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Is Your Agency Too Comfortable: Part One

growth May 12, 2017

Great growth requires letting go of complacency

It dawned on me recently that too many agencies and their teams are too comfortable (or complacent) to really grow. What they have are “lifestyle agencies,” which is absolutely okay if that’s what they want.

Gary Holgate, my mentor in the business and the first-ever true independent agency consultant, always said that what happens at so many agencies is that the owners start out selling insurance and wind up running a business. So often, they get overwhelmed by the day-to-day minutiae of operating an agency and subsequently fall into the trap of just being busy.

Now the good news/bad news is that you don’t have to implement many— if any—of the Sitkins Strategies to do just fine. As we’ve discussed many times, in this business, owners and producers can make a great living and support a very nice lifestyle without having to do too much, aside from just showing up. It’s hard to find fault with that!

At the same time, it’s easy to get comfortable too quickly and find yourself in a rut. (My favorite definition of a rut: a grave with the ends kicked out.) Sure, it’s a comfortable rut, because it pays pretty darn well. Compare insurance to a “normal” industry, where you’d have to work fairly hard and put in a lot of time, effort, and energy to make $100,000 a year. That’s rarely the case in our business.

Consequently, to have great growth, agency owners need to get uncomfortable.

We see people fall into routines that have been around since the Dark Ages. When asked why they do what they do on a day-to-day basis, most people will respond, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” At least that’s been my experience with owners and producers, based on the hundreds of one-on-one consulting sessions I’ve conducted over the years. There’s no rhyme or reason to why most of them do what they do—it just happened.

Blinding flash of the obvious: That’s the “comfortable way.” It’s how they’ve always done things, and they can just float along and do well. Even though the agency is losing millions of dollars of future value, the owners, and thus the team members, are just going with the flow. As I mentioned in this column recently, you have to stop drifting along (see the February 2017 issue of Rough Notes). Why? The way you’ve always done it has gotten you where you are today and will most likely keep you there! At least that’s the way things used to work.

For years you’ve heard me say, “If you always do what you always did, you’ll always get what you always got.” But in our business, that theory has been challenged by digital disruption and the move by insurance carriers to aggressively reduce commission levels. As a result, if you always do what you always did, you’re going to get less! Maybe you’re comfortable on a day-to-day basis, but in reality you have not even come close to reaching your max yet. Is it possible that, even though you’re doing okay, you’ve become too comfortable to achieve financial freedom?

Signs that you’re too comfortable

Here are just a few indicators that your agency may be too comfortable to realize meaningful growth and maximum profitability and value. You’re doing okay, but not great, if:

  • Your revenue per employee is more than $150,000 but less than $200,000.
  • Your revenue per seasoned producer is more than $300,000 but far below $750,000.
  • Your operating profit is more than 15% but less than 25%.
  • The majority of your customers are part-timers.
  • Your technology is being underused.
  • You have no culture of accountability. This is absolutely one of the most significant problems in the independent agency system today. No matter how many great initiatives you announce (a superior client experience, full-time clients only, etc.), they’re meaningless if no one is held to do what they said they were going to do. Without accountability, the staff may seem enthusiastic when in fact they’re thinking, “This too shall pass.” So long as the agency is doing okay, there’s no impetus to enforce accountability (particularly for owners who are averse to conflict).
  • You’re ignoring digital disruption. It’s uncomfortable even to consider how digital technology is changing the way we do business. Perhaps you’re still telling yourself, “The Internet will never replace me! My clients would never buy that way.” Really? Then why are your online competitors thriving? If you’re still selling based only on price, you’re going to get disrupted sooner than you think. And that’s a whole different level of discomfort.
  • Client conversations are strictly superficial. Is your staff so focused on transactions that conversations with clients are nothing more than surface-level, generic interactions? Maybe you’re comfortable simply processing transactions, but if you want to do better than just okay, you should be comfortable cultivating and maintaining client relationships.

You’ve probably surmised what needs to happen if you want your agency to grow: You have to get uncomfortable. In doing so, owners will maximize the value of their assets, and producers can give themselves a raise.

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