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SEMINARS CAN HELP DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS

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Sponsoring educational seminars can help agents and brokers build relationships with existing and potential clients, as long as such forums avoid direct sales pitches, agents and consultants say.

"The financial services industry has been doing educational seminars for years, but they try to sell something," said Emily Huling, president of Selling Strategies Inc., a Terrell, N.C.-based consulting, speaking and training center that specializes in the insurance industry. "That isn't what it's about."

While the purpose of an educational seminar is not to directly promote or sell the company's products, the seminars can help agents and brokers attract new business, said Ms. Huling. The seminars increase interest in the host agencies and in their products. "I don't have statistics, but my clients tell me that interest grows, they retain business and make prospects clients," she said.

Seminar attendees benefit from having the opportunity to network with people in the insurance industry and gain information that can be useful to their businesses or themselves, said Ms. Huling.

Seminars delve into topics such as workers compensation, employment practices liability and other concerns of risk managers, Ms. Huling said.

Sexual harassment, safety and disaster planning are some of the workplace issues covered in recent seminars. Seminars also can center on issues of personal interest to the attendees, such as stress reduction and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Getting clients to understand the insurance industry, particularly how risk management works, is the objective of the seminars, said Mary M. Daniels, manager of safety and industrial hygiene at Trissel Graham & Toole Inc., an independent insurance agency based in Davenport, Iowa. Seminars "tie clients closer to us. They allow us to reach all clients, from the one-man contractor to the 1,500-man workplace," said Ms. Daniels. "It helps to form a team with them. We become part of their organization, not just another agency."

The information that TGT's clients have taken back into their workplaces from the seminars has increased safety and production and controlled losses, said Ms. Daniels. "They are an excellent business tool that helps keep the company's name in clients' heads and establishes good business relationships with them."

Five key ingredients make an effective seminar, according to Kimberly Paterson, president of Red Bank, N.J.-based consulting company Creative Insurance Marketing Co.:

* A good topic. There is no methodology for selecting seminar topics, Ms. Paterson said. Agents look for issues that clients and prospects may be interested in, get ideas from reading the newspaper and by keeping abreast of what's going on in their market and industry.

* Effective delivery of the content by an expert. "A lot of times someone from the agency staff with expertise on the topic will do it," said Ms. Paterson. The source may work for another company in the industry. Balance on the panel is important, she said. Speakers should not be only from the host agency.

* Hand-out materials that are relevant to the audience and reinforce the agency's image.

* Sufficient promotion of the seminar. One invitation is not enough.

* Follow-up. It is important to establish ongoing communication with the attendees and to provide a way for the attendees to evaluate the seminar.

"Nothing about the idea (of educational seminars) is terribly new," Ms. Paterson pointed out. "It has just increased in the last few years. Agents and brokers are extremely anxious to promote themselves. It's all just about marketing themselves."

Agents and brokers usually get in-house personnel to plan the seminars, said Ms. Paterson. "It's more typical, although using outside firms does happen. Most (agencies) feel they have the internal resources to do it themselves," she said.

Often a sales manager or public relations and advertising department is responsible for organizing the seminar.

"But it's a team effort," said Ms. Huling.

Many factors affect the cost of conducting a seminar, Ms. Paterson said. "If the (agent or broker) uses an outside firm for planning, it's more expensive. Are you serving a meal or just coffee, breakfast or dinner? Is it for a few people in a conference room or hundreds of people? Are you paying the speaker? What about promotion?" she asked.

Ms. Huling said her clients have told her that with invitations, food and drinks, the average cost of a seminar is $25 per person. In her experience, the agency pays for everything. "It's just like planning a party," she said.

Timothy McNelly, vp of Sedgwick of New York in Rochester, said the broker's experience in hosting seminars is that with the room charge and food, costs average $30 to $50 per person.

Ms. Paterson said different approaches can save costs. If in-house staff does all the preparation and doesn't produce elaborate materials, a seminar can be more economical. Smaller agencies that do not have a lot of resources can co-host a seminar with related companies that aren't competitors but could share the costs and contribute to the program development. Partners can bring different perspectives to add interest to the event. If program content is exceptionally strong, Ms. Paterson encourages agencies to charge prospective clients a nominal fee to cover expenses.

Besides cost, scheduling is another element of seminar planning that deserves careful thought.

"We've learned not to schedule seminars on Friday," Mr. McNelly said. "People are more interested in starting their weekends. Mondays aren't good, either. It's the first day and people are dragging. Wednesdays and Thursdays are best."

"We usually have the seminars in the morning, so if we have speakers or guests from out of town, we can use the remainder of the day to show them around," he said. Attendees are treated to coffee, danish and bagels.

Seminars set for mid-afternoon are likely to conflict with people's schedules, said Mr. McNelly.

The seminars last from an hour and a half to two hours and are held in a hotel near expressways convenient for those coming from other cities.

Because Sedgwick's Rochester, N.Y., office finds seminars a good marketing tool, the broker recently has decided to take "a more proactive stance" in conducting them, Mr. McNelly said. The Rochester team has hosted four so far this year and plans to offer two or three more before year- end. Corporate clients and other interested professionals, such as doctors or lawyers, get valuable information at no cost, he added.

Sedgwick's topics cover services available in the insurance industry, bring major issues to the forefront and discuss problems risk managers are facing, Mr. McNelly said. "We don't say that we have the answer, but we offer education" that can lead to a solution, he said.

Sedgwick is conscious it does not turn its seminars into selling sessions. "We don't have to keep saying how great we are," said Mr. McNelly. "The seminar should demonstrate our expertise."

Seminars are particularly helpful in enhancing an agency or broker's reputation, particularly among prospects. "Existing clients know us and expect expertise, whereas new clients may not realize that we have a depth of resources," so they become more eager to use our services, Mr. McNelly said.

"All agencies need to differentiate themselves from the competition," Selling Strategies' Ms. Huling said. Seminars and value-added services help make that distinction, she added.

"We're trying to expand to smaller independent agencies in smaller towns so they can add value and compete with the national brokers and direct distribution centers," Ms. Huling said. "Since distribution is changing and there are so many alternatives for people who are commodity buyers, if the independent agency doesn't differentiate itself by adding value and business assistance, why even go to an independent agency?" she said.

Agencies should conduct seminars several times a year, but start small and make sure the topics and facilities are excellent, Ms. Huling said. She helps agents determine everything, from whom to invite and what kind of invitations should be sent, to what kind of evaluation the agency should use.

"It may be slow in the beginning," Ms. Huling said, "but the more (seminars) you do, the more people will come."

A seminar's attendance depends largely on its topic, said TGT's Ms. Daniels. "Sometimes we can fill a 200-capacity conference room," she said. On the other hand, the agency's lowest attendance was at an environmental issues seminar that drew 20 to 25 people, she said.

TGT also has monthly workshops that it holds in its boardroom. Workshops usually last an entire day and cover multiple topics. A typical workshop would cover accident investigation, fleet safety and hazard communication, Ms. Daniels said. Workshops are more of a one-on-one experience, so the agency limits the number of attendees to 10, she said.

TGT is planning several seminars this year. On July 23, its Sterling, Ill., office is having a seminar on payroll audits, the workers' compensation system changes, and accident investigation.

Audience evaluations are commonly used to measure a seminar's effectiveness. An evaluation should allow guests to list the topics they would like to see covered in the future and if they want to receive additional information in the mail, Ms. Paterson added.

Sedgwick solicits feedback on the overall tone of the seminar, what went well, what went wrong, the speaker's presentation, room conditions and asks additional interest areas, said Mr. McNelly. "This gives us leads for future seminars," he said. "They've gone over very well, which has a lot to do with pre-planning, choosing a good speaker and topic."

However, seminars are not for every agency, Ms. Paterson cautioned. A seminar must suit an agency's style.

"Some companies are hard-core; they pound the pavement" searching for sales and clients, she said. "Others are trying to position themselves in the industry, so it works well for them."

Seminars are "a long-term thing, and some people don't have the patience. This is a good vehicle, but you must put all the pieces together or you run the risk of having a major flop on your hands.'