Industry veteran helps agencies define how to spend their time on written business in the most efficient way possible

If there’s one thing John Fear has discovered in his twenty years in the insurance industry, it’s that agents are not as efficient as they should be. As the owner of Premier Business Consulting and National Director of Agency Development at Travelers, he’s worked with thousands of agents to understand their challenges.

In this fast-paced conversation, John lays out his Insurance Matrix. As you follow along, you’ll learn how to:

  • Run your business “less inefficiently” – and how it’s different than just being “more efficient”
  • Balance your expertise, passion, and business availability to determine your niche classes of business
  • Maximize your business and focus your efforts

Get out your pen and paper, because you’ll want to try his in-depth exercise to build your own matrix. Don’t miss this episode if you want to make your agency more efficient!

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 & broker with the industry’s leading figures.

Looking for a way to maximize your marketing with intelligent automation? Fuse™ can help. Click here to learn how.


Joel Zwicker: Hey John, thanks for joining us today. I appreciate your time.

John Fear: You’re very welcome, Joel. Happy to be a part of this.

Joel: If you don’t know who John Fear is, well, you should. I’ll tell you. I’ve been to enough events and seeing him speak and seeing people walk out of his presentations with absolute delight. I know some of the agencies that he’s worked with are top tier. This is going to be a great conversation. I’ll tell you, John, I know that there’s some talk out there. There was an article that I read about the independent agency, that you need to specialize or you’re going to die. I know you have a belief in that and I believe you even have a great path and plan for an agency to maybe identify where they should be focusing their energy. Tell us about that.

John: I’ll go back to, I think it was Mark Twain who once said that the reports of my death are greatly exaggerated. I think that that same aspect of that can go ahead and apply to the independent agency channel. You’ll keep hearing about different things with folks coming into the channel, moving independent agents off, here’s what’s going to be. A lot of it is, as you and I had talked a while ago about, is really having agents focus. I think what you find more so than anything else is we are not as efficient as we possibly should be because we are not focused on certain elements of running our business effectively. One of the things you had mentioned on there is, I have a thing, what I refer to as the commercial lines matrix, as far as how to understand what sort of business you want to be going after. Again, people always say, “Well, agents are going to be dead because they’re generalists, because they’re going after everything.” The only way to overcome that is become a specialist, that you just pick a class of business and that’s what you go after.

Well, I don’t think that either one of those two are generally true, but I think that the issue is somewhere more in the middle. I had an experience one time with a fairly large agency, second-generation agency over here in New York state. We were sitting in a conference room one afternoon after a long day of consulting and the owner was going on about different things of how to compete with some of these larger agencies and so forth. I got to be honest. I was starting to zone out a bit. It’s like the comic that I like to use in that. I’m a Far Side comic strip fan.

Joel: Who isn’t?

John: If you’re not, you should be. What’s even more interesting to understand is that Gary was actually a former director of the ASPCA. When you start thinking about some of his comic strips that were run up there from the Far Side, you realize, “Okay, now, that makes perfect sense.” He has in his– and again, this is after a long day and we’re discussing some other stuff on there. There’s Gary Larson’s Far Side comic strip that it’s a one-panel comic strip broken into, and the bottom of it is, “What dogs hear.” In the top frame of the comic, the owner is scolding his dog Ginger, “You’re a bad dog, Ginger. You shouldn’t have done that, Ginger. Don’t do that again, Ginger.” You look down on the bottom and Ginger’s thought bubble is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger. Blah, blah, blah, blah, Ginger.” That is how I was thinking as I was sitting there with this agent.

However, then, when he started talking and the Ginger is in my mind, started forming in there. I asked him for a blank piece of paper and on the piece of paper, I quickly started sketching this matrix on there. Because again, his inference is that he could go ahead and compete with any of the big guys out there, that he could write any kind of commercial business. They would just go after anything that’s on there. If you could look at this commercial lines matrix and how I’ll draw a picture of it for you, it’s really six columns. In those six columns, the first column is the class of business. By class of business I mean just pick the top 10 classes of business that you would like to write and just list them down there.

No particular order, because it’ll become evident why in a minute. The next column–

Joel: John, just to interrupt. This is a personal preference. This is me and I’m looking at my business. What classes of business would I like to write in an ideal world?

John: Absolutely. Then those are just ones– and it will become even more evident in just a second when I go through the other four categories on there because it was just a random class of business. As a matter of fact, I was talking about this one time with an agency. We were at a event in Baltimore and we’re in a bar. I’m talking with this one agent on there and he’s like, “Why are you talking about this class of business thing?” I said, “It was.” I said, “Well, what kind of business do you write?” He’s like, “I write construction.” I’m like, “Okay. Well, that’s one.” Again, it was some of my ignorance, he goes, “What do you mean one, John? No, construction is, I can write all contractors. I can write electrical contractors, plumbing contractors, drywall contractors, any of the rest of them.” I said, “Okay. Then list those down,” because that was his niche. He wanted to write contractors, but then broke it down by the different types of ones that were on there.

The second column, all I’m going to ask you to do with that in your mind, Joel, is label the top as Total. We’ll come back to that in a second. Then the four columns that are to the right of that is, the first column is expertise. This gets into what you were just talking about there, Joel. It’s like, okay, what of any businesses do you either have an interest in and/or are good at actually writing them? Because now, what you’re going to do is looking at that first column and now looking in the expertise column, go from top to bottom and force rank them. For those of you who are not familiar with the force ranking, it means if you’ve got 10 classes of business on the left, only one of those can be a 10. Any other one has to be a nine through a one. Literally, go write down that list. Is that clear as far as what you’re doing with that one?

Joel: Yes, I got it. You really have to take almost your personal approach that you took to that class of business out of it and very realistically say, “What the heck do I know about this or what passion do I have about this, or maybe somebody within my agency, for that matter?”

John: Exactly. That’s the whole thing. It’s literally, what are you good at? I’m at an agency out in California. The agent himself happens to be a pro bass fisherman. Guess what he writes? He writes pro bass fish boats on there. When you think about different things– or my wife and I, we own an inn up here in the Adirondacks. If I’m going to go out and I’m going to start writing commercial business, I’m going to go after inns, motels and those types of businesses because I have an affinity for them already. That’s where you’re looking at that as far as in the expertise. What do you either love to do, love to talk about? I’ve heard there’s a couple of agents out there who might like to play golf. Well, I’ve actually run into agents who write golf courses or one agent I met one time years ago, he wrote boat and yacht business. He actually had himself 13 vessels that he personally owned. I said to him one time, I said, “Well, when do you find time to come into the agency?” He looked at me without breaking, he even smirked on there, and he said, “What’s an agency?”

His agency was his boat because he loved his boat and he was out on that all the time, going to different marinas, talking to other boaters, writing that business. That was his expertise. Now, take that same thought process and come over into the next column. That one I’ve labeled on there, Company Appetite. In other words, taking those same 10 classes of business, thinking about the companies that you represent, what percentage of them want to write that class of business? Again, if every one of the ones that you have will write that business, well, then that’s your 10. If there’s one market that you have that’s a niche market, that’s your one. Any of those different things– up here in the Northeast, we now are going into nanotechnology as a big thing down in Albany, New York. There are some agents that are specializing, as we started talking about, with nanotechnology. There are companies that can underwrite that and do that well. Again, just like you did in expertise, classes are anywhere, rank in there from a 10 to a one with no duplicates on there. Any questions about the company appetite?

Joel: No. I think this gives you a great vision. You’re going through a process here, but maybe identify some of your need as well. If you’re really, really love something and you have expertise, but you have really one or no carriers, you need to get to work.

John: Right. That’s exactly a point I’m going to come to in a second when we go through the other ones. Hang on to that thought because that’s part of what you’re going to look for as some disparities or some gaps in some of the things that are on there. Again, keep in mind, drawing this out for you visually. We’re over now into column four. We’ve completed that one with that Total column still being blank. The fifth column that you have in there is Availability. What availability is, is just how many of these type of businesses for you to write are we talking about? I was in one agency in Connecticut and I was talking with one of the producers there. We were going through this as an exercise on how to really efficiently and effectively use her time. I said, “Well, do you have an expertise? What is it that you have to feel like you have companies for?” She actually said to me, I’ll never forget this one, she said, “John, I want to write silkscreen T-shirt printing manufacturers.”

Joel: Pretty precise. [laughs]

John: I didn’t know much about it. Yes, I figured with every word that came into there, that universe kept just getting smaller with each word she added. I just said to her, just kept a straight face and just said, “Well–” I said, “Approximately, how many of those businesses would you estimate there are in the tri-state area of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island?”, which is basically her territory. She didn’t skip a beat. She looked at me and she said, “John, I can think of at least three of them.” After I hesitated, my question was, “Well, then once we write those, what do you want to do after launch? Because you pretty much now have exhausted what your availability on those ones are.”

Again, I would just oppose that with the idea of– I met one time a producer who specialized in the general liability policy for hair salon stylists. Now, when you think about that, not a lot of people writing those because of the fact that the availability, it’s like, “Okay, well, yes, there’s a bunch of them. However, we don’t write them sometimes because there’s really just not much of a revenue stream from them.” What he had figured out is saying, “Okay, my availability can be countrywide.” What he did is he created a website that simply went through. You fill in about seven questions, you hit Enter, put in any of your credit card information, and you could be issued a certificate for having insurance for the hair salon stylist on there. Again, some people would say, “Yes, but John, that’s $200 maybe at a 15%, 18% commission.” Well, yes, but if you write hundreds and even thousands of them with no service work that goes into that, the premium is all realized, right, to begin with, all the claims you’re handled back out of there.

At the time when he was doing it, for most companies, those policies automatically renewed unless you otherwise canceled them. He had found a way to make a little money times thousands on there with little to no effort. He had, again–

Joel: Very scalable here, right?

John: Exactly.

Joel: Sitting [crosstalk].

John: He would go to trade shows– I’m sorry, go ahead.

Joel: No, I was just saying he maintained the website. It’s a self-serve option. He just provided the conduit.

John: Absolutely. I laid that out there as really those two– you can have those two ends of the spectrum, if you will, as far as the type of business that you want to. You can have one, but there are literally thousands of opportunities available to you electronically. Or if you even think about in the communities in which you would live as far as, “Okay, if I’m going to go after mom-and-pop restaurants on there,” or, “I’m going to go after dentists. Do I live in an area that will actually support this? Because if I can’t just drive past them–

I live in a little town up in Upstate New York with 1,620 people in it as full-time residents.” You’re not going to blow the cover off of– even if you write everyone in this town, you’re limited to where you’re going to go. You have to develop other strategies to expand your availability on there. That’s a whole another discussion on how to go ahead and do that, but it’s looking at those things in there with availability. We talked about expertise. We talked about your company appetite, and we talked about availability of how many of those may actually be there.

The fourth one is– again, in your mind’s eye, if you can just do this for me, in the top column where you’ve been putting everything in there, this one here, take the word and put it upside down. That word is competition. Why I asked you to put that upside down is if you have everyone else going after that class of business, then that’s a one. If no one else is looking at it, it’s a 10. Again, if you think about any of those ones going across that that you may have had– mom-and-pop shops, who doesn’t write those? You may have anything with a gas station. You may have anything with legal or the physicians offices or any of those. Pretty much any agent that has a shingle out there is going after those. Those are going to be your ones. In some cases, you may have the really big boys out there looking at it. One of the things that we had as a discussion leading up to this is talking about those agencies not only who want to specialize, but those who want to sit there and say, “You know what? We’re not paying you on commission as a producer for anything under $2,500 in commission.”

I’ve been heard to say more than one occasion on there, “Well, where is your agency located? Because I want to set up a shop in that neighborhood and offer 24.99 and below.” Because those are opportunities that the competition may be overlooking.

Joel: Got it. From a marketing standpoint, I always talked about how much noise is in that space? You’re talking very much commercial lines here, but I’m a personal lines guy, was for years, but I see personal lines all over this as well. Obviously, whole another podcast, whole another discussion, you’re using your commercial lines example, but I think of everybody and their mother wants to write– everybody that’s hanging a shingle wants to write home and auto insurance. There’s a lot of noise in that space. I think back in my days as an agent or broker, I start talking about, “Well, how many people are into discussion about leisure and lifestyle type products, boats, cottages?” Well, there is not very many in that conversation, so I’m going to immerse myself in that conversation, knowing full well that maybe some of that peripheral stuff will end up coming in. Sorry, I might have muddied the water there a bit, John. It was what was going in my head.

John: No, not at all. I think that that’s a great point because, again, believe it or not, my background is in personal lines as well on there. Some of those same things apply because exactly to your point, not– I’ve met this gentleman and know him fairly well as well. He started off in the renters market. Because, again, think of how many agents don’t want to go ahead and write renters policies. Well, he kind of specializes in them. Again, it’s a highly automated one work. He has gotten with associations. He’s talked to them about the importance of people renting in their facilities, having this.

Again, it’s a great lead aspect that’s on there because, to your point, you may find some of those other lifestyle things. Well, they go through and they have– yes, they may rent, but what do they like to do in their spare time? Well, there is ones on there that, well, they may have a boat. They may even have other sort of sporting equipment that they have. I had a nephew and my nephew at one point was ranked number one in New England in mountain biking. Okay, well, that’s neat and everything else. Well, it’s neat, but he had won a frame one time as a sponsorship on there and the frame for his mountain bike.

Now, keep in mind, no tires, no derailleurs, no handlebars, no anything on this, just the frame was valued at $9,000. You start throwing the wheels on that, you start throwing all of the other gears and all of the other functionality in that, now you’ve got somebody with a $15,000 bicycle, that you start realizing, it’s like, “Wait a minute. On an unendorsed H03, H04, H06 policy, how much of that’s actually covered?” You start talking to people about those things and what they like to do in their spare time, what they have in there. You’re right, you can expand this type of thought process and mentality out into a personal lines arena as well.

Joel: Yes.

John: Now, think about those four columns. You’ve gone ahead and had your classes business anywhere from a 10, all the way down to a one. Now what you do is you go back up in the columns and start going across by row. In other words, on your first row, add up what’s your expertise number, plus your company appetite, plus your availability, plus your competition. Add those up, and just go down row by row. What you quickly understand is, those numbers could be anywhere on an individual class level, anywhere from a 40, if every one of those was a 10, all the way down to a four, if all four of those categories were a one. What it quickly identifies is saying, “Wait a minute. I was thinking I was going to go after 10 of these. However, there’s two or three that they’re just jumping off the page at me because they’re in the high 20s and low 30s as far as priority based on how I went ahead and force-ranked those.”

Joel: I love it. I love this process, because I am sure that most agencies probably, if they’ve ever even considered something like this, they’ve done it after the fact, and let alone done it from day one or at a restructure point. I love this idea of identifying what it is you’re going to do. Anybody that has listened to anything that I’ve been part of or had the, I will call it the great pleasure of being on the phone with me in a business sense, knows that I really promote the customer experience. To me, that’s where an agency defines itself and separates itself out. To me, if you know what you’re going to be good at, those, like you said, three or four, call them niches, call them areas, call them policy types, you can really then leverage that to decide what does the customer experience look like to achieve maximum profitability, but also maximum customer delight in those areas.

John: It really is from that aspect of it. It’s also one of the ones I look at it and say– because again, my background, before really kind of getting into sales and everything else, was as a process engineer. When people here that, they’re like, “How can I be more efficient?” My point is this, don’t try to be more efficient. Instead, focus on becoming less inefficient. I know that sounds like consultants speak, but think about what we’re talking about in here. I’ll take it over to a payment type. Again, on the personal lines example, it would be, “When people come in to make a payment, how do I make that 15-minute experience 10?” I said, “I’m going to tell you how to not have the experience at all.” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, why are they coming into your office to make a payment?” “Well, because they’re on installment bills.” “Okay, great. Well, when you sold that policy, how did you position that?”

If I went through and I said, “Well, Joel, you know what? Well, here’s your policy. We’ve got some great stuff for you. We’ve actually been able to expand it to now take in your boat, your bicycle, your mountain bike and everything else there. Now, with regard to paying for this, which method would you prefer? If you have it, I can give you this discount if you pay in full today. Otherwise, I’ll go ahead and I’ll set up the payment to go directly to your bank.” I learned that from an agency who at the time, when they were running their agency, they were having 22% of the time, clients were paying in full. Again, it’s one of those things where, “That’s great. I do have some savings. I can go ahead, pay my insurance in full. I don’t have to worry about keep making payments.” 22% of the time, the answer was, “Pay it in full.” 77% of the time, it was, “Send the bill to my bank.” You start realizing in this agency, it was a rarity that they would ever have anyone come in to spend 15 minutes making a payment.

Joel: For the 1% people that wanted to, is it really worth your time?

John: That’s the point. When you look at it, and in some cases when we’ve run through this other exercise, and I’ll go back to a point you mentioned along the way on there, but we go back to the exercise, and when people are saying, “Yes, but John, I really want to write this one that only has eight points or 12 points in total,” it’s like, “Why? Why wouldn’t you focus on the things that are mid 30s or high 20s?” Because what you’re going to find in there is you’re going to find there are certain approaches and processes that apply to all of those being done efficiently in that. To your point, what we can end up doing is looking for the gaps. I’ve had some people fill that out, and boy, they’re a nine in expertise, and it’s like a four in company appetite. If availability is high, it’s one of those sevens or eights, and competition is low, being the fact that that would end up being a four or five, if you just think about those four numbers in that sequence, what would you suggest that I do if my expertise is a nine, company appetite’s a four, the availability is an eight, and the competition is a five? What should I focus on, just with those four numbers?

Joel: My first inkling is I’m going to have to focus on talking to some of my companies or finding a carrier with some more appetite there so I have some some options. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong.

John: Bingo. No, no, that’s exactly what it is. That’s what I mean. I have some people who will dismiss it saying, “That’s overly simplified.” I’m like, “Okay, tell me what you’re doing today.” It’s one of those ones where, if they’re honest with me, what they would say is, “Okay, my hour is spent six minutes at a time with each of those 10.” I look at it and say, “Well, some of them don’t deserve any of your minutes, while other ones you should probably be giving 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes to, to really maximize the effort. You’re exactly right to look at those disparities within those.” It’s the same thing. If my competition is at a one because everybody else is looking at it, availability is low, my company appetite is low, but my expertise is high, it’s like, “Pick something else because those cards are going to be stacked against you.” Or the same thing. I’ve seen some people who said, “Oh no, boy, companies will write this all day long.” That’s a nine as far as company appetite, high availability, but my expertise is a three. In that case, what would you suggest? If you’re looking down the paper and one of your producers has those numbers in front of them, what are you going to suggest to them to go ahead and maximize that?

Joel: They need to educate themselves. They need to immerse themselves in that world, whatever it is. Whether it’s some online study, maybe going to an appropriate trade show or an event to educate yourself about what it is you want to sell.

John: Absolutely. They’re using– [crosstalk]

Joel: There needs to be a little bit of passion there too, right? If the question is maybe they’re just uneducated, but they do enjoy it, it’s one thing. If they’re uneducated and they don’t like it, that may be one of those things where you got to walk away.

John: Absolutely. That’s one of those things where– I’ve been accused in my past life of being, “John’s passionate about everything.” One time I was actually even in a management meeting, and somebody in the meeting had made, “John, you could talk passionately about a box of cereal.” Everybody kind of laughed and we moved on and everything else. I knew how the comment was directed, but then I came back later, about five minutes later in the discussion, I said, “Charles,” I said, “You made a comment before about I could get passionate reading a cereal box.” Everybody in the meeting is looking at me and I said, “What kind of cereal was it?” At first, he doesn’t understand the question. I said to him, I said, “Well, because if it was bran flakes, yes, not so much, but if we’re going to talk about Captain Crunch with crunch berries, I’ll read that all day long.”

The point I was trying to make in there is, don’t be confused about being passionate about everything, apart from the fact, as I tell people, I don’t spend my time on things I’m not passionate about. On a lot of those type of things, you’re right. I would focus on it to begin with, because I’m saying, “I’m going to be more successful if it is something that I really either know about or I am passionate about.” That’s why I love that you distinguished those things when we were first going in that category, because then you can learn about things. You have great stuff out there like the Producer Pro or Producer Online, depending on whatever Rough Notes is calling it nowadays. You can look at those things or you can bring up instant credibility. There’s a couple of different marketing things. I’ve sat through some demos recently that have content based on class codes so you can develop your expertise. Or in the case that we were talking about there before with an eight or nine, you can also be looking at things saying, “You know what? I’m going to go ahead and create even a stronger partnership with my company rep or with our underwriter saying, “Okay, teach me about this because I’ve got an opportunity here, but it’s being hampered by the fact that I’m not really completely sure on what I am talking about.”

Joel: Yes, absolutely. There’s this great software technology out there too for people that want to educate themselves on something. It’s called Google. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it or not, but [laughs] I would highly recommend it for some information. It could be dangerous, there’s lot, but I think the moral of the story is here, information is at our fingertips. If we want to be educated and we want to learn about something, it’s easy to find.

John: Well, and again, I think putting a bow on this whole discussion is why I ever even looked at that is because I wanted the agency and those producers within the agency to focus. What you’ll do is you’ll come up with different process and procedures on there that I’ll go through and have a lasting effect. Because if you hit the top three, let’s say, out of those 10, I’m not saying drop the other seven. I’m just saying, once you got number one figured out and “Hey, what did I do? How did I market that? How did I do this? How did I do that?” what’s going to end up happening is then, if you’re working on two and three, you can add number four to it. Once you got one figured out, then four can go into it and you can just keep going down that whole aspect of adding to your quiver. You may get down to the 10 at some point, but what you’ll realize is the process and procedures that helped you with one, two, and three will be applicable to four, five and six.

Joel: Love it. Love it. Listen, John, I really appreciate your time coming on here. I know people are going to say, “How do I get ahold of John Fear?” What’s the best way for people that heard this and maybe have some questions, how do they get you?

John: Yes. The best way you can reach me, you can reach me at [email protected] or [email protected]. Or you can call my personal cellphone. It’s area code 860-334-6424. That’s 860-334-6424. Again, if there’s any of that type of information, even if it’s you just want to say, “I’m okay with visual copy of this. Do you have an electronic copy of it?” Yes, I do, and I’m more than willing to go ahead and share that with you.

Joel: Awesome, awesome. Thanks again, John. It’s always a pleasure. I know our paths will cross again shortly, and I very much look forward to it.

John: Thank you very much for this opportunity, Joel, I appreciate it.

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