By: Shirley Woods
Many agencies recognize the need to bring new blood into their organization for growth and perpetuation. While hiring a new producer can certainly be a worthwhile investment, agency plans too often fail to consider the commitment of time and resources that is required to prepare a new producer for success.
It’s difficult to hire and train the right producer. It’s even more difficult to have to go back and do it again several months later. But time and again, this is what happens. An agency hires a new producer only to have the producer leave a few months later. In many cases, the reason is quite simple; the producer did not receive an adequate level of mentorship and support from the agency. The producer leaves, the search for another candidate begins and the process continues.
Excellent classroom training and innate talent are extremely important to a producer’s success, but they can take him just so far. Though there may be other factors at play, many new producers leave quickly because they aren’t getting the support within the agency that they need to succeed. I’ve seen this pattern through the years, but it has become a bigger issue as agencies go outside the industry to recruit producers and have less time to spend bringing the new hire along. The pressure on agencies to perform has never been greater, but no agency can afford to allow its new hires to founder.
In working with agencies around the country, there is no doubt that a direct correlation exists between the success of a new producer and the level of mentorship provided to the producer early in his or her career. Whether the new hire is a recent college graduate or a career transitioner with years of sales experience in other industries, good mentorship will often determine the success of the new producer. In fact, agencies that have a formal mentorship program in place can see an increase in the retention of new producers grow from 33 percent to 70 percent, according to a study by the CIB Group LLC, an executive recruiting and mentoring organization.
The training needs of an insurance producer are no different from those of many other professions; no matter how much they have learned, there will always be situations that require seasoned judgment and the ability to bounce ideas off someone who knows how to handle complex or sensitive matters. A doctor goes through an internship after completing medical school. A first-year teacher gets special supervision, despite the student teaching that is part of the college curriculum. Airplane pilots fly with an experienced pilot before they solo. So, too, a new producer needs the support of effective mentors, at least until he is validating his compensation, and hopefully a bit longer.
The Mentoring Culture
Bringing a new producer on board and training him properly is a short-term investment for a long-term payoff, and the investment isn’t only in dollars. It’s in time – your time, a sales manager’s time and the time of other staff members. In fact, the various curricula for new producers and account managers established by Hartford School of Insurance include internal agency mentoring; we consider it that critical to our students’ success at the agency.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes an entire agency to raise a producer. Maximizing new producer talent often requires a cultural shift for the agency, starting at the top. In the end, success is generally incumbent on management leading the effort and modeling the desired behaviors, the activities and the accountability.
Successful mentoring programs are typically far more complex than simply assigning a mentor and expecting everything to flow smoothly. It involves carefully choosing a seasoned staff member who has the necessary knowledge and commitment to working with the new hire. There needs to be a plan, direction and accountability for both the mentor and the new producer.
A staffer very busy with his own work is likely to give a quick response to a new producer’s questions, but a staffer who understands the value of a good producer to the agency’s and his own success – and the potential consequences of a producer misinforming a client — will most likely spend time to fully explain the answer. And an agency with a friendly, helpful, welcoming culture is more likely to retain staff.
Jackie Johnson, Sales Management Consultant for Business Management Group has first-hand knowledge of how mentors play a role in a new producer’s success. “New producers who are not assigned a quality mentor have a lower chance of making it than those who have that early assistance.” says Johnson. “I’ve seen producers who should have been great, but failed because they were not given the time and resource of a mentor. On the other hand, I have seen borderline new producers become extremely successful when provided with a sales manager or mentor willing to spend quality time with them. Training alone is not enough. Choosing the right mentor is critical.”
Generally, good mentors are totally committed to the new person. They buy into the process and get a rush out of watching them succeed. The best mentors are not necessarily your most talented salespeople or those with the best technical resources. As important as sales aptitude and technical knowledge are, equally important are the softer characteristics of an individual’s personality and style. Look for employees who:
- are interested in sharing their knowledge and experiences;
- are caring, supportive and revel in the success of someone they’ve assisted;
- exhibit excellent communication skills to help the new producer understand not only how to perform a task, but also how the task fits in the larger context of the job;
- demonstrate active and appreciative listening skills; and
- possess the teaching skills of using guided questioning to lead the producer to discover the answer himself.
Matching a producer and mentor committed to the success of the new producer and allowing them to take the necessary time and effort will keep them moving along the continuum of success.
Making It Happen
If you are hiring new producers – especially if you’ve been having retention problems – consider these four “Ds” that are characteristic of a successful mentoring program:
- Decide that producer development is a key priority and differentiator for your agency and communicate this to your employees and your new hires.
- Design and execute a formal welcoming, training and development plan for new producers that outlines specific activities, accountabilities and milestones. Use it to enhance recruiting and to stay on course.
- Develop formal criteria for selecting the right mentors – taking into consideration the aforementioned softer guidelines — and infuse the selection process with anticipation and energy so it’s clear that this is a valued part of their job. Clearly explain your expectations to the mentors, stand behind them and reward them for success.
- Drive the project forward by actively participating in the development of your new producers, and by spending time listening to them and identifying issues before they become problems.
Given all the demands on agency management, it is understandable to expect a seemingly confident new producer to pull his weight after a class or two. After all, successful salespeople generally can inspire confidence even when they are out of their comfort zones. But insurance is quite complex and requires time to master. If you want to retain the new producer as a valuable member of your team, you have to bring him along right from the beginning.
In the end, good classroom training will enable the new producer to quickly start writing business, but it’s the strength and effectiveness of the mentoring relationships in the agency that will keep the producer growing and employed at the agency far into the future.
Shirley Woods is President of Hartford School of Insurance (HSI), a division of The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., and Business Management Group, Inc. (BMG), a full-service consulting firm for insurance agencies and brokerages that is a wholly owned subsidiary of The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc. Both HSI and BMG are located in Hartford, Conn.
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