What comes to mind when you think continuing Ed? Some think of boring, obligatory CE classes about some topic you could not care less about. Others, just think of wasted time they could be doing something “productive.” Maybe you are an insurance nerd like myself and get excited. If that’s the case, don’t waste your time reading this article, I’m preaching to the choir. Admittedly, I do love continuing education. If you are not sold on my view, let me just say that my experience has proven to me that continuing education not only increases sales and retention, it also has some intangible benefits that better serve your agency, your clients, and yourself.
When I started my insurance career well over a decade ago, I was fresh out of college and chomping at the bit to get my agency up off the ground. I was engulfed with lead lists and enamored with spreadsheets projecting my future profits. The last thing I wanted to do was to sit in any more classrooms, memorize any more concepts, or take any more exams. Those days were behind me (or so I thought). It didn’t take me long before I realized that as a green 20-something in the insurance industry, my lack of experience was significantly handicapping my sales.
Going up against veterans of the business as I tried to muscle my way in on their long-established territory (and clients) proved far more daunting than my spreadsheets projected. I licked my wounds from my failed attempts to close accounts, humbled myself, and started to ask why. After all, I was representing a great insurance company, had excellent products, and even better pricing. What was missing? The resounding answer I heard was something along the lines of “the other agent spent a lot of time explaining all of the coverages to us and how they related to our business” or “the other agent offered us solutions and changes from our current policy, removing things we didn’t need and adding things we did” and to beat a dead horse, “we just felt more comfortable with the other agent’s recommendations; they counseled us.” I quickly realized I didn’t know enough to provide that level of expertise, and prospective clients saw right through that. I walked away from this period with two lessons. First, it’s not always just about being the lowest price (a blog topic for another day). Second, I discovered the value of continuing my education in the insurance industry.
I sought to become an expert. I not only wanted to be able to sell more and become successful, I really wanted to be able to provide value to my clients and serve them better. In order to do that I needed knowledge. I had always heard that designations like CIC and CPCU where about as good as they come for being able to call yourself an expert in the insurance industry, so I started there. Maybe I’m just an insurance nerd, however, I saw so much return and value right from the first course that I became a true believer in the value that designation courses could provide me and my agency. I made it a requirement to work for me!
A Culture of Education
One success story that came out of having a continuing education program happened early on in my fledgling agency. I had an administrative assistant that swore she would quit before she would ever get licensed. She was a great team member at that time, however, she quickly became limited in the value she could provide to the agency by not being licensed. At the risk of losing a phenomenal team member, I held fast to my requirement of continuously improving ones education in my agency. She became one of the finest team members to have ever worked for me. Since then, she has become an expert in her field, and an unbelievable resource for less experienced team members. This happened because learning is part of our culture. Apprehensive at first, she loved her first class, became licensed, and never stopped growing.
What Our Program Looks Like
Every year my staff must submit their learning goals to me for approval. We talk about what they want to accomplish and where they want their careers to go. From there we try to pick a course that will be tailored to their interest. I am very open to various courses and never try to shoehorn everyone into taking a CIC or CPCU designation course. My only requirement is that they have to pick a course that requires an exam to pass and they must get some designation at the end of their studies. I have sat through the CE courses that exist for the “I’m only here because I need CE credits to renew my license” crowd. The fact is I never learned a thing from them, and always left thinking it was a waste of my time. I believe it is important to walk away with knowledge you can apply the very next day on the job, and furthermore have some certificate of designation you can be proud to have earned. Whether you choose to put all those acronyms after your name on your business card or not, the fact is that it separates you from every other agent and broker.
I also believe a key feature of any good continuing education program involves skin in the game for your team. I cover all the costs for my team to take a course, including travel and lodging if need be. With that said, for each designation program, I only allow 1 failed exam to be covered. After one failure I will only reimburse the costs upon passing the course. It may sound harsh, but it is important that your team is as vested in their education as you are.
Reward the Accomplishment
Have fun with your team and celebrate achievements. When a member of your team earns a designation, take a pause, get a cake and candles, and show everyone in your company that you value and celebrate education. It becomes part of your agency’s culture, and it becomes infectious. Additionally, post the achievement to your webpage, social media, and your company newsletter. Show your clients your organization values education and that it sets you apart from your competitors. This is a win-win for all parties. Your team is energized, your clients value the expertise the agents they deal with daily are gaining, and you will see higher retention and increased sales on all levels.
One other note on rewards for your team upon earning a designation. I do not believe it tying a raise or monetary bonus to earning a designation or completing a course, and I think that projects the wrong message. I do not want people taking tests just to get a raise; I do, however, want them to use their knowledge to add value to our organization and I am crystal clear on this point. When I see the value they add to our agency increase, I am very quick to acknowledge and reward that increase.
Continuous Doesn’t End
The very definition of continuous means it doesn’t stop! So long as I am in this industry, I don’t plan to stop learning about it. For an industry that so many think is old and boring, you know as well as I do how fast everything changes. It is vital that you stay on top of your game, not only for your own success, but for the protection of your clients. They deserve to have an agent (and agency) that values education and is on the cutting edge of new products and trends. Whether you are working for an agency, or you own the agency, I hope you take some time to develop a formal education program for yourself or your company. Done correctly, you will see a high return on your investment and enjoy your time in this industry so much more.
Brian J Stout, CPCU, CIC, AAI, AIS
Empire Insurance Agency
Vestal, New York