Matt O’Neill, CXO, Beyond Insurance
What do independent agencies do to grow? How is it different than before?
Michael Jans and Matt O’Neill, Chief Experience Officer of Beyond Insurance, dig into one of the more challenging issues facing today’s agency principal: what’s the best way to grow in our ever-changing industry?
In his time at Beyond Insurance, Matt has empowered insurance agents, carriers, and other professionals to capture unrealized potential. In this discussion, he shares the seven keys to organic growth, including:
- How today’s agency can stand out from the crowd
- How to fill your funnel with the right prospects
- How top producers reach their potential
Matt delivers a concise summary of years of successful field research and practical approaches in this episode––perfect for agencies seeking to grow organically in 2020.
Presented by Agency Revolution, the Connected Insurance Podcast provides weekly opportunities for listeners to dive deep into the trends affecting insurance agents and brokers today and to gain proven strategies and tactics for agency growth. Our hosts facilitate thoughtful panels and 1:1 conversations with a variety of prominent thought leaders, with a focus on how to streamline and drive operational efficiency for your independent agency through the intelligent use of technology.
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Michael: Matt O’Neill, how you doing?
Matt: I’m doing great. Thank you for having me.
Michael: I’m excited about this conversation because you and I share something in common. We have a passion for organic growth in the independent insurance agency. It’s my turn to pick your brain. Let’s first start out with a brief bio. Who are you? How did you get to be there?
Matt: First of all again, thank you so much for having me on today. I really appreciate it. I’m Matt O’Neill, and I’ve been working with Beyond Insurance for a little over eight years. I actually came right out of school. I originally was selling windows and doors and siding door-to-door.
Michael: As you know, I also had a door-to-door background that I think it’s a terrific background for every entrepreneur. I sold dry cleaning certificates.
Matt: You understand the fear of going up to a door to a complete stranger and trying to convince them of a product that they may not necessarily need.
Michael: They needed my products.
Matt: They needed windows too I’m sure. Then you get rejected and you just walk down the steps, walk to the next door, and you do it all over again. I learned a lot, but that’s how I rolled into Beyond Insurance and the philosophy of the company where we’re adding more value as opposed to doing an apples to apples price and product quote. It really resonated with me, and that’s where I had the opportunity to learn under Scott and grow while we were at his insurance agency. Now I get to work with a wonderful network of insurance agencies around the country, and a group of underwriters.
Michael: When you reference Scott, Scott is Scott Addis who is a long-time friend and colleague of mine, and he has also been one of the early podcast guests. Thank you very much for joining us, and we’ll dig into that in a little bit. I really want to dive into some of the– You guys are doing some cutting-edge work right now doing some research and giving people an opportunity to get feedback, so I want to talk to you about what you’re doing in regards to identifying the mindset of the growth-oriented agency principle and some of the distinctions between them and those who don’t have that mindset.
Matt: I think we’re in a very interesting time within this industry. I’m sure a lot of people that are listening to your podcast can feel it as an agency or perhaps even as an agent.
Michael: If they’ve been listening to this podcast, then they know it’s an interesting time.
Matt: Absolutely. You and I being outsiders trying to impact the community and give guidance on where the future of the industry is heading, I think that we’re uniquely positioned to elaborate on the fact that things like M&A and all the insurtech that’s coming into the industry and automation, it puts a big question mark over the head of not just the independent agents, but the independent agency system. I think you and I would agree that the independent agency system, there is still a vital need for it.
I don’t think we believe that it is going to go away completely, but it is going to change in the next two, three, five years. Even within one year realistically. What we’ve been able to identify is that there are some agencies out there that we would call growth-oriented agency leaders. These are people that have a desire to remain independent, but sometimes struggle to develop a unique enough value proposition that sets them apart in their local marketplaces.
That’s where the battle against commoditization comes in. We also know that a lot of agencies aren’t in a position to even grow just for a number of different reasons around the longevity of it.
Michael: I’m going to ask you to hold that thought because you said something a minute or two ago I can’t ignore. The change in the industry. I think you’re positioning it as a central point. It’s a serious time. It’s a time when people have to be somewhat vigilant. You said that you and your firm stand on the premise that it won’t completely go away, so let’s dig into that a little bit.
Michael: Would your observation indicate that this channel may shrink?
Matt: If we look at the way other industries have been impacted by technology, I think we’ve seen a consolidation, and the best of the best survive, so to speak. If you ask any of the agencies that we’re working with, they’re getting called daily by these large organizations trying to buy up agencies and offering exorbitant amounts money for it as well, but we know that a lot of agency leaders really want to remain independent if they have that option and they have the luxury of having a strategy to keep the organization alive long-term.
Michael: Clearly we’re going to see consolidation. I think you suggested a couple of reasons; technology and private equity.
Matt: Yes, those would be two.
Michael: A lot of the private equity firms own centrally but locate locally or operate locally. The local community may not notice much of a difference.
Matt: Exactly. They understand that these local agencies, the reason that they’ve been so successful or have been around for as long as they have is because they still have that local feel. The challenge is when you join a larger national organization like that, the demand of growing usually end up in cutting costs and increasing the organic growth. A lot of these larger guys, not trying to throw stones at them, but they sometimes will lack a strategy or a road map to help the agency grow to that degree which puts a lot of pressure on these agency leaders.
Michael: Let me throw in one or two other things, changes in consumer behavior. Let’s say the rise of the millennial generation. Do you think some agency leaders won’t survive this transition, this transformation of the industry that you’re talking about simply because it’s not what they signed up for, they don’t want to learn a whole lot of new skills that are necessary in the modern age. Some of the consolidation of the industry, you think that’s one reason why it’s not everybody’s up to the task or chooses not to be up to that task?
Matt: I think what you’re getting at, and it’s something that I’ve been researching fairly closely, and I recently wrote an article on Rough Notes about this actually in the last month or so that it came out was about organizational culture. I think that there is an opportunity to assess an organization’s culture and identify are the traits or are the behaviors that you’re trying to live it throughout the agency, are they traits that would attract the type of talent that you need to have your agency continue to grow and thrive?
I hear from a lot of agencies that the talent pool is really thin and it’s really challenging to hire quality talent or even attract millennials to the agency. Being an outsider, if you look at a lot of these agencies and the way that they’re run and structured, if they don’t have an attractive or an appealing culture as opposed to a lot of the other options that are probably either in the marketplace or nearby metropolitan areas, they will find a challenge, but that’s something that can be fixed as well.
Michael: I would agree with you 110%. I don’t hear that from agencies that have a great agency. They have a waiting list of people who want to come work there. I think particularly if we want to attract millennials into the industry, they can’t walk into an insurance agency where that feels like it’s 1995 and they’re using tools from 1995 or 2005. If we want a modern agency and we want people who can relate to the modern customer, we need a modern agency.
Matt: 100%. I can say that because I’m a millennial too. [crosstalk] that era.
Michael: Right. You work with cool tools. You don’t want to work eight hours a day or whatever it is, then go home and say, “Finally, cool tools.”
Matt: [laughs] Exactly.
Michael: “Finally, I’m walking into the modern age.”
Matt: They want a fun experience.
Michael: Then when you go to work, “I’m walking out of it.” It doesn’t work.
Matt: Exactly. That’s 100%. They don’t want to have to be one totally different person when they walk in the office and then be totally different when they get home. They want a fun experience, whether it’s in the office, whether it’s on the road, whether it’s working with clients. They want to be able to enjoy what they’re doing. It’s up to the agencies to create a culture that is fun and makes insurance fun, which believe it or not, it can be if you have the right processes in place.
Michael: Right, work can be a blast. Especially fast-growth agencies are lots of fun. There’s a lot of excitement. You and your firm, you have identified characteristics of this growth-driven agency. Is it for the agency leader, or they’re characteristics of the agency leader? Are you looking at members of the team or both?
Matt: That’s a really great question. There’s three areas that we are assessing today when it comes to an organization’s ability to grow. The first one is the individual agent or producer. There are certain characteristics that an agent needs to be successful beyond just the technical insurance background. It’s things like do you have an ability to build your pipeline effectively. Are you connecting with clients, and this one will resonate with you, connecting with clients where their attention lies like social media or online.
Do you have an effective cross-selling or account rounding process? Things like that. We’ve been assessing those four individuals, but we’ve also been doing that on agency-wide scale through some of the assessments that we opened up to the public, I guess is the right way to say it. That’s one area.
Michael: The individual agent or producer?
Matt: Yes, definitely. Individual agents. The second area is the sales leadership. This is, I think, a huge challenge within the industry. This was actually a study that was done by Reagan Consulting. They assessed producer development and realize that 50% of producers have no mentoring system. Imagine bringing in this millennial who’s excited to learn about the business, but then not actually have a roadmap to begin growing, that’s a challenge.
Michael: Do they give them a Yellow Pages and say, “Start calling”?
Matt: That’s where they keep you surprised.
Matt: Oh my God, don’t even get me started on cold-calling. AT&T recently rolled out a phone blocker so that if you don’t have the phone number saved in your phone, it will all automatically go to voicemail. They’re really putting pressure on this cold-calling process, but a number of agencies still rely on that as their primary way to get young agents up and running. The challenge with that is, if you look at that survey even further, they’ve looked at the attrition rate of new agents after three years is only 50%.
Imagine any higher you go, whether they’re the most experienced agent in the marketplace, were completely fresh and green you’re flipping a coin to decide whether they are going to be successful. That a big risk. The dollars invested in that goes even further. We’ve looked at it and we found you’re investing about $100,000 per year on this new agent on training and development. Let’s say after three years, you’ve spent $300,000, and then have to flip a coin and decide whether they’re actually going to stick around or not.
Michael: Those are the ones who have chosen not to go on their own?
Michael: All right. You referenced a study that demonstrated this data. What was the source of the study? Who did this?
Matt: Reagan Consulting.
Michael: Got it, okay.
Matt: Reagan has that. If anyone has an interest, we have that information. I’m happy to send it out if they want.
Michael: Got it. All right. Also, I could reference the interview that I had with Tom Doran at Reagan Consulting. I think we may have another one coming up, but I don’t think that was the topic that we addressed. You have like three levels of assessment, the agent or producer, sales leadership, and the third one?
Matt: The third one and this is the one that I think is most appealing to probably the people listening on today, is what we call the organic growth assessment. This one is just for agency leaders. This one is assessing your ability to grow organically. Do you have the right metrics and processes in place? This is very laser-focused on seven different areas. Do you want to go through the seven a little more in-depth?
Michael: I’d love to, yes. I’m going to squeeze as much out of you as I can.
Matt: Okay, that’s perfect. Let’s start with number one. This is client benchmarking. This is, do you have a process in place that benchmarks customer intimacy and loyalty?
Michael: What kind of data or analysis do you suggest for benchmarking intimacy?
Matt: There’s a number of different ways you can do it. The way that we’ve done it, and we found it’s just so simple this way, and any agency can do this if they open up like a survey monkey account, is sending out what we call the one-question survey. This was developed by a guy named Fred Reichheld. I’m sure almost all of us have been asked this question at one point, but he was challenged to find one question that benchmarks customer intimacy and loyalty.
That question is on a scale from 0-10, how likely would you refer our business to a friend or colleague. It’s the tried and true Net Promoter Score.
Michael: Yes, the NPS score.
Matt: Yes, absolutely.
Michael: Which is really widely used in the industry. It may have come from Baine’s research as I recall, I think he may have come from there. It is widely used. Let me just throw something in here, their research demonstrated that the highly loyal insurance customer, in other words, somebody would rate your agency or their provider as a 9 or 10, deliver seven times the lifetime value of a low-loyalty customer, which is a zero through six, and three times the lifetime value of a neutral customer who would score a seven or an eight.
Boom, I love the fact that the very first thing that you threw out was customer intimacy because that is the roadmap to maximum customer lifetime value.
Matt: Absolutely. A lot of agencies don’t have any process in place today to benchmark it. We thought this is like the most simplistic way. You can do really robust surveys if you want, but at the very core of it, you need to understand how do your customers feel about you. Imagine if you send out a survey, and I know we’re going to bump right up into one-one renewals. Imagine you sent a survey out today, one of your largest clients that’s renewing one-one gives you a four.
You can almost guarantee that they’re either actively looking for a new agent, or other agents are actively shopping or doing a risk assessment to learn about your largest client’s business. That’s a huge threat to your organization. Why not do something as simple as just asking them, “How likely would you refer us?” And see what they’re actually going to tell you. The feedback you’re going to get is going to be amazing. With Survey Monkey, you can actually see the full name if you set it up correctly and their scores. You can see that Jim from Jim Manufacturing gave you a nine. He’s one of your raving fans.
Michael: By the way, I can’t resist throwing in a shameless plug for the host of this podcast. Agency Revolution has an unbelievably elegant and a new NPS feature. I’ve seen it. It is beautiful, it’s really well presented. It looks good on both ends. You look classy when you send it and you get really great information back. In any case, moving on–
Matt: I think technologies like that enhance it even further. I’m glad that you dropped that in there.
Michael: Number one is-
Matt: Number one was client benchmarking.
Michael: -client benchmarking. Number two?
Matt: Now we move to number two. That’s cross-selling. This is, in my opinion, one of the most underutilized sales tactics in many agencies because they don’t have a defined process or deliberate focus on how to cross out effectively.
Michael: We know that the single thing that we can do that probably has the greatest effect on intimacy, is to sell the second or third policy. That’s also really well-researched by Bain. The question essentially is does the agency have a systematic discipline to cross-sell.
Matt: Exactly. One thing that we recommend, and this ties so nicely to what we were talking about a moment ago, the client benchmarking survey, when you see that feedback, the nines and tens are what are defined in the net promoter score process as a promoter. These are people that you’re saying how they do it for us. They are giving you as high of score as possible meaning you at least met and probably exceeded their expectation in terms of your relationship or deliverables.
Not only are these people ripe for obvious referral opportunities because they’re saying, “10 out of 10, I’d refer you,” but because you’ve exceeded their expectations, these are also people that are most receptive to cross-sell opportunities. If you think about your renewal process or if you’re doing a pre-renewal meeting or a stewardship review with key clients, this helps you develop a process focused on only the promoting scores or the promoting clients that would be most receptive to account rounding and upselling.
Michael: Got it. Number three?
Matt: Number three is stakeholder intimacy. This is a defined strategy around making sure that key stakeholders that’s around the organization. Whether it’s prospects, whether it’s the centers of influence that consistently give you and your agents referrals or even the underwriters and carriers. Do you have a process in place to make sure that they know that you appreciate and care for them?
Michael: Do you include in that team members?
Matt: Absolutely. I think employees and family members because we know you got to go home to some spouse, kids, or some other family member, and they got to be happy with you too.
Michael: Cool. Anything else on stakeholder intimacy?
Matt: This could go as far as providing additional education, luncheon learns, additional webinars. There’s tons of research that show that consumers place the most value in professionals that teach them things they don’t know. This is a great opportunity to not only show that you value your prospects, clients, and underwriters, but also provide additional education on areas that they may not have an understanding on. A great example would be cyber liability.
A hot topic in the industry, but if most consumers don’t know the ins and outs of navigating a cyber policy, a cyber bridge or even if the cyber has the right product for them.
Michael: Teach them something they don’t know.
Michael: Adding value. Category number four.
Matt: Category number four is sales leadership. I won’t spend a lot of time here because I know you and I just spoke about this, but it’s something that if you have the bandwidth to have someone come and provide guidance and education and a process to make sure that your agents are onboarded as efficiently as possible, and that they’re held accountable throughout their time within the agency, that’s going to dramatically increase the efficiencies within your organization.
Michael: This is an under-functioning part of the industry. In my observation, I know this is your area of expertise, but you must see this all the time with agencies that you work with that, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice if I could just hire a producer, give them their commission and their base, and I don’t have to worry about them again.”
Michael: That’s not life, is it?
Matt: We know that it’s not totally feasible for everyone. It’s actually something that we just rolled out, a modified sales leadership program to a flex group of agents that’s still being rolled out in the industry. It’s guidance for an agency leader who doesn’t have the bandwidth to bring on a sales leader. What’s the roadmap that you can take that allows you to still develop new business because we know a lot of agency leaders are still in that position of driving new business opportunities, but also lead and guide and mentor your agents in an effective way possible.
How are you splitting that time? It’s something that we’re still working on, but a new program that we’re rolling out.
Michael: Number five.
Matt: Number five. Prospect research and qualification. This is something I think you will also agree with. The way that people need to prospect today has changed from the way people have prospected yesterday.
Michael: For sure. What do you see working in this area? What do you suggest?
Matt: One of the number one questions I get when I’m with an agency is, “How do I fill my pipeline more effectively?” I think with the change in social media, I think that there’s an interesting development within the industry as to how to effectively fill a pipeline from a seasoned agent or agency leader who has done it the same way for so long. You’re seeing these newer agents who are trying to build their brand online because they know that if they can enhance their reputation online where most of our attention lies today, even though it’s a long-term strategy, just like getting out their old-fashioned networking, shaking hands, it will eventually reap the rewards that you’re looking for.
Michael: Anything else on that?
Matt: No. I think that that’s pretty straightforward.
Michael: At a minimum, it absolutely requires some online functionality.
Michael: Got it. We could spend an hour or a workshop.
Matt: Exactly. That’s a whole another podcast.
Michael: Item category number six.
Matt: Number six. This is a consultative sales process. This is, I would say, the core of what Beyond Insurance has been founded on. The philosophy is pretty simple. If you think about really large organizations in your area. In Philadelphia, we have, let’s say, Comcast and Campbell Soup. If Campbell Soup were to loss a product line or if Comcast were to lose a tower, it’s not going to put them out of business because they have two things going for them. One, they’re giants so they can absorb those loses.
Two, they have someone called a chief risk officer. That chief risk officer is applying a systematic enterprise risk management process. It’s a simple process of consult, diagnose, treat, monitor, to those organizations 365 days a year. When we look at most of the insurance that a lot of these agencies or a lot of the agencies listening today are insuring these small businesses, these middle-market businesses. If they have a loss that’s not properly protected because they didn’t have someone come in and first consult with the business and diagnose their risk issue as opposed to just providing an apples to apples quote trusting that the incumbent did their job correctly, that could potentially put them out of business if they’re not properly insured.
That’s going to cause a damaging ripple effect of not only that organizational leader who now lost their business, but all the employees if they were a supplier to any people who could potentially put at risk those companies but also be a major vendor. There’s a large ripple effect. It’s not that these large companies that their risks aren’t important, but it’s almost more important that agents today have a systematic consultative process of consulting with an organization and diagnosing their risk issues before they go into the methods of how to manage that risk which includes risk transfer and going to the insurance marketplace.
Michael: Got it. This would run counter to, “Let me give you a free quote,” right?
Michael: I think often the salesperson has to change the conversation because a perspective buyer maybe starting the conversation with, “I want a quote.” Then frequently the response is, “Let me see what you got.” Now all of a sudden we’re in the commodity game.
Matt: Exactly. That’s just a race to the bottom. When in reality, you’re protecting these families and these business owners’ largest asset. It doesn’t make sense today, and I think if you ask any insurance agent, the perception is a huge issue because your job is so important in your community, but it’s so undervalued.
Michael: The final category, number seven.
Matt: The final category. This one is I think it’s still a growing opportunity in a lot of agencies. This is brand and brand management. We look at some of the best organizations in the world, these international companies. I like to use Starbucks as my personal example, but think of any other great company that has a great customer experience or strong brand. If I walk into I walk into a Starbucks, here in Philadelphia, I walk into a Starbucks over in Europe, I’m going to get the exact same feel, it’s consistency. When you look at some of these agencies that don’t have someone in a branding and marketing and advertising position, even if it’s not a full-time marketer, but just someone that’s having a keen focus on that, agent A could be using totally different materials from agent B, which could be totally different materials from how the account managers are structuring their content.
That disjointed approach can really damage the perceptions about the brand and the professionalism of the organization that they’re working.
Michael: Right. How well do you see agencies dealing with that? My guess is this is another area of major dysfunction.
Matt: Yes, I think people are coming around to it. A lot of agencies I believe are understanding the value of bringing on an marketing and advertising professional into their staff because they understand that not only is it brand consistency, but these marketing professionals to be able to build a pipeline by showing the culture of the organization out in the marketplace through marketing and advertising and social media. I think agencies are coming around.
One thing that I have seen agents do or organizations do for consistency is they create standardized first meeting presentations that everyone uses. Or perhaps they create first meeting binders, and leave them by the front of the office. So anytime an agent goes out to a first meeting or meet with a prospect for the first time, they can take one of those leather-bound, really professional looking binders, and use that so everyone knows that they’re using the same material, so you’re not leaving it up to the producer to create their own content every single time.
Michael: I have a question. I’m circling back to something you said about marketing professionals. Do you see more of the agencies that your firm is working with hiring a marketer on their team?
Matt: Yes. We are very lucky. This is going to be a shout out to– Do you know Dani Kimble from the O’Neill Insurance?
Michael: I’m sorry, with who?
Matt: O’Neill Insurance in Ohio.
Michael: Well, I know O’Neill Insurance for sure.
Matt: O’Neill Insurance is in our network and their Chief Marketing Officer Dani Kimble has really been leading this charge within our network. She’s actually been making her rounds in the speaking circuit, I guess in the industry’s way to say it, just for her passion for demonstrating the positive culture they have within their agency. If you want to see someone who’s been doing something really well from a marketing perspective, I would look at what Dani has been doing with O’Neill Insurance and their social media presence.
I think she’s been leading the charge with saying, “Look, there is value here,” because I think agency leaders when they think about hiring their next professional, they’re thinking who’s the next person that’s going to impact our bottom line, who’s going to drive revenue. Marketers drive revenue indirectly by making sure that your message gets out to the right people.
Michael: I love to hear that and it confirms the other sources of research as well as my own. I think we are seeing some shape-shifting of the independent insurance agency team structure, because more and more agencies are adding this new position. I have one more question that I’ve got to ask you. One, I appreciate you sharing those seven categories that drive organic growth. My other question is what characteristics or traits do you see in the agency leadership and the agency principle or principles that lean that agency towards successful organic growth?
Matt: The agency leaders that we enjoy working with the most are the ones that have a focus on this ability to grow organically and they know they need to do things differently. One of our favorite stories is we always listen to people that say, “We’re feeling burned out. We were just doing the exact same thing. We’re spinning our wheels.” They know that there’s got to be a better way. That’s where we like to focus most of our attention. A great example is, if you look at an agency, Highpoint Insurance in Texas, another agency that we’re working with. Heather Smyrl is their agency leader.
They’re running at about 28% organic growth right now. All because she’s leading from a cultural perspective, saying, “This is the way that we’re doing business in the future. We want to add value. We want to be advocates within our community. We understand the importance of our role as an insurance professional.” They’ve re-branded even their producer name. We don’t usually like to use the term producer because we always want to think, “How can we be different?” Their unique concept processes called Rise 360. They call all of their agents, Rise architects. They call all of their account managers, Rise engineers.
Do you think the architect designs the risk management blueprints to protect the organization and the engineers execute on those? That’s innovative. That’s different. That’s special.
Michael: You’d mentioned that one or more of these assessments are available to our listeners.
Matt: Yes. We’re really excited about this. We re-branded after about a year working on these projects. Now, if you go to beyondinsurance.com, you can actually take these free assessments, one’s for agency leaders, one for producers, one for sales managers, depending on the structure of your organization, completely for free. On top of that, what we’ve actually been doing as a giving back to the insurance community because everything we try and do is really about just trying to serve the insurance community, we’re actually giving like free coaching calls based off of these assessments as well.
Not only are you going to be able to go through the assessment, you’ll be able to benchmark either yourself as an agency leader, or I’d encourage make all your producers go through it and we can aggregate the results for you. You can see where the biggest gaps in your producer development is, and then we’ll get on the phone and we’ll give you everything we have to improve the agency. That’s something that we’ve just decided as just a value of what we want to do to impact the community and really change the way that this industry is serving their local marketplaces.
Michael: That’s very generous. That is on beyondinsurance.com, right?
Matt: Yes, right on the homepage, you’re going to see a big old button that you can take any of those assessments.
Michael: That’s outstanding. If anybody else just has a question or they want to find out more about Beyond Insurance?
Matt: We’re very active, beyondinsurance.com. You can contact any of us. If you have more questions based off of anything that I’ve spoken about today, you’re welcome to reach out to me or any of the other members of Beyond Insurance team. My e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can call us at 484-704-9500 and we’ll help you however we can.
Michael: All right. Boom. Matt, this has been a fascinating conversation. I really appreciate you sharing with us today.
Matt: I again really appreciate. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share with you.