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Customers value independent insurance agents and the professional advice they offer, say the outgoing and incoming presidents of the Independent Insurance Agents of America Inc.
In two upbeat speeches to members, outgoing President Bud Wilson and incoming President William Greenwood extolled the benefits of professional agents compared with direct insurers.
"Independent agents need not offer an apology for our involvement in the insurance transaction, because we offer all these benefits and more," said Mr. Wilson, chairman of Wilson Insurance Agency Inc. in Chula Vista, Calif. "Consumers, it is clear, want an agent," he continued.
The incoming IIAA president echoed these sentiments. "We are the best distribution system, the best way to sell insurance," said Mr. Greenwood, the president of Lawton Insurance in Central City, Ky.
Messrs. Wilson and Greenwood both addressed the insurance agents' group at the opening and closing sessions at the recent 103rd annual IIAA meeting held in Boston.
Agents cannot become complacent, however, just because customers want their services. Mr. Wilson said agents need to use best practices, foster a culture of aggressive selling, improve customer service and bring younger people into the agency system.
"I challenge every agency principal to create an environment for young agents to succeed," he said.
He also advised the organization to undertake an aggressive advertising campaign designed to make independent agents a brand name with the public, similar to an old campaign featuring actor Raymond Burr as the agents association's spokesman.
"We must rekindle that vibrant spirit with a new program that stirs emotion and ties people firmly to independent agents," he said.
But to launch a campaign will require money to counter a $100 million campaign by GEICO Corp., a large direct auto insurer.
"We'll know it's worth it when the words 'independent agent' come to mind quicker than name-brand direct writers," Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Greenwood also emphasized that an advertising campaign is the key for independent agents' continued success.
"Unless the independent agency system starts doing a better job of bringing in new customers, the rest of our efforts are pointless," he said.
Advertising is needed to counter the campaigns by direct writers and exclusive-agent insurers that have outspent agency insurers and taken away business, Mr. Greenwood said.
But any advertising campaign must be done in conjunction with the insurers the agents represent, many of which have put their name before the public without recognizing the role the agent plays in selling insurance, Mr. Greenwood said.
"Many insurance companies, for far too long, have promoted their logos and products without also promoting an equally important element -- their sales force," he said.
"Agents and companies must work together to focus our marketing efforts so that we can reclaim that market share and better serve our customers," he continued.
"If we're truly partners in this business, let's act more like it," he declared.
Better use of technology is also important for agents to succeed, Mr. Greenwood said. For too long, insurance companies have operated different, incompatible computer systems. This complicated agents' lives and made them reactive to the insurers.
The Internet, however, has changed all that, he said. Internet technology can be used by agents to raise the bar on customer satisfaction while overcoming the problem of multiple, incompatible computer systems.
The Internet presents an opportunity "to eliminate the duplications that were so much a part of our direction in the late 1980s," he said.
"Let's look at the Internet as nothing less than our most important business tool," he said.
To push Internet use, Mr. Greenwood said the IIAA has established a council for technology. In addition, he has set a goal of connecting each IIAA agency to the Internet.
But better technology must be used to help customers, not just to process business, he said.
"Too many agents, even successful agents, believe they've done a good day's work when they've kept up with the data processing," he said.
This attitude has to change, he said. "Let's go beyond internal efficiencies to spend more time with customers, in both a sales and service capacity," he said.