we just change things a little bit in our environment to take advantage of that, to make things easier for us, give us more time to be able to sell, to be able to get out there and, and deal with the customers? Those are the ones. Those are the ones that we see. They’re the ones that are growing. We see them, they’ll call us and say, “you know, I’m buying another agency down the road.” and that gets to be a regular thing.
We want to merge them together, want to bring them in. We’re growing our agency, those are the people that we see doing that thing because they can, they have the resources, they know that, well, we can add on another 4 or 5 agency personnel from this agency in the next town over. Not a problem. We just plug them into the system and boom, we just keep moving.
Michael: Got it. All right. In the world you’re in, let’s dig into NASA a little bit. What are you excited about, let’s go big bicture to small picture. What are you excited about that you think technology can bring to the independent insurance agent that is new or emerging? Whether it’s NASA or not, what are the kinds of emerging technologies that get your attention?
Bruce: It pretty much has everything to do with the web. Everything is moving in that direction, from the management systems to connectivity to your end user, to the clients, to the insurance clients. It’s all about that because everybody’s looking for that instant gratification. If I have a question, I want an answer now. I don’t care if it’s eleven o’clock at night and the agency’s doors are closed and I want to be able to go to their website or a website or a mobile app, and that’s where everything is moving.
Michael: Into the web?
Bruce: Into the web.
Michael: Yes. All right. At NASA, what’s got your juices going these days?
Bruce: Now, that’s exactly what we’re working on. Mobile Apps, automated texting, because everybody wants to communicate quickly through texting and emails already. A lot of people consider that old way of doing things. Mobile apps, for both agency personnel and for the agency’s clients to have access. That’s where we’re pushing everything in those directions working now.
Michael: It’s communication technology?
Michael: It really is about the intimacy or the strength, the immediacy of the relationship between the agency and the customer?
Michael: All right. Language I like. To wind it up, two questions. If you’re going to issue a statement to the industry and maybe make it somewhat concise, if you wanted to deliver a message and say, “Hey agency, pay attention to this, you got to pay attention to this thing.” What would be your message?
Bruce: Pay attention in this thing. Again, it’s all around the technology. Pay Attention to the changes that are happening, know what differences are coming about. Some people sit back, for instance, just us as a vendor, and I’m sure everybody else does this too. We send out information to agencies to let them know what’s different, what’s new, how can– what can help your agency, whether it’s with us or somewhere else. Pay attention to that stuff. Don’t just bounce it off, delete it, toss it aside. Read the– you’ve got to consume to keep up because like you said, it is moving so fast.
Michael: The agency leadership of today, they need to be lifelong learners, don’t they?
Michael: Yes. Okay. All right. Bruce, if one of our listeners wanted to– if they had a question for you or if they want to learn more about NASA and Eclipse, how can they make contact? How can they reach out?
Bruce: For a lot of people, the quickest way is just go to www.nasasoft.com. Start just with looking at basic information there. You have contact right to salespeople that, they’re not going to force it on you, but if you’d like to be contacted, we can give you a call. Go to that site, you’ve got our phone number, email addresses, however you’d like to get in contact with us. We will-
Michael: Start on the web, right?
Bruce: Start on the web.
Bruce: That’s correct.
Michael: All right. Bruce, this has been a pleasure, and I really do appreciate you sharing your insights and observations. Thanks so much.
Bruce: You’re welcome.