2nd generation owner shares how he grew the agency by leveraging modern tools & tactics
Like a lot of insurance agency or brokerage owners today, Jim Schubert was pulled into the family business through the circumstances of life – and during his time there he has helped Southern States Insurance grow into one of the largest independent insurance agencies in the Southeast United States. So how do his agencies emails achieve over a 50% open rate? How did he receive almost 450 referrals in one year? How did he develop a blog that generates leads? Listen to this fantastic discussion and discover how Jim Schubert is taking old-school tactics and making them new again.
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] Jim Schubert – President & CEO at Southern States Insurance, Inc
Michael Jans: Jim Schubert. How are you?
Jim Schubert: Yes, Sir.
Jim: I am doing well, Michael. How are you?
Michael: I’m doing really good. I’m excited about this conversation, in part because, I have an advantage over the listeners in that I know a little bit about your story and I am intrigued by it. I’m excited about digging in a little deeper in and about sharing it as well.
To put a little context on this, Jim, I think that your story is of critical importance in the industry right now. I have a lot of clients — we have a lot of clients who are in a really similar situation. I think our industry has seen this, of course, for generations, and that is that you are — you are now the principle of what’s the second generation agency. You’ve made some decisions that maybe are slightly different than the first generation had made, probably because you looked around,
opened your eyes, looked around, and you saw it’s a little bit of a different world.
Bingo. That’s the story that I’m going to dig into. We’re going to talk about some of the things that you’ve done that are probably — well, certainly, they’re just different than what your dad did. It seems that your dad grew a really strong agency, and now you have, as far as I can tell, you’ve accelerated the growth trajectory.
Let’s start with a sort of a real thumbnail sketch of like what’s the Jim Schubert story?
Jim: Sure, absolutely. I was supposed to be a teacher. I was a high school English teacher, on that path, when I was going to college up in Boston. It turns out that it was nothing like that poet society; there were no students standing up on desk chanting, “Oh, captain, my captain.” I was very disillusioned by that.
Jim: I had an opportunity to continue in education. My father, literally the night before I got my master’s degree, was asking me what I was going to do. I wasn’t really excited about it, and he could tell, so he said, “Why don’t you come join me in the agency?”
Michael: Carpe diem, right? [laughs]
Jim: Yes, right. Right, yes. [chuckles]
Michael: Seize the day. Now is your chance. What did you think? What was your initial reaction to that, having devoted your education and your higher education to teaching, what was your response to that?
Jim: My response was, “Oh, heck no. No way. I saw how stressed you were coming home.” He said, “No, no. It’s not like that.” He said, “Let me explain it to you and show you how it’s much more of a people-oriented business,” and he did. He told a told a great story about what we agents are here to do; and our mission is to serve. I thought, “That’s fantastic,” that’s why I wanted to get into education in the first place, it was for people.
Michael: Got it.
Jim: Yes, I gave it a shot. But he started out about — well, 25 years ago, this year. He was working for a large national brokerage firm and decided, “I want to strike out on my own,” and so he took a chance and he bought an agency. Then, he bought another agency. We’re here in Georgia, so we are Metro Atlanta. He had started out one small agency on the west side of the city. It went pretty well. Then, over the years, we’ve now grown into one of the largest privately-held independent agencies in the state, so pretty big shoes to fill, for sure.
Michael: Well, you’ve got big shoes to fill. But, let me circle back and let’s humanize something that you said there for a moment. I happen to know [chuckles] that you are about to celebrate your 40th birthday, and one of the ways that you’re going to do that is, at least by design, it’s to go to Saint Croix with some friends.
Michael: I do want to humanize that personal side of it. As we know right now, and, of course, by the time this gets published, well, might be after the fact. But, a very, very serious hurricane is potentially headed to Saint Croix, maybe very likely headed to Florida. Then, just last week, we saw just a tremendous and heart-wrenching devastation of Harvey in Houston and the surrounding areas there in Texas.
Your dad said, or you came to the conclusion that we really are here to serve; when you reflect on that part of it, how insurance affects people’s day-to-day lives, do you feel like you made the right decision?
Jim: Oh, absolutely. I mean, even when my wife and I were talking last night about, “Oh my gosh. We are going to have to call our friends and tell them that this whole trip is off,” and everything, we stopped for a second, looked at each other and said, “You know what? In the grand scheme of things, think about the people that are down there. Think about the people that just went through Harvey. Their lives could be or are destroyed, for all intensive purposes.”
This is the product we sell; it’s a promise that we are going to make you whole. That’s a pretty a noble thing to get into. I love it every day to be able to serve people in that way.
Michael: Yes. I love to hear you say that, [chuckles] so thank you. You made some decisions, and I think you are operating the agency clearly with some of the strengths in the foundation that were given to you by your dad, or that your dad brought into the agency, but you are also doing some things that are different. Those things that you’re doing that are different, you didn’t learn from your dad.
Like in the areas of digital marketing, he probably didn’t say to you, “Hey, before you know I retire, or pass, or sell the agency on to you, I’m going to give you, I’m going to give you 11 killer digital marketing secrets that I never told anybody before.” Probably, it didn’t come from your dad, and so, you had to learn some things. How did you go about learning new things?
Jim: Well, this is what I love about our industry in particular, is that, the Chris Paradisos of the world, and the Jason Casses of the world, and all these great guys who have phenomenal ideas about how to take the insurance marketing game to the next level and leverage digital marketing, we all share those ideas. I learned a lot from some folks like that. I, also, have gone on to even help teach folks, just like you are doing, about digital marketing and how they can do that.
That’s how I learned what the heck that was. This is maybe five, six years ago, when this was a new idea for our industry, for most of us, anyway. I thought, “Okay. How can I apply this to what we do on a day-to-day basis?” The theory is great, but until you can actually apply it and see results from it, it doesn’t mean a hill of beans.
Michael: Let’s talk about some of the practical things that you did. Also, if we were to put this in perspective, you now have some responsibilities as the CEO and the owner of the agency that you didn’t have before. It’s very likely that some of the things that you were gung-ho on, you are probably sorting out what you have time for, what you need to delegate, what you’re going to continue. But, I know that you’ve been, for example, an active blogger, something that we really strongly encourage. A lot of our clients are seeing tremendous success with more traffic to their site if they maintain regular disciplines. Tell us a little a little bit about your experience with blogging.
Jim: Sure. I guess the one thing that my parents can be proud of about paying for Boston College was that, I did end up with an English degree. I actually do love writing.
I took what I have learned about — fortunately, my father was smart enough to put me at the very bottom. I started out doing personal lines and marketing, commercial marketing, and then commercial production. I loved commercial production.
Then, I started writing about some of the niche businesses that we were insuring, and just put that out on our website, and did it in a consistent enough manner that over time, we developed pretty regular flow of incoming leads from some niches like security guards, or some transportation niches, and things like that, janitorial type of things; to the point where five, six years later, where we might not have updated those blogs in a few years, we were still getting literally two, three sometimes four leads per niche a day from those blogs, which still boggles my mind.
It’s the power of Google and other search engines that, if you are putting out good consistent content that answers questions — and that’s the important thing, it answers questions for the people who are reading it — you are going to consistently rank high enough to get those leads.
Michael: Four, five years later, you are still enjoying the fruit of work that you did back four or five years ago? Okay.
Jim: Right. I got to a point where I couldn’t keep up with it myself. We actually did hire a digital marketing assistant. For people who were thinking about could I even do this, we started out with somebody who was just graduating college and was looking for the first job. He graduated from Auburn. He came on board with us, did a great job getting it started. He moved on. I couldn’t compete — he went to work in a church so I couldn’t compete with that.
Jim: Then, we found another young grad. She came on board and was with us for two or three years and did a fantastic job building out more content. That helped really propel us to the top of Google for some of these niche markets that are still paying off for us.
Michael: I want to try to make this easier for some of our listeners, because not uncommon for me to hear people say, “Number one, I’m not a writer.” On that, we could talk much more about that later. I do think the ability to write is a fundamental communication skill of the modern era. You are, perhaps, one of the lucky ones that you actually studied it, but they are shortcuts for that.
People will often say, “I don’t know how to blog, because number one, I don’t know what to write. I’m not a great writer. Let’s set that one aside. Number two; I don’t know what to write about. Nobody wants to read about insurance.” How did you determine topics to write about? Now, in retrospect that you’ve got a few years of experience with it, can you tell what kind of topic attracts the most attention?
Jim: It’s a great question. Fortunately, it’s an easy answer, and I think one that other agents can easily implement. I literally sat down my personal line staff, and I sat down my commercial line staff, at different meetings and I said, “Guys, what are the questions you consistently get from your clients? What are the things that you find yourself answering over, and over, and over, because if they’re asking you, they are definitely looking for those answers first online.”
I think as the statistics will show, most people when they start researching for anything and especially insurance, are going to go online. They might not buy there, but they are going to start their journey there, and so we just asked. In particular, with commercial lines, when we niche down and said, “All right. We are going to take security guards.” One of the questions you get all the time, “Does it cost more?” Does it cost more? Is it different if I’m armed versus on unarmed?
It’s simple things like that. I still have, I think, a spreadsheet of probably 50 different quick questions that people gave me, that they got from their clients that we haven’t even written blogs on, which is fantastic. Those are blog titles. [laughs]
Michael: There’s no shortage of content ideas.
Michael: One of the shortcuts that you used, Jim, which is a really powerful one, is you hired somebody else to do some of the writing. But, it sounds like they weren’t necessarily insurance people, right?
Michael: How did you give them structure and guidance, and make sure that the content was accurate?
Jim: Well, so you nailed it. It’s exactly what I learned as a student and later on as an English teacher is, think about what the bones of the blog would look like. All you are doing is, you are taking a title. You are creating an attractive title; something that’s going to answer a question for people, like, “Five things every security guard needs to know about professional liability insurance.”
Michael: It sounds like a good title to me. Okay, that’s a good headline.
Jim: Then, you simply go through. That’s an easy one. You just pick the five things, and you list what those are out. Then, maybe, you put in a couple of bullet points that help answer those questions. Then, I would have our digital marketing assistant go to one of our seasoned agents and say, “Can you help me answer these questions?” She would just type in the answers that they gave her, and then we end up with a pretty sexy looking blog.
Michael: Got it, all right. Four or five years later, some of that stuff is still cranking all on its own. Are you as active with it now as you want to be?
Jim: We are about to get back into it a little bit more. Unfortunately, she moved on to a totally different profession, too. I debated whether to hire somebody right away, but at the same time, as you mentioned, that’s when I was taking the agency over so I had a lot of things.
But here’s what surprised me though, Michael, is that during that year-and-a half or so time period since she’s been gone, we haven’t had any, and I mean any, drop-off in our traffic. Not only that, it’s probably picked up a little just because it’s been out there, being a little bit more seasoned and climbing up in the ranks naturally. We are about to kick off more of that type of thing very shortly.
Michael: Okay. I want to ask you to share a little bit about your experience of something else that you were gung-ho on and active in, but then, when you took over the leadership of the agency, you set it aside for now; which is something that I don’t hear very many agents talk about at all, which is hosting your own podcast.
Jim: Yes. I did put it aside for a little while. But I tell you what? It was a blast. You can attest, right? I was trying to think of ways to attract small businesses to come to our website, and so I started a website called Big Time Small Business. It was a podcast than a website. I blogged for it and I also did bimonthly — I can’t remember how often — a podcast. But, we just had–
Michael: If I can ask you one question about that was that on a site that is separate from the agency’s primary site?
Jim: It is. But, there are a whole lot of links that link back to the site.
Michael: One other kind of practical question; did you have your podcasts transcribed? Then, did you put that on the site, like on the blog?
Jim: At that time, I still had the digital marketing assistant here, so she did the transcribing.
Michael: All right.
Jim: It wasn’t a full transcription. It was more of like a show notes kind of page that gave the gist of it.
Michael: Got it. Transcription services are too cheap right now. I can’t remember the name of the one that we use, but–
Jim: Yes. Ryan Hailey just mentioned one on his YouTube channel recently. I forgot the name of it.
Michael: – Yes. They are super cheap. In any case, and of course, then you’d get to put that content is searchable by Google and other search engines.
Jim: Yes. That’s really important. Just having podcast is not going to do it, because Google can’t search audio.
Michael: Right. You interviewed small businesses on insurance, or on sort of more like success?
Jim: It was really more of success, because that was something that they are going to want to talk about. But at the same time, I would also use it as a way to try to open the door for a conversation with them later. But wasn’t a hard sell. It was more–
Michael: Were they clients?
Jim: No. I think maybe a couple were.
Michael: Really? [laughs]
Jim: Some of them were kind of interesting.
Michael: Okay. You went to prospects? [chuckles]
Jim: Yes. A part of it was. But, honestly, it was more about associating, because a lot of the links we had in the show notes — we did talk about insurance a little bit on the podcast. But it was more, I wanted to take the inspiration that they have for starting their business, and show other — it was kind of a side project that had to do with insurance, but not really. But in the end, it did drive some traffic to our website, and continues to do so.
Michael: Do you think you might resurrect the podcast?
Jim: I very well might. Yes, I can see some big benefits for it. I can see some things I would change about it to link it a little bit more to insurance. It was sure a whole lot of fun. I got to interview some really interesting people — people that I never would’ve even thought of — that I literally just said to my assistant, “Hey, go read like whatever business publication online, Forbes or whatever, and find some interesting people.”
We ended up interviewing people like — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Elf on the Shelf.
Jim: They’re actually based here. I interviewed the daughter of the woman who created it.
Jim: That was really interesting, and some other people that we were just like, “Wow. I never would have thought I would have talked to somebody like you before.” [laughs]
Michael: You might resurrect that one.
Jim: Yes. Yes.
Michael: I don’t know, Jim, if you knew that — what brought us to this conversation right here is, I think you were in a conversation with Sarah on our team. It may have been about one of the campaigns that you are running through Agency Revolution connect technology. I think it might have been a welcome kit, or referral program?
Jim: Yes. I can tell you about that.
Michael: Yes, tell us a little bit about that story.
Jim: Not to just completely plug you guys, but this is what I had been–
Michael: You can, and I’ll not interrupt you here for a moment.
Jim: Yes. I figured as much. This is what I had been waiting for, because have done some welcome kit type e-mails with you guys. We had a lot of database clean up to do, so we’re going a little bit slower than I wanted to getting ramped up with Agency Revolution and the connect product, but it’s going well. The other day though, I guess this is last week or whenever. As the fallout from Harvey, from Hurricane Harvey was starting to come to light, and that we were seeing the enormity of the help that these people are going to need.
Literally I thought, “My wife and I need to make a donation.” I thought, “I own a company. Why am I not doing something as a company to try to give back in some way?” That’s what we’re here for is serving people. I called Sarah from Agency Revolution and I said, “Listen. I need some help. I really want to get an e-mail out, and I’ve already typed it, and this is what I think I want to do. We have a referral program that’s been very successful for our clients, and friends,” and family type of thing.
It’s an online form that people go to. If you want to see, you can go to www.southernstatesinsurance.com/refer-a-friend, or you can just type in refer, slash refer, and it will take you there. But, it’s a very simple form.
We made some changes over the years. But one thing that we did, I think back in March; about six months ago, we said, “We want to instead of giving a $25 gift card for every referral that is sent to us, we’re going to give a $20 gift card, but we’re going to donate $10 to a charity.” That really started to pick things up. I thought, “Okay. Let’s change the charity,” so hurricane relief for Harvey, using the Red Cross in this case, and we said, “Okay. We’re going to double down though. For every referral, we’re going to donate $20. If you so choose, instead of receiving the gift card, we’ll donate $20 from that value to make it a total of 40,” for the win, right?
Jim: I showed that to Sarah, and she was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is amazing. I got to tell Michael about this. He’s going to love this.”
Jim: Though, I appreciate you being giddy about it, but honestly, this is just part of what we are already doing. That’s how this came about. But sending the e-mail out through the connect product was — honestly, I was so nervous because I had never sent a blast e-mail to all. If you can believe that, which is we’ve done digital marketing.
Michael: Oh, interesting.
Jim: I’ve never sent out an e-mail to all of our clients at once. I’ve sent it out in phases, but never all at once to thousands of clients. [chuckles] I was pleasantly surprised.
Michael: What happened? For example, did you get a decent open rate on it?
Jim: We did. I haven’t checked it recently. But the last time I checked, I think it was over 50%, which is from what I’ve heard, pretty darn good.
Michael: It’s very good. Do you remember what your subject line was in the e-mail?
Jim: I think it was something like, “Here’s how SSI is helping hurricane Harvey victims. Want in?”
Michael: Got it.
Jim: It was very casual. We just wanted to kind of let people know what we were doing. It wasn’t a sales pitch. It was just, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing. Do you want in?”
Michael: Let me zero in on something here, because what you just said is something I’ve heard thousands of times. It’s interesting. I think it’s instructive that it’s coming from you. You are of the generation where you are comfortable with digital marketing. You certainly understand that people send e-mails to communicate, and yet you’ve never done that before? Like you said, you felt nervous about that.
Tell us a little bit about that. Because I think it’s a common experience, and I think it’s important that people don’t feel like they’re alone and they’re the only person who’s never done that before.
Jim: Your inbox and my inbox, they are coveted things. It’s like your front door. You don’t let everybody in that comes knocking, right?
Jim: We did choose to send it from each of our agents. Every client that got it, got it from somebody that they know; which I think greatly enhanced the open rate of the experience.
Michael: Of course, yes. Very good, all right.
Jim: We also made it very concise. I didn’t use any graphics. I didn’t even put any logos. I wanted it look like it actually came from somebody they knew. My friends don’t send me a lot of e-mails with logos, and graphics and things, unless they are sending me some kind of funny meme or something. [chuckles]
Michael: I think your agency also has a welcome kit for new customers, on boarding new customers, right? Are you using–?
Jim: Yes, we are.
Michael: What’s been your experience or observation with that?
Jim: Remember what I just explained was a mass e-mail. The open rates for this were even higher. They are in the 50 to 60 to 70% open rate, which I still can’t fathom. But, from what I understand, I think the biggest success is that we have made it. I have to give a lot of credit to both Sarah and Elena from your team, who really encouraged me to keep the number of emails down. I think we got it between three and five emails at the most, and the first one literally says, “Welcome,” I think it says, “Thank you.” Everybody loves getting something that says, “Thank you,” right?
Michael: Right. Yes, it’s a powerful phrase.
Jim: Yes, so it’s very simple. It says, “Hey. Thanks for being part of the Southern States family. We’re glad to have you on board.” Second email is something like — basically, the second email is asking them to, “If you enjoyed your experience working with me, I would love for you to tell other people about it. Here’s how you can leave a review on Facebook or Google.” Then, the next one is about the referral program. I think the last one is about the integration we have, or the client phasing tool that we through applied systems–
Jim: Yes, CSO24.
Michael: When you look to the near term future, what else do you want to communicate with your customer base about? I think you mentioned that there are some cross-sell concepts that you have in mind.
Jim: Oh my gosh, I feel like the opportunities are unlimited. What I want to get into next are cross-sell opportunities. This is what was interesting, Michael, about the email that we sent about Hurricane Harvey Relief. I had two links in the email that led to the referral page. I had one link at the very end of the email that had a link to a blog that we wrote about flood insurance, and it was something — I think it was the five myths about flood insurance; obviously, very timely.
That link got clicked way more than the referral link, which is fine. I think the referral thing is going to work out. It still is; every day we are getting them. It reinforced to me that people want education; they want to know more and obviously a very timely blog like that where — I can look at our Google analytics right now over the last month, and see we have had a huge up-check in all of the blogs we have on the website regarding flood insurance.
Michael: Right. I can imagine. Yes, I can imagine what you did.
Jim: In the biggest one we get traffic to is, “Is my house in a flood zone?” I think cross-selling; I think it can be done in a very classy manner. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing is, using it as more of an educational tool. If we’re cross-selling umbrella, or cyber liability, or whatever it is, that we do it in such a way where we tell the client, “Hey. You may have the same problems that some of our other clients have. This article answers a ton of questions that you might have, or the most important questions you might have,” and make it more of soft sell rather than, “Hey you should really buy this.” Not to mention, doing that provides us a little bit more E&O protection because, “Hey, we educated you about this.”
Michael: Good move.
Jim: We tried this a couple of different times to let you know how important it was to get cyber liability insurance, and we even documented where we talked about. We still don’t want to get into a “he said” “she said” kind of thing with our clients all the time, but I do think that it serves multiple purposes when you serve — and I’m going back to my roots, right, to educate your client. That’s what it’s all about.
Michael: I have a couple of questions I want wind things up with, Jim. One is; I’m assuming that your dad has a sense of your strategies and the things that you are doing. What’s his point of view on the direction that you are taking the agency?
Jim: Well, I sure hope it’s a good one, [laughs] because I want to make him proud. But, no. I mean, he and I have talked candidly about it. It’s funny, because, you alluded to the differences about how we handle digital marketing or just marketing in general, and obviously, I am choosing to do it in a much more digital way.
I think over the years he’s definitely seen, number one; the results speaks for themselves. The referral program alone, I think in the last year, last 12 months, we have literally received over 430 referrals. I’ll check the stats while I’m on the phone with you. We have written over $60,000 in agency revenue or agency commission in the last 12 months, purely from the referral program.
That kind of thing he looks at, I think, and says, “Atta boy. You know what? Good on you.” Like, “You’re doing what even an agency 100 years ago should have been doing to try to get people to refer your word of mouth, but you are using a digital platform. It’s working.”
This is not unique to me. I learned these techniques from other people. I’m very quick to give credit to other people for that. I think my dad is proud of how I’ve progressed in some of these things, but honestly, it goes back to, “Thank God, those other guys and girls in our industry were sharing what was working for them,” because I’ve just picked up on that.
Michael: Got it, all right. I’m going to give you a chance to say a few words, and when I say “a few words” I mean that literally. If you’ve heard the end of most of my podcasts, I’ll end up with this question. The industry is zooming down insurance highway at 65 miles an hour, and there’s a billboard that Jim Schubert gets to put on the side.
Of course, if there are too many words, nobody is going to be able to read it, but you want to say something that captures the attention and the heart of the industry; something that matters, and it’s got to be short or they won’t see it, or read it, what do you want to say to this industry right now?
Jim: It’s funny. I glanced real quick before we got on, and so what I should be thinking about for this podcast, and I honestly, I only saw it at the very end so I didn’t really think about anything. But, I will tell you that I think if you seek to serve your clients and educate your clients first and foremost, you will win almost every time.
Michael: Got it. Very good. Jim, if people want to find out more about what you are doing, or reach out to you, what’s your preferred method of contact?
Jim: I would say LinkedIn, just look up Jim Schubert, S-C-H-U-B-E-R-T. I also have a resource — I don’t know if we have talked about it, but I have another blog — I’m a serial blogger — called agencyownersacademy.com, where I teach things like the referral program, or how to recruit young agents, and different things like that how to use social media in your agency; some good resources there if folks want to check that out. They can contact me through the contact tab through that as well.
Michael: All right. Jim, this has been a pleasure. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. As I said, I think the message that you have to deliver right now, second generation of a successful agency; it’s really, really important for people to hear. Thank you so much for your generosity and for sharing.
Jim: My pleasure, Michael.
Michael: All right. I do hope you are able to get to Saint Croix, and that the hurricane doesn’t interfere with your vacation plans.
Jim: [laughs] Me too.
Michael: All right, best of luck to you. Thanks so much. Take care.
Jim: Thank you, sir.