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How do I motivate my producers to sell more? What programs will create sales from my customer service agents? What can I do to increase the revenues handled by each employee? How can my agency staff work more closely as a team to cross-sell property/casualty and life/health products?

These questions are on the mind of every agency owner or manager, no matter the size of the business or where it is located. Management must, in today's fast-paced, competitive environment, take on these challenges. Every business today strives to get to the next level, not just in productivity but also in customer service, sales and profits. All four of these areas are so interconnected that if one is lagging behind in performance, the other three come tumbling down.

Managers look to their employees for improved productivity, asking them to work faster, smarter and harder. But this isn't enough. This advice may be good, but it doesn't work unless the culture of an agency supports a higher level of productivity. And it is the leaders and managers at the top of the organization who determine that culture.

The following three key areas create this environment. When they are in place and in practice, not only does productivity improve but so does morale, customer service, sales and, ultimately, profits:

1. Be a role model.

Are you positive in every action, word and thought, and are you supportive of your employees and customers? Is your own office organized? Do you show yourself to be sensitive to the jobs your staff have to do, minimizing their interruptions and not asking them to make procedural exceptions for your business? Be aware at all times that employees mirror and follow those in charge.

One of my clients who runs a small agency in a big city walks his talk. One evening, I called my client after hours, at 5:45 p.m. An employee answered the phone courteously and professionally. While I was on hold for the owner, who was on another line, two other employees picked up the line to be sure I was being helped. I asked each person I spoke with why she was working late; each cheerfully said she had work to do to stay ahead of her commitments to her customers. The culture is clear in this firm, and both quantitative and qualitative results prove it. Good leaders set the standards and tone of an organization.

2. Communicate clearly and consistently on three levels.

People can be productive only when they know what is expected of them and how they are doing. And it's the leadership of the organization that makes that possible. Communication must occur on three levels: throughout the office, throughout the department, and with individuals.

On the office level, practice open-book management. This style of management clearly explains to the staff the company goals, where the company dollars are spent, what production agreements are in place, what in the marketplace affects their jobs in the areas of customer service and the placement of business, and so on.

Employees can then see how their work is meaningful to the organization. Quarterly state-of-the-office meetings should be held with some fanfare to keep employees abreast of dynamic changes that occur and results that are being produced. Post the results in the break room or conference room to keep the staff focused.

On the department level, don't let e-mail and voice mail replace all-important face-to-face communication. Schedule department meetings, set agendas, involve everyone on the team, and allow time for creative thinking about how to improve customer relations and

individual and team performance.

Here are two tips to involve staff in meetings. First, on a rotating basis, assign each person 15 minutes on the agenda to present a topic of his or her choice, such as sales success strategies, automation tips to save time, or coverage topics. The second tip is quite simple. After employees return from a continuing education or professional development class, have them share, at the next scheduled meeting, three things that they learned.

Be sure there is clear communication among department team members. Bimonthly account renewal meetings should be held with the producer and customer service representative to review strategy, to assess changes with the account and in the marketplace, and to define who will do what in the renewal process.

On an individual basis, conduct performance reviews twice a year. People need feedback. Be sure your appraisal form addresses teamwork, problem solving, initiative, and judgment; do not limit the form to quantitative issues. In addition, management needs to give ongoing verbal feedback, hopefully praising a job well done by each employee, at least once a week.

3. Give your staff a challenge, then get out of the way.

Let's go back to a few of the challenges noted earlier. If your goal is to cross-pollinate business between departments, offer that challenge to your staff at the next state-of-the-office meeting. Let your employees know what rewards are in it for them, such as a monetary or non-monetary incentive program, and what results must be produced.

Form an ad hoc committee, with a representative from each department. Explain that the committee's mission is to design the program, decide how to monitor it, plan the incentives for success, and so on. Allow the creative juices of committee members to flow. Give the committee target dates to meet for feedback to management and for the completion and kickoff of the final program.

To meet the challenge of increasing revenues per employee, you will have to change processes, work flow and, most likely, job responsibilities. When presenting the challenge to team members, ask them, "What don't you need to be doing?" Not surprisingly, the team may have been doing extra, unnecessary work if processes are outdated.

Change is difficult. Even if results are what they should be, we all have a tendency to be more comfortable with familiar ways of doing things. Be sure to be open to the ideas offered by your staff members. Overcome your resistance to their challenges, and accept change with enthusiasm and diligence.

The culture of an organization must change to improve employee productivity. Allow for creative alternative processes to achieve results -- there is no one right way. Know that making mistakes are necessary for an organization to move forward -- staff members learn from mistakes and make changes. Remember that constant, consistent two-way communication and feedback are crucial for success.

So, before you point the finger at your unproductive staff, remember the three fingers that point back at you. Now, what will you do to create a productive, positive environment

Emily Huling is president of Selling Strategies Inc. in Terrell, N.C. Ms. Huling provides consulting services and instruction in sales and customer service techniques.