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What you do Now...Creates your Future By: Jack Burke

“I'm just sitting here letting the companies make me richer!”

“Thank God the hard market is here, I've waited so long for this!”

“I can't say this to my customers' faces, but I sure am making a lot of money in this market!”

I've been hearing those types of comments much more frequently than lamentations about the difficulties in placing business due to the shrinking markets. And I don't begrudge any agent the additional commissions being earned on increased premiums.

However, what goes around always comes around. In other words, this market will eventually turn soft and therein lies the rub. Too many agents are being lulled into a false sense of security with the continually increasing revenues. Too many agents are devoting 100% of their time to existing clients without prospecting for new ones. The increased earnings generated by these existing clients are creating a level of complacency. Their conscious (or subconscious) mantra is, “I'm making more than I expected or need, so why should I work harder.” As a result, prospect pipelines are not as fat as they have been or could be.

As an agency manager when is the last time you've really reviewed the “state of your prospects” with each of your producers? Are you as fervent in prospect development through direct mail, telemarketing, e-mail and advertising as you were 18 months ago when you “needed” new business? Are you basing agency growth on revenue growth, without monitoring the growth of new clients? Do you feel the “urgency” to generate new business that you've felt in the past?

Ironically, I might ask these same questions of the companies out there too! With shrinking markets and increasing premiums, many companies have become pretty complacent about their distribution force as well. They aren't advertising nor engaging in as much cooperative advertising as in the past. They don't seem to be nurturing their agents as much and many are actually cutting back on the valued-added services they provided on behalf of the agency force.

So what does all this say about the state of relationships within our industry. A true friend not only enjoys the successes of a friend, but is there to nurture and support a friend during times of struggle. Many of your clients are struggling in today's economy. Are you proving yourself to be a true friend, or a profit taker? Are your actions and attitudes solidly positioning you as a friend or partner to your clients? Mark Twain once said, “When you need a friend, it is too late to make one.” And mark my words, the time will come again when every agency will “need” new friends, as will every company.

In marketing the most common mistake I see companies from all industries make is the failure to maintain continuity in their lead development program. When things are bad, they market like a Tasmanian devil for new business. Then as the new business starts to hit, they get complacent and fail to continue to do the things that initiated that new business. As a result the pipeline gets thin and business again gets bad. Then suddenly they wake up and begin feverishly marketing anew. It's a vicious cycle. And, in honest reflection, we are all guilty of it.

Maybe it's time to make a mid-year resolution to review the state of your marketing attitude! If you like the money you're making in this hard market, consider how much more you could be making if you were marketing as if it were a soft market.

Look to the basics that made you what you are today. What things have you stopped doing that are responsible for your current success? What more could you be doing in areas of prospecting and client development? How much money are you really leaving on the table every day for someone else to take home? If you look at your increased revenues, have you made proportional increases in your marketing and advertising budgets? If not, why not?

It's nice to enjoy the good times, but it is even better to use these good times to insure your future – rather than simply relish the immediate gratification of the present. Look to the basics. They have held you in good stead in the past and will continue to help you prosper into the future. Unless you forget them!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The “Interest” Factor By: Jack Burke

I was attending an Ozark Auction yesterday with some friends.  As the auctioneer warbled on, one friend asked me if I had seen an interesting article in the newspaper about a local insurance agency.  I asked why and she replied, “Because it made some really good points about human resources.”  After a few more questions, I finally confessed that I indeed had seen the article because I had written it.

The purpose of the article was to promote some value-added HR services being offered by the agency in conjunction with Workers’ Comp and Health & Benefits.  It highlighted one person within the agency who had achieved the Professional in Human Resources (PHR) designation and the formation of an alliance with a local HR consulting firm.  Fairly dry reading for the most part.

As it turns out, my friend had been attracted by the opening paragraph that quoted HR attorney and consultant Don Phin.  Don’s comment was that most employers would be much happier in their work if they didn’t have to deal with employee issues.  Business owners could relate to that comment, thereby attracting them to read the article.

One of my core beliefs is that business is based on a connection between two human beings.  Some factor of commonality, respect or caring binds the two together into what becomes an eventual transaction.  However, press releases, marketing, promotion – even websites – generally fail to take into consideration the human factor – the factor that creates the interest!

So what makes up this “connective” factor?  Unfortunately it is easier to say what it is not, than what it is.  On the agency side -- good service, years in operation, experience are not good connectors because everyone uses them.  On the personal side – years in insurance, designations, career history and promotions are not high on the connector list either.  Although alumni of colleges and even high schools may have a propensity to identify with other alumni.

People identify with people.  People identify with similar likes, hobbies, activities, etc.
Parents with young children can quickly identify with other parents of young children.  Ditto parents with children in college.  Antique car enthusiasts identify with other enthusiasts – and the same goes for any other hobby or sport.  Perhaps that is why golf is such a common denominator for business dealings.

The problem lies within today’s busy world.  Basically you don’t have enough time to really get to know prospects, even some clients, well enough to find this points of commonality.

I recently rewrote the personal bio’s for all of the people within a client agency for their website.  And I mean everyone, including the telephone receptionist.  Although the bio’s contained the required information about career and education history, here are some of the other comments that can now be found within the bios:

“Sport hobbies include golf and race horses.  He and his wife, own interests in about a dozen race horse that have run in The Kentucky Derby, The Belmont, The Illinois Derby, The Travers and The Super Derby in New Orleans.”

“An avid golfer and skier, most of his time is spent at the horse stables and soccer fields with his four daughters.  Between his wife, four girls and two female cats, he admits to being totally outnumbered (and sometimes out-maneuvered) by the females of the household.”

“The mother of 2 children, she and her husband of 13 years, enjoy spending as much family time as possible at Disneyland.  She is also very active at her church, singing for weekend services and participating in the drama program.”

“An analytical and organized problem-solver, she likes to relax with her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews.  She also enjoys travel, having recently returned from extensive travels in Hong Kong and Japan.  Other non-work interests include gardening, cooking, food-related reading, running, hiking and biking.

Similarly, anecdotal information of a personal nature should be built into press releases about the agency and its staff members.  These are the comments that people remember and with which they identify.

I’ll never forget a business contact made with a manager/scientist at NASA.  He had done a Google search for 1967 Thunderbird wheel covers.  The search led him to a personal page on our website that had a picture of a 67 T-Bird I had at the time.  He contacted me to ask for help with the wheel cover problem and ended up contracting with us to do some educational productions for NASA.  Without that common point of identification, we never would have done business together.

Madison Avenue seems to be moving more towards these points of commonality.  A slew of recent television commercials show activities that have absolutely nothing to do with what’s being advertised.  In fact, you don’t even know what’s being advertised until they flash a company name at the end.  Target and Penney’s are two good examples.  The commercial is merely intended to draw in the viewer, so that they can focus on the company or the product at the very end.

A local Nissan dealership’s television commercials now feature “home video footage” of clients that are enjoying their Nissan.  They then close the commercial by asking you to send in your video.  If they select it for a commercial, you get $100 in free service.  Their satisfied customers are being used to attract more customers – and the videos see people doing things with the cars that other people can identify with.

An insurance agency here has another take on it.  If they are advertising for restaurant clients, the ads include logos from other restaurants they insure – and ditto for other markets.  Two things happen.  Prospects identify with their competitors and they also notice the fact that their competitors are getting free advertising, courtesy of the insurance agency.  A double winner!

Take a look at your website and press releases, along with other promotional, marketing and advertising material.  If you can’t break out of your invested perspective, have an outside look at them. Do they pass the “interest” test?  Are there interesting personal tidbits or anecdotal incidents that attract and interest the reader/viewer?  Can people identify with the topic or the information about an individual?  If not, maybe it’s time for a change.  Identification is a powerful aphrodisiac to business.  Try it, you’ll like it.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Auditory Connection: 10 Ways to Power up Your Business While Saving Time & Money By: Jack Burke

I love sound! Be it the music of a symphony, the harmonious tones of a well-trained voice, or the descriptive narratives of a veteran storyteller, nothing stimulates my mind and my imagination more than sound.

Years ago, when everyone said radio was on its last leg, the Radio Advertising Bureau unleashed
a massive advertising campaign that defined radio as the “theater of your mind”. Either the doomsday experts forgot to tell the public that radio was dead, or that campaign really worked, because radio continues to break all records in advertising power, prestige, and revenue.

In my book, Creating Customer Connections, I delineate numerous ways that audio, or sound, is critical to maintaining client relationships--from the voice on the telephone to advertising on radio. In this article, I would like to review the intrinsic value of audio to the ongoing growth and success of a business.

Rather than laboring philosophically on the concept itself and research statistics, I hope to cite specific ways that audio can enhance the level of education, provide continual motivation, increase your marketing power, close prospects, increase suspects, and generally help “power up” your business.

Before getting into the different ways audio can benefit your operation, I did mention the word “time” in the subtitle. How many of you have extra time in your working day? If you’re anything like me, you not only don’t have any extra time--you’re trying to find more. 24 hours just doesn’t seem to be enough time to get everything done. As business owners and managers, there are twice as many demands on your time as there are minutes on the face of the clock.

Letters and brochures take time from your day. Books and videos usually mean you have to take personal time at home to watch or read. Only the simple audio cassette can be popped into your car’s stereo to accompany you during the commute to and from the office and appointments. It does not take a single second away from your personal work schedule. In fact, most of the CEOs and executive managers that I know rely quite heavily on this simple medium. Now, if it works for you--why wouldn’t it work for your employees, your clients, and your prospects? It can, it does and it will--and here’s how!

Here are ten ways that audio can help your business to prosper:

1. Seminar Tapes. Trade conventions and seminars provide educational sessions specifically aimed at your particular industry. Most of these sessions are taped and available for purchase at nominal prices. Whether you pick specific tapes of interest, or buy the entire set, these programs provide excellent reinforcement and training within your industry specialty. The secret here is to share the tapes with your staff, and sometimes your “special” clients.

2. Audiobooks. Nothing beats a good book, but who has the time? From Covey to Peters to Robbins to Cecil, and everyone in between, most of today’s business mavens have audio versions of their work. The nice thing here is that the audio forces them to condense the material into the most salient points. Even if you’ve read the book, the audio is a great reinforcement. Again, have you learned to share yet?

3. In-House Training Tapes. Every department within your organization has someone who literally knows everything about that facet of your operation. In many small to medium-sized companies, and sometimes even the biggies, this person is the unofficial trainer for new staff within that department. Unfortunately that training usually is detrimental to their personal productivity--and what happens if they get sick, or worse yet, leave? Why not invest in having them record one or more “training tapes” for the newcomers? It’ll save money in the long run and, if transcribed, can become the basis for that operations manual that’s been on the “to-do” list for years.

4. Sales Training. Do you wince at the cost of bringing all those outside sales people in for those meetings? Do you delay holding product training meetings because you don’t want to pull them away from making sales? Why not make a tape and send it out to them instead? You could have product specialists, suppliers, engineering staff---anyone you want or need--to make their presentation on tape and send it out to the field. The cost is minimal, especially in comparison to the costs of a meeting--and unlike a meeting where most is forgotten within a couple of days, the tape is always there as a refresher. And, the tape just might be the key element for a presentation to a detail-oriented prospect.

5. Sales Motivation. Maybe you have a sales specialist who’s doing a highly competent job in a certain area. Have that person interviewed, or simply record what they’re doing, and send the tape out to the others as an “idea piece”. The subliminal benefit is that every sales person strives to improve their performance so they too can be featured as an expert amongst their peers.

6. Audio Marketing Cards. Most companies today have had to seek out niche markets, diversify, and add value to their product or service. It’s becoming highly unusual to find a company that can state what it does in a sentence or two. Rather than a costly brochure that is seldom read, produce a 10 to 12 minute program that tells your story. It’s a perfect introduction and enables you to take the time to really tell a prospect what you do and how well you do it--you can even have clients providing testimonials in their own words. Best of all, unlike a letter or a brochure, a tape cassette is perceived to have an intrinsic value. That means they are not likely to throw the tape away.
If they don’t listen immediately, it begins collecting dust on their desk and, believe me, the tape eventually gets played. I’ve personally received calls off such tapes a year after they were sent.

7. Product Introductions/Special Programs. As an owner/manager, did you ever want to be a fly on the wall when your sales people are making their presentations? Have you ever wondered whether they’re really telling the whole story---the way you would? Audio is the perfect way to ensure that every client hears exactly what you want them to hear when it comes to that special promotion or new product addition to your line. Send the tapes out by mail and then let your sales force follow up for the orders. By the time the sales people arrive, the client is pre-sold.

8. Audio Nurturing. As nurture marketing expert Jim Cecil asks, “When’s the last time you sent a love letter to your clients?” One of the best promotions I’ve ever produced was for automotive dealers who were trying to get their customers in a positive frame of mind for filling out the factory’s satisfaction surveys. The cassettes were sent in plain brown envelopes with no return address and the labels merely said, “Thinking of you today. Thank you.” The only way to find out who sent it was to play it, thereby hearing a two minute message from the owner of the dealership thanking them for their business and telling them the proper person to contact if they had any questions or concerns. It worked! Other ways would be to pass on (remember that sharing?) good audiotapes that you’ve found enjoyable to your clients. (You can usually get some pretty good prices if you buy a bulk quantity.) Or, instead of being one of hundreds of business cards at the holidays, I like to send an Audio Greeting Card that has a short message followed by an hour cassette of holiday music. “Little things” like that enable you to be “heard” above the roar of the competition.

9. Phone-On-Hold Audio. If your clients and prospects get placed on hold, use that time to provide them with information about your company--or just motivational messages. It’s not very expensive and it sure beats them hearing a competitor’s commercial if you’re using the radio.

10. When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It. Once you’ve invested in an audio production, send it out to your local radio stations--it may get some airtime, or get you an invite onto a talk show. But don’t stop there, send the tape out to all the print and television media too. It gets more attention that a standard news release and increases the odds of getting some free exposure for you.

These are just ten of the ways that audio can enhance your business and help nurture the internal and external relationships that are critical to your success. There are many, many more--if you let your imagination roam through the “theater of your mind”.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Technology as a Marketing Tool By: Jack Burke

The insurance industry is sitting between the proverbial rock and a hard spot -- despite rising commissions. Granted the hardening marketplace has increased premiums, which increases commission revenue -- BUT it's getting harder to find markets for your insured. Just take a look at umbrella liability coverages as an example. Plus, the economic downturn has our commercial insureds counting pennies, cutting costs and laying off personnel. So revenue may begin to diminish due to corporate cost-cutting, despite increased premiums.

So what does all this mean to the average independent insurance agent? Is it a time of doom and gloom, or a season of opportunity? I vote for opportunity if the agency is willing to communicate effectively with both existing and prospective clients. I won't even get into market access, because IMMS members are already there with Complete Markets.

The foundation of any business relationship is communication. In this article, I'll mention two innovative techniques for effective communication. Both of which have the distinct advantage of positioning you above the competition and utilizing media forms that increase the likelihood of having your message heard. One is relatively new....Quicktime Movies. The other has been around for a while...Audio Marketing programs. Both can be done in-house, or professionally.

Quicktime

This story starts with a PowerPoint Presentation from CompPartners in California, which offers a Health Care Organization network that can decrease workers' compensation premiums under a state law. Unlike most workers' comp programs, an HCO can provide the employer with medical control of a claim for up to a year. Keeping the lawyers at bay for that length of time dramatically decreases litigation and costs.

In this case, our company tweaked the slides in the presentation for a bit more marketing edge and scripted a narrative. That narrative was then recorded, imbedded into the PowerPoint slides and ultimately converted into a Quicktime Movie. The movie was then utilized in three different ways:

1. CD versions were burned in quantity for direct mail marketing to businesses.
2. VHS videocassette versions were also made available.
3. The Quicktime Movie is in the process of being mounted on their web site.

Not too long ago, a project like that would have cost over $10,000. CompPartners spent less that $3,000 and have a cutting edge, multi-faceted marketing piece that tells their story in detail. (This is also an excellent method for insurance companies and wholesalers to convey product and program information to the independent agency system.)

Audio Marketing Programs

Our company has been producing these for a number of years to the delight of our clients. Think talk radio! A number of interviews are conducted with both the client and the client's customers. These interviews are then woven together with a little music and little magic to create an extremely interesting and informative marketing piece that stresses the client testimonials. You present the facts, your clients provide the applause!

The new twist here is Audio CD. In the past, primarily due to cost constraints, these programs have been distributed in audio cassettes. Although tapes remain the preferred media for many of our clients, CDs are coming into vogue and pricing levels are coming much closer to tapes.

Another advantage to audio marketing programs is that you can use sound bytes from such programs to produce a truly unique phone-on-hold message with client testimonials, or compress them into MP3 and mount them on your web site.

So the opportunity exists for agents willing to take advantage of innovative ways, as well as the tried and true, to get their message out to both clients and prospects. Concern and information are the valued-added cornerstones of successful relationships.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Sound Marketing – Your Marketing Resource By: Jack Burke

In the course of writing ProgramBusinessNews, I run occasional contests for our readers.  First to reply with a correct answer wins a prize.  Recently the contest was based on a very simple question – what’s the name of my company.  I thought it was a no-brainer, but the varied and sundry replies proved me wrong.  That’s why, although self-serving, I thought it was time to tell you what Sound Marketing is – and what it does within the insurance industry.

Sound Marketing was founded 20 years ago by my wife, Jo Ann and myself.  We cater to the marketing and communications needs of business with a heavy emphasis on audio and video modalities, as well as print.  We serve numerous industries, but are particularly vested in insurance.

Here’s some of what we do –

Audio Marketing Programs.  Custom produced for each client, these audio CD programs promote products, services and companies with interviews and client testimonials in an informative “talk radio” format.  Audio Marketing Programs break through the clutter and get your message heard by your prospects and clients.  Considering the expense of brochure development and printing, Audio Marketing Programs are extremely cost-effective.  Initial production and 1000 CDs is only $2995, with additional quantities at just $1.50 per CD.

Video Productions.  From script/storyboarding to mastered production, video projects are totally unique to each client.  Depending on your specific requirements, our project teams can include award-winning motion picture and television directors and crews.  Every project quoted individually.

Writing Services.  Some of our services include PR releases,  ongoing custom newsletters, ghostwriting and research articles.  Every project quoted individually.

Phone On Hold Messages.  Custom produced messages for your phone-on-hold system help to educate new prospects and cross-sell existing clients.  Professional voiceover and music rights are included to eliminate BMI and ASCAP rights infringements.  Very affordable with terms ranging from 1 production per year to 12.  Most insurance agencies prefer the 4-production contract (new programming every quarter) for just $499 annually.

Consulting.  This involves yours truly and is only available on a limited basis.  Since I don’t believe in a one-shot approach, a minimum contract period of one year is required.  If you are interested, call me directly at 1-800-451-8273 to discuss your needs and goals.  As my time is limited, I will take on no more than 4 clients at any given time.

Speaking Engagements.  Yours truly is available for speaking engagements including Keynote Presentations and Marketing Workshops.  Fees vary depending upon travel and time requirements, as well as other variables such as inclusion of books for attendees.

Books.  As a published author, all of my books are available through traditional and online bookstores.  You can also purchase signed copies, individually or in bulk quantities, from Sound Marketing.  Current titles include: Creating Customer Connections, Relationship Aspect Marketing, Best of Class and Get What You Want.

Ad Infinitum.  Whatever your need, we can probably produce a solution.  Some of our past projects and products have included Audio CD Holiday Greetings, Website Audio and Video, Audio Thank You CDs, Educational CD Albums, Video Training Programs, Movie Scripting, Project Management and much more.

Well that covers most of the basics as far as services and products available through Sound Marketing.  If you got this far, you’ve noticed that many of the services are only available on a limited basis.  That’s because I have to have the time to be personally involved in every project.  We do not turn projects over to staff.  If you’re hiring Sound Marketing, you’re hiring Jack and Jo Ann Burke.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Reports of its Death are Greatly Exagerated: Telemarketing is Alive and Well By: Jack Burke

I admit that I'm not one of those people who enjoy getting telemarketing calls during the dinner hour. I also admit that telemarketers have a tough time getting past my gatekeeper to talk to me during the business day. Yet, once in a while a good telemarketer does get through to me and I find myself engaged in a lively and interesting conversation. (Note that they had to be good to get through to me in the first place.)

Unfortunately the telemarketing industry has been taking a lot of flak lately. Everyone from politicians to consumer activists seems to be bent on shutting it down one way or another. If everyone hates them so much, why do companies still use telemarketing to generate leads and sell products? The answer is simple: It works!

Regardless of how many people say they never want to receive another telemarketing call, regardless of the countless thousands of inept telemarketers on the phones, telemarketing still gets results. The secret, I believe, is in the caliber of the telemarketer. Well-trained, well-educated, informative telemarketers can bring value to the marketing equation. They can get past the gatekeepers honorably and talk intelligently with a decision-maker.

My new respect for telemarketing is the direct result of interviews conducted while writing a few press releases for National Marketing Services, a major telemarketing operation for the insurance industry. I wanted to talk to the agencies that were utilizing their services to determine how much value the agencies really placed on the leads and appointments generated by National Marketing. (Too often I've seen lead lists from various sources that weren't worth the paper on which they were printed.) To say that I was surprised by the agent responses is an understatement!

Jim Harrill of Martin & Harrill in Charlotte, North Carolina was the first surprise. When asked about his experiences with the leads he was purchasing, he didn't talk about the quality or the number of leads at all. “We're a small agency of three producers. This is like having an in-house sales manager on our staff. They literally “force feed” us leads and make appointments. Because of that we have to get out and sell. We aren't sitting here waiting for the phones to ring with a referral. It's paying off for us.”

Another agent brought up the question of value. Scott Ewers of Hertvik Insurance in Middleburg Heights, Ohio recently started using National Marketing for their telemarketing. “We've tried a number of companies, local and national. National Marketing is a bit more expensive, but we're receiving some pretty high quality leads. They seem to be able to reach decision-makers, rather than secretaries, and therefore obtain more information. In fact, I had been working one prospect for 3-4 years without being able to get their x-date. National Marketing got it for me. Although they are pricier, our hit ratio is better with their leads. Some companies might give us 15 leads and we'll only close one; National Marketing gives us five and we close 2 or 3 of them. It's a better value for the money spent.”

Apparently National Marketing is so confident about their staff that they'll actually let agents listen in on the phone calls. Roy Solomon of Amity Insurance explained, “I was able to listen in on the calls and was impressed with their professional approach and their ability to converse with the prospect. They've supplied us with so many leads that we're able to pick and choose. We literally go through the leads to find the ones that are most closely aligned with our expertise and the products we want to sell. We're very pleased with them.”

Ray Kirkner of Ira G. Mohler & Son of Shillington, Pennsylvania likes National Marketing's ability to work closely with the agency. “Whether I call or access their website, I find the information I need. They'll even block out my vacation days so they're not setting appointments that I can't keep. The leads are great. We're already experiencing a four or five-fold return on our investment against commissions earned.”

Gene Bartoli of A.J. Lupas Insurance Agency in Plains, Pennsylvania took a more pragmatic approach. “The lead generation and appointment setting services are great. We've been using National Marketing for about six years and have always had good results. The biggest problem today is finding markets to cover the risks of the leads being generated – but that's our problem, not theirs.”

Based on those and similar conversations, you now know why I believe that telemarketing is alive and well in today's world. Obviously the interviews only related to the services of one specific company: National Marketing Services. However, I am sure that there are many other reputable telemarketing operations with satisfied clients. That's why those phones keep ringing. The telemarketers are bringing home the information that enables businesses to make the sales.

However there are some telemarketing companies that may not be as professional. We've all experienced calls from telemarketers that have no idea what the words mean on their script, no understanding of the industry or business, no ability to converse beyond the script in front of them, and of course those that can barely speak English. As a result, here are a few guidelines in selecting a telemarketing company:

1. Choose from those that are active in your industry. There is a much better chance that they will understand the product and the prospect better.
2. Ask for references. Do your due diligence and find out what your peers have experienced with the company.
3. Make sure that the vendor is amenable to “training” their staff on your products or services.
4. Review the administrative and management process that will be utilized. How will the leads be distributed to you? How much input do you have with appointments that are set? What sort of follow-up material is provided to help you manage the leads?
5. How easy is it to communicate with them? Are they only available certain hours and days? Do they offer communication via their website?
6. What about bad leads or appointments? Is there any sort of customer satisfaction policy? Is credit given for bad leads or information? Will they re-book cancelled appointments? In other words, will they work with you?
7. What additional services are offered? Once you begin a campaign, you might want to enhance it with direct mail, e-mail, broadcast faxes or additional phone calls. Can this company accommodate those needs as well – or do you have to find another vendor or do it yourself.
8. Are they involved in your industry? Do you see their presence at industry events? Are they conducting value-added workshops at conferences? Are they investing their time and experience to give back to the industry that supports them?
9. Can you “listen” to calls being made? There's no better way to judge a telemarketer than to hear how they handle themselves on the phone. Would you be comfortable if they were calling you? If not, why would you hire them to call your prospects?
10. Don't judge by price alone. Based on all of the foregoing suggestions, remember that not all telemarketers are equal. Cost has to be based on the quality of the leads being provided. If you get 10 appointments and only sell one, how much have you really paid for those leads in time and effort —regardless of the front cost?

In-house or outsourced, telemarketing remains a valuable tool in your marketing. Don't pre-judge it as I did. Give it a chance, you may be pleasantly surprised.

National Marketing Services, mentioned in this article, can be contacted by phone at 1-800-736-9741 or by visiting their website at http://www.nationalmarketing.com

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Relationship Marketing: It Works! By: Jack Burke

As you know, I’ve been a proponent of “relationship marketing” for years!  The concept is simple: Focus on the customer and the sales will follow.  Unfortunately, hard data to prove that contention has been slow to surface.  It’s tough to quantify such an intangible as a relationship.

Recently there have been two proofs – one is statistical, the other anecdotal.  Microsoft measures and quantifies all of its marketing and advertising efforts and results.  Recently Microsoft announced the proven effectiveness of their relationship marketing program to “Microsoft Partners Worldwide” through their Partner Channel website.  Microsoft Partners constitute Microsoft’s distribution network.

According to Microsoft’s findings, relationship marketing can result in:

  • 25% improvement in customer retention
  • 23% to 306% increase in qualified leads
  • 108% to 260% increase in revenue

Personally I can’t think of any business person in any industry that wouldn’t be delighted to see results like that, even at the lower range of percentage improvement.

On the anecdotal side, we recently moved to Missouri – such a Republican stronghold that people say a Democrat couldn’t even win an election for dogcatcher.  However a Democratic veterinarian recently got elected to a seat in the Missouri House through the power of relationships.  Charles “Doc” Dake rode his friendships to the statehouse in Lawrence County, becoming only the second Democrat in 70 years to win a race for the state House.

Campaigning in the state’s second leading cattle county,  Doc stressed his personal history as a vet with campaign signs that featured farm animals and a flyer that showed him pushing a bale of hay past a cow.  It kept the people connected with the man they knew – their trusted veterinarian who had been making barn calls for 37 years, often showing up at midnight to help a farmer with an ailing animal.

But the political pundits don’t credit his credentials for the victory; they say that his personal marketing resulted in his overwhelming 55% win.  Dake spent his days campaigned door-to-door in his jeans, and spent his evenings making countless personal phone calls.

One of Dake’s friends is the Republican Sheriff, Ed Weisacosky, a former professional football player and a rancher.  Their friendship developed over the years that Dake spent caring for Ed’s horses and cattle, and interaction as parents of sons who went to school together.  Because of that friendship, Ed crossed party lines to endorse his good friend and Democrat.  He even recorded an automated phone message that went out to 5,500 on the day before the election.

Ironically, Dake’s Republican opponent was an insurance agent.

Republican Party spokespeople called Dake’s win an anomaly.  I call it a testament to the power of relationship marketing.  Focus on the relationship and the sales (or votes) will follow.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Relationship Marketing: Earning the Right By: Jack Burke

Business is under a barrage of sales oriented “pitches” today.  The telephone brings us telemarketing calls of the automated variety or real people reading scripts.  The postal carrier delivers pounds of paper citing numerous reasons to separate a consumer or a business from their money.  Even the nearly extinct facsimile technology still prints out unwanted, and immediately discarded, advertisements.  And despite the best efforts by our electronic filters, the daily e-mail still contains a plethora of unsolicited commercial messages otherwise known as spam.  Plus we cannot forget the daily bombarding of our senses from television, radio and billboard advertising.

For most mass marketers, advertising is a numbers game.  The more imprints on a consumer’s mind, the greater the likelihood that the consumer will purchase a particular product or service.  However mass marketing is not generally applicable for the insurance industry with the exception of national and regional personal lines direct writers.  For the independent agency, marketing is much more targeted.  We may advertise personal lines to a specific geographic area, but the commercial niche is much more difficult to reach.  Plus, even with specific and focused campaigns, the insurance agency still needs to find a way to cut through all of the clutter.

So how do we initiate a relationship and begin earning the right to someone’s business?

Affinity Marketing

The concept of “affinity marketing” has become very restricted in today’s language.  Let’s broaden it a bit to coincide with the definition of affinity: “an attractive force between substances (people/business) that causes them to enter into and remain in combination” and “a causal connection or relationship”. Affinity marketing is one of the easiest paths to instant credibility.  It leverages your past years of experience and earned trust to open doors to potential new clients.

Affinity marketing can then include such marketing techniques as:

  • Establishing client referral policies and procedures
  • Developing ambassadors within your community to promote your services
  • Negotiating mutually beneficial marketing relationships with other businesses
  • Soliciting association endorsements to members of the association
  • Group marketing efforts to individual niches
  • Cross-selling products to existing customers

Educational/Informational Marketing

From individuals to businesses, people want to do business with people who “care” about them.  They want to feel that the provider of products or services has their best interests at heart.  This is a more difficult manner of marketing than affinity marketing.  It requires that you take action in advance to “earn the right” to enter a potential client’s space.  They need to know that you care beforehand.

Some of the ways that you can begin earning that right is by providing information to help them better manage their business:

  • Newsletters (paper or permission-based electronic) -- Don’t make them a billboard for your products or services!  Focus on the client needs and deliver information that will be beneficial to the operation of their business.  Any sales effort should be almost subliminal.
  • Letters – A respectful, personal letter is still an excellent way to begin a relationship.  Include a copy of a beneficial article or simply ask for permission to send occasional items of interest.
  • Phone calls – I personally recommend against “cold calls”.  They are generally treated as a nuisance and an interruption.  Better to precede any phone call with prior collateral material.  Use the phone as a follow-up.

Testimonial Marketing

This particular style of marketing is closely aligned with both affinity and educational marketing.  It can be tremendously effective in building relationships and developing creditability and trust among prospects.  There is no more effective method of marketing than to have a satisfied client tell someone about your qualities.  Don’t be afraid to ask your clients for testimonials – and when you get them, use them!

Creativity in Marketing

In order to break through the clutter, you need to become creative in your approach.  One of the most successful introductory campaigns was undertaken by an agency in the Northwest that wanted to break into the trucking market.  Initial cold call visits, letters and phone calls did little to spark any interest, despite having assembled an excellent coverage program with very competitive pricing.

Assisted by some marketing professionals, the agency determined that trucking executives had several major operational concerns:

  1. Hiring, training and retaining good drivers.
  2. Dealing with federal and state regulations
  3. Lack of interaction with their peers (lone wolf syndrome)

Four audio programs were developed to introduce the agency to the trucking industry.  One featured an expert on human resource issues (hiring, training and retaining).  A second featured a regulatory/compliance expert.  The third was a corporate philosopher who helped CEO’s overcome the “lone wolf” feeling.  The final program focused on the capabilities of the agency itself and the caliber of its employees.

Every 4-6 weeks one of the programs was sent to the agency’s mailing list of prospective trucking companies.  The program was accompanied by a short letter offering the audiotape as something they would find of interest in their business.  A closing paragraph simply stated that they were an insurance agency focusing on the needs of the trucking industry.  The final mailing included the program about the agency itself.

Prior to producers actually hitting the street to follow up on the mailing program, trucking companies were already calling to ask for meetings and quotations.  They were impressed that an agency cared enough to help them solve business problems.  The campaign worked and the agency insures a large segment of the trucking industry in the Northwest today.

I only cite this as an example of how creative approaches can help you earn the right to someone’s business.  Aside from the audio aspect, this was simply informational marketing like newsletters or article reprints.  Other ideas that come to mind include gifts of hot business books, complimentary subscriptions to magazines that cater to a particular industry (or business in general). Think in terms of items that will position you as someone providing solutions, rather than someone selling insurance.

The Marketing Foundation

Any marketing program or relationship is only as good as the foundation of the agency behind it.  We’ve all seen great marketing campaigns where the company never lives up to the hype.  Don’t be a flash in the pan.  Make sure that you have the systems and people in place to support any campaign.  Never solicit more prospects than you are capable of following through on.  Nothing loses its luster faster than a lead that grows old because you are too busy to handle it immediately.

Some common-sense guidelines in assessing the strength of your marketing foundation:

  • Expertise on coverages required by a specific industry
  • Expertise about the industry itself
  • Nurturing a caring culture within your agency
  • Focus always on the needs of the client/prospect
  • Provide solutions first, insurance second

Marketing is an all-encompassing facet of any business.  This article merely scratches the surface on some general marketing thoughts that can help you earn the right to someone’s business.  Means by which you can begin to build a relationship.  If you truly focus on serving your clients, the business will take care of itself and you will be successful.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Pushing the Power of Testimonials By: Jack Burke

Most business people know that testimonials are powerful advertising and marketing tools.  Your clients literally sell your prospects for you.  Potential customers identify with their peers and accept their words at face value.  Testimonials eliminate the tendency for people to discount what they consider to be “sales rhetoric”. Testimonials are also good for the client.  By utilizing their comments and identifying them in your advertising and marketing, you promote their business as well.

Since we already know the power of testimonials, wouldn’t it be nice to exponentially increase that power tenfold?

The human being has five senses: taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.  Marketers know that the more sense you involve, the more powerful the impact on a human being.  Using sight to read words is not as powerful as watching a television commercial with the addition of sound.  Radio commercials are more powerful with memorable jingles or songs.  Point of purchase display artists know that sight and sound is further enhanced with smell.  Just think of a food-tasting display in a supermarket; the sizzle of the frying pan, the smell of the food being cooked and the taste test all combine with the patter of the display host to create a memorable and enticing experience.

Insurance isn’t food, so we are somewhat limited in the application of sensory perception.  Taste and smell would seldom, if ever, come into play – unless we could capture the lingering smell of a burning building.  However sight and sound are available resources that make dramatically impact the power of your marketing.

Despite the knowledge, most businesses do not use testimonials to their best advantage, regardless of the media, format or sensory involvement.  Testimonials tend to be treated as “stand alone” marketing.  Websites have page links titled, “What Our Clients Say” or simply “Testimonials”.  They are not melded into the advertising message,; they do not augment the need-based information that is being disseminated to the prospect.

For instance, I was recently asked to consult on the marketing material for a new documentary, Bam 6.6.  It is a breath-taking and thought-provoking treatise on humanity, based on the aftermath of an Iranian earthquake that claimed 50,000 lives.  The film’s presentation packet contained a ten-page enclosure of testimonials from previewers, critics and industry professionals.  None of the testimonials were written into the actual presentation or synopsis.  The teaser DVD was a title frame from the movie, followed by one testimonial after another captured on camera.  It was powerful, but not as powerful as it could have been.

After reviewing the material, we re-wrote the synopsis and story background to include numerous testimonials within the body of the text.  We reworked the teaser video to contain clips from the movie, followed by testimonials applicable to that clip.  In this manner we were able to use the testimonials to augment, verify and reinforce the message of the movie itself.  They were part and parcel of the basic package, as opposed to a secondary offering that people might or might not decide to read or view.

So let’s take a look at the state of testimonials in the insurance industry and determine how you can “amp up” their power.

Print

Include testimonials in the body of the message.  In an advertisement or flyer, insert the testimonials into the copy of the message – and make sure they are specific to the message.  If you are running an ad on Workers’ Comp, the testimonial should specify how you benefited their WC efforts.

Prospecting letters should also include testimonials.  Consider closing your letters with a quotation.  For instance: In closing, I hope that you will be joining our family of satisfied clients, like Jim Smith of ABC Foundry who said, “Zenith Insurance is like having a risk management specialist on our staff.  By helping us to better manage our risk, we’ve been able to cut our premium expense by 25%.”  Isn’t that a powerful way to close a letter?

One of my favorite methods of testimonial advertising includes the names and logos of current clients in the body of the ad.  Ads aimed at restaurants incorporate a list of local restaurants insured by the agency.  Ditto hotels, manufacturers, retailers and etc.  The ads are extremely effective and the clients love them too.  It’s free advertising for them and they literally stand in line to be included in the ads.

Audio

This is perhaps one of the most powerful in today’s busy world.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Personal Branding in a Digital World By: Jack Burke

“What’s your brand?”  That is a question I commonly pose to workshop audiences.  The answers vary from their agency to their company to a spokesperson (live or animated).  Rare is the answer I am seeking – each individual is his or her own brand.  They themselves are the only truly unique factor in the insurance distribution network.  I keep hoping to have an entire audience jump up and shout, “I am my brand!”

As a youngster, back in the good old days, I remember the monthly visit of our family’s insurance agent with his debit book.  Although my parents might have been influenced by the “company brand”, their loyalty was always to Elmer, our insurance man.  His visits were anticipated like any other valued guest.  Dinner was early so the table would be cleared and the house straightened.  If he had other calls to make, coffee and dessert was served.  If it was his last call of the night, he and my dad would hoist a beer.  The evening’s conversation seldom centered on insurance.

Elmer was our family advisor.  If my parents were looking for a new appliance, he would be questioned about which model to buy and where to buy it.  Ditto for other major purchases or searches for service providers ranging from landscapers to interior decorators.  Since Elmer knew so many people, he was the expert in all such matters.

As my siblings and I grew up and began our lives outside the family home, it was a foregone conclusion that Elmer would take care of our needs as well.  After all, he was a virtual member of the family.

Transitioning

Before you write Elmer off as a historical footnote, think about the relationships he established.  His clients were friends first, customers second.  He cared about them and showed that care with his time and expertise.  The challenge today is to transfer that ability to the digital world and determine how to imprint your individual brand in the minds of your clients and prospects.

I am not dismissing the personal visits, the telephone or the fax.  In fact, I am a proponent of polling your clients and prospects to ascertain their preferred method of communication and then following their wishes.  Today I simply want to concentrate on the pervasive domination of electronic communication via the Internet.

What I am about to suggest may not initially fall favorably with agency owners and company management.  It is about allowing producers to break from the existing model of insurance sales people.  It is about allowing them to “brand” themselves within your organization.

Many successful performers are labeled “primadonnas” by the average.  I call them superstars.  They break out of the mold and create their own identity.  In the auto industry, for instance, a superstar can literally become a dealership within a dealership.  People buy from the superstar under the umbrella of the dealership.  Ditto for the most successful realtors and stockbrokers – they become unique operations within the confines of the brokerage.  Some become so successful that they negotiate higher commissions to offset the overhead they create to support their efforts.

Some agency owners would relish the opportunity to have such a superstar amongst their staff – others rebel at the thought.  If you are of the “not at my agency” ilk, you may not want to read any further.

Build a Personal Website

Most agencies maintain a section of their website listing of employees and contact phone numbers or extensions and e-mail addresses.  The enlightened couple that information with pictures of the employees and a background paragraph or two.  They realize that clients like to see and know something about the people with whom they interact.  A few agencies even allow their staff to have individual pages within the website to create a more personal touchpoint.  If you hope to become a superstar, break through those boundaries by creating and maintaining your own website.  It can become your own personal branding iron.

Working with agency management, your site should seamlessly link to the agency site for online quotations, claims, billing assistance and other features offered on the agency web.  Likewise, the agency site should link your name to your site.  In some cases your “site” might actually be a partition or segment of the agency site – although I prefer linking for a number of reasons including liability and individuality issues.

Website Content

Here’s where you can have some fun with your own website.  This is only about enhancing the relationship between you and your clients.

  1. The basics should include full contact information – cell phone, e-mail, agency telephone number with extension (or direct line number) and agency mailing address.
  2. Create your own FAQs page.  What are the most common questions asked by your clients and prospects?  Identify them and answer them.
  3. Personal background.  Along with your history, certifications and expertise in the insurance industry, list your schools and organization memberships.  People today are looking for points of commonality in establishing a relationship.
  4. Hobbies and Interests.  Do you play golf, work on classic cars, enjoy fishing and hunting, ceramics?  Let people know who you are and what you enjoy.  Share pictures.  One agent I know is an amateur photographer and maintains a library of his photos for everyone to enjoy.  (I ended up gaining a client that found our website looking for a wheel cover for a 1967 Thunderbird.  A Google search had sent him to a personal page showing some of my classic cars.)
  5. Family.  Show off your spouse, children and grandchildren – even your pets.
  6. Events Calendar.  Publicize activities and events for local community groups.
  7. Testimonials.  Have your clients tell why they do business with YOU.
  8. Articles.  Post informative articles that would be of benefit to your clients and they don’t always have to be insurance related.
  9. Cross Marketing.  Let your clients know all the various coverages and products you can provide them.  With each coverage, put an explanation in your own words so they can understand the importance.
  10. Friends & Clients Links.  Put up website links (with permission) from your friends and clients that would be beneficial to other clients, friends and prospects.

Aside from the aforementioned content, be creative.  There are literally hundreds of things you can do with your own site, including:

  • Were you at the scene of a fire?  Throw up some pictures with an anecdotal news story about helping a client in time of need and how the claim was handled and processed.
  • Were you present at community fundraisers?  Take a picture and put it up on your site.
  • Did something newsworthy or exciting happen with one of your clients -- an expansion, a new hire, a new product?   Get the details (and maybe a picture) and put it up on your site.  You might even ask clients to put you on their distribution list for press releases.  You can use them on your site and they will keep you abreast of changes that could impact their insurance coverage.
  • Start a blog.  Promote communication on various topics with and between your clients.
  • Develop a web-mounted newsletter.  Send e-mails to your contact list advising them of the newsletter posting and providing a link to it.  Make sure the content is material of interest to them.
  • If you write personal lines, develop a section that would be pertinent to people moving into your area.  As newcomers, what do they need to know?  Think of it as your personal “Welcome Wagon”.
  • Have a sign-in page that captures e-mail and other contact information.
  • Utilize a Webscan service to count visitors, identify who clicked through to what and which pages show the greatest interest.  This will enable better follow-up on your part, as well as providing the input to hone your site to better meet the interests of your visitors.

Uniqueness Breeds Differentiation

Insurance is very much commoditized.  A competitive package or program is soon cloned by other companies and brokers.  Not much is really new and exciting.  Build upon the unique aspects of your personality, history, expertise and commitment to create a competitive advantage for yourself.  No one is just like YOU!  And that is your differentiating factor in a world of commonality.  Seize upon the advantage and use the technology that is available to brand and market yourself.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

False Expectations By: Jack Burke

Today I was answering the phones at Sound Marketing and I just said “Not interested” to the third call about investments.  This one was from a pleasant sounding fellow at Morgan Stanley.  As I hung up, the first thought that came to mind was “Bell Work”.  Those of my generation might remember Bell Work assignments on the classroom chalkboard.  If you got to school a little early, these assignments were something to do until the bell rang and class actually began.

I doubt that any experienced and successful investment advisor spends much time on the phone cold calling from an overused list.  The return on investment (time) is too little.  I tend to believe that these calls are made by new hires as part of their training.  A boss explains that this is how they are going to build their eventual base of clients.  It’s their Bell Work – something to do when they aren’t in a training class.  Maybe their training requires a hardening of the spirit in the realm of rejection.  Maybe it’s something to keep them busy until the phone rings with a live prospect that actually called them.

Unfortunately this type of marketing creates a culture within an industry, be it insurance or otherwise.  It is a culture of expectation on the part of sales people.  They expect people to listen to them – and buy from them.  Most of the time, these expectations have no basis in reality.  The prospect doesn’t know them and has absolutely no reason to gift them with the valuable commodity of time.  They have done exactly nothing to “earn the right” to a prospect’s time.

It’s no different than door-knocking peddlers in your neighborhood.  If it is the girl down the street selling Girl Scout cookies, she has a naïve right to expect that the neighbors will support her and purchase cookies.  You know her, you know her parents and you respect her annual sales efforts of cookies for the Girl Scouts or holiday cards for the local school.  Just by being your neighbor, she earned the right to your time and money.

On the other hand, what about the young teenage magazine peddlers that are dropped off in your neighborhood.  Their shining faces (sometimes) exude that same culture of expectation as your neighbor.  Yet you don’t know them, you don’t know their family and you don’t even know about their alleged charity.  They definitely have not earned the right to your time or your money.

Professionals know that they have to earn the right to sell a prospect.  Most prospects demand that you earn the right to their time by providing resources they need or offering a solution to a pain that they have.  You further earn the right by your respectful attitude, coupled with a wealth of expertise and training that enables you to serve their needs.  Or, for the less experienced, a willingness to go to any lengths to help them.  Ultimately the potential prospect (or the client you want to retain) must feel that you care about them.

Meaningful Gifts

Sometimes you can make some initial steps in earning the right to a prospect’s time by offering a gift with no strings attached.  Likewise you can let a valued client feel warm and fuzzy about you with a similar gift.  Think of it as bringing flowers to your spouse without a specific reason – just because you care.

Yet finding an appropriate gift can frustrate the best of us.  We go through it every holiday season and it’s always the same.  We end up buying something out of a catalog that looks good and carries a reasonable price.  Everyone, including the recipients of our gifts, is looking at the same catalogs every year – just like us.

Occasionally an agency will come upon a truly meaningful gift and the results are fantastic.  But such rate and timely finds are few and far between.

Here’s an Idea

My publisher, Silver Lake Publishing, recently put out a very timely book, which was written by their editorial staff.  It’s called Identity Theft: How to Protect Your Name, Your Credit and Your Vital Information…and What to Do When Someone Hijacks Any of These.  I believe that this is one of those rare finds for insurance professionals.  And, by the way, this is one of the Top 10 Best Sellers by small publishers this year.

Every one of your clients, friends, family and staff are concerned about identity theft.  The media is blasting us with stories about it on a daily basis – and some insurance companies are already jumping in with special programs to help their clients with this issue.  And there are no barriers – this is a great gift for commercial or personal lines clients.  It shows them that you care!  It’s also a great “door opener” for hot prospects.

The book isn’t overly expensive – just $11.95.  But since this makes so much sense, I worked out a deal for TAAR subscribers with the publisher and can help keep the cost down.  Through Sound Marketing, we are making Identity Theft available in cases of 32 books for only $280.  That’s just $8.75 per book and shipping is free.  You can barely treat a client to Starbuck’s for that!

If you’d like to take advantage of this offer, you can go to http://www.soundmarketing.com/id.htm or call me at 1-800-451-8273.  Hopefully this will help you “earn the right” to more business.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Email Marketing Boon or Bane? By: Jack Burke

I recently received an e-mail from an insurance producer asking, "How is e-mail being used as a marketing tool? Is it successful?" Now there's a short question with a potentially long answer that definitely got me thinking. In fact, I initially started writing about cost and result comparisons between regular mail marketing versus e-mail. However, the reality is that each can be successfully implemented in its own right with its own unique cost and return variables. So let's look at e-mail independent of any other type of marketing. What are some of the ways you can utilize it and what might you expect in return?

Let's start with the basics. I recently had access to a database of agencies that were members of a singular group. Approximately 20% did not have e-mail addresses listed. Due to the unique nature of this group, I don't believe the lack of addresses was a failure to collect and input the data. I believe these people did not have business e-mail addresses. So the first step is to have e-mail.

Then begin collecting e-mail addresses. If you don't have them, you can't contact them. Every contact should be an opportunity to ask for their e-mail. This is critical, because it is the only true, direct line of communication that exists. Telephones have gate keepers, as does mail call. E-mail goes direct to the source.

A factor which I find surprising relates to the number of people in business that have a company web site, yet utilize AOL and other such portals for their e-mail address.

Ideally you have a web site that is based on your name, ours is "soundmarketing.com" - the same name as the company. Why would I want to send and receive e-mail under the name of AOL or Earthlink? Why would I want to advertise them, as opposed to my own company? As subliminal as it may be, every e-mail correspondence where the mail is managed through your own web site is direct advertising for your company--and the directions to your web site. For instance, through our Sound Marketing web site I manage personal mail accounts under several different names. Each is its own advertisement, as well as a contact address.

If you travel a lot, it may pay to have a worldwide access address like AOL where you can dial into an 800#. But use it only for access. Program the mail manager to use AOL, for example, to check your regular e-mail accounts that might not have 800# access to the ISP.

Moving on, have you set up "signatures" for your e-mail? This is a perfect and automatic opportunity to mention other services and provide complete contact information. I use about half a dozen and set them up to be added to by e-mails on a random basis. Each one concentrates on a different facet of your business and serve as continual reminders to our clients and prospects about the varied services we offer. They also provide phone numbers, fax #s andsnail mail addresses for contact by any means possible.

The next step, as in direct mail, is to look at your actual correspondence. Do you strictly reply to messages sent and send business-related questions? In other words, do you operate under the old Dragnet motto, "Just the facts, please."? At least once per month, I like to browse through my e-mail address book. When I see someone I haven't corresponded with in a while, I send them a cheery little note: "Hi, just wanted to let you know that I was thinking about you today. Hope all goes well with both your business and personal lives, and I thought it was time to let you know how much we appreciate your friendship and your business. If you need anything, give me a call." It's simple and thoughtful, and it's amazing how much extra business those types of notes generate. So use your e-mail to send an occasional love letter to your clients.

As we become more advanced, think in terms of regularly scheduled newsletters to your clients, friends and prospects. They can be as fancy, or as simple, as you choose. Many major entities present their newsletters in simple text. Others utilize HTML language and make them as fancy as a web site. The format is far less critical than the content. If you send one, make sure the information is valuable and appreciated. The best example I can cite of newsletter effectiveness is ProgramBusiness.com. It has been my privilege to serve as editor of ProgramBusinessNews, which is published every 10 days. In six short months the ProgramBusiness web site is already approaching a million hits per month. The only marketing tool driving this company is the newsletter. Not a penny has been spent on advertising to this point. Newsletters work, they really do!

Proceeding from these common sense basics, it's time to talk about "broadcast" or "bulk" e-mail. Here we find a lot of mixed emotions, so let's establish some guidelines.

1. Make sure there is value to the recipient.
2. Give to get! A pure commercial is more likely to be immediately trashed than a message that first provides something of interest and value to the recipient. Some free advice on a risk management or business issue at the opening may predispose the recipient to read the entire message and possible take action.
3. Gain their permission in advance.
4. Permission marketing may be a popular buzzword, but don't sell it short. Sending to a "permission list" will garner far better results than sending to a "cold list". Granted there's some value to both, but as a salesperson you already know that you're far better off making a sales call by appointment, than by making a cold call. The same applies to e-mail marketing.
5. Avoid attachments.
6. Due to the very real virus dangers, many people are afraid of e-mail attachments and immediately trash them. Plus, many corporate e-mail management systems will not process through an e-mail with an attachment. Keep it simple with a text message.
7. Utilize hyperlinks.
8. As opposed to attachments, it is very easy to insert hyperlinks to your web site or even a particular page within your web site. Most e-mail software automatically converts such addresses to hyperlinks without any direct action on your part. Keep the text message concise, but direct them to your web site for specific actions. For instance, I recently sent a broadcast e-mail about my new book Relationship Aspect Marketing. The only action suggested in the e-mail text was to hyperlink to for more information Hyperlinks are also an excellent way to bring added value. You might include a short quotation from an informative article, then offer a hyperlink to the complete article if they'd like more detail.
9. Make it as personal as possible.
10. Remember this is an electronic letter. The more personal the writing, the greater the likelihood that people will read it. As mentioned earlier, this mail goes direct to the recipient. Secretaries and telephone receptionists are not blocking the way.
11. Make it look good.
12. E-mail software today is far more innovative than just a few years ago. Take advantage of the ability to select fonts, sizes, underlining, bolding and italicizing. This adds texture to your message and increases readability. You can even get into background and type colors, pasting pictures and animation. However don't go overboard and create such a large document that it takes a lot of time to load. Remember, a lot of your recipients are still on dial-up modems.
13. Set reasonable expectations.

In regular direct mail campaigns, experts suggest that you should expect a 2-3% return. Sometimes you get lucky and get more, sometimes you get less. But 2-3% has always served as a good guideline for "cold" direct marketing. Don't expect that type of return with e-mail. My experience has been that 0.03-0.05% is a fair return. Granted you may get lucky and do far better --particularly with a warm, permission-based list or with a broadcast to existing clients who already do business with you. Electronic mail does not have the same intrinsic values associated with real paper. It's definitely less expensive, but don't expect the same results as with direct mail.

As with any new technology, take some to get acquainted with the potential. Begin slowly and increase your activity as you gain experience and knowledge. "Dot-coms" may be experiencing difficulties today, but the Internet is here to stay. Make it your friend.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Earning The Right by: Jack Burke

In today's marvelous world of communication choices, companies incorrectly believe that the sales pitch will garner results. After all, they can bombard prospects with their message via the Internet, e-mail, telephone, fax, radio and television. Such tactics may work for the Proctor & Gambles of the world because they are generally selling to a pre-determined need, In such cases high visibility creates a top-of-mind positioning that results in a purchase. However most companies, particularly in the business-to-business arena do not fit the P&G mold, nor do they have the available cash to expend.

So how does a company “earn the right” to your business?

A successful insurance brokerage decided they wanted to niche into the insuring of large truck fleets. They first hired a manager with extensive experience in insuring truck fleets to manage the operation. They then worked with a number of insurance companies until they developed a very competitive, all-inclusive package to bring to the market.

Patting themselves on the back for a job well done, their account executives began calling on trucking firms to sell the insurance package. Unfortunately the initial results were minimal at best. It turns out that although insurance was a major budget line item, it was not one of the primary daily concerns of the fleet owners. Owners expressed loyalty towards their existing agents and were reluctant to leave the “known” for the “unknown”. This brokerage had sought to sell the product before earning the right to the business. They put the sale before the relationship.

After going back to the drawing boards, they agreed that the staffing was right and the product was on target. The question was how to initiate the relationship that would be conducive to making the sale. Bringing in some experts they went to the source to determine the primary daily concerns of a truck fleet owner. It turns out that the biggest concern was recruiting, hiring, training and retaining good truck drivers. The second most significant concern was dealing with federal and state regulations. And the third was a bit of a surprise – they felt lonely. There wasn't a lot of peer-to-peer interaction amongst these CEO's and they felt like lone wolves on the prairie.

With this information, they sought out one of the top human resource experts in the trucking industry, a regulatory/compliance expert and a consultant that specialized in the motivation and morale boosting of CEO's. In this case, they interviewed these three specialists and created audiotape programs designed to benefit a truck fleet owner. They also created a similar program about the unique aspects of their agency and the trucking division.

Tools in hand, they began a direct mail campaign. Every 4-6 weeks a letter went out with one of the taped programs. The first letter said, “We know that you spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the problems in recruiting and retaining good drivers. That's why we thought you might enjoy the enclosed cassette from one of the industry's top experts on that subject.” At the end there was an almost a by-the-way comment about offering insurance solutions for the trucking industry. Similarly the second and third programs followed suit, with the fourth mailing including the tape about the agency.

This particular program used audiotapes as the value-added benefit. But the concept can work with electronic or paper newsletters, reprints of articles, even mounting the interviews on websites in mp3. The moral is that you “earn the right” by proving that you care about their business and their problems. You are a total solution-provider, rather than a vendor or sales person.

By the way, after this campaign they sold a lot more insurance to trucking companies because the initial value they provided literally predisposed the prospects to do business with them. The actual sales calls were anti-climatic because a nurturing relationship had already been established

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Cross-Selling the Total Package By: Jack Burke

For years the statistics were that the average American had 7.2 insurance policies – but agencies were only averaging a little better than one policy per customer.  Whether you called it cross-selling or multi-line marketing, the message has always been the same.  More policies per client meant lower acquisition costs, higher client retention and greater profits.

All that being said, the question still remains as to why agencies do not put more energy into cross marketing additional policies to existing customers.  Are we afraid of the success it might engender…or are we afraid of failure?  Now, before the members of the choir (those who are cross-selling) rise up to say that I’m wrong in my assessment, let’s take a look at just one consumer – me.

When we arrived in California in 1984, one of our first culture shocks was the cost of automobile insurance.  As a Farmers’ insured, we contacted a local agent to make the address change and learned that the premium was nearly three times higher than it had been back East.  We paid the difference and chalked it up to the price of living in California – until the locals explained that anyone in the know with a good driving record was getting their insurance from 20th Century (now 21st Century).  I made the call and moved the insurance to cut my premium by more than 50% -- but no agent, just an 800 number.  During this time period, we were never approached about additional insurance by either the Farmers’ agent or 20th Century.

Our second culture shock came in the purchase of a house – which remains a culture shock today to any new California resident.  Purchasing from a developer, they recommended both a mortgage company and an insurance agent.  We utilized both.  Other than annual statements, we never heard from the agent providing our home insurance.

Our third culture shock arrived when the children started hitting 16.  20th Century really wasn’t interested in insuring teenage drivers and indicated that with skyrocketing premiums.  That’s when a Mercury agent came to the rescue and kept our insurance as reasonable as possible.  Plus we now had a real, live agent to represent us and he’s done a great job over the years.

In the meantime, we started Sound Marketing and need business insurance.  Since we really didn’t have a meaningful relationship with anyone other than our auto insurance agent, we followed the recommendation of our attorney and got the insurance through a local independent broker.  Acknowledging that we were a small account, he also explained that our primary and only contact would be with their CSR staff – not him.

At the same time we needed to purchase health insurance.  By chance I called our auto agent to see if he handled other personal lines such as health coverage.  He did and he wrote the policy – but remember, I had to proactively call him to find out if he represented any health companies.  That’s not cross-selling.  In later years he sold his health book to another agent whom I’ve never met to this day, although he gets his commissions on a regular basis from our premium payments.

As the years progressed we now had one agent for business, one for home, one for auto and a fourth for health insurance. Not a single one of them has tried to cross sell anything to us.  The only extraneous message came from the original Farmers’ agent that we had long since discarded.  His letter explained that auto insurance had become too competitive and he had sold his agency in order to “become” a life insurance agent.  To his credit, he was a persistent life insurance agent and eventually sold life policies to both my wife and myself.  He’s still our life agent today – but he’s never attempted to sell us any other financial services package or coverage other than those two life policies.

So here we were in 2004 with five basic coverages and five agents.  The only anomaly was that they had been retaining our business despite lack of communication or concern about our needs.  So when I saw an AARP/Hartford mailer about home insurance, I made contact with them.  In one short phone call of about ten minutes, they quoted a home policy.  When they learned we had moved our offices into a wing of the house, they quickly requoted it for both home and home-based BOP coverages.  After I told them to write the policies (two agents immediately liquidated), they came right back and asked about my automobile coverage.  The only reason I didn’t give that to them was because of the nature of my cars – there are some classics involved and I didn’t want to go through the hassle of new appraisals, etc.

Companies like Hartford know the value of multiple line marketing.  Why can’t the independent agency force follow suit?  In an ever more competitive world, success requires that you maximize the potential value of each and every client to your agency.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Tried & True By: Jack Burke

The Internet is changing the way we do business.  That’s true.  Unfortunately the hoopla has caused people to lose sight of the fact that it is only a tool, nothing more.  It is not the magic answer, nor should it be your primary focus.  It is simply one of many tools at your disposal to build relationships that drive your business.

I was recently drawn into a nostalgic conversation about my early years in the automotive business.  Some salesmen (not many women were selling cars back then) would wait for an “up” to come in the door.  They were called the “floor whores”.  Their livelihood depended on traffic brought into the dealership by advertising and/or location.  They seldom lasted long.

The elder statesmen seldom worried about floor traffic.  Over the years they had learned the secret of relationships.  Their sales were all repeat and referral customers.  These sales pros had an aura about them.  They liked people and people liked them.  You were drawn to their personality and they bent over backwards to keep you happy.  If you were to ask them how they became so successful, they would tell you that it took a lot of hard work to build a book of business that they could rely upon.

Having started in the dealership at age 12 in the parts department, it took me a while to mature enough to join the sales force.  Wanting to be like the pro’s, I began a regimen of prospecting that has help me in good stead to this day.

I was introduced to the Criss-Cross Directory.  With this reverse listing resource, I could look up every customer and see the names, addresses and phone numbers of the neighbors on that street.  Soon they would all see their neighbor’s shiny new car, so I would send letters to the 20 closest neighbors.  I also learned to send a handwritten thank you note to each customer that ended with a request for referrals.  I mined the service department files for customers with older cars and sent them postcards about new models.  I searched through the paper every day for announcements of life changes and sent congratulatory cards to the people mentioned in the articles.  I used the telephone to periodically keep in touch with my customers and to make cold calls.  At the end of two years, I was honored as the top salesman at the dealership.

These basic principles of marketing still work today – with and without the Internet.
When was the last time you foraged through the listings of new businesses being formed in your area and sent them an introductory/congratulatory note?  (Some of them may grow into “dream clients” and this is an opportunity to develop a relationship that can grow as they grow.)

Do you proactively ask your clients for referrals – or better yet, introductions?

Do you really take time to review the needs of your current clients and offer them solutions with other forms of insurance that you can offer?  (I’m not talking about a minimal review of their existing coverage – but a complete review of their overall needs in both commercial and personal lines.)

Do you have a list of your Top Five Prospects?  I’m not referring to the five hottest leads that you are currently working.  I’m speaking about the five biggest and best prospects in your area that you would literally do anything to insure.  Until you target them and develop an individualized long-term marketing approach to their business, you are not likely to write them.

How frequently have you sat down and jotted a quick “thank you” note to a customer?  People like to be appreciated and a handwritten note letting them know you appreciate their business goes a long way in solidifying a relationship.

All too often we get so wrapped up in the business of business, we forget the basics of marketing that earned us the success we enjoy today.

My favorite commercial of all time was about the business that was going downhill.  The boss came into a meeting and handed everyone airline tickets saying that it is time to get back to meeting the clients on a face-to-face basis.  Extrapolated down to its very essence, business is still one person interacting with another.  Stick to the basics, focus on building and nurturing relationships and rest assured that your business will thrive.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Are You Listening? By: Jack Burke

Today’s title might seem a little inappropriate to the main focus of this article: electronic newsletters.  What does listening, after all, have to do with the printed word?  You are about to find out.

There’s an old retail marketing maxim that you should never overestimate the intelligence of your market.  Aim too high and you miss the market.  Let’s paraphrase that to never overestimating the altruistic nature of your clientele.  Because, bottom line, it’s really all about WII-FM, “What’s In It For Me?”

Love them or hate them, newsletters are a standard and usually effective method of maintaining client touches during the course of a year.  Up until recently, I felt that the only bad newsletter was no newsletter.  There was one exception though – newsletters that were blatantly commercial.  I hate them.  And ironically, even some of the Fortune 500 persist in sending them out.  They contain nothing of intrinsic value to the recipient.  They are merely billboards supporting items to be sold – sort of like watching Home Shopping Network.

My attitude has changed dramatically with the utilization of electronic newsletters for one of my clients.  This particular client is a very large med-mal broker that needs to maintain contact points with the thousands of extremely busy physicians that it represents.  Using electronic newsletters seemed to be an excellent way to keep in touch.

First we made the decision to use CoolerEmail.com for our fulfillment provider.  It is considered to be one of the Top 5 e-mail services on the Internet today.  It isn’t the least expensive, but it does offer a lot of value.  There is a wide selection of newsletter templates – or you can design a custom version.  It’s a very simple WYSIWYG technology in building the individual newsletters.  It provides excellent tracking tools.  However, I do have one admonition.  Make sure your e-mail database is clean when you upload it to their system.  This is a strict “opt-in” only e-mail service.  Complaints charging “spam” from recipients can cost you with fines – even banishment – from their system.  So make sure your client database is purified beforehand.

Now that we had a provider, we went about the process of finding and developing content for the monthly newsletters.  A group of eight reviews topics and articles every month for potential interest to the physicians.  Management then makes the final decision on which four articles will be featured in each newsletter.

We began with a few articles relating to med-mal claims prevention and then began expanding into human resources for their practices, general business management, office culture, complaint resolution and etc.  Typical articles that would be of interest to any business owner trying to run a successful and ethical business.  Because of the nature of physicians (desire to help people), we ran more than the average of management material that reinforced good, positive behavior by the doctor, the practice, the staff and the patients.

In the past, that would have been our ongoing model.  Aside from an occasional “attaboy”, we wouldn’t have expected much in the way of feedback.

The electronic world has changed all of that – and boy were we barking up the wrong tree!

CoolerEmail enables us to view the actual number of click-throughs to the complete text of each article in the newsletter.  It also provides what those click-throughs represent on a percentage basis in relation to total readership.  (EG: Article one may have 350 clicks, representing 40.2% of the readership.  Article two may have only had 220, representing 25.2%.)

On a side note, you can click on the “clicks” on the report and you will then be given a list of the names and e-mail addresses of each “clicker”.  Fantastic for follow up!

But back to the report.  We began tracking the response rate to each and every article, accumulating data month after month.  The analysis of that data changed our direction on content in a big way.  Everything we had thought was wrong.

Month after month, the lowest rated articles for readership had to do with the “good stuff”.  The doctors, at the privacy of the computer in their office, weren’t interested in how to better treat staff or patients.  They weren’t interested in improving the ambience of their facilities.  They really didn’t care about how best to handle customer complaints.  They didn’t click on articles about improving productivity, meeting HIPAA requirements, new laws and regulations.

The articles the doctors wanted to read were about avoiding a med-mal claim, what to do when sued, how to give an effective deposition, what not to say to the opposing attorney, how to get the most out of insurance company provided representation.  In other words, the doctors wanted to know what to do to protect themselves and their wallets.  It’s all about them (in the privacy of their office).

Without the data provided by this electronic technology and the willingness to analyze that data, we would not have heard what the doctors were telling us – not in word, but via their actions.

Today’s newsletters are dramatically different than the earlier ones.  We now run articles that impact the doctors’ wallets and readership continues to climb.  Hope springs eternal, so we occasionally test the water with a more altruistic article – but the best formula seems to follow the old WII-FM client mentality.

Are you listening to your clients?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Branding: A Single Identity for a Mult-Tasking Entity By: Jack Burke

Mention "branding" and people generally think in terms of company names -- McDonalds, Nike, Disney, Ford, Xerox, etc. Or, they think of burned flesh on cattle. Aside from the cattle, Webster defines brand as "a class of goods identified as the product of a single firm or manufacturer". What is your "class of goods" and how can you distinguish or brand it?

As middlemen, too many agencies think of branding as the domain of the company that provides the products they sell. Maybe if you're a State Farm agent, but that's definitely not the case for the independent agency that represents many "brands". You may sell the Safeco brand of products, or the Harford, but what is your brand? Who are you? How can you burn that imprint into the minds of your clients and prospects?

Branding for the independent insurance agency has a number of components that must work together: your market(s), your ancillary profit centers (financial services, etc.), your agency positioning (uniqueness), and often your clientelle (association marketing).

Numerous agencies, particularly niche players, fall into the product or market trap. They brand themselves based on what they sell, not what they offer. Your product is not your uniqueness, especially in the insurance industry where the competition can surface overnight. You are your uniqueness! But how can you quantify that and translate it into branding?

Another problem, generic to all business, is that we think we know what is important to our customers. Quite frequently we're wrong. Therefore the first step in developing a brand is to find out why your best clients do business with you. You have to find out what makes them give you their money, then build your brand on what they say are the critical factors.

If they say "trust", ask why. Did you earn it with special expertise in their business? Did you position yourself as a trusted advisor? Is it because you provide risk management assistance? Did you save them money over a prior agent or broker? You need to know the specifics.

If they say "service" (like you often do), ask them to specifically define the good service that impresses them. Is it your claims processing assistance? Is it because you are available when they need you? Is it because you return their phone calls? Is it because of the caliber of your staff? Is it because you have the technology to meet their needs faster through the electronic world? You need to know the specifics.

The third challenge is (or should be) the awareness of the many services and products you can provide. The independent agency system has to break out of the P/C mold. Clients want more and you should be giving more as the industry moves into full financial services. You have to package your agency as a full-service, multi-faceted financial partner to your clients. If you can't do that, you may not be around to worry about branding.

Once you discover and determine the base points on which to solidify your branding, there are three critical components:

1. You must meet or exceed all expectations that your branding creates. Truth in marketing, verified by performance, is the cornerstone of your future success.
2. Create a template for your brand. Every message, every marketing exposure, every advertisement should be captured within the template.
3. Your brand must be "alive". Nothing is static in life. Your brand, like life, must be in a continual process of renewal.

As a child, our insurance agent used to visit monthly to collect premiums from my parents. He was more than an insurance salesman, he was a friend, a consultant, and an advisor. If they were going to buy a refrigerator, they asked him first. If they were going to buy a car, they didn't ask him because we had a dealership--but if we didn't, they would have asked him. In arranging finances for my college, they sought out his advice. And when I needed insurance for life, home, car, health, it was automatic that I went to him. In today's hectic and harried world, we have to recreate that "brand" which we used to have. We have to position ourselves to be known as the first string for anything relating to the financial well-being of our clients. This means we have to use that "brand template" in dispersing our message through every tradition medium from the phone to the mail, through every new medium from the Internet to e-mail, and be ready to utilize every medium that will be surfacing in the days ahead. It is a lot of work, but the results will begin almost immediately as you create a singular brand identity for your agency that will create top-of-mind positioning amongst your clients as their total financial resource.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Assisted Telemarketing By: Jack Burke

Nearly two years ago I wrote an article entitled “Reports of Its Death Are Greatly Exaggerated: Telemarketing Is Alive and Well”. (This article can be found at .) Basically that article related comments by agencies that were finding that this tried and true method still worked very effectively for them – despite the then building levels of consumer revolt against any form of telemarketing.

As a consumer, I too hate the evening calls and have added my home phone number to the federal “Don't Call” list. Although I also sometimes find telemarketing calls distracting at work, I have also found value in them as well. In my earlier article, the agency owners felt that the leads and appointments garnered by telemarketing were very effective with reasonable closing ratios. All indicated that a lot of the value was dependent upon the quality of the telemarketing company they utilized. One agent said that he was only experiencing a 6% closing ratio with his leads until he switched to National Marketing Services where he nearly tripled his closing rate.

Even the Big I in New York is a believer in telemarketing, as National Marketing Services President Larry Neilson pointed out, “We feel very privileged to have been selected by the Big I to promote membership in Trusted Choice for the New York area. We've got many major vendors and companies that utilize our services, but it's always nice when the premier agent association selects us to help them get the word out to their agency members.”

So telemarketing does work, but can it work better? My theory is that most producers don't know what to do with a lead (or an appointment) when they get one. Granted the aforementioned hit ratio of 15-18% isn't too bad, but why can't telemarketing leads result in 30, 40 or even 50% closing ratios?

I remember a conversation with a long-time sales executive at a very successful insurance agency in Northern California. During a visit to the agency, where we were structuring a dynamic marketing program, he asked if I would have lunch with him. Long story short, he was afraid of the new marketing campaign because he didn't know how to sell. I was amazed at his comment and pointed out that he had been earning a 6-figure income as a producer for a good many years – of course he could sell. “No I can't!” he replied. “Every week the owner comes in and gives me a list of names to go write their insurance. All I've been doing is the paperwork on clients that he generates through his activities.”

In retrospect I don't think he was an anomaly. I've talked with sales trainers around the country and many agencies have a lot of producers that don't really know how to sell. So I decided to do a little investigating.

Larry Neilson is the president of National Marketing Services and he confirmed some of my fears. He explained that they've invested substantial amounts of money into their computer programs and personnel to dramatically improve the quality of telemarketing leads. They aren't just x-dates any more! Leads and/or appointments include information on the incumbent agent, difficulties being experienced, and a lot of details about the company size, revenue and etc. Plus, their clients can go online to monitor and manage the leads they receive. However, Larry went on to say, “Regardless of the lead quality, information, script tweaking and management tools, some agencies do well with the leads and others don't. The final success of any marketing program, including telemarketing, rests in the hands of the producers and their managers.”

Consummate sales trainer and author of “The Wedge”, Randy Schwantz, agrees that the quality of the lead is important, but that producers need a track to run on. As Randy told me, “The lead is only the starting point for those that utilize the selling philosophy of The Wedge. The producer must then determine the best approach to take with the prospect based on the incumbent agent and carrier. Where are their weaknesses, compared to the producer's strengths. Proper research and handling by the producer, coupled with viable management, can dramatically improve closing ratios of any type of lead.” Randy also pointed out that the greater the information provided with the lead, the easier for the producers to determine how best to position their approach.

John McDaniel is the Virginia Regional Coordinator and Richmond Profit Center Manager for Brown & Brown of Virginia, which consists of 8 offices throughout the area with over 100 employees. He has used telemarketing companies to generate leads since April of 2001. Although one of the offices maintains internal telemarketing, National Marketing Services currently provides lead generation for the other seven. In July of 2002, the Wedge concept of selling was put into practice for his operation.

John indicated that successful implementation of telemarketing leads has been a process of change for his operation. Initially telemarketers set appointments, which were somewhat problematic due to the large geographical area and the multiple offices. Their closing ratio of 2% wasn't much to brag about. But as John told me, “We didn't give up on telemarketing, but we realized that there had to be some changes in the methodology.”

Two critical changes undertaken by Brown & Brown were to use telemarketing for leads, rather than appointments, and to implement The Wedge. Today the leads are fed to producers in the appropriate office and it is up to them to make the appointments. Using the techniques learned from Randy, the producers are able to sift through the leads and further qualify the prospects. Based on the information contained with the lead, the producers can determine the best approach to take in making the initial call, setting the appointment and subsequently having a sales visit with the prospect. Asked about the success of this current method, John said, “We are now closing 35-40% of the leads, sometimes even hitting as high as 50%.”

The moral to this story is that telemarketing (or any type of marketing for that matter) is only as successful as you want it to be. It isn't a magic bullet to cure all your ills. First you must make a commitment to work through the process until you find the combination that works best for your agency. Then make sure that the leads are given to producers that have been trained to use them effectively.

The formula for success is simple:

Agency Commitment + Quality Leads + Trained Producers = $$$

If you would like to contact references used for this article:

Larry Neilson, National Marketing Services

Randy Schwantz, The Wedge Group

John McDaniel, Brown & Brown of VA

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

All you have to Fear is Fear Itself: One Man's Journey into Building a Web Site By: Jack Burke

The end of April 1998 marked the debut of Sound Marketing’s Web site: “http://www.soundmarketing.com”. Now this is not really earthshaking news in this day and age. Everyone seems to have one--even if, as Dr. Ian Morrison suggests, “they’re not quite sure why”.

I have been surprised at the reaction from others to the fact that I built it myself. Even a noted automation expert said, “Thanks for telling me, it gives me the courage to try.” Another entrepreneurial business person questioned me about the learning curve that the process entailed. Upon reflection, I replied that the learning curve was inconsequential compared to the fear of starting the project. So, with some gentle nudging, I’ve agreed to tell the story of my journey with hopes that it may inspire others to bring their own Web site on-line.

It was the summer of 1997 and I was quite fairly content with using CompuServe for both Internet access and e-mail. After all, they finally allowed me to superimpose an alpha address over my original 71736,3647 address. The only flaw was their telephone dial-up and log-in. It seemed that my new Power Macintosh and CompuServe just didn’t get along well. Sometimes I would spend a frustrating half-hour just trying to check my e-mail. My computer consultant, who couldn’t resolve the problem either, still billed me $250 for a half-days work on it.

About this time, my cousin came to visit. (He’s a genius in industrial robotics and is becoming well known internationally for his efforts in the development of worldwide electronic standards.) He asked why I insisted on CompuServe and advised me to get a local ISP, register for a domain, and let them handle the e-mail and Internet access. “In fact,” he said, “you really should have a Web site.”

Well, that peaked my interest. But I explained how much work it would be to teach someone about our business so that they could build and maintain our Web site. “Why do you need someone?” he asked. “Do it yourself.”

Starting The Journey

Shortly thereafter, based on my cousin’s recommendation, I purchased Microsoft’s Front Page Web Authoring and Management Tool for $149. (With hindsight, I wouldn’t purchase the software until arranging an ISP and discussing software with them first. All ISP’s are not necessarily prepared to handle every type of publishing software. Luckily, I was fine with Front Page.)

The next step was finding an ISP, Internet Service Provider. First, I checked out the major players like AT&T and GTE. I found AT&T very pricey, although offering some unique options. As for GTE, they weren’t able to satisfactorily answer my questions. I then investigated two local suppliers and settled on the one that seemed the most helpful. (Both had comparable capabilities and pricing levels--Web site hosting, Internet access, and e-mail processing for $50 per month.)

With assistance from my new ISP, we checked with InterNIC Registration Services, found that the domain of “soundmarketing” was available and registered for it. The cost here is $100 for a two year registration period.

Armed with our corporate domain of “http://www.soundmarketing.com” and an ISP, I was able to immediately begin running our e-mail through the ISP with our domain (e.g.: jack@soundmarketing.com). Note that the e-mail did not require that our Web be up.

At this point I would have liked to drop CompuServe, since the ISP was now providing the e-mail service and Internet access. However, unlike snail mail, CompuServe was not able to forward e-mail to my new address.
Since we had over five years of material in the field with our CompuServe address, I kept CompuServe for nearly six more months in order not to lose any e-mail. During this time, we heavily promoted our new addresses and dropped CompuServe when mail there dwindled to nothing.

And Along Comes The Paralysis Of Fear

It was at this point when the fear rolled in! Everything had gone smoothly and it was time to design and build the web. From September of ‘97 into April of ‘98, fear prevented any further progress. Several times I opened the Front Page program and began the tutorial--never to finish it. It was lengthy, basic, boring, and unable to retain my attention. So, as with some other programs, I figured the operational manual would be the answer. Wrong! The book seemed to be an exercise in obfuscation and actually created more fear and intimidation.

These were the months of my discontent. I fluctuated between resolve to do it and fanciful thoughts of hiring a professional. Someone said to first lay out all the pages on paper, which I did. Yet I still couldn’t force myself to actually begin building the Web. Finally in March, I figured out an acceptable answer. I would hire a college student to teach me how to do it. Their price would be reasonable and I could still claim it to be a do-it-yourself accomplishment. Cal Lutheran University is just around the corner from us, so I placed a Help Wanted advertisement and waited, and waited, and waited. Another good plan goes awry, not a single call.

The Turning Point

Fast forward to the IMMS convention in April in San Francisco, where I’m speaking on “Humanizing The Electronic World” (which obviously includes references to the Internet) and everywhere I turn someone is talking about the Internet. “Fear be damned”, I thought, “there is no way I can postpone this Web site any longer. Whether I do it myself, or hire it out, Sound Marketing will have a Web site up by the end of April.”

So, upon our return from San Francisco, I sat down at the computer with my paper layout and opened the Front Page program. The program has wizards that offer a number of pre-designed templates for typical business sites. After several false starts, I settled on a template and a look that worked for me and began to play with it. To my total and utter amazement, I found that the only thing I had to fear was the fear itself. With the WYSIWYG editing, templates, and wizards, I found that the program was very easy to navigate and very forgiving of my errors. Once in a while, I would stumble and quickly find the answer I needed in the manual or from the Help function of the program.

Publishing The Web

Once I got rolling, three and a half days of nearly-undivided attention resulted in a thirty-some page Web site ready to go. At this point I checked the manual, and it simply said to click on “Publish”. Upon doing so, the program dialed up the ISP and in a few short minutes published the site to their server and declared the operation successful. I immediately closed out the program, went on line with both Netscape and Explorer and enjoyed the pride of ownership as I viewed my work on the Internet.

Expert Advice & A Little Tweaking

As I browsed the pages of “soundmarketing.com”, I found two critical problems:

1. The page with graphics took nearly two minutes to load.

2. None of the Feedback Forms were working.

The graphics weren’t surprising. I seldom work with graphics and was pretty sure that I didn’t have them minimized properly. So, I checked with a friend who is very conversant in both Macintosh and graphics. We rescanned the photos at 72 pixels, tweaked them with Adobe Photoshop, and loaded them as interlaced graphics. This not only enabled them to load quicker, but the interlacing loaded them with what I call a “ghosting” effect. Rather than coming on line by line from the top down, the entire image comes up very faint and gradually becomes darker and clearer.

I also asked him about the problem with the forms. He said that there is hidden language underneath the forms and that I should check with my ISP for instructions. I called them, explained the situation, and they directed me to their Web site where I downloaded five pages of directions for the hidden fields that direct the sending of a form. I chose to have all forms directly e-mailed to specific e-mail addresses that we use--sales, info, etc.

Updating The Site

The “do-it-yourself” strategy has paid off with another dividend: quick, easy, and no-cost updating. I maintain a hard-disc copy of the Web site and, utilizing the editor program for Front Page, can easily open the file copy in order to make changes or add pages. When finished, I merely click on Publish again and it automatically updates the pages on the Web site. The Publishing feature offers the options of completely republishing the entire site, or just updating the pages--which is very quick. Again, I don’t have to rely on an expert coming in to do the updating.

Unwinding After The Journey

One more time--as so many times in the past--the fear that I projected was without basis. I’m glad that I walked through it, because today I have even more confidence in my ability to conquer technology which is no mean feat for those of us who have crossed the fifty year threshold.

A few suggestions and comments for those who might choose to follow in my footsteps.

1. Don’t allow your fear of the unknown to paralyze you.
2. Determine your ISP and ask them for suggestions on WYSIWYG software.
3. Play with the software program and you’ll quickly get comfortable.
4. Ask for advice when you hit a roadblock.
5. Build a human aspect into your site--personal pages, community news,
hotlinks to client webs, etc.

A Final Note

Once your web is up and running, promote it in all of your marketing material from business cards and letterhead to advertisements and phone-on-hold messaging. Plus, make sure to register with the major search engines.

There are numerous companies and services that will register your site with all the search engines for anywhere from $49 to $500. However, I found that you really only need to register with the primary search engines such as Yahoo, Excite, AltaVista, and Infoseek. What I did one evening was run a search on Yahoo for Internet search engines. That netted several hundred, including the major players. I then accessed them one by one and filled out the “Register Your Site” forms. A couple of hours of time got me registered everywhere that counts, and again increased my understanding of Internet technology.

Give it a try! It’s easier than you might think, saves you money, and is a great educational tool for the technology-challenged such as myself.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Ultimate Unique Difference By: Jack Burke

When doing workshops I spend a lot of time working with the audience on defining their “unique difference” in the marketplace. The good news is that in the last year or so everyone doesn't immediately say that “good service” is their unique difference. I think the industry has finally acknowledged that good service is a customer expectation, thereby no longer qualifying as valued added. The bad news is that most agents and agency owners have difficulty in determining exactly what their unique difference might be.

At this point I try to make two critical points:

1. Clients are the ones who can best define the unique difference of an agency.
2. The most unique difference is the individual.

As business owners and managers we can spend hundreds of hours trying to determine our unique difference – and probably never get it right. We need to go direct to our best clients and ask them, “Why do you do business with me?” Their answers might surprise us, but doesn't it make sense to build our brand, our marketing persona around the very reasons that our best customers throw money at us?

Perhaps we offer risk management services that help them better manage their business and their premiums. Perhaps it's because we are “johnny-on-the-spot” when a claim arises. Perhaps it is the depth of our knowledge and expertise in their industry. Perhaps they simply like us – a lot. Whatever the case, these are the things that drew these clients to us and enable us to retain their business and loyalty. If we build our marketing brand around these factors, isn't it likely to assume that we might attract similar type clients?

I like to suggest a $20 focus group. Take a client to lunch and simply ask four questions:

1. Why do you do business with me?
2. What am I doing right?
3. What am I doing wrong?
4. What do I need to be doing to walk into the future with you?

If you ask these questions, you will gain a tremendous insight into your business model. This insight will better prepare you to gain new clients and retain existing clients – the perfect model for success. I do offer one caution, however. If you ask these questions, be prepared to take action on them. Failure to do so could cost you the client.

Point number two is the uniqueness of the individual. No two are alike. Yet we often fail to capitalize on this advantage. We always promote the “agency”, seldom the “individual”.

As an example, let me draw from the experience of an auto dealership. Car dealers are notorious for turnover amongst sales personnel. Seldom can you go back to dealership fours years later and find the same sales person that sold you your last vehicle. Many burn out quickly, others think it is a temporary job and a lot of them keep jumping towards “greener” fields based on the “hot' vehicle of the year.

In Cleveland, Ohio there was a dealership that went against all odds in the turnover melee. They might hire a new sales person once or twice a year, only to replace those who were retiring. The average tenure for a sales professional was over 20 years. Customers were always amazed at the longevity and loved to know that there would always be familiar faces when they went to the dealership. Now that's a unique difference in the auto industry!

The real story, however, is that the dealer principal was smart enough to utilize this unique difference to build more sales. Every newspaper advertisement was framed with pictures of the sales team. Every sales person was pictured, with their name, in every ad. The pictures within the frame hardly ever changed. If someone was retiring, the ads would make mention of it. If someone new came on board, that too was highlighted.

This created an almost subliminal message that the dealership was predicated on the long-term expertise of the individual members of the sales team.

That's one of the reasons why I urge agencies to provide individual pages on their website for the staff. Help each member, from producer to CSR, to build their personal identity with your clients. Clients bond with these people – they are truly your most unique difference. Capitalize on it.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Role of an Owner Is it about You or --Them By: Jack Burke

When my philosopher friend Mike Manes of Square One Consulting talks about change, he reminds people about those big and bad dinosaurs that couldn't survive climatic change and died.

Recently I received a letter from a partner in an insurance agency, who wrote:

" I have one business partner who thinks that to be successful in the future, you must merge with other agencies, open up non-standard offices and hire new producers. I have to agree with him about all of those options. We did merge with another agency over two years ago and with another agency just over a year ago. We have also looked at opening up another office and hiring a new producer.

However, my biggest concern right now is being prepared internally for the future, and keeping up with the latest technology. My partner is in his 50's and does not want to change the way he does business. He still requires the CSR to pull the file and come into his office to discuss the file or for him to ask a question. He has very little computer knowledge and does not want to go to t-filing in CL or to start using a scanner."

This problem is not a new one, in fact it is legion. And it is not relegated to the pages of the insurance industry. It is rampant in nearly every industry. In fact I have frequent conversations with many experts and consultants about this specific topic--the inability of a business owner to change.

Does this mean the owner must jump into the electronic pool with both feet, attend classes to learn computer technology and begin subscribing to hi-tech newsletters? Not a bad idea. Hearken back to an earlier day as ask yourself how well a business owner might have survived if he refused to integrate that new technological contraption of a telephone into his business. Or how productive might that business have been if the secretary had to write letters in long hand because the owner didn't trust typewriters.

Unfortunately, many of us baby-boomers cling to our first impressions of the initial computer technology, where it seemed that computers (think data processors) merely doubled the workload. After all it meant doing everything twice -- once for the computer and then again for the old methods because we didn't trust the computers. Those days have thankfully changed and only a true "dinosaur" doesn't appreciate the productivity factor of computer usage.

The Job Description

Before we totally castigate the recalcitrant business owners as described in my opening correspondence, let's first look at the job description of an owner. I believe it can be summed up fairly easily:

1. Provide the great vision upon which the future of a company will be built.
2. Provide a nuturing, motivational and empowering environment for staff.
3. Provide the philosophical framework to serve the clientele.
4. Generate a fair return on investment for the company.

This may seem a bit over-simplified, but those three categories cover just about everything a true leader must do without getting into the daily minutia.

To use a metaphorical example, the CEO of a national bakery can run the company without ever having baked a loaf of bread -- if he fully understands the process and is keenly aware and sensitive to both his employees and his customers. The conundrum, in the case of our friend's partner, is that technology is a quintessential component to every facet of that job description.

The Vision

The future is being built by technological block by technological block. Forget the retail side of Internet commerce, think in terms of communication, information resources and back-end supply chain. Some pundits say that Jack Welch of General Electric blew his chance to retire with a bang when the deal to merge with Honeywell fell through. I disagree. Jack Welch has already given GE the most valuable farewell gift possible -- an introduction to the Internet.

Initially blind to the possibilities of the Internet, gentle spousal coaxing opened his eyes to a remarkable vista of electronic opportunity -- not necessarily in selling stuff on the Internet, but in using it to more effectively manage the business of GE's far-flung empire. My guess is that by his retirement party this Fall, GE will be saving nearly a half billion dollars per year through more efficient management over the Internet. By coordinating all travel electronically, they are already saving in excess of a million dollars per week -- and that's only one small area.

Even if a computer keyboard is never touched, a true leader must understand and appreciate the value of technology both today and in the future. How can one envision a future if ignoring the tools with which it will be built?

The Employees

A friend of mine manages one of LA's top Hispanic radio stations. When the corporate ownership made the switch from English-speaking rock to Hispanic, he was soon the only person there who didn't speak Spanish. Within a month he had a tutor arriving at his office daily and culminated his training with two weeks of immersion learning in Mexico City. He knew that he couldn't manage a staff that spoke a language he didn't understand.

We baby boomers grew up in an analog world. The youthful people we are hiring have grown up in a digital world. We not only speak different languages, our brains are hard-wired differently. A true leader must acknowledge this and adapt to it. A true leader knows that he cannot re-wire them, but he can adapt his own wiring to understand them. To that extent, there's a wonderful prayer that I rely upon:

God grant me the serenity to

accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.

Even if you cannot perform the most simple task on a computer, a true leader will establish a high-tech environment that will enable the employees to maximize their productivity and usefulness to the company. That same leader will encourage their experimentation and support their accomplishments.

The Clients

Here is the rub! Business is not about you -- the owner. Business today is all about the customer. A business that is not sensitive to the needs, wants and desires of the clientele will soon be out of business. You, as the business owner, no longer set the expectations of your clients. They already have their expectations and it is up to you to meet and exceed them.

Today's customers, having learned from the Internet and from the performance of countless companies, expect speed, expertise and 24/7 service. A company's electronic presence and performance is not optional, value-added benefits. It is merely the opening entry fee to do business in today's world.

There's a wonderful television commercial that ran this past year in the Los Angeles area. In the dark of night, a crowd of people began gathering in a parking lot. As they exited their vehicles, a look of profound amazement came over their faces as they stared in disbelief at a dark store with a closed sign on the door. Today's consumer wants you to be there when they need you. And apart from manning offices on a 24/7 basis, the only viable way to do that is with technology.

The enlightened leader knows that the true leader is the customer and the successful business leader is a follower trying to keep pace.

The Profit

This one is simple. Unless you embrace the new technology, there will be no profit to manage. The dinosaur will merely be managing the process of placing the company in bankruptcy court, while others use technology to increase efficiency, better serve their customers and decrease expenses to create greater profit.

A recent study showed that CEO's are no longer taking the long vacations that were common in the past. Most successful CEO's today feel that about five days is the longest period that they can be away from the business. The reason is that information and change is being processed so quickly, it would be foolhardy to absent themselves any longer than a week.

I reiterate that leadership does not mean the leader has a PhD in computer technology or is the brightest electronic star within the business. Leadership means a willingness to embrace change, so that the daily journey of business can be navigated with the most powerful tools possible. Remember, it's not about you -- it's about the customer. If you can't get them to where they want to go as quickly and as comfortably as possible, they'll be looking for another ship on which to make their journey.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Benefits of Service Jack Burke

Over the years I have preached the concept of “service” as critical to relationship development.  I’ve taken it beyond the back room servicing of accounts to include selfless service to the people with whom you do business, the employees that work for you and the community in which you live and work.  In the spirit of the great spiritual influencers of history, the maxim has been that service is key to the human condition and that it will be returned tenfold.

As a recovered manager of the old school (MBI – Management by Initimidation),  I have exerted much effort in implementing such service into my life.  I’ve become active in charitable fundraising within my geographic community, involved in activities at my church, quick to lend a hand to neighbors and try to maintain an attitude of service to my clients.

My efforts have been low-key and anonymous when possible.  I try to avoid instances where such service work is applauded or praised.  My personal satisfaction has always been enough.  I never felt the need for outside praise, nor wanted it.

Yet from a business perspective, there are those who fall into the “doubting Thomas” category.  They want to quantify the results, which is extremely difficult when dealing with the ephemeral concept of service.  In our hearts it rings true, but how do you prove its effectiveness.

The benefits of service have recently been proven to me in a big way.  I’ve chosen to share the experience, despite the very personal nature.  Hopefully it will help convince some that doubt the value of service in building relationships with clients and friends.

After 25 years in Southern California, Jo Ann and I are moving our home and business to Branson, Missouri.  A great deal of thought and planning have gone into this transition.  Although several friends have decided to move there also – and many more plan to visit, there is the emotional discomfort in leaving so many friends that have become our surrogate family.  Many of those friendships began through our church in Malibu.

That church has been the wellspring of my service life.  I’ve learned how to serve by teaching Sunday School classes for twenty years, becoming a member of the finance committee, participating in several other specific ministeries and even attempting an ill-fated attempt to begin a fund-raising Bingo program.  (Bingo doesn’t play well in Malibu.)  The payoff has been the wonderful friendships that have developed through this work.

On a recent Sunday, I learned that the true benefit of service is love.

The day started out like any other Sunday as we drove to Malibu and took our seats for the 8 AM  service.  Since it was the end of this year’s Sunday School, the priest asked the teachers to stand up and be recognized.  Following the service, everything changed.  The priest came down from the altar and asked for Jo Ann and me to join him.  He then announced to the parish that we would be moving and thanked us for our service over the years.  Surprisingly he even thanked me, on a personal note, for being a confidante with whom he could discuss issues that troubled him over the years.  By now tears began to surface among some of the congregation, as well as my wife.  Then the priest left us to join the congregation as they prayed over us.  The emotional impact was amazing as we truly experienced an outpouring of love.  Nothing in life could possibly offer greater value.

But the day wasn’t over.

That afternoon there was an “end-of-the-school-year” celebration party for the Sunday School teachers, spouses and families.  It’s an annual tradition of good food, conversation and fellowship.  When out pastor arrive, we took him aside to thank him for the kind words that morning.  He then handed us a package saying that this was a good time to give us a small farewell present from himself and one of the sisters.  It was a beautiful stone cross, engraved with The Lord’s Prayer – my personal favorite.  We were again taken aback, but the day hadn’t yet ended.

As the food was put out for the crowd, Father Bill was asked to say a blessing.  He again ended it by praying for our future life in Branson.  Upon finishing the prayer, the hostess asked us to come into the dining room before everyone started to chow down.  There they presented us with a gift from my teaching colleagues.  It was a wonderful original oil painting of our church, Our Lady of Malibu.  They had commissioned it from an 86 year old artist who is currently in residence at the Television & Motion Picture Home.  They wanted us to take our church with us.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Art of Leadership By: Jack Burke

I usually turn a jaundiced eye towards the comments made by politicians.  It is not really fair, but I seem to become a bit more cynical as time waxes onward.  However, I recently saw a newspaper column by Dennis Wood, a Missouri State Representative.  His words struck a chord in my heart and I’d like to share some of his thoughts in this column.

He began with a quotation from Dwight D. Eisenhower: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”

Wood likes to describe himself as a “servant leader”.  That coincides with my belief that we are all “workers amongst workers” and that the highest calling is to be of service to another human being.  Wood also goes on to differentiate between a boss and a leader with the words of Russell H. Ewing’s, “A boss creates fear, a leader confidence.  A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects his mistakes.  A boss knows all, a leader asks questions.  A boss is interesting in himself, a leader is interested in the group.”

Powerful thoughts that struck home with me.  As a corporate executive in the 70’s, I now realize that I was a “boss”, not a “leader”.  When business leaders were spouting the credo of MBO – Management by Objective, we jokingly referred to our style as MBI – Management by Intimidation.  Part of that was the cockiness of youth, but a greater part truly described our management style.  We believed that you could only manage thousands of people by engendered an atmosphere of fear that would force them to perform.  We were wrong!

Wood’s article went on to say, “There are “leaders” who think they have to scream and shout so they can be heard.  They yell and throw tantrums because they believe it is the only way to make change. Other “leaders” fell they must be quiet and hidden, operating behind the scenes as manipulators.  However, the best and true leaders are positive servants – people willing to help other people accomplish their best.”

Many people will find fault with the term “servant leader”.  Maybe they think it is a little soft or that such an attitude cannot engender motivation and loyalty.  They might even think that a “servant leader” ignores and avoids problems – sticking their heads in the sand.

Woods takes issue with those beliefs.  “Servant leaders acknowledge the problems, but also dwell on the positive accomplishments as well.  Their positive attitude helps to find the best ways to solve the problems in a constructive way – as opposed to becoming a bull in a china shop.  They use wisdom and discernment to help foster communications and solutions.  They maintain a positive “can-do” attitude.”

Positivity is hard, negativity is easy!  It’s much easier to moan and groan about the difficulties that face us, than to nurture a positive attitude.  People tend to gravitate to gossip, whining and complaining – as opposed to focusing on the good while addressing the solutions to problems.  That’s part of why change is so difficult.  The devil we know is easier to handle than the devil we don’t know.

On the management side, do we tend to be sarcastic to the point of putting people down and talking behind their backs?  Do we find it easier to instill fear or create skepticism?  Do we tend to assign blame and make accusations rather than investigating root causes in an effort to develop solutions?  The old way may resolve a problem temporarily, but a true leader solves problems for future generations.

Leaders don’t revel in accolades for personal gain and ego boosts.  Leaders serve as a conduit, passing the accolades down to the workers who really earned them.  Leaders boost people, rather than tear them down.  Leaders revel in the accolades earned by their staff!

That doesn’t mean that leaders are pushovers.  Leaders are willing to take the stands necessary to implement change.  Leaders will fire people – but only after ascertaining that the person is at fault -- not the management, not the training (or lack thereof) and not the placement of the person into the wrong job.  Leaders determine the source of the problem and then take the necessary action.  Leaders must be tough when toughness is indicated.

Above all, leaders create emulation!  People that work for leaders strive to develop similar attitudes and standards.  People who work for bosses become “bossy”.

Are you a leader or a boss?  Are you creating leaders amongst your people?   These are questions we each need to ask of ourselves on a regular basis.  And sometimes we may be blind to our own faults, so it may be necessary to check our own best thinking and personal assessment with a trusted friend – a friend is willing to be honest with us.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

One Bad Apple By: Jack Burke

I often refer to the fact that the employee is the primary customer of an agency (internal customer). If you have happy employees, you'll have happy clients (external customers). Yet we all know that occasionally we have to fire a customer.

On the external side, it's the high-drama, high-service customer that usually costs us more money than we make on the account. But when it comes to the internal customer, the employee, many agency owners find it difficult to diagnose the problem and seek a solution.

A friend of mine who emigrated from Afghanistan over 20 years ago owns a string of convenience stores in southern California. Most of his employees are members of his extended family. Recently I stopped in one of his stores to make a small purchase. At the counter was one of his young nephews. Since they know me as a customer, I'm always asked how the family is doing. This particular day had been very stressful in dealing with my youngest daughter, a schizophrenic, who was off her medications. So I replied that it had been a tough day and that my daughter had to be hospitalized again.

This young man replied, “I will pray for her and for your family. When one member of the family is sick, everyone is sick.” As I thanked him and departed the store, I was awestruck by the wisdom I had just heard. In its simplicity, it seemed to clarify the old adage about one bad apple spoiling the barrel.

When one person is sick, everyone is sick.

Isn't that true about a dysfunctional person within any business? Like the ripples of a pebble tossed into a pond, everyone is impacted. People walk around on eggshells for fear of disturbing the “problem child”. You can feel it in the air. It's real and it impacts everyone within the organization.

In Mexico, business owners are father figures. They have a paternal duty to care for their family of employees. If someone is “sick”, they honor an obligation to try to help that person back to health. If that “sickness” cannot be healed and expands to the other employees, it has to be excised like a cancer. Yet many business owners will turn a blind eye to the situation thinking it will cure itself on its own and that its easier to ignore it than deal with it. As my father used to say, “Your first loss is your best loss.” It is better to deal with a problem employee quickly and fairly, than to let it infect the entire body of employees.

A good friend and agency owner recently remarried. His wife is a very caring person who has spent years working with the elderly. Wanting to bring her into the agency, he felt she had the innate qualities to make a perfect CSR and work partner. He was wrong on both counts. Though she was caring with customers, paperwork and attention to detail were definitely not her strong points. Plus, as his wife, she felt that she had authority over employees who had been there for over 20 years. She even became jealous over his time with other employees and clients. He began to dread going in to work. His staff was complaining, his clients were complaining and his wife was complaining.

He talked to friends and business associates who all suggested that he fire his wife. He couldn't do it. He even went into therapy and the therapist suggested that he terminate his wife's employment. He couldn't do it. When his wife became adamant about replacing a valued employee with her daughter, he finally came to his senses. As difficult as it was to fire his wife, they now both agree that it was for the best. It turned out she really didn't like working for him either – but didn't have the courage to quit. Today they once again have a happy marriage.

Now I don't mean you should immediately fire every problem employee. But you should begin talking with them to determine a plan for recovery. Maybe they're just in the wrong position. Maybe they need help with an external problem – family, finances, addiction. Maybe they need better management or more training. Or, maybe they need to find a different job. As a manager you have an obligation to help them find their way and simultaneously keep a healthy environment for the rest of your staff.

Remember when one person is sick, everyone is sick. Don't let it spread to your clients as well. Just like healthcare, early recognition, diagnosis and treatment is always the better path to recovery.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Life is too Short... Flexibility vs Rigidity By: Jack Burk

"We do it this way, because this is the way we do it!" How many times have you heard (or vocalized) that thought in relation to your business or your personal regimen? Over time we tend to become rigid in our routines. As we become more successful, rigidity sometimes is better described as "set in concrete". Yet, for most of us, our success was built on flexibility, not rigidity.

A young producer trying to build a book of business will literally meet with a potential client "anytime, anywhere". Twenty years later that same producer can't meet anyone on golf day, refuses to tightly schedule appointments that might necessitate taking a quick lunch at "Chez MacDonalds" and evenings are sacred family time that cannot be interrupted by business calls or appointments.

All of this was brought to mind by a telephone conversation I had this morning with the secretary of a potential new client. Although this company has indicated a strong desire for our services, it has taken several months to find a period of time where the decision-maker could meet with me. Yesterday I received an e-mail from that decision-maker, asking me to have her secretary arrange a meeting for five of us sometime during an upcoming week.

As I placed the call, I reviewed my calendar for that week to provide the secretary with "my" available days and times. That's when I experienced my "epiphany". This client has the potential to be extremely significant. I've been waiting several months just for the opportunity to have this meeting. Yet, I was about to put "my" conditions on the scheduling -- which would obviously make life a little more difficult for the secretary.

When asked what would work for my schedule, I set aside my rigidity and entered a world of total flexibility as I said, "I understand your difficulties in matching up the schedules of five different individuals, so let me make it easier for you. I will adjust my schedule and make myself available for whatever day and time works for the others." Her reaction was absolutely wonderful. "Wow, I can't believe how easy you are to work with. I wish everyone was as accommodating as you! This is going to be fun having you on our team."

Considering the influence an executive secretary can have on a business relationship, I feel even more confident of the possibilities for developing this prospect into a valued client. And it's a good feeling.

Had I been rigid and demanding, this relationship seed would never have been planted. Yet, despite my writing and talking on the value of relationships, I often allow my rigidity to supercede my flexibility.

For instance, sometimes a client call interrupts some other activity. On a good day, I'll readily accept the interruption for the opportunity to give a client my undivided attention. Other days, I might short-sheet the client and treat the call as an interruption -- rather than an opportunity.

Or what about the agency that literally closes its doors between Noon and 1 PM for lunch?

What happens to clients that need them during the lunch hour? Could that rigid rule cost them some future business?

When it comes to coverage, do you try to fit clients into a pre-determined product because its easier? Or do you truly research their needs and "go the extra mile" to find the market that will truly customize the right coverage for that client?

Do you force your clients to adapt to your operational procedures (sometimes painfully), or are you willing to adapt your operation to theirs --or at least work out a mutually convenient alternative? Believe it or not, some agency owners still refuse to fully enter the electronic world. They've gotten along without it up till now, so why change. Yet their clients may be fully enabled electronically and find it difficult to do business with someone who is not so enabled. How long will such clients stick around? And ironically, such companies that effectively using technology, tend to be the ones that are most successful in their industries.

Doesn't that describe the type of client you would like to have?

Many personal relationships (like marriage) fail due to rigidity on the part of the respective partners. Relationships amongst individuals that are flexible, ever-adapting to the changing needs of their partners, tend to thrive. Should we expect business relationships to be any different? What's your flexibility quotient?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Leadership Meltdown: A State of Atrophy or Recovery? By: Jack Burke

Warren Bennis has been the proverbial leader when it comes to leadership, having written over 25 books on that subject over the last forty years. In “Old Dogs, New Tricks” Bennis wrote:

“Today's leader has to take into account all of the stakeholders and not just

the shareholders. The individual has to create a balance among these groups,

despite the fact that, collectively, they may have conflicting objectives. Leaders

must pay attention to the goals and purposes of the corporation and ask the

question, “To whom is the business responsible?” Many executives might say the

shareholders – and no one else.....but that overlooks other stakeholders, including

employees, customers, and the community.”

Written in 1999, those powerful words perhaps have even great meaning today! Leaders of major corporations have destroyed the confidence of the greater community through unbridled self-interest and unethical manipulation of numbers to benefit share value.

Is our society that amoral and unethical? I believe not. But I do believe that many of the “Baby Boomer/MBA” generation of leadership are lacking the essential building blocks of character.

Back in the 60's, colleges were overflowing with students for any number of reasons – including rising parental wealth and the Vietnam War. The students that were driven to success were totally focused on their career niche. Specialty schools within the colleges flourished like trade schools in a blue-collar town. Liberal arts curricula, according to the more focused students, were populated by the great unwashed – those evading the draft or undecided about life goals.

Upon graduation, business majors – like the medical profession – immediately went on to gain their MBAs at the most prestigious schools possible. Two years later, in their early 20's, corporations competed for these highly trained MBA graduates. Organizations like RCA had “Fast Track” programs to quickly acclimate them to their corporate entities and move them into executive offices. Many of these “fast-trackers” are the current CEOs of today's corporations.

Unfortunately we have a generation of highly skilled business technicians who are somewhat lacking in the people skills of leadership. They manage numbers (or mismanage them as the case may be), but they don't have the tools necessary for a deeper understanding of business as it relates to people and community.

Historical leaders of business often grew in wisdom through the experience of building a business. Their “people and leadership skills” often surpassed their financial acumen, which was shored up by hiring the necessary professionals. Companies were valued for their products, their managerial expertise and their profitability. Stock value was generally reactive to those factors – not the quintessential rating factor in and of itself. A good, efficiently managed company with a good product and reasonable profits could be expected to have a fair stock value.

Now that doesn't mean that the past isn't rampant with “cooked books” and “financial scams”. Obviously there have always been misadventures from the Railroad Barons to the S&L debacle, and the days of Milken. Power and greed are hungry bedfellows after all.

Which brings us back full circle to today. Recent events like Enron seem somehow more sinister. Seldom have corporate bandits pillaged every aspect of the business culture – the employees, the clients, the investors and the community. There seems to be a blatant disregard of everyone and everything. Employees lose not only their jobs, but their future financial security. Clients are not only overcharged, they're raped. Investors are merely available pockets to empty and the community is left holding the bag.

Several years ago, I had the privilege of hosting Warren Bennis at my office for a day. Our conversation naturally veered to the state of leadership. Warren said that if he had to do it all over again, he would do it differently. He had come to realize that a liberal arts education opened the mind to the wonders of art and history and literature. Wonders that help to form the basic character of an individual. Education that first teaches one to “think”, then later to “do”.

Warren felt, and I agree, that MBA candidates should be required to first attain a liberal arts education followed by at least four years experience in the workplace. Then the MBA program should be four years on an alternating work/study basis. Six months of school, followed by six months of application experience at work. The net result – potential leaders with a broad-based education supporting the technical education and all of it wrapped in experience. Obviously this is only a first-step in addressing the problems of today, but it can be a significant step in building a better future.

We need leaders of character. We need leaders who are devoted to the business of their business. We need leaders who understand, appreciate and nurture the symbiotic relationship between company, employees, clients and community. We need leaders who understand that stock value should only be a benchmark of their business, rather than thinking that their business is the manipulation of the stock value. We need leaders who are not only intellectually aware of ethics, but are personally committed to ethical behavior. We need leaders who walk like they talk.

Is this pursuit of good leadership a pipe dream? I think not. Just look around at the hundreds of thousands of small to medium-sized businesses that form the foundation of our great economy. The vast majority were founded and managed by honest, hard working entrepreneurs. For many of these stalwarts in business, ethical behavior is not something learned in a seminar – it's natural. It is who they are.

Likewise, I have found a groundswell of spirituality beginning to surface in the business arena. Not religion, but spirituality. Religion may provide the underpinnings to it, but I'm talking about the essence of human behavior. Behavior that supports the positive facets of an individual. Behavior that puts the greater good ahead of individual gain. Behavior, in its most basic form, where one person is of service to another. Behavior that penalizes avarice and greed, rather than reward it.

We've all been victim to an egomaniac at one time or another. Their self-inflated ego limits their educability. Their only concern is self-interest. I think of “ego” as an acronym for “Edging Goodness Out”. The truly great leaders are not driven by self-serving ego. They acknowledge a vested interest in all five components of business – company, employees, clients, investors and community. The consider themselves to be benevolent servants of the business. A worker among workers.

In 1994, I finally got to know neighbors that I had lived amongst for years. It wasn't any outpouring of community spirit on my part, it was the Northridge Earthquake. In adversity we came together to help each other, putting the interests of the community ahead of our own petty frustrations. On 9/11/01 we again witnessed the world coming together in a common spirit in the midst of horrendous terror. As one neighbor asked in 1994, “Why didn't we come together before there was a tragedy?” These are the events of history from which we need to learn. We should seek out the joy in events and people that cross our paths. We should look for commonality in spirit and set aside the negative temptations that surround us. Leaders should set the examples for us to emulate as they guide us toward the greater vision.

It's been said that the true worth of a man is measured by friendships, not money, power, and prestige. Considering that friends help one another in good times and in bad – maybe it's time to start concentrating on building the wealth of friendship through caring consideration. If we wait until we need a friend, it may be too late to make one.

Granted there will always be the anomalies created by greed and dishonesty, but those can become rare – if we all commit ourselves to working for the greater good. As the Romans learned, there's more to leadership than first meets the eye.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Getting Back to "Normal" By: Jack Burke

"If I don't get on the plane, the terrorists win!" That was the comment of British-born American citizen and president of Bayes Corporation, Nigel Cooper as he headed out from Los Angeles for a meeting with Hartford last week in Connecticut. Although his sentiments are echoed by many business people throughout the world, many more are still having a difficult time in coming to emotional grips in the aftermath.

Since September 11th, our country has experienced a resurgence of patriotism not seen in two generations. From long lines at military recruiting stations and millions of flags mounted on houses and cars to a nearly unanimous solidarity behind our president, Americans are expressing their loyalty in many ways. Yet, perhaps the most critical expression of patriotism might be simply "getting back to business"!

Unfortunately doing so is easier said than done. Despite the many who are walking through their fears, there are many more held captive by them. Wives fearful of a husband's departure (and vice versa) on a business trip, employees functioning at sub-par levels due to lack of sleep, sales people so intent on discussing the tragedy that they forget to ask for an order and some who are simply too numb to focus and concentrate. This emotional paralysis is real and is dramatically impacting our ability to get back to business.

A few employee uggestions that might be beneficial include:

1. Group meetings (maybe an hour long) to allow staff members to voice their fears and seek support from each other. Communication is critical in overcoming fear.
2. Offering travel alternatives. If someone is fearful of flying, allow them the extra time to make the trip by car or train. The simple act of travel by any means will help them eventually overcome the fear of travel by plane.
3. When possible, allow spouses to make the trip with their partner. The spousal support will help each one of them.
4. Meet one-on-one with any employee having more serious problems over the attacks.
5. Have information available from your health care provider on available resources to help employees deal with their fears.
6. Allow more latitude in company policy on personal conversations via telephone, e-mail and actual office visits. Family and friends are invaluable support tools.
7. If not already, promote employee involvement in charitable involvement and fundraising. This need not be specific to the tragedy, it could be a local charity. Bottom line is that any service work is good for emotional health.
8. Above all, be patient and understanding. Your actions under these circumstances can significantly increase employee loyalty or totally undermine it. It's your choice.

As for clients and prospects:

1. Don't use a discussion of the tragedy as the ice-breaking conversational opener in any sales call or visit. If the client/prospect brings it up, feel free to talk about it -- with a sensitive focus on bringing the conversation back to business.
2. This is perhaps the best time to concentrate on existing customers, rather than potential prospects. Everyone is looking for the human touch, the connection. Let your customers know the measures you've taken to insure the security of your performance. Be prepared to reinforce the financial strength of your underwriting companies and markets. Let them know that you are there for them. This is a good time to review coverages with a client in lieu of terrorist issues that have created new risks or may impact current coverages.
3. Talk to your best customers and simply ask if there is anything you can do to help them get back to business as usual. Let them know that you have their best interests at heart -- whatever that may entail.
4. Continue your marketing efforts to develop prospects. The media is using a heavy hand in touting the dramatic increases that will be forthcoming in insurance premiums because of projected losses from September 11th. Business owners and managers will be thinking in terms of expense control and financial strength -- cater to those concerns.
5. Because of everything mentioned in point #4, it is critical that you make contact with every single customer in your book of business. In this case e-mail is not necessarily the best method. Personal visits are the best bet, with the telephone running second. You are your unique difference. Assuage their fears over potential premium increases and financial strength of the companies. Explain that neither you nor they can control the market, but that you are their vested partner with a mandate to help them best manage their risks and exposures.

As for your company, I offer three suggestions:

1. If you don't have a written disaster plan, get busy in preparing one.
2. If you do have an emergency plan, dust it off and review it in respect to what we've learned since September 11th.
3. Once you have a viable and current plan, share it with everybody.

Obviously these suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. If you have some additional ideas, share them with your peers by sending an e-mail to me at . If we all work together, we can quickly get back to the business of business. It's our patriotic duty.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Balancing Act of a Servant Leader By: Jack Burke

The crowd under the Big Top breathlessly watches the aerial artist balanced on a unicycle midway on the high wire.  To add drama, the artist then begins to juggle several balls from the precarious perch.  The crowd finally roars its collective approval as the artist safely reaches the end of the wire and bows to the applause.

Most corporate leaders can relate to such a performance and some relish the applause of accomplishment.  Many are consummate jugglers who continually manage to keep the problematic balls of the day in the air.  Likewise, they seem to maintain a deft balance between the vicissitudes of clients, employees, economy and investors.  When the balance sheet or the stock market indicates that a job has been well done, they often revel in the corporate admiration.

The reality is that the true difference of great leadership lies not in the daily operational juggling and balancing, but in a much greater sense.  The true leader must find a balancing point between corporate narcissism and corporate altruism. A point where both can be beneficial, rather than damaging, to the corporate entity.

Webster defines narcissism as “excessive admiration of oneself”; altruism as “selfless concern for the welfare of others”.  Great corporations have a mixture of both.  The balancing point is the oxymoronic dilemma of great leaders.

In my distant past I had the privilege of working as an executive manager within a company that was #1 in its industry.  We had a fantastic team committed to the corporate vision of superiority. We reveled in our market share.  In fact, we shouted it from the rooftops! Unfortunately, the company could not sustain its position as maintaining the reality of the hype became the mission.  Our total and exclusive commitment was to the bottom-line.  The employees and the customers were only a means to that end.  Although the company still thrives today, it is no longer #1 in its industry.

Leaders as Servants

I usually turn a jaundiced eye towards the comments made by politicians.  It is not really fair, but I seem to become a bit more cynical as time waxes onward.  However, I recently saw a newspaper column by Dennis Wood, a Missouri State Representative.  His words struck a chord in my heart when he quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower: “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.”

Wood likes to describe himself as a “servant leader”.  That coincides with my belief that we are all “workers amongst workers” and that the highest calling is to be of service to another human being.  Wood also goes on to differentiate between a boss and a leader with the words of Russell H. Ewing’s, “A boss creates fear, a leader confidence.  A boss fixes blame, a leader corrects his mistakes.  A boss knows all, a leader asks questions.  A boss is interested in himself, a leader is interested in the group.”

Wood’s article went on to say, “There are ‘leaders’ who think they have to scream and shout so they can be heard.  They yell and throw tantrums because they believe it is the only way to make change. Other ‘leaders’ feel they must be quiet and hidden, operating behind the scenes as manipulators.  However, the best and true leaders are positive servants – people willing to help other people accomplish their best.”

Many people will find fault with the term “servant leader”.  Maybe they think it is a little soft or that such an attitude cannot engender motivation and loyalty.  They might even think that a “servant leader” ignores and avoids problems – sticking their heads in the sand.  In reality, servant leaders honestly acknowledge both the problems and the accomplishments in an effort to find the best solutions in a constructive way.  They use wisdom and discernment to help foster communications and solutions.  Leaders create emulation by inspiring people to adopt and develop similar attitudes and standards.

True leaders don’t revel in accolades for personal gain and ego boosts.  Great leaders serve as a conduit, passing the accolades down to the workers who really earned them.  Leaders boost people, rather than tear them down.  Leaders revel in the accolades earned by their staff!

That doesn’t mean that leaders are pushovers.  Leaders are willing to take the stands necessary to implement change.  Leaders will fire people – but only after ascertaining that the person is at fault -- not the management, not the training (or lack thereof) and not the placement of the person into the wrong job.  Leaders determine the source of the problem and then take the necessary action.  Leaders must be tough when toughness is indicated.

Changing Parameters

We are all well aware of the many changes to our society due to the plethora of new communication tools and modalities.  We may be challenged in keeping up with these changes, but we know they have arrived.  Other changes have been more subliminal in nature, harder to recognize and extremely difficult to implement.

I was working with Warren Bennis, the dean of leadership, on the audio version of his book “Managing People is Like Herding Cats”.  During the course of our time together he said that he gotten it wrong when it came to the historical process of MBA education.  The educational system had concentrated too much on the bottom-line factors of business and too little on the individual.  If he had it to do over, he would require a classical education in the humanities, followed by several years in the workplace, as an admission requirement to an MBA program that would combine the classroom learning with work experience.  Leaders need to understand the classic concepts of humanity, history and interpersonal relationships if they are to successfully build, grow and nurture a business.

I consider myself privileged to have undergone a Jesuit education.  I was given a foundation in the languages (Latin and French), mathematics, history, Greek and Roman mythology and the classics of literature.  I was taught to honor the competitive spirit in both the mental arena (debate, speech) and the physical arena (sports).  All of this was intertwined with the religious basis of the school.  I have been forever grateful for the impact this school has had on my life.

However the recent issue of this school’s magazine alerted me to major and fundamental changes in its educational process.  There has been a major addition to the values of mind, body, spirit and competition -- Service!

Various articles in the magazine highlighted:

  • Student activity in community and mission service to those in need.
  • A student’s volunteer weekend in post-Katrina New Orleans.
  • A visit by Paul Rusesabagina, who risked his life to save over 1,200 Rwandans in 1994 (Hotel Rwanda).
  • Katrina fund-raising activities by the student body.
  • A nationally acclaimed football and track coach who values his role as an English teacher over that of coach.
  • Student counselors at a summer-camp for poverty-level children in the inner city.
  • Hockey players that get off the ice to serve the community.

 

Other articles focused on traditional educational and sports achievements, but the preponderance of “service” articles pointed out a definitive change in the philosophy of this highly acclaimed school.  Students are learning that service is perhaps the most critical component of personal and external success.  Future employers will need to acknowledge and nurture this need for “service”.

In reflection, I now realize the narcissistic nature of my education.  Learning, coupled with the competitive spirit, was uniquely for the betterment of self.  Understanding the classics of literature and language was to enhance one’s personal level of performance.  Mathematics and science were seen as rigorous disciplines for the rational mind.  Even religion, though emphasized, was extremely personal and introspective.  Aside from the communal aspect of the student body itself, there was no significant emphasis on the responsibility to serve the outside community.  (It may have existed, but I never experienced it.)

It has taken me many years to inculcate the concept of service into my life and work.  It has taken me many years to understand that success comes from within -- and that the recipe for personal esteem is based on the principle of charitable service to others.  Only in serving others can we find personal fulfillment to accent and enhance our corporate fulfillment for the betterment of the “whole” individual (or company).

Great leaders find the point of balance where both the corporate and the individual souls are nurtured.  As one good friend and great leader said, “We are committed to being of service to our employees, our clients and our community – but in order to do that, we must remain committed to maintaining the profits that enable the service!”

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

To Owners Only: Face Your Problems Creatively By: Jack Burke

I seldom write about employee issues, but as I emphasize in the book Creating Customer Connections -- your employees are your primary customers. How you treat them is how they treat your customers!

Every owner, no matter how enlightened, can relate to employee problems and morale issues. A former employer, turned client, was experiencing just such problems and I’d like to share how we arrived at a very creative solution. You may or may not identify with the problem or the solution, but hopefully you’ll see the value of using creative problem solving to break out of the traditional envelope.

In the mid-80’s National Coach Corporation, a shuttle bus manufacturer, was recovering from an automotive recession while simultaneously dealing with substantial growth issues. All of this (details are not necessary) resulted in a concerted effort to maintain high visibility on a face-to-face basis with their clients. This meant that the sales division was spending a lot more time on the road than usual.

The Problem

Although the “commissioned” sales executives were making a lot of money (more contact = more sales), morale was dropping to an all-time low in the company. It seems that the spouses were extremely agitated over the increased travel time. Their complaints were taking a heavy toll of emotional stress on the sales personnel.

So the problem was:
How do you fix a personal family issue that involves non-employees, occurs mostly at the homes--not the worksite,
and is caused by actions
that are absolutely essential to corporate survival.

The Evaluation

The CEO of this company was a direct, head-on type of executive. His
first reaction was to “tell the salespeople to handle it with their spouses”. (The employees had already been trying to do that with no success.)*

* Note that the sales staff was involved in evaluating the problem.

His second reaction was to bribe the spouses by holding the annual planning meeting at a resort and including the spouses. (The employees felt that this might help, but was only a band-aid that would soon fall off.)

Deciding on the “bribe”, the CEO thought that he should honestly address the issue during a speech where the wives would be present. (Everyone, however, acknowledged that this might not be effective as the spouses looked upon him and his Vice President of Sales as “the enemy”.)

At this point, our company was called upon to create a message that would assuage or defuse this spousal issue.

The Solution

Upon our objective evaluation, we realized that the message, if it were to work, meant that the messenger had to be acceptable. I also might mention that the spouses were all of the traditional “female” variety.
After much discussion of messengers, from therapists to male sex symbols, we decided on a popular children’s toy -- a talking teddy bear that could be reprogrammed to carry the needed message.

Teddy was the hit of the meeting! As each couple checked into the resort, the wife was presented with her personal Teddy. Upon pulling his string, Teddy said, “Hi, I’m Teddy and we need to talk. The elves tell me that it’s been a rough year on you, what with all that traveling your hubby has had to do for the company. And while he’s off having fun, your stuck all alone trying to keep the fires burning on the homefront. Sooo....while big and ugly is cruising the jet stream at 35,000 feet and you’re faced with another night with no one to help warm those cold sheets, how’s about you and me snuggling up together. After all, my job description qualifies me as a main squeeze, I never steal the covers, my feet are always warm, my beard doesn’t scratch, and I never, never snore. So how about a date?”

The Results

The results far exceeded our hopes and expectations. Teddy immediately pulled a seething resentment out into the open. The humor, albeit slightly blue, got the spouses laughing which enabled them to talk about it. The issue became poolside material for chatting amongst the wives, as well as dinner table discussions amongst everyone. By bringing the problem out of the closet and enabling people to share the pain, the pain was lessened dramatically. All of this enabled the CEO to openly talk about the extra travel in his speech, show the difference it was making for the company, and explain that it would eventually drop back down to more acceptable levels.

The Moral

Don’t let tradition stifle creativity when it comes to addressing problems;
and always remember that humor can be the essential ingredient in a cure.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Common Sense, Change & Semantics By: Jack Burke

As I write this column in late October, I know two things:

  1. We will have elected a new president
  2. The aftermath of October 14th will be ongoing

Regarding the presidency, our personal choice may or may not have been the winner.  Yet we will accept the change and move forward with our lives and our businesses.

Regarding Spitzer’s action against Marsh & Mac on October 14th, we may still be in a state of denial and frustration.  Our initial outrage at the “bid-rigging” was soon replaced by outrage at the attack on our compensation structure within the insurance industry.  Are we moving forward with our lives and our businesses yet?

Change is difficult, to say the least!

Problems can and should be viewed as opportunities to explore new horizons.  In order to do that, we have to move beyond our initial feelings and get into a state of recovery.  Be it an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, insurance commissioner or attorney general, the human spirit demands that we move beyond the shock and horror of the event into recovery.

Spitzer’s announcement was like tossing a snowball from the top of a snow-laden mountain.  It quickly began rolling downhill – gaining both size and momentum.  There’s no going back, so we need to accept the reality and begin to engineer the changes.  And as a mature industry, our traditions may be inhibiting our future.  It might be time to make some changes in the operational and financial aspects of the distribution system.  This may be the opportunity we need to engineer the changes necessary for a better future.

So what does this mean to you?  You can either sit by the wayside and be swept along with the coming changes – or you can become proactively involved.  If action is your preference, here are some thoughts to ponder:

  1. Our industry needs to better define terms!  Prior to October 14th, it seemed like everyone wanted to be called a broker.  (Since then no one wants to be called a broker.)  Terms like “broker”, “contingency fees”, “placement service agreements” and etc. need to be better defined and become generally accepted by everyone both in and out of the industry.
  2. Become active within your local, state and national organizations in helping to educate politicians, insurance commissioners, bureaucrats, lobbyists and the general public about the true nature of the insurance business.
  3. Independent agents/brokers that operate on some form of a fee-for-services basis with their clients need to rethink any situation where they both charge a fee and collect commissions and contingencies.
  4. Every independent agent/broker should have a broad-form disclosure statement indicating that they earn compensation from the insurance companies in a number of ways including straight commissions, contingency fees that are based on a number of profitability factors, performance-related bonuses (e.g. trips, prizes, etc.), and cooperative advertising – to name just a few.
  5. As Chris Burand, the contingency negotiation expert told me, “Don’t build contingency earnings into your business plan.  It doesn’t mean you won’t get them, but don’t plan around them.”

The greatest challenge of semantics came from an interview I had with California’s insurance commissioner John Garamendi – and it could bring Truth in Advertising laws into play.  Garamendi felt that an agent or broker cannot ethically declare that they are working in the best interest of the client when they are paid by the insurance companies.

Yet that is the very premise of the independent agency system – “We represent many different companies so that we can work in your best interest by finding the best coverage at the most affordable rate.”

I disagree with Garamendi in that I know most agents beat up the underwriters on pricing much more than, and before, they ever try to get additional premium from a client.  I also believe that the impending changes could impact this form of advertising unless the agent is totally transparent with the client through an excellent disclosure document.

Another difficult issue of semantics also comes from California via the new regulations that Garamendi has proposed.  These regulations use the term “best available coverage” and threaten fines for agents that fail to provide the “best available coverage and proposals” for their clients.  This type of overly broad description is a recipe for disaster.  There are too many variables, particularly on the commercial side.  What is the best?  Is it price?  Is it payment options?  Is it coverage?  What about exclusions?  Where does the financial strength of the company fit into the picture?  Loss reserves?  Capital?  I truly don’t believe that anyone can define “best available” unless there is only one potential market for that risk in that geographical area.  Plus, what happens at renewal if there truly is a competitor with a better product?  Do you automatically have to switch that book of business to another insurer?

The primary asset of any independent agency is your customer base.  Don’t hide from them while the excrement is being sprayed about the room.  Make contact.  Discuss the issues.  Learn their thoughts.  Tell your side of the story.  Gain their input and recommendations.  Make them a part of your solution.  Relationships are mutuall beneficial partnerships that can survive tumultuous seas.  Only when one of the partners isolates does the relationship fall into dysfunction.

My wish for everyone is that you stay connected with your clients and work proactively to help format the changes that are forthcoming.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Overcoming the Fear of Change By: Jack Burke

We human beings are fear-based creatures.  Most of our motivation, especially in business, is the fear of not getting something we want (more business) or losing something we have (existing business).  Rare is that happy soul that enjoys the comfort
of wanting what they have, rather than having what they want.

One of the greatest instigators of fear is change!  The symptoms are many.  We’re afraid to try something new.  We’re fearful of breaking old habits.  We’re afraid that people won’t like us.  We’re simply scared over changing a comfortable pattern.

Yet once we break through the fear and make the change, we wonder why it took us so long to work through it.  We’re often happier with the new changes.  We frequently exult in them and brag to others.

I had a friend once that bought a new car every three years.  He loved the smell of the interior, the thrill of new ownership, the joy of a new toy.  Yet, about a month before making the change he would begin stressing over the purchase, wondering about the finances and whether he would pick the right car.  When the day would come to go to the dealer, he would finally make the deal and immediately head for the bathroom.  After a bout of heaving, he would exit the bathroom and take delivery of the new car.  The fear that he has to walk through to buy a new car has been a consistent pattern for over 30 years, it’s that strong!  The only thing that motivates him to endure such discomfort is the knowledge of how much he will enjoy his purchase afterward.  A lesser man would be immobilized.

What fears are immobilizing you?  Fear of firing a bad employee?  Fear of hiring a new producer?  Fear of going paper-free in the office?  Fear of losing clients or markets?  Fear of growing your business?  Fear of developing a plan of succession for your children?  Fear of joining an alliance of agencies?  Fear of losing your independence?  Fear of changing the operational aspects of your back office?  Fear of promoting or demoting someone?  Fear of success/failure?  Fear of cold calling?  Fear of asking for referrals?
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of numerous and varied fears that I’ve heard agency owners share over the years.

Today you have a choice.  You can give in to your fears or begin to overcome them.  As is often said – no pain, no gain; no risk, no reward.  Here are some initial steps that you can take to begin building a healthier outlook and business:

Step 1 – Schedule a “change” meeting with your entire staff.  Explain that it is a “hold harmless” meeting where anybody can say anything without fear of reprisal.

Step 2 – In the meeting, explain that you are looking for ways to change the agency for the better.  Tell them that no change is too small or too big to contemplate.  Let them know that this is a team effort and you (the boss) are merely a team member.

Step 3 – Ask each person to write down three changes that they feel would improve the agency.  Gather their input and begin writing them down on a flip chart.  When you run into identical or similar “changes”, place a hash mark next to the original entry of the flip chart.  Once they’re all down on the chart, start a fresh page and prioritize the top 3 items that have been suggested.  (This can be done by counting hash marks or by voting.)

Step 4 – Enter into a general discussion of these top suggestions for change.  Ensure that the changes would be worthwhile and flesh out how they would be accomplished.

Step 5 – Assign a team leader and team members for the undertaking of the changes that everyone feels will be most valuable to the organization.  Develop a time frame for the implementation and stick to it.

If every agency held a “change” meeting like this at least twice a year, your corporate “change muscle” would become stronger and stronger.  The fear of such changes will simultaneously decrease on a proportionate basis.  You will become a more empowered agency with motivated employees who truly feel that they are an integral part of the organization.

Once you develop this type of a change strategy, you are ready to move on to the post-graduate level.  Select some of your top clients and engage them in a similar process.  What would they like to see change within your agency?  Scary thought, isn’t it?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Forge or Forage? By: Jack Burke

Every agency owner tells me the same thing.  They have a difficult time finding and hiring “good” producers.  Unfortunately, many of us who own businesses are the ones who are the problem.  We do not think long term.  We do not plan and implement recruiting strategies that may take years to bear fruit.  Instead, we react to immediate situations in a helter-skelter manner.  We forage for potential producers because we never forged a proactive policy of recruitment.

Webster defines the verb forage as “to wander in search of food”.  Forge, on the other hand is defined as “to form by a process of heating and hammering”.  If we are successful in foraging for producers, it is more a matter of luck.  If we forge a process, over time, luck has very little to do with it.

I’ve recently written about the concept of service that is being taught at my former high school in Cleveland, Ohio – St. Ignatius.  Their quarterly alumni magazine recently featured the thoughts of some very successful graduates.  The center on “service”, but they also may provide some insight into forging a process to nurture and retain future producers.

Chuck Greschke, a 1956 graduate, is cofounder of Adobe Systems.  He credits the school for laying a foundation that taught him discipline, the world of the classics and a love of mathematics.  With the help of his teachers, he was able to form study habits and attitudes that have enabled him to achieve significant success.  In order to be of service, he and his wife have created a family scholarship fund that provides tuition assistance to two students in each of the four high school grades – 8 students per year.

James Rohr, a 1966 graduate, is the chairman of The PNC Financial Services Group with thousands of shareholders, 23,000 employees and 2.3 million customers.  Ranked #323 in the Fortune 500, PNC earned $1.3 billion last year.  Rohr’s service work is legendary with participation in a number of boards ranging from the Boy Scouts to the Pittsburg Cultural Trust and the United Way.  His favorite service project is “PNC Grow Up Great”, a $100 million, 10-year initiative to improve school readiness among preschoolers.

So what does all this have to do with a “process” of recruiting and retaining top producers?  It begins with a commitment to the educational process and system.  Begin cultivating interest in insurance as a career by interaction with the educational system.  Making yourself, an insurance executive, visible to the youth that will form our future.  Consciously or subconsciously attracting them to an insurance career by allowing them to see someone who is happy and excited with their career, someone who has the time to be of service to the community and the youth, and someone they can view as a role model.

In order to accomplish this, you might have to move beyond sponsoring sports teams!
You may have to roll up your sleeves and go to work.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Rather than just speaking to parents about teenage insurance as PTA meetings, consider bringing together teenagers for a talk about responsible driving and the impact a safe record can have on their future insurance needs.
  • Rather than just sponsoring a sports team, get involved as a coach or some other volunteer position.
  • Volunteer to teach a class on basic insurance at the local high school or junior college.  Along with teaching them about auto, home, health and life insurance, explain how your career allows you to help people protect their future.
  • Start a scholarship program for needy students – high school or college.
  • If your office is in a retail trade area, allow the grounds to be used for a weekend fund-raising car wash by local high school groups.
  • If you are in a rural area, conduct farming insurance programs for the local 4H Clubs.
  • Volunteer to conduct classes on the intricacies of commercial insurance for local colleges that offer majors in business.
  • Sponsor a Safe Driving Awards Program for high school juniors and seniors.
  • Participate in Career Day programs at local high schools and colleges.
  • Invite students to write articles for your client newsletter (if you have one).

These are just a few top-of-mind ideas on how you can help to create a positive attitude towards insurance amongst students in your area.  No, they aren’t ready to take a job with you tomorrow.  But a few years down the road, they just might remember the role model that you presented to them.

The other positive impact goes to you.  If you spend time with students, you will be continually re-charged and motivated about your own career and life.  And, as an employer, you will relate to younger employees much better.  It’s a win-win!

The other side of this discussion is retention of people that you hire.  For some positive thoughts on that side of the equation, I turn to another Ignatius alumni.

George Samenuk, a 1973 graduate, is the chairman and CEO of McAfee, Inc.  George credits much of his success to lessons learned on the football field with a championship team, “Emphasize the team concept.  Our team wasn’t the most experienced, fastest, strongest or most athletic.  We were successful because the players placed the team above individual accomplishments.”

Aside from the Team Concept, George’s other factors to success include:

  • Always Be Prepared.  Understand the needs of your client, because your goal is to make the client successful.
  • Listen.  You can’t understand the needs of the client unless you listen to them.
  • Be Proactive & Positive.  Be quick to offer encouragement and thanks to employees.  Make yourself available to them.
  • Lead By Example.  George personally responds to over 200 e-mails every day.  Communication is critical to his leadership.

Every successful person that I know has a role model, a guide, a mentor in their past.  Whether yours is a school, a teacher, a parent, an early employer, a neighbor –- or a combination of people, hindsight places greater and greater value on the lessons they have taught us.  What better way to pay back that favor, than by paying it forward.  Become that same role model to the youth in your community.  The “connections’ will pay dividends in future years.  Don’t forage for your immediate needs, forge a process that will fulfill your needs for years into the future.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Travel'n Thoughts in a Hard Market By: Jack Burke

I've always maintained that I do my best thinking at 32,000 feet. Very few interruptions. For instance, I no sooner started typing just now than I had to stop to fix a vacuum cleaner for my wife. So I've been on dangerous ground lately as unlike the multitudes that have avoided airports in recent months, I've been on the go -- which means a lot of time to think.

Some of the recent events have included:

In Phoenix, the Target Markets Conference centered on the unique needs of program managers; in New Orleans, IRMI's Construction Insurance Conference attracted insurers, contractors and risk managers; in New York, American Agent & Broker hosted a seminar on insurance sales and marketing; and in Kansas City, UPAC (premium financing) brought their employees together for the annual sales planning meeting. Aside from my presentations on relationship development, I've had the opportunity to hear the thought of some of the best minds within the insurance industry. All of this, combined with the air travel, got me thinking even more than usual and I thought I'd share these somewhat opinionated thoughts with you.

Hard Market

Only a year ago, we were debating whether or not the hardening of the market was even real. By Spring of 2001 we acknowledged that it was real but would probably be fairly short-lived with experts predicting a softening by late 2002. Since 9/11 I doubt that anyone can deny that the market is not only "very hard", but that we may be in it for the long haul through at least 2004. After hearing many opinions and forecasts, I believe that the basic economy and the 9/11 impact have now affected hardening through lessened capacity as well as increasing reinsurance costs. With all due respect to Warren Buffet's proclamation that there's plenty of capacity and acknowledging the recent spurt of investment activity into the creation of new reinsurance companies, I think that the final numbers (after litigation) for the WTC are going to be far beyond any of the preliminary estimates. I believe that this will cause some reinsurance failures which, in turn, will place a heavier burden on the carriers. So, any which way you cut it, independent agents are most likely going to face continually increasing premiums (in a tough economy) and greater difficulty in locating markets that will accept the risk at any price.

Hard Economy

Despite the resiliency of the American economy and the remarkable resurgence of the stock market, I believe some of us are living in a state of denial about how difficult the economy actually is. This is presently very pervasive amongst independent insurance agents who are, for the moment, enjoying increased revenues generated by increased premiums -- not by new business. If you really listen to your small to medium sized commercial clients, they are definitely not enjoying increased revenues.

In early October, one clothing manufacturer in Southern California told me that business was done, but they were avoiding layoffs by requiring every employee to take off one unpaid day every two weeks -- a 10% reduction in payroll without layoffs. This same manufacturer was laying people off by November when October sales dipped 40%. This situation is more common than might be first thought, and it's occurring in industries across the board -- not just technology and hospitality.

When a business goes into survival mode, there is less emphasis on protecting against risk than there is in generating revenue. Costs get cut and every extra penny goes towards generating cash. Expect insurance expenditures to get cut to the bone -- or, as was seen in the early 80's -- companies go naked in an effort to survive. If you may go down the tubes, why worry about protection from a lawsuit unless you are first able to keep your doors open.

Dealing With It

Don't suck on a gas pipe yet. It's not all doom and gloom. Successful agencies will continue to prosper -- if they have cultivated true relationships with their clientele, if they have positioned themselves as risk management partners as opposed to insurance sales people. Plus, the smart agency will aggressively take advantage of the many good companies that will begin to shop their incumbent agents.

The key is the term "risk management partner". Agents must understand the entire business situation of their clients, as an individual business and as an industry. (Hopefully they're even invited to attend business planning sessions.) Agents must provide solutions that work for the client under current conditions. That way the agent and client can determine the best risk management strategy. Today's strategy may be drastically different than the last renewal. There may be areas that the client will assume the risk, enabling it to free up premium dollars for protection in higher exposure areas. There may be alternative forms of risk management to review and perhaps endorse. Safety and training practices may have to be updated. Wholesalers may provide better targeted coverage than main line companies. However, please note that this can't be accomplished in a thirty day renewal window. This entails an ongoing, yearlong process of truly partnering with your clients.

Cash Flow Issues

Corporate cash flow is critical today. Unfortunately the insurance industry has positioned itself as a cash flow demon, as the hardening has resulted in many insurers requiring all the money up front. Ring a bell for anyone? This "cash-up-front" policy is diametrically opposed to the needs of most CFOs.

Until recently, most insurance agents maintained a so-so relationship with a premium financing company. When a client needed financing, you dusted off your rolodex with the phone number for the premium financing company. And, the general position was that all premium financing companies were pretty much equal. That attitude is archaic.

I truly feel privileged to have spent a day with UPAC at their annual sales meeting in Kansas City. I had been asked to talk to them about relationship building, but I believe I learned far more from them than vice-versa.

For instance, my schedule prevented having an evening to enjoy a dinner of Kansas City Stockyard beef. Yet, a week before I left for the meeting, UPS arrived with a cooler containing a complete KC rib dinner. UPAC President Kurt Huffman wanted to make sure I didn't miss out on some great eating. Flying in I wondered what I could possibly offer a company that already seemed to be going the extra mile when it came to creative nurturing of relationships. Once there I learned that all premium financing companies were not equal -- especially when it came to customer-oriented technology and service. From instant on-line finance quotes to acceptance of payment by Internet and fax, UPAC has gone well beyond simply providing financing of premiums.

In today's world, agents should have ongoing, strong relationships with several (two at the very least) premium financing concerns. If your clients are going to renew at increased premium levels of 2002, they are more than likely concerned with finding the least painful way to pay those premiums without usurping necessary cash. In fact, I think the very professional agent might well consider inviting the "financing rep" to actually join in on the sales calls to certain clients. "Mr. Client, as your risk management partner, I've also brought along a cash flow specialist to help develop the best strategy for your company."

Marketing To Clients & Prospects

Sending an occasional letter, conducting an occasional telemarketing campaign, running an occasional ad, maintaining a "billboard" website, creating new brochures.....these are all traditional forms of marketing. But in today's world, occasional doesn't cut it and traditional is seldom noticed. Successful agencies will get creative -- perhaps even outsourcing the creativity. Websites must provide value to the client and prospect -- not just a boring Internet presence. Direct mail must be highly targeted and so innovative that people are compelled to open and read it. Telemarketing cannot be accomplished by brain-dead automatons that haltingly read a bad script -- hire knowledgeable professionals or save your money.

Consider new modalities -- such as sound and sight. (The following is blatantly self-serving, although such projects can be accomplished on a do-it-yourself basis.) Sound Marketing produces audio marketing programs where your clients and prospects can play a tape or CD that literally tells your story, provides client testimonials and increases awareness of what you do and how well you do it. It's like a talk radio show. Some agencies even use them to market their agency to companies on the basis of how well they serve their customers and creatively market the programs. Other clients of ours utilize QuickTime movies to promote a particular product. Based on in-person PowerPoint presentations, an audio soundtrack is added and it's turned into a QuickTime movie on CDs that can be easily incorporated into direct mail campaigns and hand-outs. Use technology to develop an electronic newsletter and send it to clients and prospects (with permission) to help educate them and further your visibility.

Investigate Wholesalers

Wholesalers used to be considered the "last-ditch" effort to write a less-than-desirable client or a hard-to-place risk. That day is gone too. Wholesalers with specialized programs are becoming front-line tools for many agents. Particularly as many "main line" carriers pull out of specific markets or geographical areas. Within the past week, I've had agents looking for markets as basic as general contractors in the state of Minnesota and large apartment complexes.

Program wholesalers have the flexibility to design coverages specific to client needs at reasonable rates with competitive commissions. Plus, due to specialization and reinsurance relationships, they are less volatile and potentially provide longer term stability within a market -- concepts that should be near and dear to the heart of agents. But remember that wholesalers are human too. Although they're generally willing to look at submissions from any agency, those agencies that have developed relationships with the wholesaler are usually better positioned to truly serve the end client.

Pulling Into The Gate

Obviously there's much more to be said about the market, our economy, relationships, marketing, premium financing, wholesalers and the plethora of tools available to the independent agency system -- but my plane is pulling into the gate and my time for free-flowing thoughts is drawing to a halt. (At least for the moment.)

I'd love to hear some of your thoughts and opinions on these topics, so please feel free to write me at and share your feelings. If we all pull together and share our thoughts, we definitely increase our potential for individual success in a changing market and world.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Service Emphasis By: Jack Burke

We are all well aware of the many changes to our society due to the plethora of new communication tools and modalities.  We may be challenged in keeping up with these changes, but we know they have arrived.  Other changes have been more subliminal in nature, harder to recognize and extremely difficult to implement.

I was working with Warren Bennis, the dean of leadership, on the audio version of his book “Managing People is Like Herding Cats”.  During the course of our time together he said that he gotten it wrong when it came to the historical process of MBA education.  The educational system had concentrated too much on the bottom-line factors of business and too little on the individual.  If he had it to do over, he would require a classical education in the humanities, followed by several years in the workplace, as an admission requirement to an MBA program that would combine the classroom learning with work experience.  Leaders need to understand the classic concepts of humanity, history and interpersonal relationships if they are to successfully build, grow and nurture a business.

I consider myself privileged to have graduated from Ignatius in 1965.  I was given a foundation in the languages (Latin and French), mathematics, history, Greek and Roman mythology and the classics of literature.  I was taught to honor the competitive spirit in both the mental arena (debate, speech) and the physical arena (sports).  All of this was intertwined with the religious basis of the school.  I have been forever grateful for the impact this school has had on my life.

However the recent issue of “Ignatius” alerted me to major and fundamental changes in the Ignatius educational process.  There has been a major addition to the values of mind, body, spirit and competition.  Service!

Various articles in the magazine highlighted:

  • Student activity in community and mission service to those in need.
  • A student’s volunteer weekend in post-Katrina New Orleans.
  • A visit by Paul Rusesabagina, who risked his life to save over 1,200 Rwandans in 1994 (Hotel Rwanda).
  • Katrina fund-raising activities by the student body.
  • A nationally acclaimed football and track coach who values his role as an English teacher over that of coach.
  • Student counselors at a summer-camp for poverty-level children in the inner city.
  • Hockey players that get off the ice to serve the community.

 

Other articles focused on traditional educational and sports achievements, but the preponderance of “service” articles pointed out a definitive change in the philosophy of this highly acclaimed school.  Students are learning that service is perhaps the most critical component of personal and external success.

In reflection, I now realize the self-centered nature of my education.  Learning, coupled with the competitive spirit, was uniquely for the betterment of self.  Understanding the classics of literature and language was to enhance one’s personal level of performance.  Mathematics and science were seen as rigorous disciplines for the rational mind.  Even religion, though emphasized, was extremely personal and introspective.  Aside from the communal aspect of the student body itself, there was no significant emphasis on the responsibility to serve the outside community.  (It may have existed, but I never experienced it.)

It has taken me many years to inculcate the concept of service into my life and work.  It has taken me many years to understand that success comes from within -- and that the recipe for personal esteem is based on the principle of charitable service to others.  Only in serving others can we find ourselves.

I congratulate the Ignatius community on undertaking the process of service, as opposed to service as a project.  It will serve the students well as they venture forth into the larger communities of life.  Great leaders are also great servants.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Spirituality in Business: Viable or Not? By: Jack Burke

Several years back, I was waiting in the wings to take the podium as the opening keynote speaker for the HIGH-TECC Conference. Anticipating a quick introduction, I was surprised when host Rick Morgan proceeded to introduce someone else -- Al Roberts of the St. Paul Insurance -- asking him to open the conference with a prayer. Later I was checking the events schedule for the following day and puzzled over two separate breakfast listings. When I queried Joanne Morgan about it, I learned that one was the regular breakfast and the other was an optional prayer breakfast.

Curious, I signed up for the prayer breakfast and soon found magic in the air. Al Roberts was again called on to host this non-denominational breakfast. Reading a somewhat generic passage from the bible, Al proceeded to moderate open sharing from the attendees. The topic was, "How did you come to find God in your life?" The sharing was moving, to say the least, as industry leaders bared their souls to the point of tears at times. Throughout the remainder of the conference, there was an invisible bond that developed among those breakfast attendees. In my case, some of those bonds continue through to today. And, in the case of HIGH-TECC, the invocation and the prayer breakfast have become tradition.

During this same timeline, there was another phenomena developing at various cross-industry conferences that I attend, usually with my wife Jo Ann. People were beginning to engage us in typical conference conversations, but with a new twist. Within the first minute or two they were identifying themselves as "Christians". It seemed that there was some invisible magnet that attracted people with a similar spiritual bent.

I should mention that I am a practicing Catholic, who has taught religious education for over 15 years and maintains a high level of activity within my parish. However, I do not correlate spirituality with any given religion or sect. I believe that the spiritual path is one where there is belief in a Higher Power, a commitment to service and a dedication to choosing the loving path more frequently than the self-centered path in life.

During this period, I found myself frequently engaged in conversations about what all of this meant. Could it be that spirituality was slowing entering the business arena? Or was this a freak series of coincidences that I had experienced? I choose to believe that there is a renewed level of spirituality, as whenever I broached the topic others seemed quick to provide examples of their own.

One of the most self-centered groups we've worked with over the years has been the Association of Image Consultants International. Here were people devoted to the art of external appearance and charisma. Dress right, walk right, speak right and all will be well in life -- the spin doctors of appearance. Several years ago, I began to see the change here as well. More speakers were beginning to deal with the insides, rather than the outsides --the impact of the inner essence shining through the outward façade. Times were definitely changing.

Just recently, I received a cassette tape from one of our clients -- Jim Cecil, who is known throughout the world as the nurture marketing expert. He was addressing a seminar for financial planners on how to nurture their clients and prospects for maximum sales penetration. He opened his talk this way, "Since you're obliged to sit here and listen to my suggestions for the next four hours, you have a right to know something about the man who is doing all the talking. So let me tell you a little bit about myself, 'I believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth......'". I was absolutely stunned, as I listened to him recite the Apostles' Creed, a prayer from my childhood. Here was a man who was unafraid, in a business setting, to identify himself as a God-centered person. On reflection it made a lot of sense because that is exactly who Jim Cecil is, and his marketing doctrines are based on a personal philosophy of loving and caring.

To even further my argument about the growing abundance of spiritual activity in business, I received a letter and phone call recently from a friend who was reading my newest book, Relationship Aspect Marketing. John Sheridan is a Catholic monsignor, author of over two dozen books on theology and spirituality, and the 86 year old pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Malibu Church in Malibu, California. He wrote, "Your book is indeed a model for our homilies, and a volume that our Holy Father in his more agile days would love to read, as an affirmation of the person-centered theology that has engaged his whole pastoral life."

During our subsequent phone conversations he chatted about the theological underpinnings of the book. Loving one-to-one personal relationships are, to him, the very essence of God in humanity. Quite honestly, I've never thought of my business-relating writing in a spiritual sense and was amazed at the path this discussion had taken. When I pointed that out to the monsignor, he quickly retorted that it was my personal life philosophy that had come through in the words of the book. He went on to cite an example from his childhood, "In Ireland my father was in the cattle business and was on very warm terms with the Northern Orangemen. He used to say, 'They are good business men, though they can't understand how I, as a Catholic, can be honest. Anyway, we all agree that we are doing God's work. He is revealing Himself in our business.'"

What does the practice of spirituality in business mean? I believe it is based on service, coupled with the strength of personal conviction. Leaders place the well-being of employees and customers before their own. Self-centered business models give way to client-centered models. Business arguments and conflict give way to peace-keeping mediation and negotiation. Business begins to view itself as a servant to the customer and employee, rather than a benevolent dictator. In other words, it is the paradigm shift of all time.

So does spirituality have a place in business? I believe so. Even in the heyday of the greed-based dot com world--before its fall--it was an exemplary beacon in the treatment of employees and staff. Despite the dot bust, many companies have implemented much more nurturing and empowering environments for their employees as a result.

In the comedic movie "Dick", nuclear catastrophe between Russia and the US is averted through the catalyst of "Hello Dolly" cookies laced with marijuana. Under the influence, conflict gives way to camaraderie. Using that as a metaphor, spirituality can be the catalyst for successful interaction between company and client, boss and staff. Wouldn't that be a wonderful goal! A world where a caring attitude precedes the selfish preoccupation of ego and profit.

Though many may dispute it, that is the true formula for a successful business. Every spiritual leader over the centuries has extolled the virtues of loving service, which is returned tenfold. That which you sow, so shall you reap. My hat is off to those who have the courage to express and live their beliefs in every facet of their lives -- including business. Spirituality is not weakness, it is the heart and soul of the brave.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Silent Censor By: Jack Burke

Everyone, including myself, marvels at the phenomenal changes the Internet has brought about in the realm of communication. E-mail, despite all the inherent problems and frustrations, has become our mainstay. The telephone is now secondary to the Internet in communicating messages. Though I do hope everyone makes a concerted effort to use the telephone and occasional visits to nurture relationships above and beyond the pure communication aspect of e-mail.

But there is a dark side. Imagine how you would feel if the U.S. Postal Service arbitrarily decided that any mail coming from a specific business address did not deserve to be delivered to you. In fact, they actually destroyed on the basis that this address was a source of “bad mail”. Now further imagine that this address was a skyscraper office building and that one tenant really did send “bad mail” that no one should ever see. But since the post office can't differentiate between offices within the building, every piece of mail from that building (good and bad) was destroyed.

Welcome to the concept of the silent censors of the Internet!

I'm not talking about spam filters that may exist on your mail browser system or even at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) level. Those filters identify likely spam and sort them into a separate folder. You, not the filter, become the final decision-maker as to what you want to see (or not see). Periodically you open your spam file and review the contents. Most usually turns out to be spam and you trash it. But once in a while legitimate e-mail gets caught in the trap and you have the option to open and read it.

The silent censor is more insidious than any filter you can imagine. As background, here's my story and how I came to learn about the silent censor.

For nearly ten years our company has utilized a regional ISP (ISWest) to host our website, enable our Internet access and handle our mail server. Several weeks ago their e-mail server functionality went down. Due to a virus, the e-mail queue line hit 100,000 e-mails and the infected server quit. It took them several days to resolve the problem and a substantial amount of our e-mail was lost in the process. (That's an understandable, though frustrating, reality of Internet risk and exposure.) They finally announced that all the problems had been rectified and everything was back to normal.

Normal for them, but not for me. The first thing I noticed was a dramatic decrease in total e-mail volume. Regular e-mail had dropped from about 100 messages per day to an average of 25. Additionally, my spam file (at the ISP site) went from 300 pieces per day to less than 15. I knew something was awry, but several calls to the ISP technicians only resulted in their confirmation that everything was in order.

Yesterday I had an irate call from a valued client wanting to know why I had missed the recording of a monthly conference call. I explained that we never received notification and the client insisted that several notices had been sent by e-mail well in advance. In the meantime I also found out that I hadn't been receiving editing material from my editor on the new book being finished. Yet a thorough review of our e-mail and spam files showed no signs of any such communications.

I called the ISP again and spent a lengthy amount of time with a technician trying to explain that something was wrong. He agreed to check into it. On calling back, he again said that everything was normal. I disagreed and gave him the domain addresses for the missing mail, which he agreed to check against their master cache files.

This morning he called back to explain what he had found. The sending servers for these domains had been “blacklisted” by the ISP as high-volume spammers. As such, nothing from these servers was allowed to enter our ISP's e-mail servers. It had nothing to do with the specific people or organizations from which the mail originated, but the source of the transmission – the e-mail distributor on the sending end.

As the story unfolded, there are quite a few “blacklisted” sources. All discretion on the part of the recipient had been surpassed by the arbitrary silent censor “blacklist”. Ironically many of my clients and resources send out newsletters and utilize distribution companies for processing such legitimate mail. Unfortunately these companies may also serve as distributors for spam. If blacklisted, nothing gets through and I had absolutely nothing to say about it.

I don't know about you, but I don't want an electronic censor determining what I should or should not receive. I also can't afford to have client messages circumvented. The extra few minutes per day spent in culling through my spam file is a small price to pay for freedom of communication.

My ISP is currently removing any and all blocks that had been in place from impacting our account. As a result anything anyone anywhere sends to me will be received and I will be the one and only censor of what I should or should not read. Yet the removal of these blocks will only apply to my account, the silent censor will be hard at work for every other client of this particular ISP – and no one knows about it.

Are you the victim of a “silent censor”? Do you want to be? A phone call to your ISP may be an eye-opening event. I know it has been for me.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

ProgramBusinessNews Library By: Jack Burke

Jack Burke serves as the Editor of ProgramBusinessNews, an electronic newsletter distributed to the insurance industry by ProgramBusiness.com. These newsletters are distributed free to members. To register for free membership, visit http://www.programbusiness.com

This is an archived list of prior newsletters. To access any given newsletter, just go to http://www.programbusiness.com to access the entire library of newsletters and individual articles.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Personal Relationshiops Mirror Personal Relationships By: Jack Burke

10 Steps in Relationship Building

  • Partners support and encourage the other’s success and happiness.
  • Partners make concessions and compromises for the greater good.
  • Partners avoid taking each other for granted.
  • Partners are willing to sacrifice for each other.
  • Partners tackle problems together.
  • Partners share their joys and sorrows with each other.
  • Partners look for ways to surprise each other.
  • Partners express their feelings and respect the other’s feelings.
  • Partners serve each other.
  • Partners explore opportunities together.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Maturing the Relationship By: Jack Burke

This “Connections” column is primarily dedicated to the relationship aspect of clients, companies and employees within your organization.  At the recent annual meeting of one of my clients, I had an awakening while looking at a PowerPoint picture of a young girl eating pizza.

One of the agency’s staff members was using the picture as an analogy within her presentation.  She pointed out that her daughter loved pizza so much that she would eat it until she got sick.  As the parent it was her job to guide and instruct the child so that she wouldn’t overeat the pizza.  As a result I began thinking about the role of a parent in guiding a child to eventual maturity and started applying that thought to business.

As insurance agents, you have to guide and instruct your prospects and clients – to help them mature in their management and avoidance of risk.  So let’s look at a few ways that this can change the operational practices within your agency.

Customer Service Representatives (CSRs or any other name you might give them) generally are reluctant to “cross-sell” or “cross-market”.  For decades I’ve watched agencies try to get them to “sell” with limited success in most cases.  They simply do not envision themselves as sales people or producers.  They think of themselves as the caretakers of the client.  They handle the problems, process the claims and basically try to keep the client as satisfied as possible.  “Selling” seems to be contra-indicated in their minds.

So let’s through out such terms as “cross selling”, “cross marketing” and “rounding out the account”.  Those are sales terms.  Instead let’s begin talking about maturing the relationship – guiding, instructing and protecting our clients, just like a parent would help a child to learn and grow.

Helping the account to mature has a much more nurturing connotation that just may work wonders with the attitude of your CSRs.  If they view additional coverages as a way to help the client, they may be more amenable to discussing them.  It also moves you, as an organization, away from confrontational sales position to one of a consultative advisor.  It can enhance your professional image in the minds of clients and prospects.

The concept of “maturing” can also work wonders with your employees.  CE courses can become something more than the dreaded requirement.  It can become more of an educational process of growth as the staff begins a journey of self-improvement and education.

This particular agency has begun its own in-house academy to promote education.  They even have internal designation levels that can be reached – silver, gold and platinum.  Plus, the designation criterion goes beyond basic insurance CE.  It includes learning about the specialty industries the agency serves, as well as an inter-disciplinary model that crosses over from sales to service to management within the agency.  As such the certification levels are transferable should an employee move from service to sales or management within the agency.  One of the required courses for everyone happens to be Public Speaking, so that everyone is prepared to have face-to-face encounters with clients and industry groups.

This approach is designed for the employee to mature within the agency.  It’s not simply taking the required courses to maintain a license.  It is much, much more and again assumes a parental role of guidance and instruction.

Sometimes we change words for politically correct reasons.  Sometimes we change words because of a trend.  Once in a while we change words because it is right to do so.  I believe that this is one of those rare times where it is right to begin thinking in terms of maturing, maturation and other derivatives of the word “mature”.  Webster defines mature as “to bring or come to full development”.  Isn’t that what we really want for our prospects, our clients and our staff – to bring them to full development?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Ivan's Heart By: Jack Burke

"Make it personal!" has been my battle cry for years, as technology seems to depersonalize too many business relationships. After a speech, I'm often asked "how" a web site or e-mail can be made more personal. The answer is in the people -- your staff.

Use your people to personalize your web site and allow your people to personalize their electronic communications to your clients.

I strongly urge companies to provide their employees with their own pages, where they can mount photographs and provide insight as to who they are outside the normal business context. This enable clients and prospects to identify with, and bond with, your employees. For instance, my page at shows pictures of my grandchildren and my auto restoration hobby. Quite frequently those pictures become the initial commonality in conversations with prospects. I even had a scientist from NASA contact me because he had found our web site when searching for a classic car part. While visiting our web site, he noticed various communications products that could benefit his operation at NASA. At the very least, your web site should have a complete list of your employees and means to contact them.

Now, about that e-mail and the story of Ivan (with a heart). I often excuse the incredibly big companies from the need to really personalize. I just can't picture AT&T or Microsoft getting really personal. Granted Amazon.com has managed to make personalization an art, but they are primarily retail-oriented. Business-to-business personalization seems a bit tougher and I believe many of our expectations here are lower as well. But Ivan has changed my mind and repositioned the level of my expectations.

I recently needed some computer advice relating to the interaction of three different programs: MS PowerPoint, MS FrontPage and Quicktime. Since two of the programs were Microsoft, I went to their web site and sent an inquiry to technical support. As per normal, I received an e-mail reply within 24 hours. The reply began with what I regard as a fairly personalized service for a large company:

"Dear Jack,

Thank you for choosing Online Support for your Microsoft Technical Support offering. My name is Ivan and I will be assisting your with this Service Request."

Ivan then went on to discuss the technical aspects of my question, offer some advice and recommend various on-line articles to read. Nothing dramatic, but encased in a nice, personalized e-mail communication. The surprise came at the end of the message. Ivan signed off with the typical:

"Thanks and best regards,

Sincerely,

Ivan Sheng, Support Engineer"

But after his certifications, department information and e-mail address, came the surprise:

"(By the way, I visited your web site (cool!) and see you and your wife's photos, along with the cars. At the same time, please say hello to Elizabeth, Melissa, Virginia and Tara!)"

Ivan had not only taken the time to visit our web site, but actually spent time perusing the various pages. In doing so, he not only saw our "personal page pictures", but learned the names of my daughters. His postscript was his way of saying that he cared about me as a customer of Microsoft.

In later communications, Ivan also added a quotation from our web site: "Success in business requires an integrated marketing and communications approach that will result in the cultivation of a nexus between a company and its customers."

Thank you Ivan for your heart. Anyone who cares that much about the customer will go far in any company.

Do you have an Ivan working for you?

Jack Burke is the president of Sound Marketing, Inc. and author of Relationship Aspect Marketing and Creating Customer Connections. For more information, visit or e-mail him at .

Getting Personal: A Message From Ivan

Jack Burke

"Make it personal!" has been my battle cry for years, as technology seems to depersonalize too many business relationships. After a speech, I'm often asked "how" a web site or e-mail can be made more personal. The answer is in the people -- your staff.

Use your people to personalize your web site and allow your people to personalize their electronic communications to your clients.

I strongly urge companies to provide their employees with their own pages, where they can mount photographs and provide insight as to who they are outside the normal business context. This enable clients and prospects to identify with, and bond with, your employees. For instance, my page at shows pictures of my grandchildren and my auto restoration hobby. Quite frequently those pictures become the initial commonality in conversations with prospects. I even had a scientist from NASA contact me because he had found our web site when searching for a classic car part. While visiting our web site, he noticed various communications products that could benefit his operation at NASA. At the very least, your web site should have a complete list of your employees and means to contact them.

Now, about that e-mail and the story of Ivan (with a heart). I often excuse the incredibly big companies from the need to really personalize. I just can't picture AT&T or Microsoft getting really personal. Granted Amazon.com has managed to make personalization an art, but they are primarily retail-oriented. Business-to-business personalization seems a bit tougher and I believe many of our expectations here are lower as well. But Ivan has changed my mind and repositioned the level of my expectations.

I recently needed some computer advice relating to the interaction of three different programs: MS PowerPoint, MS FrontPage and Quicktime. Since two of the programs were Microsoft, I went to their web site and sent an inquiry to technical support. As per normal, I received an e-mail reply within 24 hours. The reply began with what I regard as a fairly personalized service for a large company:

"Dear Jack,

Thank you for choosing Online Support for your Microsoft Technical Support offering. My name is Ivan and I will be assisting your with this Service Request."

Ivan then went on to discuss the technical aspects of my question, offer some advice and recommend various on-line articles to read. Nothing dramatic, but encased in a nice, personalized e-mail communication. The surprise came at the end of the message. Ivan signed off with the typical:

"Thanks and best regards,

Sincerely,

Ivan Sheng, Support Engineer"

But after his certifications, department information and e-mail address, came the surprise:

"(By the way, I visited your web site (cool!) and see you and your wife's photos, along with the cars. At the same time, please say hello to Elizabeth, Melissa, Virginia and Tara!)"

Ivan had not only taken the time to visit our web site, but actually spent time perusing the various pages. In doing so, he not only saw our "personal page pictures", but learned the names of my daughters. His postscript was his way of saying that he cared about me as a customer of Microsoft.

In later communications, Ivan also added a quotation from our web site: "Success in business requires an integrated marketing and communications approach that will result in the cultivation of a nexus between a company and its customers."

Thank you Ivan for your heart. Anyone who cares that much about the customer will go far in any company.

Do you have an Ivan working for you?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Insurance 2002 and Beyond By: Jack Burke

After so many years of a "soft market" that people began calling it "the market", the inevitable hardening had finally arrived by the beginning of 2001. Primarily evidenced initially by increasing premiums, many agents applauded the increased commissions they were earning on static books of business. The biggest problem was learning how to present the increased renewal premium to the client without forcing them to put their business out to bid. Sales trainers were adapting their presentations to "teach" producers how to sell in a hard market because it was estimated that over half of the producers had never experienced this phenomenon.

Within a short time, the applause quieted as the hard market began to express itself in diminishing markets in which to place the business. Suddenly agents began to realize that they truly had to "earn" the higher commissions by spending hours trying to find markets that would accept the risk. Wholesalers and program managers began to step into the spotlight as they became the most viable markets to place certain risks.

Then came an economic slowdown, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a full-blown recession, increasing unemployment, Enron and K-Mart. Ouch! Now the conversation has gone beyond shrinking markets and skyrocketing premiums to questions about claims reserves, decreasing commission percentages and strength of the reinsurance market -- not too even mention the stock market, bond market, etc.

As a result, traditional carriers are pulling out of markets faster than anyone thought possible. (Just look at St. Paul and the med-mal market.) State legislatures are looking at possible actions to hold health insurance costs in line. Workers' comp has again become extremely difficult and costly. Companies are mandating terrorist exclusions, yet the DOI's of some states (like California) are hesitant to embrace the company's proposals, while other states are accepting them.

Whatever happened to such simple problems as asbestos and mold?

Agents call me on a regular basis to bemoan the situation. A Chicago agent presents a substantially increased renewal premium to a top client. The renewal is begrudgingly signed by the client and the paperwork goes in to the company. Suddenly the underwriter calls to say the premium is too low by $100,000. The agent protests that the underwriter just presented that premium quotation five days earlier. Unfortunately the underwriting guidelines had changed over those five days. Luckily for the agent, the client took the hit and agreed to the additional increase. Another agent calls from Oklahoma looking for a market to provide umbrella coverage for a local YMCA. Premiums had increased from $7,000 to $25,000 and the underwriter was refusing to renew a previous exception to a sports coverage exclusion. Another agency in Northern California calls to say they're looking for another carrier to represent -- do I know of any "good" ones. Apparently they're so disgusted with their current carriers, they don't even know if there's any carriers worth representing. The saga could go on and on, but I think you've got the point.

Amidst all of this, let's not forget the state of the clients. I've talked with many manufacturers, for instance, who are struggling with a 40-50% decline in business since 9/11. Some are doing better, others worse, but everyone seems to be struggling at the moment. Employees are being laid off and expenses cut in order to survive. Faced with rising insurance premiums, many businesses are cutting their coverages to the bone and some are even making the decision to drop coverages entirely and go naked. (Shades of the last hard market.)

So what's the answer?

Without delving into the financial and actuarial statistics, I've noted some general observations on both the company and the agency sides. I'm not trying to over-simplify the situation, but I believe we need to have a starting point for recovery.

Carriers

Carriers must acknowledge that, in most cases, their primary customer base is the independent agency system that represents their product. General Motors provided Oldsmobile dealers with a three year notice to drop the line. Carriers sometimes give their distribution network less than a month notice. So first and foremost, carriers must make some hard decisions about the markets in which they want to play -- then they must opening communicate that strategy with their agency base. There's no place for surprises in the agency/company relationship. Open and honest communication is critical to the success of any and all relationships.

Now about underwriting. Let's face facts, most underwriters hope to get promoted out of underwriting as they climb the corporate ladder. Like our "hard-market virgin producers", there are a lot of underwriters that have never experienced a hard market. They started in their positions in a soft market and honed their skills on market share underwriting. Loss history was secondary to the company motto -- "He with the most market share wins!" Suddenly these same underwriters are being ask to underwrite on the basis of loss history.

Not knowing how to do that, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. Every company, every market has become an inordinately big risk despite the reality of their actual loss history experience. Underwriters need to be taught and directed to underwrite on the basis of the individual risk -- taking into account that risk's specific loss history, as well as existing and planned loss prevention programs. Not all risks within any given market are equal.

Speaking of loss prevention, it's amazing how quickly carriers will cancel value-added loss prevention programs in order to cut expenses. Such carriers rationalize that it's up to the agents to do that -- loss prevention can be their "unique difference" to the client. Meanwhile the agents say they need help from the company level to do that. Ironically, they're both right -- but in the interim, their stalemate merely penalizes the client with exorbitant premiums. Carriers and agents need to work together on a cooperative basis to provide the tools and resources that will enable clients to better manage their risks. When that happens, everyone wins regardless of whether the market is hard or soft.

Agents

Where the actions suggested for the companies might seem overly simplistic, the actions that agencies need to take are far more complex. The reason is that agencies are in the middle, which is exactly where a true "broker" should be. They need to balance relationships on both sides of the scale -- company and client.

Expanding Your Horizons

On the supplier side, agencies must begin expanding their provider base. The days of relying on 6, 12 or even 18 traditional carriers to fill 90% of your market needs are long gone. Agents must proactively seek out non-traditional providers for the markets in which they specialize on a regular basis. Even if you're happy with your current company source, there is no guarantee that that company will be in that market tomorrow. And, if they remain in that market, there's no guarantee that they will stay competitively priced.

Unfortunately most agents wait until renewal. For instance, one agency that handles a lot of restaurants just called me about a flagship 4-star restaurant client. The renewal quote just came in from their primary insurer and sticker-shock prevailed at the agency level -- they haven't even presented it to their client yet. "Where can we find some new markets for upper-end restaurants?" was the question they asked. The good news was that a quick search on the ProgramBusiness.com wholesaler search engine presented over 2 dozen wholesaler programs for them to investigate. The bad news is that this agency had not investigated potential alternatives until the renewal time. A pro-active agency would have investigated all of these options earlier -- if not for their own need, but to at least know what the competition was offering.

I mention ProgramBusiness.com as only one of many sources an agent can access to learn about optional players in a market. From such free resources as ProgramBusiness to membership-only sources such as IMMS.com to databases maintained by some of the trade magazines to rating services to simple Internet searches, agents have never had it this easy to expand their knowledge about products and programs they can offer their clients. In essence technology has given every agent the portfolio power of a Marsh & Mac.

In either case, company or wholesaler, agents must become more active in the communication process with the market suppliers. Request and utilize resources that might be of benefit to your clients in risk management, safety plans, regulatory compliance, etc. These tools will help position you as more than just an insurance agent to your clients.

Renewals

Traditionally most agents try to keep a pretty tight window on the renewal process. Fear of competition has mandated that agents begin the process 30 to 45 days in advance. After all, the tighter the window the more difficult for a client to shop other agents. Well I beg to differ. Sticker shock can cost you your best clients. Springing the renewal premium on them at the last minute will raise too many questions in their mind. "Why didn't we have advance warning?" "Is the agent trying to pull one over on us?" "If the agent hid this dramatic premium increase from us, what else aren't we being told?"

Agents that are truly client-focused begin the renewal process 364 days out. Ongoing communication and partnering with the client in risk management strategies that will help reduce claims loss is only the start. Schedule occasional brainstorming sessions to break out of the envelope with new and unique concepts to help the client control costs. Share information relating to the hardening market and changing underwriting strategies so that they can better prepare for their own renewals. If the client doesn't have a written safety plan (now being required by some underwriters), help them write (and implement) one.

Be their partner, not their insurance sales person.

Communication

The old adage "out of sight, out of mind" is perhaps most true in the insurance industry. Believe me, your clients are not spending a lot of time thinking about the trials and tribulations of their insurance agent. Yet sometimes it's almost better to be "out of sight" than to become an annoyance with unwanted communication.

Communication is essential to any relationship, but it must be of value. If every call, note or e-mail is an attempt to sell something to somebody, you may be missing the boat. Yet that seems to be the bulk of our communication -- "We've got a new program, let's send everybody a letter." You can't withdraw from a savings account before you make some deposits. Know your client's business well enough to know what is important to their business and try to provide that type of information which they will appreciate. Then, when you ask for their business, they feel that you've earned the right to it.

A broker in the Northwest wanted to solicit a new market, which was both tough and competitive. After normal door-knocking and marketing attempts failed, they stepped back and looked long and hard at the industry. Talking with people in the industry, they learned three major (and universal) concerns. In each of those difficult areas for that industry, the top expert in the field was identified. Our company then produced one hour audiotape interviews with each of those three experts. Over the next 6 months, the broker sent a letter with an audiotape to prospects within that industry. Each letter said, "We know this is an area of particular concern and thought you might benefit from this interview with an expert in the field."

The last letter in the series included an audiotape about the broker, complete with testimonials from existing clients. That letter stated, "We know the management of your risk is another concern and we're ready to help." When they began calling on these prospects for appointments this time, the results were far more enjoyable. In fact, some of the prospects actually called them first for an appointment. The difference: They took the time to earn the right to be considered a risk management partner. They showed their knowledge of the industry and their willingness to bring value to the table before asking to write the business.

Whether it's a newsletter (print or e-mail), telephone calls or traditional letters, the successful agent will provide valued information and resources on a regular basis to both clients and prospects. That earns trust and respect, which eventually translates to business.

Marketing

In insurance this has two meanings -- marketing the risk and marketing the agency. As for marketing the risk, remember that underwriters are now looking at loss history, not market share. Make your applications complete. Have someone proof them before transmittal to the market. And as in any marketing, be creative -- remember you are selling this risk to the carrier. Package the application nicely. Include photographs, copies of safety plans, OSHA reviews, pictures of "192 Days of Workplace Safety" posters. Position that risk so that the underwriter will be salivating over writing such a good risk.

On the client side, get creative too! The world is being bombarded with more messages than ever before. Where it use to take 5-7 advertising repetitions to gain awareness, I now believe it takes more than 15. The answer is to get creative enough to break through the clutter to be heard more frequently. For instance, a hand written letter will now gain more results because it's different. (When's the last time someone made the effort to send you a hand-written letter?) Think in terms of alternative media -- audiotapes and CDs, videos and DVDs, even interactive computer CDs. You can now take your PowerPoint presentations, add a narrative and turn them into QuickTime movies on CD or regular VHS cassettes. There are hundreds of creative ways to send your message if you take the time to allow your creative brain to work on it. And don't forget to seek out what other industries are doing. A lot of their creative concepts will work for insurance as well.

Technology

Too many of us think of technology as either: 1) the means to automate the processing of our existing business, or 2) a magic bullet that will cure all our ills.

As for the processing of our business, it may mean a lot to us -- but does it add anything to our client relationships? The pursuit of efficiency is a double-edged blade. We must provide our clients the efficiency (and access) they demand, while simultaneously increasing our own internal efficiencies for productivity and cost control. Remember, if we become the most efficient agency in the world, but forsake our clients, what good will that efficiency do as we're closing our doors?

On the "magic bullet" side, technology is not "The Answer" -- it is merely one of many tools that can allow us to better serve our clients. The trick is to find out what our clients want us to do with technology -- and then to provide it. To do that we have to ask them, listen to them and then take action.

A small agency in the Northeast has developed an admirable website. Contractors can apply online for their certificates and anyone can request a specific quotation on just about any commercial or personal risk. Additionally, newsletters are posted and archived as available resources for clients and prospects. It's a good site that offers excellent value.

However the owner of this agency realizes that some people are not comfortable with using that technology. As a result, the agency has actually increased personal servicing via the telephone and fax. They've learned that service must be a blend of technology and personalization -- proportioned according to the demand of the customers. Their motto might read: "Although technology is a reality in today's world, we pride ourselves on working with our clients in whatever way they feel most comfortable. Be it on the Internet, in your home or office, over the phone or via the fax -- wherever and however you need us, that's where we'll be!"

Education

CE credits may be important, but that's not the education I'm talking about. Too many agency owners wear blinders -- focusing solely on their own business. Take off the blinders and attend industry events that allow for interaction with your peers. Share your thoughts and experiences with each other and re-ignite your passion. Nothing improves morale better than spending time with others who are committed to growth and success.

Likewise take time to learn about the markets in which you do business. Attend their industry events and trade shows to learn more about them. Every industry is in a state of change today. Keep on top of their most current concerns, so that you can arm yourself with the resources that they will find beneficial. If they see you contributing to their industry, they're more likely to contribute to your success.

Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning, this has been a broad-brush overview to a very difficult market economy in the insurance world. Some may consider it overly simplistic, others may even think the opposite. The truth lies somewhere in between. The pre-eminent fact is that the world of insurance is in the flux of change -- those who will survive must adapt and change with it. Company or agency, you can't sit back and wait for it to blow over. You won't be here when the winds cease.

Whether it is an hour, a day or a week, I urge everyone to take some uninterrupted time to analyze where you are, where you're going and what your clients need you to be doing. Ask the tough questions about your operation that need to be asked. Are your communicating effectively? Do your clients (or distribution network) really consider you to be their partner? How can you best position yourself for the future? Have you really been "earning" the right to represent your constituency? If you're having trouble do this, bring in some outside help. Often a fresh pair of glasses can change the view.

But above all, take the first step. If you've seen yourself anywhere in this article, pick one thing to change today. If there's an idea that sounds good to you, give it a try. If nothing else, write your best client (or agency, or employee) a letter letting them know how much you appreciate them in your life. Ask them what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong, and what they need you to be doing down the road. I believe you'll be amazed at the response. In fact, I hope you'll be so amazed that you'll try doing it again and again and again until you've repeated the process for all your clients, agencies or employees.

The race may be won at the finish line, but it begins with the first step.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Identity Theft By: Jack Burke

Did you ever notice that when you select a new car for its uniqueness, you suddenly find the roads filled with hundreds of identical vehicles you never noticed before? That's sort of what happened this past week when I had the opportunity to interview the Executive Director of the Identity Theft Resource Center for Audio Insurance Outlook. Suddenly I was bombarded with articles on identity theft everywhere I looked. Based on what I've learned, that's a good thing! We need to raise our collective consciousness on this topic within the insurance industry.

A recent study by The Gartner Grouphas indicated that 7 million identities were stolen in the past year. Then the Federal Trade Commission issued the results of its survey saying that there were 9.9 million identity thefts in 2002, over 27 million during the past five years. It is becoming a serious problem for individuals – and for companies. That means that insurance professionals need to get up to speed on the topic in order to help your clients minimize their risks.

The day of identity theft via a stolen wallet is diminishing, although it can still occur. The criminal mind has gone corporate on this issue. Most of the identity theft information is now being gained through access to corporate databases. I'm not talking Internet hacking – I'm talking about employees that funnel the information to the criminal enterprises and other such security violations.

Educating both your commercial and personal lines customers is an excellent way to provide them with strategic benefits from their relationship with you. It's also a terrific way to position them for the need of additional coverages to protect them in this regard.

On the personal side, this financial “rape” of an individual or a family can take years to resolve and can dramatically impact their credit ratings in the interim. On the commercial side, there are numerous new laws and regulations in the works – and there is a lot of demand to hold companies accountable for maintaining a secure environment for client data. This column, with some starting point suggestions for your research is just the tip of the iceberg, an entire book could be devoted to the topic.

Since every individual is susceptible, I've noted a few recommendations that you might want to pass on to your clients (and your family, friends and staff).

1. Don't carry your social security number in your wallet or purse.
2. This is the critical piece of information needed by identity thieves. On a spot check of my wallet, I found my actual social security card. I also found that my health insurance card used by social security number as my member identification number. Since you do need to carry health insurance information, the experts suggest that you make a copy of both sides of the card, cut it down to the normal size and cut out the last four digits of your social security number. If you go to a hospital or a doctor, you can verbally provide those last four digits to them. In case you are incapacitated, make sure your emergency notification contact has the information too.
3. Don't leave your purse or wallet unattended – even in a locked vehicle.
4. Purchase a crosscut shredder.

Don't buy a basic straight cut shredder as the remnants can, and have been, reassembled. Invest in a crosscut shredder that turns it into a confetti-like material.

5. Lock your mailbox.

Make sure your mailbox is locked. If it's not lockable, buy a new one that is.

6. Question the need to provide your social security number.
7. This past week I went to an optometrist for an eye exam and new glasses. As a new “patient” I was given a form to fill out. The second line asked for my social security number. Never give out information unless you are convinced that it is needed and that the organization has measures in place to safeguard it.
8. Check your credit reports.
9. The various credit reporting agencies and some credit monitoring firms, can help you monitor activity that could indicate fraud or identity theft. The three major credit reporting firms – TransUnion, Equifax and Experian – all offer some notification protections.
10. Equifax has Credit Watch Silver, which is an online service that costs $4.95 per month. It includes one credit report for free, e-mail notification of account activity, monthly alerts and $2,500 of identity theft insurance. A higher lever Gold Plan is also available.
11. TransUnion offers Credit Monitoring, which includes activity alerts and quarterly access to your credit report for $10.95 per quarter.
12. Experian has Credit Manager, priced at $79.95 per year with daily e-mail alerts, unlimited access to your credit report and credit score.
13. Consider identity theft insurance.

Aside from those very basic suggestions, insurance professionals need to begin doing some deeper research into this topic. Here are some great starting points:

Identity Theft Resource Center. This is one of my favorites. It's a non-profit organization that can help educate you on how to avoid identity theft and help you through the quagmire if it occurs. It also offers businesses suggestions on how to safeguard the information of their clients, so you might want to tell people you do business with about it too. . Also check out their Business IQ Test which is a great review for any business to assess their identity theft safeguards at .

The Federal Trade Commission operates the U.S. government's central website for information about identity theft. Aside from lots of great information, you can file a complaint or review state and federal laws. .

Additionally, Bill Wilson of the Big I Virtual University has penned an abstract on the Identity Theft situation, with critical industry hyperlinks for added resource information:

As mentioned earlier, in the September edition of Audio Insurance Outlook I interviewed Linda Foley, Executive Director of the Identity Theft Resource Center and was amazed at the damage this is causing to individuals and businesses. (If you would like to subscribe to Audio Insurance Outlook, there is a special discount price available to TAAR subscribers at .

This is quickly becoming a critical issue and the smart insurance executive will be well served by keeping abreast of it and assisting clients in protecting themselves and their customers. They'll thank you for your efforts.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Getting Your Story Heard By: Jack Burke

The “elevator speech” is a cute name for a short synopsis of what you do.  It is intended to give someone a quick snapshot of yourself, your product or service, your unique difference.  Something to gain their attention.  As president of Sound Marketing, my elevator speech is pretty short:  I help people to tell their story.

In today’s extremely cluttered world of communication, very few “stories” are being heard.  Business people are inundated with direct mail, telemarketing calls, paper and electronic newsletters, e-mail, radio, television, etc, etc.etc.  (You know because you are one of the inundated.)  Unless you have a highly unique hook or a very specialized product/service, it is difficult to reach potential prospects – much less gain any top-of-mind positioning with them.  Even generic communications with your existing clients can be less than successful.

So what’s a person to do?  How can you get your story heard?

This article can be considered a bit self-serving because it details something that our company does – but it can also be done as a do-it-yourself project if you have the time and the resources available.  I’m loath to write such self-serving articles, but I would be doing you a disservice if I didn’t tell you about the many benefits of audio marketing.

Please note that this isn’t about audio protocol or hyperlinks for e-mail and websites, as I’m not convinced of their value and frequently question their blatant sales pitch approach and sound.  This article is about custom-produced audio programs that are reproduced on audio CDs for distribution.  They are generally played in the recipient’s car stereo during non-productive commute time.  It’s your opportunity to have a virtual one-on-one meeting with a prospect or client.  A time to tell your story.

One recent client in the Northeast began distributing CDs for their bond program – a somewhat less than exciting topic for most -- entitled “Seven Decisions That Can Make or Break Your Surety Program”.  Within several days of the initial mailing, a prospect called in to request an appointment saying, “…based on the information on that CD, I now know that my current insurance agent doesn’t understand the bond business.”  This same agency is now developing a triple threat – 3 programs to be distributed in staged mailings to the trucking industry.  Each program features an expert on an issue of critical importance to the industry.  One of the experts is the safety supervisor for the primary company that they represent.  The agency is using these programs to pre-establish credibility in the minds of their prospects and thereby increase interest levels and closing ratios.

Another agency in the Midwest is distributing a version of a program developed for members of Preston Diamond’s Institute of Work Comp Advisors.  Graduates of the program can order custom labeled versions of a program created with the Institute entitled “The 8 Dirty Secrets of Workers Compensation Insurance”.  This particular agency is using it as a prospecting tool with automobile dealers.  One of the principals called to tell me about one call they received from a dealer.  “The dealer asked when we could meet with him because he had just listened to the CD and was hooked.  When we arrived for the appointment, the dealer was joined by two of his management team.  He explained that they had already invested over an hour listening to the program, so we could get right down to the basics.  However, before we had a chance to talk, he then spent an hour repeating back to us everything he had heard on the CD.  It was almost verbatim.  All we had to do was sit quietly while he literally sold himself.”

There are countless other stories about the successes of audio marketing.  A major alliance of over 1,000 agencies with a combined premium of over $1.3 billion (SIAA) has used audio marketing as a primary prospecting tool since their beginning.  The biggest change was switching their programs from audiotapes to CDs.

During the difficult market of the 90s, an agency in the Southeast had two programs produced – one for lead generation and the second to sell themselves to companies they needed to sign with for markets.

The approach we prefer is to design audio marketing programs that are similar to talk radio – very easy on the listener and not hard sell.  Information is provided that can benefit the listener – regardless of whether they buy insurance or not.  The agency representative is positioned as an informational resource, not an insurance salesman.  The selling is done via testimonials that are collected from current clients.  You establish your credibility, they sell your capability.

Other advantages of audio marketing include the actual bulk of the envelope used for mailing.  It attracts the necessary attention to get someone to open it.  Once opened, human curiosity takes over.  You don’t know what is on it unless you play it!

Considering the thousands of dollars spent in developing brochures, audio marketing is cost-effective.  Updates and changes are easily implemented.  Quantities can be ordered on an as-needed basis – no need to buy and stock thousands for price concessions on the print order.  They do not interfere with normal productive hours of business.  They create an intimacy with your prospect.  After listening to you, the prospect feels that they already know you.

In summary, audio marketing:

  1. Breaks through the message clutter and is noticed.
  2. Curiosity gets people to play it.
  3. It enables you to establish expertise and credibility by providing valuable information.
  4. Testimonials sell your capabilities.
  5. Multiple methods of utilization from direct mail to meeting handouts to web-mounted access.
  6. Cost-effective.

If you wish to produce audio marketing programs yourself, contact a local radio station news department to hire someone to conduct the interviews, edit and assemble the final program.  Then check your phone directory for listing of companies that will duplicate the CDs for you.  Most will help with label design, or you can hire the label design out to a local graphic designer.

If you prefer a one-stop shop that can handle everything, Sound Marketing offers a complete package including preparation, conducting and recording of interviews, label design, CD replication, packaging and shipment to your office.  All interviews are personally conducted by myself.  The initial investment is $2995 and includes 500 CDs.  Afterwards you can order additional CDs, as needed, for $1.50 each with no quantity restrictions.  When necessary the master program can be easily updated for a relatively minor expense, depending on the extent of the reworking required.

Due to normal time constraints, Sound Marketing accepts only four marketing program production clients per month.  Scheduling into the system requires a $500 deposit with the balance due at completion.

For more information, you can contact me by phone at 1-800-451-8273, via e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com or by visiting http://www.soundmarketing.com.

Special note:  If you mention this article, we will offer you a choice of a $500 discount or an extra 500 CDs with your order.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Fear of Change is Scary By: Jack Burke

Everyone agrees that change is inevitable and in today's world it is an absolute necessity to survival. Yet, despite its constancy in our lives, change still evokes fear that creates resistance.

Whether it's modern folklore or truth, there's the old story about the barber in the Pittsburgh airport in the late sixties that said he would never change his operation to a unisex stylist salon. He resisted that change until he went out of business and has since been replaced by a salon.

I experienced this same resistance when critiqued by some of the world's top image consultants during a convention workshop. Among a number of recommended changes was the shaving of my 27 year mustache.

I arched my back on that until a friend said, “Isn't change a b______!” Upon realizing that change was the issue, not the mustache, I proceeded to shave it off -- and the compliments have been unbelievable. But, my resistance to change forced me to ignore the sage advice of the world's top professionals in the image field.

Does fear paralyze your ability to change? Do you resist change even against expert advice? Does your resistance jeopardize your business or sabotage your personal relationships?

Let's try to look at this fear from a different light. On the emotional side, I've heard fear described as “False Evidence Appearing Real”. How often that has proven true. My mind projects a certain outcome to a difficult situation that prevents me from taking action due to fear. Yet once I take the action and walk through the fear, I usually find that my mental projections had no basis in reality. That's why the psycho-experts tell us that we have to walk through our fear to conquer it. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself!”

Making any headway yet in shifting your sense of fear? Let's try the rational and logical approach taught me by my Jesuit educators. Whatever the fear, all fears stem from losing something we have or not getting something we want. If you find yourself fearful of change -- losing something you have, or not getting something you want -- you have entered a philosopher's nightmare.

If change is truly inevitable and a necessity to survival, our fears should be based on “failure to change”, rather than “change”. If we fail to change, we may lose our business, that valued client, or a special relationship. Likewise, If we fail to change we may not achieve the goals that we have set, either in our personal lives or our business lives.

Therefore our fear of change is a true oxymoronism. We are fearing the wrong thing. False evidence has definitely appeared real and thereby perpetrated a gigantic hoax on all of us. The only fear we have to fear is the fear of failure to change.

In this spirit, I urge everyone to begin exercising their “change muscle”.

Pick anything--from a bad habit to a petty annoyance--and make a decision to change it. Commit to achieving the change, acknowledging that you may fall short at times. And that's ok, as long as you pick yourself up and continue. Like any technique, our change muscle needs exercise and practice if it is to become an efficient tool in our lives. Embrace change! It can open the doors to an exciting world where the only enemy is the lack of change.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Ethics in Business: Embryo or Dinosaur By: Jack Burke

From the hallowed halls of insurance to financial services, retailing giants to manufacturing behemoths, business practices in numerous industries are being questioned, investigated and prosecuted.  Have we become that dishonest in business?  Maybe.  Are we that far removed from the lessons of our childhood?  Maybe.  Has self-centered greed eclipsed our ethical standards?  Maybe.  Or are we innocent?  Unlikely.  The true rational behind all of this questionable behavior is probably far more convoluted than any simple answer.

Warren Bennis, the noted expert on leadership, once told me that if he had to do it all over again, he would change the way business schools operate.  Rather than a focused concentration on the bottom line of profit and loss, he would first require candidates for business school to first have a degree in the humanities.  As he put it, “They need to read the classics of literature and begin to understand the human condition.”

In subsequent discussion, we talked about the difference between shareholder and stakeholder.  Too many executives have found that performance is tied to the demands of the shareholders – the stockholders and investors in the company.  Generally they continually demand more and more growth and profit, regardless of any extenuating market or societal conditions.  It’s all about the money!

Stakeholders in a company are its clients, employees and community.  These are the true assets of any corporation.  Serve them and they will serve the company.  We seem to have lost sight of their integral importance in our escalating search for profits.  Despite the fact that throughout history every great spiritual leader touted service as the key to life.

Not too long ago a first-time author wrote a science fiction book entitled “The Truth Machine”.  The premise was a machine that indicated when someone was lying and it’s impact on society.  Can you imagine politicians giving a speech with a truth machine flashing red lights every time they didn’t tell the truth?

The book’s episodes relating to business were extremely intriguing, as buyer and seller would meet with a truth machine positioned between them.  In representing the product or service, the seller had to tell the truth – as did the buyer when identifying their needs and desires.  The price negotiations were concise and to the point.  The seller would indicate the lowest possible selling price that would net a fair profit.  The buyer would tell the highest possible purchase price that would enable them to stay within budget.  The price was a compromise between the two, resulting in both a fair purchase and a fair selling price for both parties.  Complex negotiations took place in minutes, rather than days.  Productivity soared with the decrease in selling time and positioning.

Enlightened people know that “secrets are deadly”.  And as one good friend puts it, “I’ve never known a lie that didn’t require a second and third lie.” Yet, all too often, the lies and misrepresentations prevail.  Perhaps we need a truth machine today!

In the ongoing regulatory investigations into the insurance industry in the United States, it appears to be the secrets that are causing the pain.  As a result, there is a clamor for transparency and legislators are moving to implement new rules and regulations relating to disclosure.  Those of a pessimistic nature are viewing this as governmental interference that will disrupt the business of business.  I choose to take an optimistic view that this is a time of opportunity and change for the better.  I refuse to believe that honesty will cripple a business.

The real estate industry has always maintained the mantra of “location, location, location”.  I strongly urge the insurance industry to adopt the mantra of “disclosure, disclosure, disclosure”.  You have nothing to hide.  Your clients already know that you earn commissions on the sale of insurance.  They acknowledge that sales organizations often have bonuses (we call them contingencies).  All they really want to know is that you are truly working in their best interests.

Ironically, contingencies do just that.  They work in everyone’s best interest, as they are not only based on volume but loss ratios as well.  When the agency or brokers earns contingency income for building a profitable book of business, the company earns more money, the client benefits from lower premiums and the agency is rewarded for its efforts.  Everybody wins.  So why should we keep it a secret?

I’ve always maintained that a client only wants to feel protected.  They want to feel that the agent is operating in their best interests and appreciates their value as a customer of that agency.  When clients feel that way, they give you more of their business and refer others to you.  It is the true cycle of business and it results in fair profits to the provider.  As a result, a relationship develops and grows between all parties.

Secrets ruin relationships.  Even on a personal basis, secrets prohibit open and forthright communication between people.  Shame, guilt and fear of revealing the secret, create such a strain that many relationships simply wither away.  Business relationships are no different.  Unless they are based on mutual respect and honesty, they cannot prevail.  Honesty is the critical component of any and every relationship.  Only under the umbrella of honesty can you have open and forthright communication.

Maybe it’s time to revise the Golden Rule from “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you” to “Do onto others as they would have you do unto them”.

If you put your stakeholders – customers, employees and community – first, they will ensure your success.  Take the challenges of today as an opportunity to build a foundation of ethical and honest business practices.  May your own conscience become the integral “truth machine” that structures your path into the future.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Creative Brain Trust By: Jack Burke

Over the years I have found local colleges to be a wellspring of resources for our business.  When we were doing location work, I would contact a college in the area for experienced students from the audio/visual department for temporary employment.  If I needed creative insight into web design, the local college students were ready, willing and able.  If I needed some fresh insight into marketing or advertising, local business students offered new and creative approaches.  If I needed a multi-lingual voiceover talent, the colleges came to the rescue.  When clients/friends/colleagues needed assistance, I have always been quick to recommend their local colleges.

The results have always been excellent.  Well almost.  I did have one bad experience, but that was because I hired a professor, rather than a student.  My success rate with students has always been 100%.  They appreciate the opportunity to gain experience and they always bring energy, creativity and “new-thinking” to the table.  The only downside has been the time and effort expended to find the right Dean, Professor or Human Resource person to guide my efforts in finding the right people.

The downside has now disappeared!  Two students at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have harnessed the creative energy of college students and are packaging it for businesses to access.  Their firm, BrainReactions LLC, is designed to help companies solve problems, address marketing issues, improve communications – in fact, they can help just about any company with any project.  And the solutions can put a company on the cutting edge of the competition.

The basis of the company, founded by Anand Chhatpar and Nate Altfeather, is to identify the problem or goal of the company and then hold a two-hour brainstorming session with pre-selected, extremely creative and vocal college students from the UW-Madison campus.  The session is videotaped so that a DVD can be created for the client, accompanied by an executive summary, list of ideas and sketches from the session.  The goal of each session is to provide the client with 100 or more ideas for consideration.

According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Intuit used BrainReactions to help in the design of a web site to help young people use its Turbo Tax program.  A major result was that young people interact better with symbols, rather than words.  Michael Maron, director of Intuit’s site for young taxpayers, told the newspaper, “We’ve done focus groups at other colleges, but what’s great is that they have the process down and do a great job of recruiting people from different areas of the campus.”

It’s definitely working!  Founded in mid-2004, BrainReactions already counts Intuit and Bank of America among its initial clients.  The fees of $10,000 to $20,000 per session are extremely reasonable in comparison to expenditures for focus groups and consulting from major advertising and marketing firms.  At present, they are even offering their service for free to non-profit agencies.  Plus, the results are new and refreshing – not reworked ideas of old.

Altfeather and Chhatpar find the participating students through their campus connections, via campus contests and by asking professors and teaching assistants to identify the top students in their classes.  Participants, in turn, are paid with money and pizza – not to mention a boisterous brainstorming experience with their intellectual peers.

Altfeather echoed my opinions about college students when he told the Wisconsin State Journal, “We are a bridge between young people with daydreams and big executives who need new thinking.  By the time executives climb the corporate ladder, they’ve lost the innovation skills they had coming out of college.  We put them back in touch with creative minds who can help them expand their thinking.”

From my personal experience, college students also bring another benefit to the table.  Having grown up with computers and instant communication, their brains are digitally wired.  Most of us, on the other hand, have analog minds.  We don’t think like the younger generations.  If we are going to target these new generations, who better to lead us than those who are part of the culture.

If you’d like to learn more about BrainReactions, visit their website at http://www.brainreactions.com.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Thoughts at 35,000 Feet By: Jack Burke

Despite my best efforts to cut back on travel, I have been doing a lot of it lately.  The result is a greater appreciation of the value of time.  Travel in today’s world eats up a lot of time and reinforces the importance of making it easy to do business.  Travel also gives you a lot of time to think.

Here’s some “travelin’ thoughts”:

Easy Is Good

Changing an airline ticket during the course of a trip is not easy and it is definitely not inexpensive.  Most airlines charge a flat fee of $100 to make a change, plus the difference in flight costs.  To save time I wanted to take an earlier flight home this past weekend.  On calling reservations, I was given the party line of $100 for the change and $85 for the pricing difference in the flight.  But I was flying Midwest Airlines, a company that excels in making things easy.  The service rep said, “That seems pretty steep to save four hours.  Let me check on something.”  After checking on passenger loads, he told me to just show up for the earlier flight and go standby for free.  When I arrived and said I wanted to go standby, the ticket agent said, “That’s cool!”  He then checked me onto the flight and issued a boarding pass at the ticket counter, bypassing the standard “standby” protocol.  That makes things easy!

Do you make it easy for your clients to make changes, additions or deletions?  Do you make it easy for requesting certificates?  Is it easy to make contact with you?

When things aren’t easy, customers are lost.  The Radisson Hotel at LAX is the closest hotel to the airport.  I usually stay there when I have an early flight to catch.  This time I went outside at 5:30 AM to catch their shuttle.  After waiting for about ten minutes – and watching an airline pilot come out and walk to the airport – I asked the doorman how long before their shuttle would be back.  He replied that it wasn’t running that morning.  The biggest frustration was not taking a taxi to the airport.  The biggest frustration was that the doorman had not volunteered the information while he watched two of us wait.  It was not easy to get to the airport that morning and the Radisson has lost any future business from me.

Celebrate Performance

In the September 2005 Connections column, I told the story of a pro-active telephone field technician.  After installing our new telephone system, he and his partner were up early the next day making calls to assure themselves that our nightlines were operating correctly.  Unbeknownst to me, they weren’t.  But this field tech called to tell me they found a problem and ask if they could come out and fix it.  This was the type of pro-active service I never imagined receiving from a major phone company.

I mention this because earlier this week I received an e-mail from CenturyTel’s public relations department.  Jim, the lead field tech, is being honored with their Outstanding Service Provider Award.  Having been aware of the article about him, they were requesting a copy to use during the award presentation at corporate headquarters.

Congratulations to Jim for consistently operating at a level of customer service that resulted in this honor.  Congratulations also to CenturyTel for recognizing and acknowledging exceptional performance.  Every company needs to recognize those employees who consistently go the extra mile on behalf of the company and the clients.

Kill the I’s

Common to our industry is the situation where a high performing producer eventually buys the agency and becomes the owner.  The transition from sales excellence to management excellence is a big leap.  Working with a client in that same situation brought to mind the importance of cultivating a team culture – and a tip I was given many years ago by a very successful manager:  Count the I’s before sending a letter.

It is amazing how many times we use “I” when writing a letter.  “I” does not imply teamwork; it implies a dictatorial monologue.  If you try it, you will be amazed how many times you can replace the “I”.  This particular client tried it on one letter and reported that he cut five I’s out of the text, then read it again and cut five more out.

Restraint of Pen & Tongue

Another superb lesson has to do with our emotional judgment.  When angry we tend to lash out verbally or in writing.  In the electronic world of instant communication, this can have some devastating results.

The next time something lights your fuse, exercise restraint.  Don’t make that call until you’ve had 24 hours to cool off.  If you write a letter or e-mail, wait 24 hours and then read it.  If it still makes sense to you, send it.  Or, as is often the case, you soften the message or don’t even need to send it at all.

A good example happened recently.  I received an early morning e-mail depicting three problems an agency owner had with staff members.  He was hot about it and asked me to call him on his cell phone, as he would be traveling in his car most of the day.  I tried calling him several times but kept getting messages that his cell phone was not in service.

The next morning he called me.  As it turned out a cell tower had gone down in the area of his travels and he was incommunicado for the entire day.  As he put it, “That gave me time to think and I better understand the situation and why some of my staff is having problems.  I probably would have done the same thing.”  Problem resolved because he had time to think about it before taking action.

Reading Material

As a final thought, I’m sure most of you have already read Jim Collin’s book “Good to Great”.   It is a thought-provoking exercise in breaking down the barriers to greatness.  However, how many of you have read the short monograph that was designed to accompany it – “Good to Great and the Social Sectors”.  In fewer than 40 pages, Jim notes major differences in the “good to great” process amongst social sector entities such as non-profits, governmental, associations, etc.

Since social sector entities only acknowledge money as an input – a budgetary factor, money cannot be considered a measure of greatness.  I really urge you to read this monograph as it offers a different perspective on great management by eliminating the money factor.  As Warren Bennis once told me, “The problem is that we are beholding to our shareholders, as opposed to our stakeholders – the employees, the customers and the community.”

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Follow Your Passion By: Jack Burke

We connect with one another in a myriad of ways.  Through business, social circles, hobbies, sports, church and schools, people make friends with one another.  Some are long-term, while others are merely passing acquaintances.  What makes the difference?  Why are some relationships stronger than others?

I believe the answer is that we connect through our passions.

If you are passionate about church, for example, you will tend to get involved in various ministries, perhaps participate in bible studies with like-minded individuals, teach Sunday school classes, etc.  In taking part in such activities, you will come to know people with a similar passion and, quite frequently, those acquaintances turn into life-long friendships.
Likewise a deep-sea diving aficionado will gravitate to friendships with others who enjoy such activity.

What is your passion – and what does that have to do with your business?

Golfers have known for years that more business can be done on a golf course than in the office.  Why is that?  For starters, there is a common interest in golf that provides the underpinnings for a relationship.  Business activity springs forth because of the common ground that was found in the activity of the sport.  The passion became the foundation stone for other dealings.

But I want to take passion to the next level.  For instance, there are a lot of insurance executives that play golf – but only a few of them have dedicated themselves to the niche market of insuring golf courses and clubs.  The avid golfer who happens to do business on the golf course is like the “chicken”, while the golfer who builds an insurance business around the sport is a “hog”.  When it comes to a ham and eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the hog is committed!

A recent conversation with a family-owned agency started this train of thought.  The founder and current principals all own houseboats.  The founder’s father actually owned a large houseboat manufacturing company in the past.  Houseboats are in their heritage, as well as a long-time passion.   The suggestion arose that they would be the perfect people to design a houseboat insurance package, because they know exactly what a houseboat owner needs and wants.  They could wrap the package in marketing that draws upon their history and their personal experiences.  They could build a segment of their business around their passion.  In fact, they could probably develop a package around it for the wholesale marketplace as well.  That’s following your passion!

A great story about passion is BassPro.  This is one of the great success stories in the retail world of outdoor recreation.  What many people don’t realize is that it started in the back of a liquor store.  Johnny Morris used about 6 feet of space in the back of the store to put a rack with outdoor parkas on display.  He was a passionate outdoorsman and that was his way of combining his passion with his business.  It was also the embryo from which sprang the giant retail behemoth known as BassPro.

Every agency is loaded with passion!  Every employee is passionate about at least one thing.  Explore those passions with your employees.  If a producer happens to love snowmobiles or working out in a gym, there may be niche market for them to penetrate.

Likewise, employees within niche markets may be excellent recruits for the insurance industry.  The assistant manager at the front desk of a local hotel might become the hottest producer in the hotel/motel insurance arena – especially if he or she is passionate about the hospitality industry.

When interviewing potential new employees, make the question --“What is your passion?”  Their answer might be the information you need to help them pave their future within your organization.

Market your passions!  I constantly urge agency owners to offer individual web pages for the people within their organization.  This is where your clients can get to know your employees and their passions.  I’ll never forget the business we got from NASA because an engineer/executive was looking for wheel covers for a 1967 Thunderbird.  He googled “1967 Thunderbird” and found his way to our company website, because I had a picture of my 67 Bird on my personal page.  He called and we talked.  He found a wheel cover and I gained a customer.  He asked what Sound Marketing did and determined that we could help him put together an educational project.

You will be amazed at how many clients and prospects will identify with your staff because of common interests and passions – if you make them known.

Build your business on your passions!  It will nurture you in both a personal and a business sense.  Not a bad way to make a living, is it?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Connecting During Disaster By: Jack Burke

As I write this column, it is nine days after the Katrina disaster began unfolding.  (Steve makes us write well in advance of publication.)  At this point as an interested and compassionate observer, I am on sensory overload.  The media (both public and trade) is intensely focused on the subject.  Watching a disaster and subsequent recovery effort unfold is akin to the grief process – anger and rage giving way to acceptance and resolution.

The insurance industry’s initial response has been exemplary.  Major donations from the corporate structure to the relief efforts, coupled with matching donations for their employees.  Expressions of concern for the victims and initial flow of funds to the insured for temporary relief.  Unfortunately, this positive beginning will probably melt down into a quagmire of legal briefs in the coming lawsuits as the battle of “flood coverage” versus “hurricane coverage” reigns.  I only hope that everyone recognizes that much of this battle will most be fought in Louisiana courts where the legal precedents are based on Napoleonic Code, rather than English Common Law.

Meanwhile, I am sure that the experts, consultants and companies will be knee deep in articles, seminars and workshops about disaster planning.  We see that surface after every major disaster – although I can’t recall any disaster matching the overall scope, intensity and damage of Katrina.  Unfortunately again, most of these well-meaning messages eventually fall into the category of “something we should do, someday”.  The human animal (and its business counterpart) seems to live in a perpetual state of denial.  “It’s never really going to happen to me!”

I’m sure many in New Orleans felt the same way.  After all, they’ve dodged the bullet time and time again.  They often talked about the “Big Flood”, but they never really thought it would happen.  Similarly, as a former California resident, we often talked about the “Big One”, but…

In an interview with Louisiana resident and insurance consultant Mike Manes on Audio Insurance Outlook, he painted a grim recovery picture.  He also pointed out that most of the New Orleans’ insurance agencies were down for the count too.  Even those that had cyber storage of their data in a safe place and have managed to set up temporary shop in other areas were having great difficulties.  For instance, agency owners, managers and producers needed to rely on their memory to try to recreate the items that were on their desk – the daily trials and tribulations that aren’t necessarily reflected in the agency automation system.  And, of course, there were those without cyber storage or any other kind of backup that have literally lost everything.

On top of that, most of the insured clients don’t have access to information about, nor actual copies of, their policies and coverages.  They were contained in file cabinets and hard drives that didn’t make it out of harm’s way.  Some may have the contact information for their agents – but the agents aren’t there.  Few, if any, have the contact information for the actual company that underwrote their risk.  In fact, some may not even remember the name of the company.  After all, their relationship was with the agent, not the company.

Two critical thoughts emerged from that interview with Mike – one from him, one from yours truly.

  1. Mike strongly suggested that every agency in the country should immediately locate and enter into a mutual agreement with another agency in another area of the country to become “Disaster Partners”.  In case of disaster, the impacted agency would be able to immediately set up shop within the partner’s facility.  In such cases, each agency should maintain a data backup system within the partner office.
  1. Memory is pretty cheap these days – cyber and otherwise.  I strongly suggest that every agency should have a cyber backup storage arrangement for their systems – either through your automation provider or a private vendor.  But your clients need some help too.  I believe that every commercial agency should provide a small memory drive for at least each of their “A” clients.  This memory chip can contain all of the policy, contact and claims information for the coverages they have with your agency.  Every time a producer visits this client, they can upload current data to their laptop and then upload it from there to the client’s memory device.  After all a keychain memory chip can hold volumes of data.  A gift like this sure beats the money we spend on holiday presents for our clients, doesn’t it.

I hope that none of us ever experience another tragedy like Katrina in our lifetimes – but we will.  It’s part of life.  It’s also the most basic reason for the very existence of the insurance industry.  It’s the promise to be there when the risks and exposures become reality for the insureds!  As such, we need to take whatever measures necessary to insure that we will be there for our clients and that those clients are able to communicate with us.

On a final note, the blessing behind every tragedy is the experience of humans helping humans – testimony to the fact that we really do need each other.  Wouldn’t it be nice, just once, to see that human commonality, that human caring, that human compassion and togetherness last beyond the disaster?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Believe to See By: Jack Burke

Chapter One in Creating Customer Connections opens with a story of the Kogi tribe in South America, a pre-Columbian civilization comprised of deep thinkers with a very complex and rich intellectual structure. Their life source is called Aluna and the act of creation was brought about through the imagination and thinking of Aluna. In the Kogi cosmology of memory and possibility, first comes an idea followed by a process of thinking through all the possibilities before arriving at a “plan of action”.

I've always been intrigued with their process of planning for successful results. But recently I had an opportunity to view a video by DeWitt Jones, a noted photojournalist for National Geographic magazine that also gave me pause for thought. Entitled “Celebrate What Is Right With the World”, DeWitt opens with two critical concepts:

1. When the vision is clear, passion and creativity will be present.
2. The human paradigm of fear, scarcity and competition is not what nature teaches us.

In business many of us fear the thought of change, yet DeWitt's success as a photographer has been based on change. He shows examples of great pictures that he has taken – pictures that would have satisfied the most critical of photographers. Yet he held his position and waited for change. As the surroundings, the wind, the sun and other elements would undergo change, each succeeding picture eclipsed the preceding one. As DeWitt says, “Times of change hold the greatest possibilities!”

As market conditions fluctuate and clients reinvent themselves, most business people look at the dark side of adapting to such changes, rather than celebrating the opportunities presented by the changes. A good friend of mine is a medium sized clothing manufacturer. He often bemoaned the competition presented from Third World countries that have seemingly overtaken his industry. Costs were skyrocketing – not only for material, but for employees and particularly workers compensation insurance coverage. After months of listening to his complaints, we came to an agreement. We both would remove the word “problem” from our vocabulary, replacing it with “opportunity”. The topics of our conversations didn't change and he would often begin a call with “I've got a plateload of opportunities today!” What did change was the tone and attitude of our communications. Today his competitors view him as a problem. While maintaining his manufacturing operation in California, he is also manufacturing in Mexico, South America, Korea and Vietnam. He has offset the price advantage of out-of-country competition by changing the rules of the game. Since it takes time to get goods shipped, he has begun an “at-once” delivery program for orders by maintaining a hefty inventory to meet order demand at all times. Change became his friend!

DeWitt's insights came with a 180-degree shift in his thinking. He had been raised, like most of us, that “seeing is believing”. If you can't see it and understand it, it doesn't exist. Today his mantra is – “If you believe, you will see!”

Since the purpose of this article is to activate your thought process, there's no better way than to provide some of his quotations as food for thought:

“We have to trust our vision and come out to the edge of the cliff. It is here on the edge that we find the winds to take us higher.”

“There is no use walking anywhere to preach, unless your walking is the preaching.”

“When we begin to celebrate what is right with the world, we begin to build a vision of possibility, a vision that allows us to always find the right answers.”

“Celebrating what is right with the world gives us energy. We then have the necessary energy to change what is wrong.”

“There is a subtle edge between success and significance. Do you want to be the best in the world or the best for the world?”

In closing this hopefully thought-provoking article, let me just echo DeWitt's summary that we should embrace change, find and hold a vision that fills us with energy and takes us to the edge. There we will find the courage to soar and celebrate everything that is right with the world.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

A Surprising Teacher By: Jack Burke

When the student is ready, a teacher appears -- or so says the old adage.  Well a most surprising teacher has appeared in my life from a most unexpected source.

For background, imagine someone coming to this country from Russia.  Now imagine this immigrant having to learn the language and the customs well enough to become a very successful comedian.  And not just a “joke” comedian, but a comedian whose humor is based on observations of the American lifestyle.  “America is the only place where your pizza delivery will arrive faster than an ambulance.”  “Gas prices are high because the oil is in Texas, but the dipsticks are in Washington.”  That’s the humor of Branson comedian Yakov Smirnoff.

As a new resident of Branson, I have been very aware of Yakov’s presence – his billboards are everywhere and it’s impossible to miss his theater as you drive into town.  I tended to think of him as a brilliant, but very egocentric, marketer initially.  But then I began to notice some anomalies.  His picture in the paper at the grand opening of a new swimming pool for the YMCA – looking like any other resident enjoying the new pool, complete with flip-flops.  Or his arrival at the Katrina Benefit Concert.  Instead of going backstage with the other performers, he grabbed a seat in the audience to watch the show before he had to go onstage.  I began to think of him as more of a real person, than a local celebrity.

This week, along with some out-of-town visitors, we went to see his show.  I called a friend who had some connections with Yakov to make sure we would get good seats.  The first surprise was when I went to the box office to pick up and pay for our tickets.  The clerk handed them to me and said, “Enter to your left.”  I said I needed to pay for them first.  After giving me a somewhat strange look, she said that the tickets had been comped by Yakov.

The 2,000-seat theater was full for a Tuesday afternoon show.  And the show was everything we could have anticipated – definitely exceeding our expectations.  However the real surprises were yet to come.

Unlike most celebrities, Yakov didn’t disappear after the show.  He immediately came out to the lobby, along with his other performers, to meet and greet the audience.  As a long line formed, he patiently and graciously spent a few minutes with everyone in the line.  From signing autographs to posing for pictures – he made himself available.  He even introduced his mother when she came by.  At first I simply thought that he was a good marketer and that this type of schmoozing would guarantee repeat and referral business.  But there was more to learn.

As the line slowly progressed, Yakov suddenly got up and said, “Excuse me, I made a promise to say goodbye to the buses.  I’ll be right back.”  He then ran outside into the parking lot where there were about a dozen buses preparing to leave.  One by one, he got on each bus to personally thank them for coming to his show and wish them a safe journey.  It was a blustery day, so one of his staff members went running after him with a coat.  I was simply blown away – here was a man who knew how to nurture relationships.

After the buses left, he came back to finish meeting everyone in the greeting line.  Never in a hurry, always taking time for a little personal chitchat and a picture.  As we brought up the end of the line, I was again surprised by the simple humility and gratitude that shown through the person as we chatted.  When I thanked him for the free tickets, he brushed it off quickly and hit us with another surprise.  I’m giving a little private workshop tomorrow on relationships tomorrow if you’d like to come by.

I couldn’t resist – I had to learn more about the art of Yakov’s relationship building strategies.

The following day, I joined about 35 others in a small “Green Room” at the theater.  There the comedian transformed into a teacher who held sway over us for a couple of hours.  As it turns out, Yakov is finishing up his Masters at Penn in Positive Psychology – and he was teaching us his theories on the role of mind and heart in relationships.  He had the instinctual ability to take complex theories and distill them into understandable segments using magnets to demonstrate how certain things repel and others attract.  The workshops are a way for him to indulge his passion to teach (he had been both an art teacher and a comedian in Russia).

He lives his theories.  He utilizes his understanding of relationship psychology to enhance his life with his children as well as his fans and customers.  He is also a student with a voracious appetite for learning.  When I mentioned a man by the name of Doc Childre who espouses HeartMath – he immediately wanted to know where he could learn more about his work and see his research.  Yakov also shares his talent as an excellent artist – his theater is filled with his work.  Not surprisingly, his love of America shows in dramatic paintings of the flag and Lady Liberty.  He also puts relationships before his career – ringing any bells here?  The reason we went to an afternoon show – there was no evening show.  He limits the number of evening performances so he can be at home to have dinner with his children.

Apparently I was a ready student this week, because Yakov the teacher appeared!  I think we can all learn about the importance of nurturing relationships, expressing heartfelt gratitude, going the extra mile and following our passions from this man – Yakov Smirnoff.  He’s much more than a comedian, just as we are all much more than our career designations.

May we all be forever students and teachers like Yakov.  Pursue your passions!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Human vs Coundrum: Is it Really Customer Service? By: Jack Burke

The following is a true story. At first blush, it appears that Online Customer Service beats the human element hands down. But...when you look a little deeper, the question of empowerment arises.

Our shipping vendor is UPS -- a marvel of electronic efficiency that has won many awards for its commitment to technology. In fact, the incoming president made his bones and reputation for pushing the window of technology. Their web site enables you to arrange pickups, monitor your billings, track the status of shipments, contact customer service and much more. I've always been impressed, but today I have some questions.

We're a small shipper to them, averaging a little under $10,000 per year. We receive a monthly statement that provides the backup to an automatic debit. (I do urge all UPS shippers to audit these statements. We find overcharges and incorrect adjustments just about every month.) Up 'til now, we call the 800 billing number and mistakes are corrected immediately over the phone with credits given to our account.

Our last statement had a mistake. A three inch high box was "adjusted" to 56 inches in height and a $55 surcharge added. Now that's a pretty big box for 50 audiotapes, so we called in the mistake -- which is where our story begins.

For the first time, the telephone service representative wanted to argue about making the correction, stating that an auditor would contact me the following day to begin an investigation into the matter. Since I had no intention of investing a lot of time into a $55 correction, I asked to speak to a supervisor. She said she'd put in a request for a supervisor to call me.

Late the following day, having heard nothing back from either a supervisor or an auditor, I went to their website and sent my complaint to the Online Customer Service. The next morning I had a pleasant and personal e-mail from customer service apologizing for the problems and indicating that the billing department would be contacting me very shortly to rectify the matter. I was impressed by the quickness and the personal nature of the response, and proceeded to give them favorable marks on an Online Service Survey that accompanied their response.

24 hours later, I had not yet received a call from the billing department as promised. Again the human element had failed the system -- or so I thought. Back to the website, and another e-mail explaining that there had been no follow-up, as promised. Within 30 minutes I get an e-mail reply. Again they apologized for the lack of follow-up by the billing department, stated that they had again brought it to the attention of the billing department and that I would be contacted as soon as possible. The e-mail response then went on to say that if I would like, I could call the billing department directly at the 800# on my statement.

I wrote back that a call to that 800# was where the entire situation sank into a quagmire and that I would wait for the promised call. I'm still waiting.

As I wait, the grand realization sank in! UPS does not actually offer Online Customer Service, because their system does not empower the Online Representatives to take any action (at least in my case). Their system is actually an Online Message Center. It only processes complaints and communications to the appropriate departments for humans to handle them in the same, age-old way over the telephone and by mail.

In reality, the only efficiency which it offers is to possibly decrease the demands on their automated phone system and minimize inbound calls to the Telephone Service Reps, replacing them with internal electronic communications. If they truly offered Online Customer Service, the Online Representative could have acknowledged the complaint and resolved the billing dispute in one fell swoop. It obviously doesn't work that way.

Is your Online Customer Service serving your customers -- or is it an Online Message Center that manages your communications?

Footnote: I'm still waiting for the call-back. However, I did e-mail this article to the Public Relations Department of UPS to see if they wanted to issue a response. Within 30 minutes, the PR department did call. When she introduced herself as calling from UPS, I replied, "Well I finally get a call!". She chuckled, identifying herself as being from the PR department, not the call for which I was waiting. She identified and empathized with the issues of the article and said that she had taken the information down to the Customer Relations Department for "follow-up". We both laughed heartily when she said, "Someone will be calling you." I'm still waiting.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Conudrum of Service By: Jack Burke

My old friend Noah Webster defines conundrum as “an intricate or difficult problem”. Within our insurance industry, the conundrum consists of the “difficulty” in the perception of “service” and the “intricacy” of defining service.

Unfortunately, the terminology of the insurance industry includes a customer service department (staffed by CSR’s -customer service reps). This misnomer has compartmentalized “service” to be something that occurs after the fact. CSR’s primarily deal with claims, policy updates,
additions/deletions, and etc. Truth be told, they’re more administrative functionaries than “service providers”. Clients are often intrusions on the flow of their clerical duties.

Nordstrom’s has carved a profitable niche by providing exceptional service in a very generic industry. (Every department store offers basically the same merchandise at fairly comparable prices.) No one argues that the prices at Nordstrom’s are at the higher end of the scale, but service adds the esoteric value in the competition formula. Is Nordstrom’s service built upon their returns policy (service after the fact)? Absolutely not!
It is merely one piece to a complex totality.

Service must be an exercise in totality if an agency or company is to grow
and thrive. It must be inculcated into every fiber of an organization. Only through a corporate tapestry of service does a company ever develop a nexus with their clients--a true binding connection. Once this nexus is developed, the aspect of selling is merely a step in the process of serving the client. The value is in the service that surrounds it.

In my book, Creating Customer Connections^, I explain how it all begins with an understanding of your corporate culture. To do this, to know who you are as a business, requires a hard, objective look at the entire organization and the willingness to take action on needed changes. Since this short article cannot encompass the entire process, I’ve developed a list of questions to ask yourself. The answers, in terms of customer service, are self-evident. Actions, if you choose to take them, can clarify your position in the marketplace.

1. How friendly are your telephones? The telephone is the electronic lobby of your company. Is it inviting? Do the voices have smiles? Are calls answered quickly? Does hold time reinforce the values of your firm? Are your callers placed in an automated maze of computerized instructions? Do your callers feel that they are valued?

2. How friendly is your database? Is invoicing the primary function of your database? How frequently are the names on your database contacted? Do you use your database to send love letters to your clients? Does your database incorporate a contact management program? Are the contacts offering valuable information to your clients? Does your database, and what you do with it, make your clients feel valued?

3. How friendly is your invoicing? Is your invoice “receiver friendly”, or does it read like a collection letter? Do you invoices include additional information of value? If you clients are direct-billed by the carrier, have you checked into the friendliness of their billings? Do the recipients of your invoices feel that they are valued?

4. How friendly is your prospecting? Do you position yourself as a valuable resource, or a purveyor of insurance? Is your prospected price-centered or value-centered? Do you prospect to x-dates, or to potential clients? Do your prospects feel that they are valued?

5. How effective is your marketing material? Is your marketing material corporate “puffery”, or does it provide needed information to a prospect’s decision making process? Does your marketing material really tell your story? Does your marketing material include testimonials and endorsements? Does your marketing material make the recipient feel that they are and would continue to be valued by your organization?

6. Do your producers add value to the relationship? Are your producers serving as risk management consultants to their clients? How frequently does your staff conduct informative seminars? Are your producers committed to the success of their clients? Would your producers forfeit a commission in the best interest of the client? Do your producers know the business of the clients they serve? Do their (your) clients feel valued?
7. Is your customer service department client-centered, or function-centered? Are client calls eagerly welcomed, or an intrusion? Have your CSR’s and the clients ever met face-to-face? Do your CSR’s know to what extent they are empowered to solve client problems? Do your CSR’s go beyond the task at hand to keep the overall best interests of the client in mind? Do your CSR’s make the clients feel valued?

I could continue this series of questions into how the employees (your first customers) are treated--because that foretells how they will treat your customers and prospects; your company relationships; your vendor relationships; your community relationships; your commitment to education (both employee and client); your accounts receivable and payable policies; and so on throughout every facet of your business operations.
Every question centers on your service to the client and their perception of the value of that service to them.

Successful agencies, brokerages, and companies know one simple fact:
You don’t sell insurance, you provide service!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Art of Gifting By: Jack Burke

Holiday season can be a minefield or an opportunity when it comes to giving gifts.  Far too many companies wait until the last minute and then give something to their clients because they “have to”.  Far fewer companies really take the time to research, evaluate and determine gifting that “has meaning”.

One of my greatest lessons came shortly after we founded Sound Marketing in 1984.  It was our first corporate holiday season and we gleefully ordered beautiful imprinted cards to send to all of our first-year clients.  We really felt good about it – until the phone rang!  One of our clients happened to be a former boss of mine.  He curtly said, “Got your card.  I guess I don’t even deserve enough of your time for a signature – much less a note!”

Message received and understood.  It wasn’t the card or the thought – it was the personal aspect that meant something.  Since that day we have never sent another imprinted card.  In fact, we generally send a personally written message on holiday letterhead – or we create our own letterhead.  As an example, we were at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson, Missouri this past October.  Outside the lodge was a fantastic life-size decoration constructed of hay.  It was a team of horses pulling a wagon that was loaded with the bounty of the season.  We took a picture, which became the essence of a Thanksgiving message to our clients.  The horses depicted “teamwork” and the wagon depicted “the bounty that follows”.  The response was great!

A further lesson came years later from the nurture expert himself – Jim Cecil.  Unbeknownst to me, he had contacted my wife to get the names of our top ten clients.  Just before Christmas I received an audiotape from Jim.  It began by Jim saying, “Jack, you’ve meant so much to me over the years that I thought you ought to hear from some of your very best clients and friends.”  Thereafter followed telephone recordings of those clients thanking us for our services and wishing us well in the future.  I cried like a baby while I listened to it.  In fact, to this day I still get shivers when I occasionally play that tape.  It’s a wonderful “pick-me-up” when I’m having a less than fun day in the office.

It’s not the size nor the price of the gift, it’s the thought that went into it.  Ask any married couple and you’ll hear that the words “I love you” far surpass the value of a gift.  It’s not the material; it’s the personal that impacts the core of our souls.

I was recently interviewed on this topic by a business writer and was asked, “What about the busy executive that doesn’t have the time to think about something truly personal for his or her clients?”  My reply was quite simple – there soon won’t be any clients to think about.  If we’re too busy to think about our clients, why bother putting on the business suit in the morning?

Get personal and enjoy some truly amazing benefits

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Art of Expressing Gratitude By: Jack Burke

Webster defines “thank” as “the polite expression of gratitude” and “gratitude” is defined as “the state of being grateful”.  Unfortunately today’s busy world precludes many people from expressing gratitude to their clients – and their employees!  It is not that we aren’t grateful; we just seldom take the opportunity to express that feeling.  Sad state of affairs, isn’t it?

I have often talked about your competition not being the agency down the street.  Your true competition consists of the other merchants and businesses that continually raise the bar of customer expectations.  That bar has recently been raised to a higher level in Branson by a restaurant.

We recently joined several other friends for a post-holiday dinner at Sullivan’s Steakhouse, a new restaurant in downtown Branson.  Definitely on the higher scale of dining, Sullivan’s isn’t bashful about their pricing.  Without factoring in the drinks, the average dinner will cost you about $75 per person.  In justification of the prices, the ambience is understated New York with beautiful wood tones throughout and there will be plenty of people providing service to your table.   The food is well prepared and nicely presented.  The service exceptional.

But all good plans can go awry.  I did not leave there with a strong urge to return.  The main reason was that the food did not “Wow” me.  Granted it was good, but it definitely wasn’t on par with Morton’s – although the prices were.  Second, about one third of the dining area had a noise problem with the kitchen ventilation and we had to ask to be seated in a quieter area.  Third, the tables were jammed together pretty tight.  As a result, I felt that I would probably eat there again, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to do so.

Sullivan’s saving grace arrived in the mail two days later by way of a thank you note.  They got our address when my wife filled out a contact information card at the table offering periodic special offers and events.  A thank you card from a restaurant is somewhat rare, but not unusual.  The unique factor was that the thank you came from our server in hand written form:

Dear Mrs. Burke,

Thank you for dining with us.  It was my pleasure to serve you and
I am looking forward to seeing you again soon.

Sincerely, Nat

The bar has been raised!  As a fine dining establishment, Sullivan’s will be serving most of the business people in Branson at one time or another.  Accountants, lawyers, insurance professionals and others will now be judged by a benchmark set by waiters at a restaurant.  The common thought might be, “If Sullivan’s can say ‘thank you’ in such a personal way, why can’t _______________?”

How long has it been since you expressed your gratitude to a value client in a personal way?  We lose more clients by taking them for granted than we do to price!  I’m not talking about the obligatory periods of gifting; I’m talking about the occasional call, visit or note to let them know that you are grateful for their business.  People like to be acknowledged and to know that others value them.  Do your clients feel valued?

Do you send personal “thank you’s” to prospects at the various stages of the sales process – after the first meeting or call, after the fact-finding meeting, after the presentation and after the sale is consummated?  Each of these events presents an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition by a personal expression of gratitude for their time, their consideration and their business.

And what about your employees?  How frequently do you personally mention their value to the operation, their efforts above and beyond the call of duty, their loyalty and attitude?  Do you express those feelings to them on a regular basis?  All too many agency owners are “A-Type” personalities that do not necessarily require a lot of “attaboys”.  Your employees are different.  They need to know that you value and appreciate them.  The payoff is greater employee retention, more productivity and increased loyalty.

I recently attended one agency’s employee Christmas party.  It was a wonderful affair in an elegant setting.  But the food, drink and ambience did not take center stage.

When the president of the agency was called to speak to the group, everyone expected the traditional “thanks for a great year” monologue.  Their expectations were wrong!  Instead, the president looked around the room and then identified each and every employee by name, thanking them individually for a specific task that they had accomplished or an attitude that they conveyed.  More good was done in that one short speech than a year of hallway commendations or plaques.  You could literally see each employee take a gentle pride in an acknowledgement that was heard by all the other employees, as well as their significant others.  The employees felt valued and important.

Expressions of gratitude are critical to the overall success of your operation.  Don’t be a gratitude Scrooge, share the compliments and the thank you’s openly and frequently.

On the other side of the equation, there is a topic for a future column that will center on another magic word – please.  I haven’t been hearing that very frequently in the business arena lately.  We all need to remember those magic words that were taught to us by our parents – please and thank you!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The “WOW” Factor By: Jack Burke

Either my expectations have become higher or there have been less “WOW” experiences in my life recently.  I think my expectations have become higher!  Which leads me to believe that consumer expectations overall have increased in recent years.  During my recent presentation on marketing at the HIGH TECC Conference, I asked the audience about two incidents I experienced and whether they could be rated as a “WOW”.

  • We arrived in Vail a day earlier than expected.  We called the hotel from Denver to see if they could find us a room.  Although they were nearly full, they did find us a room and transferred us to our regular room the next day.  The audience seemed to think that that would qualify as a “WOW”.  I didn’t.  I expected them to find me a room within the hotel.  If none was available, I expected them to find me a room at a neighboring facility.  I felt that they were merely doing their job – albeit very well – in taking care of their guests.
  • On the same topic, the front desk clerk also gave us the convention rate for the room they found for us.  Some thought that could’ve been a “WOW”.  I didn’t.  I expected such a courtesy based on the history that HIGH TECC has with that hotel.  It was a nice touch, but not unexpected.  Again they were doing what they should do and doing it very well.

The “WOW” came over a can of Pepsi.  Jo Ann and I had returned to our room one evening when she asked me to get her a Coke.  I headed back out to the hallway and searched it for a soda machine.  There was an ice machine, but no soda machine.  I returned to the room and told her I was going down to the gift store on the first floor to get her the Coke.  Unfortunately the gift store was already closed for the night.  I headed back up to the room to break the bad news.  Undeterred, she suggested I go down to the restaurant.

Grumbling quietly (can’t let the wife her it), I headed back down to the restaurant and asked for a Coke to go.  The hostess said she’d be back in a minute and quickly returned with two cans of Pepsi and two ice-filled glasses, apologizing that she didn’t have Coke.  When I went to pay her, she said to enjoy it.  It was on the house. That was my “WOW”!
(Please note that I made no mention of the lack of machines or the closed gift store.)

So why was the soda a “WOW” and the room/pricing not?

1. I didn’t expect two free sodas.
2. An employee, not a manager, made the decision.
3. Nothing indicated that something free was due to me.
4. One person extended a friendly gesture to a customer.

We cannot “WOW” anyone by simply performing our job, no matter how well we do it.  A “WOW” has to be above and beyond any expectation – and there should be a bit of a surprise aspect to it.

A local bank here in Branson espouses the “personal touch”.  Anyone hear that from a bank before?  It’s sort of like “we give good service”.  However, this bank actually walks the talk – and beyond what anyone expects from a bank.  Most people feel that this bank has created a “WOW” experience.

  • There is a constantly full platter of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies in the lobby.  (They actually bake them continually during the course of the day on an antique stove that also sits in the lobby.)
  • They do not have an automated phone system.  When you call the bank, you talk to a “human” telephone receptionist.

Perhaps my greatest “WOW” came from one of my clients – Jim Cecil, the Nurture Expert.  Conspiring with my wife, Jim got a list of our top ten clients.  He then called each of them and recorded their thoughts about me.  One day, out of the blue, a cassette tape arrived from Jim.  I put it in a player and heard Jim say, “Jack, you’re always putting us in the best light possible for our clients and we thought it was time to turn the tables on you.  I’ve taken the liberty to record a few people who would like to tell you how much they appreciate you in their lives….”  The tape then went on, much like a roast, with all of my top clients saying nice things about the services we provide.  That particular “WOW” had me in tears.  For nearly ten years I have kept that tape on my desk.  When I get to feeling a little “funky”, I play it.  It is the greatest motivator I have ever received.

Are you providing “WOWs” to any of your clients?  Are your employees empowered with the “Pepsi factor”?  Just being the best insurance agent you can be may not be enough.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Tale of Two Companies By: Jack Burke

In preparation for the HIGH-TECC Conference, I’ve been reviewing the relationships our company has with our vendors. Unfortunately, high tech often precludes the human aspect of relationship. Here’s a story of two companies that serve our needs, one is high tech and one isn’t. One has a relationship with us, one doesn’t. We spend from $60-75,000 annually with one, about $250 with the other. Unbeknownst to one, our account is in jeopardy.

Company A is fully automated and Internet accessible. We seldom talk to an inside sales person. 5 to 6 orders a month, averaging $1200 each, are usually placed by fax, occasionally electronically on their website. Within two days an invoice/order confirmation is received by mail, and the order is generally here by the fourth working day. Each quarter we receive an updated catalog. Everything is handled automatically. Seldom is there a problem.

Once, during the UPS strike, we called about an invoice we had not yet received--though the order had been delivered. One of their managers had been sitting on the order, because he was uncomfortable with billing us the $850 air freight charge (even though I had authorized air delivery).
After a short conversation, he suggested that we split the costs since it was due to a strike that was out of either of our control. So even their problem resolution is very good.

Good service, good use of technology, quality product, fair prices.....yet they may lose our account. Good isn’t good enough anymore. They have no relationship. We have never received a thank you letter, a Christmas card, or a proactively placed phone call. One time I was in their city in Texas for a convention and sent them a note saying, “I’ll be in your town and would love to meet someone from your company--maybe even see your facility. give me a call.” There was no response. Our company is merely an account number to them. They give us everything we need, but they don’t give us what we want--a relationship.

Lately I’ve been courted by one of their competitors and already know three of their employees by name. I wonder who’ll be getting my business this time next year?
Company B, on the other hand, doesn’t have a website and you have to call your orders in to their sales department. They specialize in foil embossed “Thank You” stickers and we only place one or two orders a year. Several times a year we receive wonderfully creative packages and samples of new offerings. Always addressed personally and always with a nice letter thanking us for our continued business. These packages always include information about their people and business--a personal connection. During the holiday season, we also receive a beautiful card.

When you call in an order, their database contains all our prior ordering habits. They ask how business is doing and are we placing a reorder. A few days later we are sent a thank you letter, order confirmation, and proof sheet. About four weeks later our stickers arrive. Several days after that we are sent an invoice with another letter of thanks.

Company B has built their business on relationships. Their database and billing systems are designed to enhance the relationship while effectively meeting their needs for automation. Not the highest of tech, but perhaps the most effective utilization towards their greatest asset--their customers.

There’s lots of printing companies out there that do embossed stickers, but I would wager that we won’t be changing vendors. We like them and they make us feel valued.

Which path have you taken with your technology?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Let Your Light Shine Through By: Jack Burk

The bright light of “service” has been dimming lately.  As the big get bigger, profits become more important than people and service falls by the wayside.  Retailers are foisting more and more of “their” work upon the “consumer”.  From the early bank ATMs to today’s self-checkout at supermarkets and big-box home improvement stores, consumers are being forced to provide their own “service”.  When you’re traveling, the car rental companies seem to provide better service than the airlines.

As consumers meekly resign themselves to their fate, it becomes easier for each one of us to allow our light to shine ever more brightly.  The secret is to turn the light on.  Too many business people seem content to “go with the flow” and thereby fail to take advantage of this unique time of opportunity.  Today I’d like to share two stories about people in service businesses that know how to let their light shine through.

This June we will be moving to Branson, Missouri.  (It’s time to return to my midwestern roots.)  During the initial planning stages this past year, I contacted at least half a dozen realtors in Branson via e-mail and phone.  A few didn’t even make the cut for consideration because they failed to reply to my e-mail.  I explained that we weren’t buying immediately, but shopping for an agent that we could trust to represent us in the course of a 2,000-mile separation.   Some said, “Let me know when you’re ready.”  Others said, “I’ll keep an eye out for you.”

One agent, Nancy Hillburn, asked for details of what we would like and then set up a private web page for us.  The page contained listings of all properties from the Multiple Listing Service that approached our needs.  The page was automatically updated whenever a listing changed or a new listing was added – and I was notified of the change electronically.  When we flew into Branson to begin the actual process of looking at property, Nancy was the only realtor we contacted.

During that trip, we located the property we wanted and over the next couple of months Nancy coordinated all the negotiations to a successful conclusion.  She also picked up another sale to a good friend who is also moving there – and there are indications that there may even be some more sales coming her way.

Nancy turned on her light and let it shine brightly by simply using technology to make things easier for us.  Plus she exhibited a caring attitude with a focus of helping us to do what we wanted to do.  We never felt pressured or manipulated.  We felt that we had made a friend with our best interests at heart.

Immediately on the heels of signing a contract, we needed to arrange financing.  Again due to the geographic separation, I decided to use a mortgage broker to ramrod the process.  Again I contacted a number of brokers in the Branson/Springfield area by phone and e-mail.  All but one replied within hours.  The one that didn’t reply until the next day didn’t make the cut.

I was a bit perplexed after talking with each of the brokers.  They all seemed knowledgeable.  They all offered the type of mortgage I wanted.  They all seemed nice and they all offered to send me an application package.  After the packages arrived, I no longer had any difficulty in making a choice.  All but one sent a standard application package – without a note attached.  (I don’t consider yellow "sign here" stickies to be a note.)

The sole exception came from Sherry Booth.  Her package included a personal note, a complete application package – and a complete “Good Faith Estimate” of all anticipated charges and fees that would be due at closing.  To paraphrase Hallmark, “She cared enough to send the very best she had to offer.”  Sherry’s light shined through the clutter and earned her my business.

Both Nancy and Sherry have learned to manage their personal “brand” by going beyond the norms of their industry.  They set themselves above the pack.  They make sure that their lights are burning so brightly that you can’t even see the competition for the glare.

How brightly does your light shine?  Do you go the extra mile, take the extra step?  Do you put the needs of your clients first?  Do you provide all the information they need – or just the bare minimum?  Do you make it personal?  Do you imprint your personal brand on the mind of every prospect?

In a world of diminishing service, it doesn’t take a lot of effort to stand out!  If you put in the effort, the results will amaze you!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Synopsis: Humanizing the Electronic World Presented By: Jack Burke IMMS 25th International Convention

Historically, multiple claimants to a throne have been the cause of many bloody revolutions. Today business is poised on such a brink, as we see technology competing with product, service, profits, and customers for leadership of the business kingdom.

At first I leaned towards a triumvirate of technology, product, and customer, but as the Romans learned that can also lead to violence.
Unfortunately, I think too many are blindly accepting technology to lead us into the new millennium and I find myself wonder whether technology is merely giving our customers what they need, but forsaking what they want--a relationship.

Looking back into our recent past, Rick Morgan, publisher of The Automated Agency Report, told attendees at the 1995 IMMS convention, “Automation has improved internal efficiency, but hasn’t delivered customer-defined quality service.” And Jim Cecil, the guru of nurturing, says, “The only asset of any value that a company will carry forward into the new millennium is the good will, respect, and loyalty of their customers.”

To paraphrase the bible, I believe that the customers shall lead us. Therefore I suggest that the customer should be crowned King, and that the royal house should be supported by the pillars of technology, product, and service.

I recently wrote an article entitled “The Tale of Two Companies”. Both are vendors to Sound Marketing. One is absolutely on the cutting edge of technology, from internal automation to cyber-ordering, and we spend tens of thousands of dollars with them annually. Yet, the competition may snag our account because they’ve never established a relationship with us. They give us everything we need, but they don’t give us what we want --
a human connection, a relationship, a feeling that we are valued.

The other is a small company whose technology is primarily the effective use of their database. We only spend a few hundred dollars a year with them, but they communicate with us about ten times per year on an almost personal basis. We really feel valued and appreciated, we feel the human connection of a relationship. Ten tons of dynamite couldn’t jar our account with them.

If you agree that the customer is the master, the driving force, then both technology must serve as one of the supporting pillars. Any business that hopes to prosper in the year 2000 and beyond must take steps now to review every aspect of their corporate technology.

Technology has tempted us with the lure of cost-cutting efficiency that often forgets the customer. Every day we hear statements like: “The system will not allow us to accommodate that particular need of yours”, “The computer is down, I can’t address your problem at this time”, or “If you would like to speak to a human, dial zero.”

If you were your customer, would your technology make you feel that you are a valued client? If you were your customer, would you enjoy doing business with you? If you were your customer, would you feel loved?
Your answers to those questions could foretell whether or not your company will survive today’s revolutionary transition.

When was the last time you really asked your customers what they wanted from you? Last year our firm was hired by Mann Theatres to determine what their customers thought. Through a very extensive process we literally mind-mapped the entire theater experience and offered up some very futuristic technology along the way. Although technology played a role, the single greatest factor in theater loyalty boiled down to a very human desire--clean bathrooms! The customers acknowledged that competition would force most theaters to keep up with each other on a technology basis, so the critical deciding factors in choosing a theater were primarily cleanliness and employee attitude. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

With the world moving at a dramatically escalating pace, we in business tend to become reactive. Advances in technology are put into play without our proactive consideration of how the technology could best serve our customers. Automated direct billing is efficient, but is the format so blunt and coldly efficient that it also detracts from our relationship with the client? The automated phone system may have cut personnel costs, but did it sever the relationship from the contact along the way? The Web site is up and running, but is it providing valued information to the client and/or prospect--or merely boosting corporate ego? As was brought up in a recent television commercial, is it about a “spinning logo” or refining our ability to do business with clients and vendors?

Do yourself a favor and set aside some time to truly analyze your current technology from the perspective of the customer. Some questions that might be posed, by category, are:

Database

Are you utilizing your database to maintain ongoing communication of significant value with your clients? Does such communication add to their relationship with you? Does it provide pertinent information?
Is the wording on billings sensitive to customer relationships? Does your database contain relationship information such as important dates, hobbies, family members, referrals that have been given, etc.?

Telephone

Are calls answered by a friendly voice? If automated, do callers have the immediate option to fall out of the automation and fall into the hands of a real live person? Have you established telephone policies as to the number of rings before a call is answered, call back time frames, handling of problems, lunch time callers, after hours callers, etc.? Have you set up, promoted, and advised clients on time-saving operational benefits such as certificates by fax? Are callers on hold subjected to rock ‘n roll radio, or worse yet Howard Stern, or have you implemented a message-on-hold program that provides valuable information?

Internet

Do you have a Web site yet? Does it provide real information? Do you update or change the information frequently? Is there a policy for return contact of Internet inquiries? Does your site have a personal feel to it?
Do you use your site to promote clients, vendors, and employees? Have you considered a community page on your site for local organizations? Do you market your site or expect people to blindly find it while surfing? Do you allow all your employees access to the Internet?

Technology Education

Do you participate in any user groups or other technology-oriented associations? Do your employees? Do you subscribe to technology-oriented publications? What are you doing to keep abreast of changes?
What are you doing to keep abreast of how other businesses are effectively harnessing the power of customer-focused technology?

Humanizing Factors

In summary, technology should be oriented towards the following humanizing factors:

• Educating Your Clients & Prospects

• Promoting Your Clients & Prospects

• Involving Your Clients & Prospects

• Loving Your Clients & Prospects

Involve your staff, your clients, and your companies in a general review of technology-related operations, continually asking these questions:

1. Does this help to enhance our relationships with our customers?

2. Can this be improved or adapted to further our customer relationships?

3. If I were the customer, how would this make me feel?

Dr. Ian Morrison, former head of Stanford’s Institute for the Future, once told me, “By the year 2000, 99% of American businesses will be on the Internet--but only 3% will know why.”

To paraphrase his words, I suggest that 99% of American businesses rely on automation, but only 3% do it with their clients in mind. That 3% will be the successes in the new millennium.

Technology can be your highway to success provided that you remember that the customer is always the destination. Use it wisely to nurture your customers and they will reward you ten-fold and more.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Sweat the Small Stuff By: Jack Burke

There’s a top-selling book entitled “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff”, with an inevitable sequel relating to family life, that gave me pause to think. Too many businesses today aren’t “sweating the small stuff”, concentrating on the “big picture”--automation, advertising media, Web sites, mergers, and acquisitions. Unfortunately, these same businesses may have classed their customers among “the small stuff”.

Last year, I held four major consumer focus sessions for a regional theater chain. Over dinner and a three hour fact-finding session, I talked with their customers about the entire theater experience and exposed them to some very futuristic concepts. Everyone at the corporate office felt that these innovative new ideas would be significant in building and maintaining loyalty. Although the customers appreciated most of the ideas, they had a different mindset as to what was really important to their theater-going experience. Their number one concern was clean bathrooms, followed by clean lobbies and clean screening room floors.

More recently stock values for Crown Books plunged 39% upon announcing that they may seek bankruptcy protection. Their “lowest price” strategy of the seventies hasn’t been working in today’s marketplace. Consumer expectations have expanded with the mega-store ambiance of Borders and Barnes & Noble--not to mention the ease of Amazon.com. Although lowest price strategy can work, the real problem is that Crown lost touch with the needs, wants, and desires of their customers. They want more than just low price.

In a recent technology conference for the insurance industry, attendees admitted that their automation investments far exceeded market research and product development. They seem to be more focused on processing the business that they have, than developing future business. How long can that tunnel-vision philosophy sustain an industry?

The customer must be key! Successful businesses are ever-mindful of what their customers are thinking, turning the relationship into a mutually-vested partnership. They maintain a regular contact program. They have an “inquiring minds want to know” policy when it comes to their customers. And then, they react to what the customers say! In other words, they serve their customers.

However, in the english language the connotations relating to the verb “to serve” are often less than enamoring. Many of us tend to look askance at the “service” people of the world, the invisible “servants” who tend to our needs. Truly “serving” our customers requires a major psychological paradigm shift.

The human entity is very self-centered. Business is somewhat the same with a tendency towards self-serving greed. Yet the world’s greatest prophets have taught us that true peace of mind comes from being of service to others--by helping others we are able to escape our own self-centered imprisonment of anxiety. If that great truth remains an inescapable fact for humanity, might we not also conclude that it will work for business as well. In other words, if we concentrate our efforts on serving the customer, success seems to follow naturally.

Get to know your customers, spend time with them, learn what they want and how they want it. Break out of the ivory tower and ground yourself with your customers. If you listen, if you react, and if you are sincerely willing to serve, they will come.

One of the greatest salesmen I knew once told me that he never tried to sell anything to anyone. He merely approached every potential customer with the thought, “How can I be of service to this person?” Seems like a pretty good philosophy for life....both personal and business!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Selective Claims Service? By: Jack Burke

Property/Casualty insurance is a unique industry. The sale is nothing more than a "promise" and the "product" is only delivered if a claim should be filed.

A successful agent must put significant effort into creating unique distinctions in the presentation of the "promise". Such efforts might include the branding of the agency,

risk management, value matching of premium and coverage to the risk, communications, education and so on.

However when it comes to a claim and the delivering of the "product", the agent is sometimes conspicuously absent as the company claims department takes over. If the insured runs into difficulties, the agent might be called upon to run interference for the client; but by and large the agent often becomes a non-entity. In the majority of claims,

this works fine. The company expediently handles the claim and the insured gets the check. Some customer-focused agents will insert themselves into the process, but many simply go about their business. No news is good news. If the client doesn't call with a problem, everything must be ok.

This is something like a car salesman who makes a sale, but doesn't stick around to handle the delivery of the vehicle to the customer. How do you begin developing a lasting relationship if you aren't there for the delivery of the product?

It seems like the bigger the company, the more removed the agent from the claims process.

Yet, smaller regionals, like National Grange along the Eastern Seaboard take pride in making the agent a vital part of the process. In fact, the agent has the option of writing the check and personally delivering it to the client--often within 24 hours.

Let's take this topic of claims handling a little farther down the road. So far, we've been talking about the processing of a claim for "your" client. What about "the other party"?

In auto insurance, for example, if your client is liable for the damage -- how well does your company treat the injured party's claim?

At this point you're probably wondering what I had for breakfast this morning. After all, as long as your client is happy, why should you worry about someone else who isn't your client? Well, bear with me a little longer. I've been doing a lot of mental gymnastics trying to figure out how to say this. From the largest city to the smallest town, most independent agents have a core geographic area in which they market their services. This is not a limitless market area--in fact, it could be argued that every agent maintains a "small town" of customers and prospects within the larger confines of the overall universe.

If you accept that philosophy, then you can understand how quickly gossip can spread within a small town. The "other parties" in a claim can either become your advocates or enemies. If your company handles their claim with expeditious sensitivity, they'll tell their friends how well they were treated. As a representative of that company, their good words help build your brand identity and credibility with potential customers -- and solidify relationships with existing clients. On the other hand, if your company puts them through the hoops, they'll carry that message outward in an even bigger way. Their "gossip" hurts the brand you represent and thereby hurts you.

I can remember back to the 60's and 70's, when a certain national personal lines insurer became very aggressive in claims adjusting. Claimants would arrive at body shops with the company settlement only to find out that the shop would not do the work for the price.

Everyone within the auto industry was bad mouthing this company and it lost major market share. It eventually had to spend millions to recreate an image that it had destroyed.

Now here comes another kicker. Considering that many agents never even follow up with their own clients after a claim, you're really going to think I'm going nuts with this thought: How about calling up the "other party" afterward to introduce yourself and ask if everything is ok? Before you shout, "I'm not going to open that box of Pandora!", think it through. This "other party" lives within your "small town" of market influence. Therefore this "other party" is also a potential client. In fact, this "other party" could be one of your very best prospects because they have already experience your "product". They have been involved in the delivery after a promise. If your company has treated their claim with dignity and respect, they are very warm. If you follow it up with compassion, you could easily be opening the door for their business.

This is what relationship marketing is all about. It's about being human and caring. It's about caring enough to make sure the companies that you represent are good at delivering the product when called upon to do so. It's about caring that your client's claim is handled properly -- and that the "other party" is properly taken care of as well. It's a sense of compassion for everyone involved in the claim. You aren't the insurance company, you are the expert risk manager who accesses company coverages to protect your clients.

Are you treating claims as problems to be processed, or opportunities to be explored? Are you defaulting your role to the company, or becoming an active participant in the delivery of your product? Are you focusing on relationships?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Sales & Marketing Management By: Jack Burke

Are you giving your customers what they want? Chances are good you think "yes" but your customers don't agree. A study by Bain & Co. found 80 percent of companies surveyed believe they were delivering a "superior" experience. But only 8 percent of their customers felt the same way.

Why is there such a gap? Bain executives cite two reasons: one, growth initiatives often damage the loyal and profitable customer franchise. For example, a company looking for revenue growth may raise transaction fees. That alienates the core group of existing customers. The second reason for the gap: It?s not easy to know what the customer wants.

What can you do to achieve customer-led growth? Bain offers these six steps:

* Identify your most important customers and understand their needs and value.

* Design a unique proposition to meet their needs.

* Treat every customer interaction as a precious resource.

* Create cross-functional teams to deliver a compelling experience.

* Develop feedback loops.

* Align your goals, systems, and organizational structure to become a customer-led organization.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Recognition: A Key to Client Loyalty & Retention 6 Ways to Make Your Clients Feel Special By: Jack Burke

My old friend Noah Webster defines conundrum as “an intricate or difficult problem”. Within our insurance industry, the conundrum consists of the “difficulty” in the perception of “service” and the “intricacy” of defining service.

Unfortunately, the terminology of the insurance industry includes a customer service department (staffed by CSR’s -customer service reps). This misnomer has compartmentalized “service” to be something that occurs after the fact. CSR’s primarily deal with claims, policy updates,
additions/deletions, and etc. Truth be told, they’re more administrative functionaries than “service providers”. Clients are often intrusions on the flow of their clerical duties.

Nordstrom’s has carved a profitable niche by providing exceptional service in a very generic industry. (Every department store offers basically the same merchandise at fairly comparable prices.) No one argues that the prices at Nordstrom’s are at the higher end of the scale, but service adds the esoteric value in the competition formula. Is Nordstrom’s service built upon their returns policy (service after the fact)? Absolutely not!
It is merely one piece to a complex totality.

Service must be an exercise in totality if an agency or company is to grow
and thrive. It must be inculcated into every fiber of an organization. Only through a corporate tapestry of service does a company ever develop a nexus with their clients--a true binding connection. Once this nexus is developed, the aspect of selling is merely a step in the process of serving the client. The value is in the service that surrounds it.

In my book, Creating Customer Connections^, I explain how it all begins with an understanding of your corporate culture. To do this, to know who you are as a business, requires a hard, objective look at the entire organization and the willingness to take action on needed changes. Since this short article cannot encompass the entire process, I’ve developed a list of questions to ask yourself. The answers, in terms of customer service, are self-evident. Actions, if you choose to take them, can clarify your position in the marketplace.

1. How friendly are your telephones? The telephone is the electronic lobby of your company. Is it inviting? Do the voices have smiles? Are calls answered quickly? Does hold time reinforce the values of your firm? Are your callers placed in an automated maze of computerized instructions? Do your callers feel that they are valued?

2. How friendly is your database? Is invoicing the primary function of your database? How frequently are the names on your database contacted? Do you use your database to send love letters to your clients? Does your database incorporate a contact management program? Are the contacts offering valuable information to your clients? Does your database, and what you do with it, make your clients feel valued?

3. How friendly is your invoicing? Is your invoice “receiver friendly”, or does it read like a collection letter? Do you invoices include additional information of value? If you clients are direct-billed by the carrier, have you checked into the friendliness of their billings? Do the recipients of your invoices feel that they are valued?

4. How friendly is your prospecting? Do you position yourself as a valuable resource, or a purveyor of insurance? Is your prospected price-centered or value-centered? Do you prospect to x-dates, or to potential clients? Do your prospects feel that they are valued?

5. How effective is your marketing material? Is your marketing material corporate “puffery”, or does it provide needed information to a prospect’s decision making process? Does your marketing material really tell your story? Does your marketing material include testimonials and endorsements? Does your marketing material make the recipient feel that they are and would continue to be valued by your organization?

6. Do your producers add value to the relationship? Are your producers serving as risk management consultants to their clients? How frequently does your staff conduct informative seminars? Are your producers committed to the success of their clients? Would your producers forfeit a commission in the best interest of the client? Do your producers know the business of the clients they serve? Do their (your) clients feel valued?
7. Is your customer service department client-centered, or function-centered? Are client calls eagerly welcomed, or an intrusion? Have your CSR’s and the clients ever met face-to-face? Do your CSR’s know to what extent they are empowered to solve client problems? Do your CSR’s go beyond the task at hand to keep the overall best interests of the client in mind? Do your CSR’s make the clients feel valued?

I could continue this series of questions into how the employees (your first customers) are treated--because that foretells how they will treat your customers and prospects; your company relationships; your vendor relationships; your community relationships; your commitment to education (both employee and client); your accounts receivable and payable policies; and so on throughout every facet of your business operations.
Every question centers on your service to the client and their perception of the value of that service to them.

Successful agencies, brokerages, and companies know one simple fact:
You don’t sell insurance, you provide service!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Managing Expectations The First Step to Success By: Jack Burke

I have a new standard for personalized customer service.  Orville, my trash collector, has set it!

I was checking on a friend’s house while he was out of town for several months.  Upon entering his garage, it became apparent that he had forgot to put the trash out before he left.  About a week later I ran into Orville who asked when my friend would be back so that he would know to start pickups again.  I explained that his return was still about two months away, but that Orville would have a real “ripe” surprise awaiting him.  Orville quickly asked if I could set it out for his next pickup, which I did.  Later Orville came by to say that he had made the pickup.  He then added that due to the condition of the trash can, he took it with him to wash it out and he would return it the following week.

Orville doesn’t have a modern trash truck.  He uses a pickup and a trailer to gather the trash.  Orville is not automated.  In fact, he doesn’t even send invoices.  He simply relies on people to proactively pay him on a timely basis.  Orville is not expensive.  He charges $10 per month for his services.  But Orville cares about his customers and has set an extremely high benchmark for service in the Branson area.

Your competition in insurance is not the other independent agents, the direct writers or the captives.  Your real competition today, as an independent insurance agent, is Orville and other businesses like his!

For years we’ve heard about “going the extra mile” and that there isn’t much traffic on that section of the road.  We’ve also heard Jim Collins tells us that good is the enemy of great.  If I judged trash collectors on their ability to pickup the trash, most of them are pretty good.  Very few, except for Orville, can be described as “great”.  Since most of us are good at what we do, it is particularly disconcerting to realize that those who are great (in any industry) diminish the value of being good.

Fair or unfair, I judge other service providers against the standards set by Orville.  Most of them come up short.  I wish my doctor had Orville’s compassion.  I wish my banker had Orville’s trust.  I wish my gas station would pump the gas for me.  I wish store cashiers had Orville’s smile.  I wish, I wish, I wish!

Over the years I have heard agency personnel (and owners) blame the unrealistically high expectations of their clients on the producers.  (This is the same story in most other industries too.)  When a disgruntled client calls, they assume that the producer “told him or her anything they wanted to hear in order to make the sale”.  Thus the client expected a level of service beyond what the agency could do.  I used to buy into that concept, but I don’t any longer.  Most producers do not lead the clients astray with promises that can’t be kept.  Most producers are highly ethical and are truly acting in the best interests of both the client and the agency.

The problem lies in our failure as owners, managers, producers, CSRs and support staff to effectively manage the expectations of our clients.  We still tell people “we give good service” without ever defining what that means.  As a result, our clients are managing their expectations!  That is the dilemma.  If our clients manage their own expectations of us, we will be benchmarked and judged against the best service experiences they have ever had – and when that happens, we usually fall short.

The first thing an agency must do is define what good service means.  Depending on the agency and the locale, it could include how quickly phones are answered, the time allowed for calling back on messages, the type of assistance that is provided in filing, processing and following up on claims.  It could mean annual stewardship reports or the number of touches every client will receive during the course of the year.  It could mean the time required to process applications and quotations.   I think you have the idea.

Then move on to what would define “great” service.  Here we usually get into the additional resources that are made available to the client.  What do you do or provide to help your clients become more successful?  Do you offer resources for human resource issues, OSHA, managing Workers' Comp risks, premium financing, real time interaction, web-based activities, etc?

Once you’ve defined exactly what your agency is willing to provide in the way of service and resources, you reach the critical step – communicating that information to your clients and prospects.  And don’t think that communicating it once will get the job done.  This is the essence of your agency – the one unique factor that differentiates you from your competition.  This needs to be told in a constant, cohesive and repetitive manner.

Aside from all the normal methods of communications (mail, phone, e-mail, brochures, personal visits), I like the concept of a Client’s Bill of Rights.  This is usually a simple, one-page document that lists all the things a client can expect of you.  And since one of the items should be “expert risk management guidance”, you can immediately follow that sheet with another sheet where the customer acknowledges those coverages that they have declined.

Such sheets that affirm declination of coverages are usually discussed under E&O, policies and procedures.  However I believe they should fall under the management of expectations as well.  When a claim arises, it is amazing how a client’s expectations of coverages will automatically increase with the size of the problem.  It is very difficult to defend against statements like:  “Well I was told”, “That was covered under the policy from my last agent and I told you to duplicate that coverage”, etc.

Expectation management involves everyone that has contact with your clients.  If a CSR needs to research something for a client, that CSR needs to manage the moment by saying something like, “I will get back to you with the information by 5 PM tonight, or at least bring you up to date on the status of my research.”  Expectations are in constant flux and need to be managed from moment-to-moment.  If any contact requires action on the part of the agency, that action should be defined and time-lined for the client.  If not, the client will set his or her own definitions and time-lines, which may or may not be realistic for you to meet.

Meeting expectations is only the first step in building client loyalty and ambassadorship.  It is the price of entry for an agency to become successful and profitable through satisfied customers with high levels of retention and frequent referrals.  For many agencies, that will be enough and they will go no further.  They are, as Jim Collins says, “good agencies”.

Great agencies, on the other hand, move on to the higher level of constantly exceeding customer expectations.  That’s where the real gold mine is located.  But you first have to manage and meet expectations before you can exceed them.

I’ve told this story hundreds of times, but it best illustrates the concept of exceeding expectations.  After 14 years we had to put our pet dog down.  We took him to the same veterinarian that had treated him from a pup.  The emotional visit was delicately handled with care and compassion.  The vet and his staff met all our expectations.  Several days later he exceeded our expectations when we received a two page, hand written letter from the vet.  His compassion and efforts to assist us with our grief were exceptional.  That would have been enough because he had exceeded our expectations and assured our loyalty to him in the future.  He had gone from “good” to “great” in our eyes.  However, a month later he moved beyond “great” to “exceptional” when we received a thank you from the Vet School at the University of California in Davis for the generous donation made on behalf of our pet dog.  As it was later revealed, this particular vet would donate all money received for putting pets down to the school.  To us, he had definitely reached that rarified plateau of “exceptional”.

What are you willing to settle for:  good, great or exceptional?  Whatever your choice, it all begins with the management of client and prospect expectations.  I wish you every success in your journey.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Evolving Expectations By: Jack Burke

A couple of years ago I wrote that speed had become the newest customer entitlement. The world was speeding up. Faxes beat next day air, and then e-mail beat them both. The culinary arts became balancing acts, as we learned to eat fast food on the run. Speed was no longer a perceived benefit, it became an entitlement.

While these benefits were becoming entitled expectations, the world was getting acquainted with a phenomenon known as the Internet. Here, I thought, was the ultimate in speed. At the touch of a mouse or the click of a keyboard, the world was at my fingertips. As search engines for the Worldwide Web became more inclusive and more powerful, my initial feelings seemed to be reinforced. The Internet was the ultimate resource!

As it turns out, I was right and I was also wrong. In terms of resource capabilities, I was right. In terms of consumer trade, I was wrong--at least until now.

As a path to resources, the Internet has no true competition. For access to research, business tools, communications, the Internet is truly the phenomenon that it was perceived to be. Just look at IMMS’s P&C Plus to understand the savings of time, money, and manpower that the Internet can bring to the world of business.

Such dramatic results on the consumer side have been quite a bit more spotty. Despite the success of some “mail order” type businesses and,
of course, Amazon.com, I have found the retail side of the Internet quite disappointing. Categorical searching is good, but disappointment usually rears its ugly head when I reach the destination website. Most provide only general information, requiring that you contact the company for further information. For that you might find a mailing address (that slows down the process a bit), a phone number (not much better than the Yellow Pages and usually requires dealing with an automated system), or a link to their e-mail system. Although the e-mail inquiry can be sent speedily enough, the reply time often leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, I’ve received e-mail responses up to several weeks after the fact.

My disillusionment gave way to unbridled excitement recently as I was investigating AT&T’s web hosting services. Starting at att.com, I processed through their website to their information on Easy World Wide Web--AT&T’s web hosting service. At the bottom of the page, I found a button that said “Click here to talk to a service representative”. Upon doing so, a new page came up asking for my telephone number. It also verified that the telphone line was available while I remained on-line.
I then clicked on the “Call me” button, assuming that I might eventually get a phone call from them.

Lo and behold, within a split second my phone rang and my computer screen changed. Glancing at a the screen which was telling me to stay on line, I picked up the phone to hear a computer voice asking me to hold for a moment to speak to an AT&T service representative. Less than ten seconds later, a real live person was on the line and ready to help me.
In utter amazement, I blurted out, “This is fantastic, I can’t believe that this type of immediate response is really happening.” They chuckled and said, “You ain’t seen nothing yet. Let me give you a demonstration of how AT&T’s Interactive Answers Service works.”

I was then taken through an exercise where they pretended to be a cruise line and I was the prospective customer. Aside from talking to me over the phone, they had also taken control of my computer screen through telephony. My screen jumped to a page on the cruise line facilities, while the telephone rep asked if I would like information on the available cabins.
I said yes and my screen flipped to three different cabins. “Which style interests you?”, asked the phone voice and the screen flipped to detailed information on the cabin I indicated. The AT&T rep went on to explain that this interactive service is available to those companies who have AT&T host their websites. And, since the telephony technology exists, I imagine that other ISPs may soon be offering similar services.

This is the type of immediacy that the Internet is all about. But even more, it brings the “human” element into play with the telephonic connection to someone who can answer specific questions and take the order. If you’d like to check this out yourself, simply go to:
http://www.att.com/work-net/easywww/

There’s only one problem. This experience has raised my expectations and retail websites without this technology already seem “antiquated”.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Defeating Customer Loyalty By: Jack Burke

A credit card company has built an entire advertising campaign around the difficulty of accessing awards that you earn with “loyalty” programs.  Instead of building loyalty, many companies are losing customers because of poor performance in such programs.

Recently my mother and her husband had achieved their goal of getting enough points on their Delta Airlines program to finally get a free flight.  Trying to make the arrangements (six months in advance), the best they could get was a cross-country flight at an inconvenient time with three connections.  Since connecting flights are the bane of the elderly, they opted to buy tickets for a convenient, non-stop flight.  They no longer have any loyalty for Delta because they feel that Delta misled them.

Remember when your word was your bond in business?  When a handshake was as good as a signed contract?  What is happening to our ethical values?  Or, better yet, what kind of a sick mind institutes a “loyalty” program that makes customers mad?

Sometimes it’s not the payout that causes the problem; sometimes the program process can create dissension as well.

Office Depot recently launched their Advantage Program.  It’s designed to reward your loyalty with quarterly discount coupons based on the amount of purchases made.  You can earn up to $50 in coupons each quarter.  It sounded good to me.  It was like free money for purchases that I would have to make anyway.  All I have to do is let them scan my member card when I make a purchase.  Like the grocery stores, they even provided a key ring sized card.

On April 20th I made a fairly good-sized purchase, but forget about showing the cashier my card.  By the time I remembered, he had already rung up the transaction.  He told me it would be a major inconvenience to accommodate me at that point in time because he would have to void out the transaction and ring it all up a second time.  He said I could call in the transaction number when I got back to the office for credit.  I agreed – primarily because I didn’t want to be lynched by the people in line behind me.

Upon calling Office Depot’s Advantage Program phone number, I got a message that said, “Welcome…your call cannot go through at this time, please try again later.”  After three attempts and the same message, I sent them an e-mail explaining the situation and providing all the information including store number and transaction number.  I closed by asking that they post it to my account.

As the days went by with no response, I assumed it had been handled and I quickly forget about it.

Nineteen days later, I received this e-mail:

Dear Advantage Member,

If you have made a purchase that has not been applied to your account, please fax a copy of your invoice or receipt, including your name, telephone number, Advantage Member ID and PIN to 1-866-758-5255. All transactions that can be added, will be posted to the current period.

Thank you for shopping with Office Depot.

After realizing the amount of additional work they wanted me to do, I wrote back to tell them that the reward wasn’t worth the effort.  Especially since they already had all the information electronically, as opposed to being sent by fax.  Needless to say, my future purchases will not be based on their loyalty program.

Ironically, I did stop by my local Office Depot to pick up some ink last night.  Despite my aggravation over their program, the local store has always treated me well, it’s convenient for parking and as a registered business customer, I don’t have to show identification to pay by company check – the information is already in their system.

A new clerk rang up the sale and asked for a picture ID when I presented a company check.  When I asked why (since I was in their system for automatic check validification), he said that no system is perfect and he didn’t want to be penalized for taking a bad check.  As I provided my identification, I made mention of the fact that I quite frequently don’t have it with me when I shop there.  He flippantly commented that if that was the case in the future, I shouldn’t expect to leave with any purchases then.

I no longer have any loyalty whatsoever to that store – which just happens to be less than 1,000 feet away from their competitor, OfficeMax.

Whether it is a hassle over rewards, time-consuming requirements or communication from employees, some companies actually make it very difficult to be loyal.  How do you treat your clients?  Not when you’re trying to write the business, but in the every day activity that occurs.  Do you require duplicate efforts on their part?  Do you ask for information that already exists in your system?  Do you make them feel wanted and appreciated?  Or, do you make them feel like an imposition on your time?

It’s not the big things that will cost you customers.  Quite frequently it is the small things that drive people into the arms of your competition.  Treat your customers as you know they want to be treated and they will reward you with their loyalty.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Defeating Customer Loyalty By: Jack Burke

A credit card company has built an entire advertising campaign around the difficulty of accessing awards that you earn with “loyalty” programs.  Instead of building loyalty, many companies are losing customers because of poor performance in such programs.

Recently my mother and her husband had achieved their goal of getting enough points on their Delta Airlines program to finally get a free flight.  Trying to make the arrangements (six months in advance), the best they could get was a cross-country flight at an inconvenient time with three connections.  Since connecting flights are the bane of the elderly, they opted to buy tickets for a convenient, non-stop flight.  They no longer have any loyalty for Delta because they feel that Delta misled them.

Remember when your word was your bond in business?  When a handshake was as good as a signed contract?  What is happening to our ethical values?  Or, better yet, what kind of a sick mind institutes a “loyalty” program that makes customers mad?

Sometimes it’s not the payout that causes the problem; sometimes the program process can create dissension as well.

Office Depot recently launched their Advantage Program.  It’s designed to reward your loyalty with quarterly discount coupons based on the amount of purchases made.  You can earn up to $50 in coupons each quarter.  It sounded good to me.  It was like free money for purchases that I would have to make anyway.  All I have to do is let them scan my member card when I make a purchase.  Like the grocery stores, they even provided a key ring sized card.

On April 20th I made a fairly good-sized purchase, but forget about showing the cashier my card.  By the time I remembered, he had already rung up the transaction.  He told me it would be a major inconvenience to accommodate me at that point in time because he would have to void out the transaction and ring it all up a second time.  He said I could call in the transaction number when I got back to the office for credit.  I agreed – primarily because I didn’t want to be lynched by the people in line behind me.

Upon calling Office Depot’s Advantage Program phone number, I got a message that said, “Welcome…your call cannot go through at this time, please try again later.”  After three attempts and the same message, I sent them an e-mail explaining the situation and providing all the information including store number and transaction number.  I closed by asking that they post it to my account.

As the days went by with no response, I assumed it had been handled and I quickly forget about it.

Nineteen days later, I received this e-mail:

Dear Advantage Member,

If you have made a purchase that has not been applied to your account, please fax a copy of your invoice or receipt, including your name, telephone number, Advantage Member ID and PIN to 1-866-758-5255. All transactions that can be added, will be posted to the current period.

Thank you for shopping with Office Depot.

After realizing the amount of additional work they wanted me to do, I wrote back to tell them that the reward wasn’t worth the effort.  Especially since they already had all the information electronically, as opposed to being sent by fax.  Needless to say, my future purchases will not be based on their loyalty program.

Ironically, I did stop by my local Office Depot to pick up some ink last night.  Despite my aggravation over their program, the local store has always treated me well, it’s convenient for parking and as a registered business customer, I don’t have to show identification to pay by company check – the information is already in their system.

A new clerk rang up the sale and asked for a picture ID when I presented a company check.  When I asked why (since I was in their system for automatic check validification), he said that no system is perfect and he didn’t want to be penalized for taking a bad check.  As I provided my identification, I made mention of the fact that I quite frequently don’t have it with me when I shop there.  He flippantly commented that if that was the case in the future, I shouldn’t expect to leave with any purchases then.

I no longer have any loyalty whatsoever to that store – which just happens to be less than 1,000 feet away from their competitor, OfficeMax.

Whether it is a hassle over rewards, time-consuming requirements or communication from employees, some companies actually make it very difficult to be loyal.  How do you treat your clients?  Not when you’re trying to write the business, but in the every day activity that occurs.  Do you require duplicate efforts on their part?  Do you ask for information that already exists in your system?  Do you make them feel wanted and appreciated?  Or, do you make them feel like an imposition on your time?

It’s not the big things that will cost you customers.  Quite frequently it is the small things that drive people into the arms of your competition.  Treat your customers as you know they want to be treated and they will reward you with their loyalty.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Crisis Intervention: The Technology Factor By: Jack Burke

The watershed events of September 11th brought a sharp focus to the frailties of business in today's ever-changing world. The need for "the human touch" has become highly evident in increased communications between family and friends. Considering the condition of our economy and high rate of unemployment, it's not surprising that much of this communication is taking place over the Internet. E-mail is literally free compared to the cost of long distance calling -- and the relative low cost of the postal service has been beset by terrorist fears.

From a business perspective, this brings to mind two issues -- the increasing value of relationships and the inherent value of technological tools that can assist us in nurturing those relationships. Yet many business owners, who were raised in an analog world, are still fearful of today's digital realities.

Recently I received a letter from a partner in an insurance agency, who wrote:

" I have one business partner who thinks that to be successful in the future, you must merge with other agencies, open up non-standard offices and hire new producers. I have to agree with him about all of those options. However, my biggest concern right now is being prepared internally for the future, and keeping up with the latest technology. My partner is in his 50's and does not want to change the way he does business. He still requires staff members to pull the file and come into his office to discuss the file or for him to ask a question. He has very little computer knowledge and does not want to learn."

This problem is not a new one, in fact it is legion. And it is not relegated to the pages of the insurance industry. It is rampant in nearly every industry. In fact I have frequent conversations with many experts and consultants about this specific topic--the inability of a business owner to accept the changes being brought about by technology.

Does this mean the owner must jump into the electronic pool with both feet, attend classes to learn computer technology and begin subscribing to hi-tech newsletters? Not a bad idea. Hearken back to an earlier day as ask yourself how well a business owner might have survived if he refused to integrate that new technological contraption of a telephone into his business. Or how productive might that business have been if the secretary had to write letters in long hand because the owner didn't trust typewriters.

Unfortunately, many of us baby-boomers cling to our first impressions of the initial computer technology, where it seemed that computers (think data processors) merely doubled the workload. After all it meant doing everything twice -- once for the computer and then again for the old methods because we didn't trust the computers. Those days have thankfully changed and only a true "dinosaur" doesn't appreciate the productivity factor of computer usage.

The Job Description

Before we totally castigate the recalcitrant business owners as described in my opening correspondence, let's first look at the job description of an owner. I believe it can be summed up fairly easily:

1. Provide the great vision upon which the future of a company will be built.
2. Provide a nuturing, motivational and empowering environment for staff.
3. Provide the philosophical framework to serve the clientele.
4. Generate a fair return on investment for the company.

This may seem a bit over-simplified, but those three categories cover just about everything a true leader must do without getting into the daily minutia.

To use a metaphorical example, the CEO of a national bakery can run the company without ever having baked a loaf of bread -- if he fully understands the process and is keenly aware and sensitive to both his employees and his customers. The conundrum, in the case of our friend's partner, is that technology is a quintessential component to every facet of that job description.

The Vision

The future is being built by technological block by technological block. Forget the retail side of Internet commerce, think in terms of communication, information resources and back-end supply chain. Some pundits say that Jack Welch of General Electric blew his chance to retire with a bang when the deal to merge with Honeywell fell through. I disagree. Jack Welch has already given GE the most valuable farewell gift possible -- an introduction to the Internet.

Initially blind to the possibilities of the Internet, gentle spousal coaxing opened his eyes to a remarkable vista of electronic opportunity -- not necessarily in selling stuff on the Internet, but in using it to more effectively manage the business of GE's far-flung empire. My guess is that GE will save nearly half a billion dollars in 2002 through more efficient management over the Internet. By coordinating all travel electronically, they are already saving in excess of a million dollars per week -- and that's only one small area.

Even if a computer keyboard is never touched, a true leader must understand and appreciate the value of technology both today and in the future. How can one envision a future if ignoring the tools with which it will be built?

The Employees

A friend of mine manages one of LA's top Hispanic radio stations. When the corporate ownership made the switch from English-speaking rock to Hispanic, he was soon the only person there who didn't speak Spanish. Within a month he had a tutor arriving at his office daily and culminated his training with two weeks of immersion learning in Mexico City. He knew that he couldn't manage a staff that spoke a language he didn't understand.

We baby boomers grew up in an analog world. The youthful people we are hiring have grown up in a digital world. We not only speak different languages, our brains are hard-wired differently. A true leader must acknowledge this and adapt to it. A true leader knows that he cannot re-wire them, but he can adapt his own wiring to understand them. To that extent, there's a wonderful prayer that I rely upon:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Even if you cannot perform the most simple task on a computer, a true leader will establish a high-tech environment that will enable the employees to maximize their productivity and usefulness to the company. That same leader will encourage their experimentation and support their accomplishments.

The Clients

Here is the rub! Business is not about you -- the owner. Business today is all about the customer. A business that is not sensitive to the needs, wants and desires of the clientele will soon be out of business. You, as the business owner, no longer set the expectations of your clients. They already have their expectations and it is up to you to meet and exceed them.

Today's customers, having learned from the Internet and from the performance of countless companies, expect speed, expertise, ongoing communication and 24/7 service. A company's electronic presence and performance is not optional, value-added benefits. It is merely the opening entry fee to do business in today's world. The owner/manager might be able to live without the benefit of technology, but will the customers stick around if they're not getting what they demand.

There's a wonderful television commercial that ran this past year in the Los Angeles area. In the dark of night, a crowd of people began gathering in a parking lot. As they exited their vehicles, a look of profound amazement came over their faces as they stared in disbelief at a dark store with a closed sign on the door. Today's consumer wants you to be there when they need you. And apart from manning offices on a 24/7 basis, the only viable way to do that is with technology.

The enlightened leader knows that the true leader is the customer and the successful business leader is a follower trying to keep pace.

The Profit

This one is simple. Unless you embrace the new technology, there will be no profit to manage. The dinosaur will merely be managing the process of placing the company in bankruptcy court, while others use technology to increase efficiency, better serve their customers and decrease expenses to create greater profit.

A recent study showed that CEO's are no longer taking the long vacations that were common in the past. Most successful CEO's today feel that about five days is the longest period that they can be away from the business. The reason is that information and change is being processed so quickly, it would be foolhardy to absent themselves any longer than a week.

I reiterate that leadership does not mean the leader has a PhD in computer technology or is the brightest electronic star within the business. Leadership means a willingness to embrace change, so that the daily journey of business can be navigated with the most powerful tools possible. Remember, it's not about you -- it's about the customer. If you can't get them to where they want to go as quickly and as comfortably as possible, they'll be looking for another ship on which to make their journey.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Crisis Intervention: The Relationship Factor By: Jack Burke

Eons ago, our earth underwent cataclysmic change. Whether the cause -- turbulent seismic activity, meteor strike or Mother Nature -- the giants of our world were unable to survive the climatic changes. Dinosaurs became extinct.

The events of 2001, keynoted by the infamy of September 11th, could also be construed as a period of cataclysmic change for business. The question is which businesses are on a journey to join the dinosaurs in extinction -- unable to survive the change.

Although September 11th served as a catalyst, the winds of change had already been blowing. Our economy, which had ridden so high for so long, was beginning to pull back. The collapse of the "dot-com" phenomenon, ongoing job layoffs, declining stock market, shrinking retirement portfolios, corporate restructuring, downsizing and merging, energy shortfalls and a marketplace saturated from over-consumption were already creating turmoil in the minds of American businesses and consumers.

On a parallel path, many people were also suffering from a sense of social disenfranchisement due to technology and the speed of incessant change was beginning to overwhelm our ability to cope. Following three decades of mobility that spread families across continents, the underpinning support of family was almost non-existent. Dysfunctional behaviors were already on the increase, as evidenced by the explosive growth of self-help recovery programs. Personal security was only found behind gate-guarded communities with private security forces and elaborate home alarm systems. Strangers were looked upon as something to be feared, rather than friends to be made.

September 11th was the watershed event that escalated all of these fears and insecurities into sharp focus. Financial fears became reality to be endured, corporate greed was defined by Enron, the markets underwent "extreme" fluctuations, personal freedoms and conveniences were forfeited for safety, and the fear of travel further isolated us from family and friends. In this aftermath of September 11th , life as we knew it had changed dramatically.

During this fourth quarter of 2001, many businesses have blamed their failing conditions on the fallout of September 11th. The truth is that they were already on a path of failure prior to that day of infamy.

So what is the answer and where do we find it?

In my many speeches, I see business owners and managers looking within to find the answers to their problems. I believe they're looking in the wrong place. They need to seek out the counsel of their customers to find the answers. After all, their own best thinking got them to where they are today. Maybe the customers know better how to emerge into the light of success.

So what are the thoughts of our customers today? Well, relationships seem to be first and foremost on their mind. The value of family and friends has increased exponentially with the realization that life is tenuous. Those who live near family are spending more time visiting at each other's homes. Those separated by distance are increasing their levels of communication via the Internet, telephone and mail. From envelopes stuffed with pictures to e-mail with pictures attached, everyone seems to be striving to feel a closeness with one another.

Christmas shopping underwent a paradigm shift as the biggest sellers related not to technology, but to the home. From household adornments to home-based activities, our "nesting" instincts are alive and well in this time of uncertainty. Consumers are seeking out the old and comfortable as evidenced by the rocketing ratings of such television specials as the Carol Burnett Reunion. Clothing sales were dismal -- except for pajamas, as consumers sought the "warm comfort" of flannel against skin to ward off the terrors of the night. I could go on and on with similar examples, but it all boils down to the simple fact that consumers are craving the human touch -- relationships. And they're finding it in the traditional--the tried and true.

For business this means that relationships are the critical factor to weathering the current storms. If customers are comfortable in their relationship with you, if customers sense that you value and appreciate them, if customers know that you will take care of them....you will retain their loyalty and their business. Today's consumer is not looking for the excitement of the unknown, they are seeking the comfort of the known.

Ironically, business has not been concentrating on nurturing relationships -- despite constant words to the contrary. The reality is that most business has concentrated on the transaction. Speed and efficiency have been king -- not on behalf of the customer, but in a self-serving search for corporate profit.

Marketing is aimed at capturing the new customer, not at retaining the existing customer.

If you're in doubt about that marketing claim, look to your budgets. How much money is dedicated to bringing in new clients? Now how much is dedicated to nurturing existing clients? Yet the existing client generally presents a far more profitable sale than any new client. If you lost your top one hundred customers and immediately replaced them with one hundred new customers, what would be the impact on your bottom line. New customers, initially, are at best a break-even.

To further muddy the waters, let's bring eCRM into the picture. Too many companies look at this and other software as the magic wand that can cure all their relationship woes. If we implement this, our customers will be happy.

Such drivel is absolute nonsense. There is no magic cure. Granted eCRM can become an effective tool to be used in relationship management strategies, but it is not the answer. The answer begins at the top with a management and ownership philosophy based on customer focus. That philosophy must then be distilled throughout the ranks of every single employee so that there exists a corporate culture that values each and every customer relationship. From the telephone receptionist to the shipping clerk, the customer service personnel to the sales people, the accounting staff to the president -- everyone must speak the language of the customer. If not, the customer will see behind the glib talk to the selfish reality.

In summary, I restate my position that relationships will be the critical factor of future success for businesses that will survive today's cataclysmic changes. If you agree, the steps to be undertaken are simple -- but not easy:

  1. Seek out and listen to the counsel of your customers.
  2. Be courageous enough to ask them how you can improve.
  3. Take action on their suggestions and make them vested partners.
  4. Communicate openly and freely with your customers.
  5. Admit your mistakes when you make them.
  6. Always seek to improve from the perspective of customer needs.
  7. Ask your best customers "why" they do business with you.
  8. Build your marketing for new customers on those reasons.
  9. Learn your customer's plans for the future and their changing needs.
  10. Create your future in response to the future needs of your customers.

In closing, when was the last time you personally told your best clients how much they mean to you? I mean really told them how much you enjoy your relationship with them! We cannot take our customers for granted. Look to your own relationship with a spouse or friend -- how long are they going to stick around if you never really tell them how much value they bring to your life. Humans want to be loved. Do you love your customers?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Crisis Intervention: The Relationship Factor By: Jack Burke

Eons ago, our earth underwent cataclysmic change. Whether the cause -- turbulent seismic activity, meteor strike or Mother Nature -- the giants of our world were unable to survive the climatic changes. Dinosaurs became extinct.

The events of 2001, keynoted by the infamy of September 11th, could also be construed as a period of cataclysmic change for business. The question is which businesses are on a journey to join the dinosaurs in extinction -- unable to survive the change.

Although September 11th served as a catalyst, the winds of change had already been blowing. Our economy, which had ridden so high for so long, was beginning to pull back. The collapse of the "dot-com" phenomenon, ongoing job layoffs, declining stock market, shrinking retirement portfolios, corporate restructuring, downsizing and merging, energy shortfalls and a marketplace saturated from over-consumption were already creating turmoil in the minds of American businesses and consumers.

On a parallel path, many people were also suffering from a sense of social disenfranchisement due to technology and the speed of incessant change was beginning to overwhelm our ability to cope. Following three decades of mobility that spread families across continents, the underpinning support of family was almost non-existent. Dysfunctional behaviors were already on the increase, as evidenced by the explosive growth of self-help recovery programs. Personal security was only found behind gate-guarded communities with private security forces and elaborate home alarm systems. Strangers were looked upon as something to be feared, rather than friends to be made.

September 11th was the watershed event that escalated all of these fears and insecurities into sharp focus. Financial fears became reality to be endured, corporate greed was defined by Enron, the markets underwent "extreme" fluctuations, personal freedoms and conveniences were forfeited for safety, and the fear of travel further isolated us from family and friends. In this aftermath of September 11th , life as we knew it had changed dramatically.

During this fourth quarter of 2001, many businesses have blamed their failing conditions on the fallout of September 11th. The truth is that they were already on a path of failure prior to that day of infamy.

So what is the answer and where do we find it?

In my many speeches, I see business owners and managers looking within to find the answers to their problems. I believe they're looking in the wrong place. They need to seek out the counsel of their customers to find the answers. After all, their own best thinking got them to where they are today. Maybe the customers know better how to emerge into the light of success.

So what are the thoughts of our customers today? Well, relationships seem to be first and foremost on their mind. The value of family and friends has increased exponentially with the realization that life is tenuous. Those who live near family are spending more time visiting at each other's homes. Those separated by distance are increasing their levels of communication via the Internet, telephone and mail. From envelopes stuffed with pictures to e-mail with pictures attached, everyone seems to be striving to feel a closeness with one another.

Christmas shopping underwent a paradigm shift as the biggest sellers related not to technology, but to the home. From household adornments to home-based activities, our "nesting" instincts are alive and well in this time of uncertainty. Consumers are seeking out the old and comfortable as evidenced by the rocketing ratings of such television specials as the Carol Burnett Reunion. Clothing sales were dismal -- except for pajamas, as consumers sought the "warm comfort" of flannel against skin to ward off the terrors of the night. I could go on and on with similar examples, but it all boils down to the simple fact that consumers are craving the human touch -- relationships. And they're finding it in the traditional--the tried and true.

For business this means that relationships are the critical factor to weathering the current storms. If customers are comfortable in their relationship with you, if customers sense that you value and appreciate them, if customers know that you will take care of them....you will retain their loyalty and their business. Today's consumer is not looking for the excitement of the unknown, they are seeking the comfort of the known.

Ironically, business has not been concentrating on nurturing relationships -- despite constant words to the contrary. The reality is that most business has concentrated on the transaction. Speed and efficiency have been king -- not on behalf of the customer, but in a self-serving search for corporate profit.

Marketing is aimed at capturing the new customer, not at retaining the existing customer.

If you're in doubt about that marketing claim, look to your budgets. How much money is dedicated to bringing in new clients? Now how much is dedicated to nurturing existing clients? Yet the existing client generally presents a far more profitable sale than any new client. If you lost your top one hundred customers and immediately replaced them with one hundred new customers, what would be the impact on your bottom line. New customers, initially, are at best a break-even.

To further muddy the waters, let's bring eCRM into the picture. Too many companies look at this and other software as the magic wand that can cure all their relationship woes. If we implement this, our customers will be happy.

Such drivel is absolute nonsense. There is no magic cure. Granted eCRM can become an effective tool to be used in relationship management strategies, but it is not the answer. The answer begins at the top with a management and ownership philosophy based on customer focus. That philosophy must then be distilled throughout the ranks of every single employee so that there exists a corporate culture that values each and every customer relationship. From the telephone receptionist to the shipping clerk, the customer service personnel to the sales people, the accounting staff to the president -- everyone must speak the language of the customer. If not, the customer will see behind the glib talk to the selfish reality.

In summary, I restate my position that relationships will be the critical factor of future success for businesses that will survive today's cataclysmic changes. If you agree, the steps to be undertaken are simple -- but not easy:

  1. 1. Seek out and listen to the counsel of your customers.
  2. Be courageous enough to ask them how you can improve.
  3. Take action on their suggestions and make them vested partners.
  4. Communicate openly and freely with your customers.
  5. Admit your mistakes when you make them.
  6. Always seek to improve from the perspective of customer needs.
  7. Ask your best customers "why" they do business with you.
  8. Build your marketing for new customers on those reasons.
  9. Learn your customer's plans for the future and their changing needs.
  10. Create your future in response to the future needs of your customers.

In closing, when was the last time you personally told your best clients how much they mean to you? I mean really told them how much you enjoy your relationship with them! We cannot take our customers for granted. Look to your own relationship with a spouse or friend -- how long are they going to stick around if you never really tell them how much value they bring to your life. Humans want to be loved. Do you love your customers?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

The Art of Greetings & Gifts By: Jack Burke

“Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”?  That’s only one of many questions when it comes to sending greetings and/or gifts to your clients.  Although you are reading this column in 2007, I am actually writing it (thanks to editorial deadlines) in late November 2006.  So you might want to save this for “futures” during the course of 2007.

If you are like most agency owners, you and your staff were scurrying around in November, and maybe even December, trying to figure out:

  1. What to get your top clients as gifts
  2. What greetings to send during the Christmas season
  3. Where to draw the line – who doesn’t get anything

The irony is that whatever you decided upon probably got lost in the shuffle of all the other gifts and greetings that were being sent!  Rather than putting all your eggs into the “December basket”, why not consider some other holidays instead?

I particularly like Thanksgiving as a very appropriate time to make contact with your clients.  After all, you are thankful that they’re doing business with you.  However, I don’t like gifts or generic cards for this holiday.  What means the most is a heartfelt letter from you to your clients expressing your personal and business gratitude for them being in your life.  It takes some time and thought to put together such a letter, but it generally strikes a chord within the hearts of your clients.

Speaking of hearts, how about Valentine’s Day.  Here’s another perfect time to let your clients know that you appreciate them.  One agency has developed a tradition of sending a pail (imprinted with their logo) of Hershey’s kisses to their top 100 clients.  Believe me, they will remember those who remember them on Valentines.

Uniquely apropos for the independent insurance agency system would be the Fourth of July -- day dedicated to celebrating our freedom as Americans.  Do you think you can draw any analogies from Independence Day to the value of the “independent system”?

Try to set yourself apart from the rest of the vendors to your clients.  Get personal!  Break totally out of the holiday pattern and consider some other alternatives that can be easily accomplished with today’s automated CRM systems.

  1. Send “Thinking of You Today” notes and cards.  Divide up your database of clients into equal weekly segments – e.g. 3,000 clients would mean a little less than sixty contacts per week.  Out of the blue, you let them know that you’re thinking of them, you appreciate their business and you strive to provide the service that keeps them happy.
  2. Break out the Irish names – send them St. Patrick’s Day cards, particularly if you live in a geographic area that is know for celebrating this event.
  3. Don’t forget the tried and true of birthday remembrances, anniversary dates of their first policy with you, congratulatory messages for major events, expansions, awards, etc.

Let your mind roam and you are sure to find countless new and unique reasons and/or events that would serve as “touching points” for client contact.  Break out of the box, as they say.

Gifting is another potentially treacherous activity in the business world.  The first thing to ascertain is whether the client company has any rules regarding gifts to their employees.  Many forbid them outright, others limit the value of such gifts and some retain an open door policy.

The next question is then: What to give?

I like to think in terms of the value chain – give a gift that has value to the recipient.  To that end, think in terms of business value rather than personal value.  What can you give them that will help to engender their success?  As an author, I like books.  In fact, Oracle built market share by giving away business books to people that opted to attend some of their early telephone conferences (which were also free).  The teleconferences featured experts that could offer suggestions in various areas of their business and the subsequent book gifts did the same.

On the personal lines side, books on safeguarding against identity theft and Internet/telephone scams are good ideas.  On the commercial side, there are a plethora of great books to provide as gifts.  One local agency here in Branson has utilized Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” to help them better focus on their customers.  In turn, they gave copies of the book to every employee and bought caseloads to also give to their commercial customers.   They know the book is helpful, thus they felt their clients would value it as well.  Additionally it puts both the agency and the client on the same mindpath.  It is also more personal!

Our minds are ever more cluttered with the ever-increasing barrage of commercial messages today.  And believe me, your clients are not waking up with their insurance agent in a top of mind position.  That means touch points are more critical than ever in keeping your name in front of clients and prospects.  You not only have to earn their business initially, but you have to continually earn the right to retain their business.

Four, five or six touches a year may have been sufficient five to ten years ago, but not today.  You need to touch your average client at least twelve times per year – and your top clients may need to be touched weekly, or even daily.  From electronic or printed newsletters to gifts and greetings, every touch much have some meaning and reason behind it – and every touch must bring value to that client.  If not, you are wasting your time and your touches.  Touch well and touch often!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

“Watch What You Say!” By: Jack Burke

I recently met up with noted trainer/speaker Chris Amrhein here in Branson for lunch.  Chris was in town for a presentation and we took advantage of his travel to catch up with each other.  As speakers, we both agreed that the travel to and from events always provided fresh and interesting material for our talks.  Seldom, if ever, does a trip go perfectly and human interaction is always eye opening.

Ironically everyone in the travel and accommodation business seems to have bright, new and cheery slogans about satisfying their customers:  “We promise your satisfaction!”. “You are our only focus!”, “Customers come first” and etc.  You’ve seen them.  Basically they indicate that their only goal is to make you happy.  Some even promise your money back if they don’t make you happy.  Unfortunately reality seldom lives up to the promise.

It’s early in the morning as I write this month’s column.  My wife Jo Ann and I have just returned from a weekend cruise in the Bahamas to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday.  The cruise was extremely enjoyable and the service exceptional.  The travel back and forth was another story.

Rather than fly out of Branson/Springfield and deal with connecting flights, we opted to drive to St. Louis for a non-stop to Miami.  After an hour delay to fix a mechanical problem, American Airlines boarded the plane and we taxied out to the runway.  Then we taxied back because the problem wasn’t fixed.  After another hour, they grounded the plane.  About 8 hours later they were able to get another plane for our flight, but we had to wait for a crew to be flown in from Chicago.  Tired and bleary eyed, we finally took off about 12 hours late.  Congrats to American for handling the situation well – and I’d much rather have a plane break on the ground than in the air.  Food vouchers were available during the wait and free drinks once the plane finally got in the air.  Although frustrated, no one appeared angry about the situation.

The flight back was another story.  Just before our boarding call, Miami International was shut down due to severe thunderstorms.  When we finally did board three hours later, the storms returned and we spent an hour waiting for clearance.  Again, an understandable situation beyond the control of American Airlines and we finally took off about 4 hours behind schedule.  What happened on the plane was another story.

After boarding and being told that we weren’t cleared for take-off, the apologetic crew said that they had found “an old, but funny” movie on the plane.  (The plane wasn’t scheduled to have a movie on board.)  They turned on the preview with the sound over the loudspeaker.  Then they turned off the sound and offered to sell earphones to anyone who would like to watch the movie while waiting.

This was, first and foremost, a lost opportunity to put the customer first.  They should have simply distributed free headsets – or played the sound over the speaker system, as they did with the previews.  It escalated in short time, as the speaker jacks were not working on one side of the plane.  Some of the crew members were considerably less than gracious upon having to refund the money.  Despite all the good slogans, American Airlines put money before the customers.

Another incident on the plane involved my wife.  As we sat waiting for takeoff (while headsets were being sold), she asked a male flight attendant for a glass of water.  He gruffly said,  “I’ll see what I can do.”  Then he walked away muttering, “What do they expect me to do, bring out 200 glasses of water?”  I complained to another stew who apologized for the “purser’s comments” and finally brought my wife water to take her medicine.  American Airline’s actions definitely did not match up to promises.

The Radisson Hotel near the American Airlines Arena in Miami was another example of actions versus slogans.  We called them several times to advise of the mechanical problems in St. Louis and that we would be a “very late” arrival.

When we finally did arrive at 6 AM in the morning, we checked in at a counter bedecked with signs about their customer commitment.  We joked with the clerk about this being a very short stay of about 4 hours before catching our boat and asked for a wake up call in three hours.  The clerk then looked at the computer and said there would be a rate adjustment.  My wife, thinking that they were going to give us a break in the rate, asked how much it would be.  The clerk then said that it would be $30 more than our guaranteed reservation rate.  When we complained, the clerk said, “I can’t do anything about it.  I’m just the night auditor.  Do you want the room or not?  You can always discuss it with the front desk manager after 8 AM.”  We took the room and the rate, while leaving a note for the manager about it.

Now we eventually got the lower guaranteed rate, but not on any proactive basis by the hotel.  The manager never contacted us.  Upon checkout, the bill still showed the higher rate.  I complained again and asked for the manager.  He came out, heard my complaint and indicated that he had even been one who had spoken to us about the fact it would be a late arrival.  He turned to the desk clerk, told him to give us the lower guaranteed rate and walked away.  Never an apology.

Ironically we were booked to stay there again for a night upon returning from the cruise.  My optimistic expectation was that they would use that as an opportunity to make things up to us.  (I had also complained about the condition of the room and the condition of the lobby elevator.)  I figured a comped room wasn’t out of the question, but at least a small fruit basket.  Wrong on all counts, which proves that expectations can be premeditated resentments.

Upon checking out this time, we did receive a flyer stapled to our bill.  It advertised a “summer special” rate.  It was $15 lower than what we had been charged for each night.  Not the best way to ingratiate a customer by saying “We gotcha for more that we’re advertising.”  So this Radisson has definitely failed to match actions to promises.

There were a few other stories from this trip, but I think you get the idea.  Don’t promise what your employees will not deliver.  It only alienates customers.  Set reasonable expectations and then try to exceed them.  You customers will love you for it.

Do you and your staff live up to all of your promises?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Small Town Service By: Jack Burke

Customer service is alive and well in Branson, Missouri

After nearly a quarter century in Southern California, the Burke’s and Sound Marketing now reside in Branson, Missouri.  Following months of planning, preparation and construction, we made the move in early July.  Due to the advance planning, the move went as smooth as could be expected.  The only mishap was the second U-Haul truck in our convoy.  It was a worn-out, 17 year old vehicle with over 200,000 miles that never should have been rented for a long-haul trip.  The brakes went out as we pulled into Gallup, New Mexico one evening.  Luckily we avoided an accident, but we’re currently hitting a “brick wall” with U-Haul’s attitude towards customer service and satisfaction.
Other than that, I feel like I’ve ventured into a fantasy world where customer service is a way of life.

Our first surprise was the walk-through of our new home and office/studio.  We had contracted with the builder last year and, despite the urgings of friends, decided to let him build it without interference from us.  My thought process was that if I continually flew out to double-check everything, he’d probably do whatever he wanted after I left anyway.  To my utter amazement, he surpassed every expectation we had.  When I complimented him on the craftsmanship of his workers, he simply said, “My daddy taught me to build every house as if it was going to be my own!”  How many of us really treat our customers the same as we would ourselves?

Our first “party” occurred on move-in day.  A little before noon, the realtor who handled the transaction for us arrived with pizza and soda for everyone.  Before we knew it, our garage was filled with friends who flew out from LA to help us, two people we had hired for the unloading, our realtor and our mortgage broker, along with her boyfriend and his son.  As the pizza party got underway, two others joined us – the trash collector and the mail carrier.  Personal relationships are a way of life.

The trash collector is a story in itself.  While we were gobbling pizza, a pickup truck pulled up in front and a stranger walked up to the group and asked who was the owner.  As I stepped forward, he stuck out his hand and said, “Well hi, my name is Orville Dummer and I’d like to handle your trash.  If you’ll have me, I’ll come by every Wednesday and haul it away for you…and once a month I’ll send you a bill for $10.”  Since then, I’ve made a point of greeting Orville every Wednesday evening and enjoying his stories about life in the Ozarks.  As it turns out, there’s quite a bit of competition for trash hauling in this area; but Orville reminded me that a friendly, cold-call still works.

As for the mail carrier, we had met her telephonically back in May as part of our planning process.  When we called the Branson post office to determine whether there was home delivery or we needed a postal box, they said we needed to talk with the carrier for that area.  When we reached Cindy, she verified the home delivery and asked when we expected to arrive.  Taking our personal and business names, she said she’d keep an eye out for any early mail and hold it for us.  When she joined our pizza party, she said that she wanted to introduce herself and let us know that she’d been holding some mail awaiting our arrival.  Again, proactive customer service!

As for insurance, it was “word of mouth” referral.  Preston Diamond of the Work Comp Institute recommended me to Pat Connell of Connell Insurance.  It was definitely a good referral as Pat’s staff handled all of our business and personal insurance needs professionally and efficiently.  I was extremely impressed with the operational aspects of the agency and particularly liked the naming of personal lines as “Family Insurance Department”.

The biggest surprise came from the telephone company, CenturyTel.  Various work crews were out here for three days to locate and access the lines that we needed, do trenching to bury the cables and install a new Nortel system for the office.  With one exception, everyone seemed to be extremely happy in providing services to us.  The one exception was from the residential installation division and his first call was a litany of complaints about what we wanted done.  I mentioned his “whining” to one of the men from the business division and something must have been said to him.  Because when he actually arrived here he was a man with a brand new attitude!

Now, none of that is reason to call the phone company our “biggest surprise”.  That happened several days later.  The office phone rang early one morning.  I answered it to hear, “Hi Jack, this is Wally and Jim.”  “Who?” I replied.  “You know, Wally and Jim from CenturyTel.  We installed your phone system.”  “What can I do for you?” I asked.  “We made a few calls earlier this morning to see if your Auto Attendant and Voice Mail system was working properly.  Well, we noticed a couple of glitches in the programming.  Do you mind if we drop by in a little bit to check everything out and make a few adjustments?”

That was the surprise!  I’ve never had a phone company proactively check their work afterward and call to ask if they could fix a problem.  Ironically, there really was a problem in the settings, but I had no idea it wasn’t working properly.

There have been a lot more stories.  Store clerks that not only welcome us as newcomers, but also ask if we’d like referrals to doctors and dentists.  Discounts given us on purchases when they find out we’re new to the area.  Clerks that really do want to help you and then carry things out and load them in the car or truck.

Customer service is alive and well in the Branson area, as I imagine it is in many of the smaller communities throughout our country.  But why does it have to be limited?  There’s no reason that any business in the largest of our cities cannot offer this type of personal service to their clients.  Do you?

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Connections By: Jack Burke

Altruism is defined as “the selfless concern for others”.  It is not a condition that many of us ever achieve.  Those that do are honored as saints, gurus and prophets.  It is a lofty and nearly unattainable goal.

On the other hand, most of us do feel empathy for others.  We relate to their plight with compassion and caring.  Yet behind such empathy, the vast majority also feel a sense of relief that “it wasn’t us”.  In fact we often hear such phrases as “…but for the grace of God”.  (No I’m not going to get into the philosophical and theological discussion of what that might mean.)

All of this merely leads up to my premise for the article: As a race, we humans are naturally self-centered.  We like to deny that selfish aspect of ourselves – but by and large, it is all about me.  Sales trainers often refer to radio station WII-FM – What’s In It For Me – as a critical path to engage and sell a prospect.  Yet, time and time again, we fail to recognize that in our marketing, advertising and communications.

I believe we are living in the state of denial.  In denying our own self-centered nature, we also transfer that denial to our clients and prospects.  We operate on some misfounded assumption that they (and we) are more altruistic than we actually are.  “We think the better of them,” as my grandmother would say.

I recently came face-to-face with this truth in the analysis of a newsletter that I write for a major medical malpractice broker.  Each month the newsletter addresses various issues that impact a physician and a medical practice.  Topics run the gamut from office procedures to human resource issues to medical automation to rules, regulations and litigation.  The assumptive basis for selecting articles was that the doctors would want to better themselves, their practices and their staff in order to mitigate risks and exposures.

Each month I receive an analysis of the newsletter activity – which articles generated the most click-throughs, which articles were forwarded to others, etc.  The numbers were always interesting, but nothing ever jumped out at me.  Although I did notice that an article on avoiding identity theft seemed to have a lot of activity.  It had nothing to do with the medical industry, but it did address an issue that is impacting everyone lately.  (It’s all about me!)

Last month there was a cynical article about 10 ways to get sued.  The numbers for that article did jump out at me.  The click-throughs approached 60% -- four times the average click-through on any other article in past issues.  Simultaneously the click-throughs on an article about avoiding discrimination practices was only 4%.   The other two articles stayed within the mean average of 14-16%.

The glaring fact is that doctors, despite a somewhat altruistic career choice, were no different than the rest of us.  (It’s all about me!)  They have an overwhelming concern about not getting sued for medical malpractice (pain avoidance).  This direct concern far outweighs their concerns about efficient offices, happy employees, satisfied patients, efficient automation, or even lowering their premiums.  They don’t want to get sued!

Now this does not mean that a doctor – or any other business person – doesn’t care about improving every area of their operation.  They do.  But it does point out that these are not their primary concerns.  Their primary fear is getting sued.

Having been the victim of an unfounded $15 million lawsuit in the early years of our company, I can understand the fear that motivates these doctors.  Even without basis, such lawsuits can be terminal in draining your financial and emotional resources.  And fear is a powerful motivator.

There are a lot of things we can do for our clients that might give us warm fuzzies, but if we really want to get their attention we have to target their motivating pain in terms of mitigation or avoidance.  We have to make the quantum mind shift from “what’s in it for us” to “what’s in it for them”.  We have to get inside their heads and understand the factors, fears and even paranoia that make them tick.  And it’s not always price!

That same newsletter had an article that described in detail how one medical specialty managed to dramatically lower their medical malpractice premiums.  It got one fourth of the readership generated by the article about getting sued.  That tells me that doctors fear lawsuits more than premium costs.

What are the true motivating factors for the specialties that you insure?

Don’t make surface assumptions.  Dig deeper into their psyche.  For instance, does concern about the ongoing viability of a business create the pain that drives the sale of a business interruption policy?  Or is it the business owner’s private fear of poverty and destitution – the inability to provide a family lifestyle?  Get to the essence and use it in your marketing, advertising and communications to gain the attention of a prospect/client. It doesn’t tell me not to provide the other niceties of a relationship, but it does focus me on a critical indicator. Without it, you might hit the target, but someone else will score the bulls-eye.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Getting to Know You By: Jack Burke

“I can’t treat the patient without know the person.”

Believe it or not, those words came from my Branson-based cardiologist Dr, Murtaza following a one-hour initial examination for new patients.  The exam took about 15 minutes, the review of my medical records from California took about 15 minutes and the other half hour was simply an engaging conversation between two men.  His opening comment was his explanatory reply when I complimented him on taking time to get to know me, as well as my history.

On the other hand, my California cardiologist had been an exceptional surgeon, but his office visits were very short and his attitude somewhat brusque.  I always left feeling more like a number, than a patient.  After several such disappointing follow-ups, I requested that my family physician manage my follow-up and recovery.  That’s why I was so surprised at a finding a relationship-focused specialist.  Today I almost wish that my new heart specialist could handle all my other medical needs as well.

Many consumers have developed a thick skin.  They have become anesthetized against lapses in service.  We meekly leave a tip at the restaurant for the waitress who never came by to refill our tea or coffee.  Our biggest revenge is not returning to the places where service was the most egregious.  In the insurance industry we disguise such revenge in the safety of declining client retention statistics.  Sounds a bit better than admitting we drove them away through negligence or poor service.  We have 90% retention is really the same as saying we lost 10% of our clients.

Even the country singers are writing about it, as in Brad Paisley’s hit song entitled “The World”:

To the teller down at the bank, You’re just another checking account
To the plumber that came today, You’re just another house
At the airport ticket counter, You’re just another fare
At the beauty shop at the mall, You’re just another head of hair
To the waiter at the restaurant, You’re just another tip
To the guy at the ice cream shop, You’re just another dip
You can’t get reservations, ‘Cause you don’t have the clout
You didn’t get an invitation, ‘Cause somebody left you out
If you don’t feel important, All I’ve got to say is
To the world you may be just another girl
But to me, you are the world.

When I first heard that song I was amazed at how quickly it cut to the chase.  Most consumers are not made to feel special.  They are treated in such a way that they feel they are just another “tip, dip, fare or account”.  Develop ways to make them feel special and they will reward you with their loyalty.  If your clients and your prospects mean “the world” to you, you have to prove yourself to them – and that begins by getting to know them.

We’ve always maintained that success belongs to those “who go the extra mile”.  That’s because there is so very little traffic on that extra mile.  As Jim Collins maintains in the book Good to Great, “there are a lot of good companies, but very few great companies.”

Several months ago I received notification, through my insurance agent, that my Blue Cross rates would be jumping another 27% at renewal.  A month later the renewal information came from Blue Cross, along with a selection of 6 optional programs that could reduce the increase by decreasing coverages.  Being somewhat knowledgeable of the insurance terminology, I created a spreadsheet to better evaluate each of the options.  After initial review, I discarded three that were more HMO than Preferred Provider.

I then analyzed the remaining three on a cost to benefit basis and ran the numbers for the higher deductibles, co-pays and pharmacy charges against the increased premium.  After a half day of analysis, I chose the option that would best match the risk I was willing to accept and notified both Blue Cross and my agent.

My agent commented that I had done my homework and made a good decision.

I, on the other hand, found myself wondering why the agent hadn’t proactively done the homework for me.  A call and/or a letter that would have outlined the option plans, major differences, cost variances on a spread sheet basis would have been greatly appreciated.  Now I probably could have called and requested that the agent do it, but I have become used to being just another “tip, dip, fare or account”.  Plus a $15,000 annual health premium is not a big revenue producer for the agency, although it is a big budget item for a small business owner like me.

We all need to spend time in our customer’s shoes.  We all need to do less glad-handing and more investigative research into the needs, pains and desires of our clients and prospects.  We all need to get to know each other better.

So reach out and touch someone today, then do it again tomorrow, and again and again until it becomes a daily habit to nurture all of your business relationships.  The rewards will be bountiful!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Connect & Dis-Connect By: Jack Burke

Everyone always has a “story” about customer service.  Today I have two to share with you, so that you can draw your own inferences and conclusions.  One is about “connecting”, even after losing the sale.  The other is about corporate policies that treat all customers so equally that they dis-connect and go elsewhere.  Neither is about the insurance industry, but both offer lessons for all of us.

Several years ago I was taking bids on a CD replicator system for our company.  I had no pre-existing relationships in this particular industry, so I researched the market, determined what I needed and put it out to bid.  There were two finalists on the same piece of equipment and both were local within 100 miles.  One was 10% lower and that company got the business.

After taking delivery, I never received any communication from the sales representative or the firm.  However, I did receive a call from Stan -- the man who didn’t get my business..  Although he was disappointed about not making the sale, he immediately rebounded and asked if I would consider him as a supplier of the media blanks, labels and packaging I would need.  Over the years I have probably spent an average of $5,000 per month with the “loser” of the initial equipment purchase.

Earlier this week I needed to purchase another CD replication station.  I never even thought of the original supplier.  I immediately went to the “loser” who had been taking care of all my supply needs in an exemplary manner and had taken the time to develop a relationship with me.  (Note: I’ve never met this man face-to-face.  Everything has taken place over the phone and via e-mail.)  I trust him so implicitly that I deferred to his advice and never shopped his quotation.  The entire transaction took less than ten minutes.

How many times do we pursue a relationship after we lose the first deal?  If you’re anything like me, it’s not as frequently as it should be.  “Lose the deal, forget the prospect” seems to be the most common behavior amongst too many sales people.  I owe a debt of gratitude to Stan for teaching me that though we may stumble, we can succeed on a second or third effort – it’s a matter of perseverance.

The next story is not so heartening and I’ve found it applicable to many insurance agencies that try to treat all customers equal.  My good friend Lee has been blowing his trumpet with Chicago for 37 years now.  Though his career has afforded him a significant measure of financial security, the downside is the time he has to spend away from home on the never-ending tours.  Due to his continuous travels throughout the world, his cell phone has become his lifeline for contact with family and friends.  About half a year ago, he excitedly shared his discovery of T-Mobile as a cellular service provider.  He bragged about the phone, the service and the international coverage.

This week T-Mobile lost Lee as a customer.  Chicago had been touring in Australia and New Zealand.  Lee offered to bring his wife and son with him, but his wife felt that $9000 in additional airfares was a bit exorbitant and decided to stay home.  As a result Lee opted to use his telephone in a big way to keep in contact while he was down under.  He knew the calls were expensive (about $2 per minute), but he called his wife once or twice a day, checked on his mother who was recovering from surgery and kept up normal communications with his sister, brothers and yours truly.  When the bill arrived this past week, it totaled about $1700 that he gladly paid within a couple days of receiving the invoice – a full two weeks before the due date.

Apparently T-Mobile gets nervous when they see a big bill.  The same day he mailed the payment, he got into his car in the evening to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the famed Whiskey nightclub in Hollywood.  Hitting the freeway he checked his phone messages to find two from T-Mobile.  Each one carried the same message asking “the owner of this account” to immediately call customer service.  Lee made the call as he drove, thinking that like a credit card they might be checking to make sure the unusually high usage had been legitimate – a little after the fact, but a reasonable assumption.

What he heard wasn’t anything like he expected.  A T-Mobile representative came at him like a bill collector, demanding immediate payment of his outstanding bill.  When Lee explained that he had already posted the payment and it was still two weeks away from the due date, he was told that that didn’t matter.  Either he pay at least half of the bill immediately by credit card or they would cut off his phone service.  Lee restated that the payment had already been sent and was told that it would take 2-3 days to receive it and 3-5 days to make sure it cleared – and that was too long for T-Mobile to wait.  (Even though all of that time wouldn’t take it to the due date on the invoice.)  Holding his temper, Lee asked if he would be refunded the overpayment if he complied.  He was told that they would keep the extra money and credit his account.  At that point he proceeded to tell him that if they disconnected his phone he would cancel his contract and hung up.

The next morning his phone service had been shut off.  Calls to T-Mobile supervisors were to no avail.  As a result he cancelled his contract, opting to pay their cancellation fees rather than continuing to give them any more of his business.  He plans to write a letter to the president of the company and tell as many people as possible about his experience with T-Mobile.  As he said to me, “Jack, they should have been rewarding me for spending so much money – not treating me like a deadbeat.”

No matter the business, certain clients deserve VIP treatment.  We know that, but do our service representatives and other personnel – or do they try to treat all customers as equals.  Some customers are more equal than others.  Food for though for all of us.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Clients as Advisors By: Jack Burke

As business owners, our arrogance sometimes precedes us.  That’s a strong statement and some may have already taken offense.  If so, I’m sorry – but I include myself in the same category.  Loosely defined, arrogance is a feeling or posture of superiority due to exaggerated or presumptuous claims.  The arrogance to which I refer is that sense that we, as business owners, know what is best for our clients and prospects.  A feeling that can be extremely presumptuous on our part.

Now our clients do need to access our expertise.  They do need us to guide them through the intricacies of insurance and risk management.  They do need us to help educate them on how to best manage their risks and exposures.  In essence they need us to perform the role of advisor, evaluator, guide and educator.  I don’t deny any of that.

Our presumptuousness lies in the fact that we believe we know exactly what they need to meet their needs.  Our presumptuousness lies in the fact that we believe we know exactly what they want.  Our presumptuousness lies in the fact that we know what goes into their decision-making process.  We don’t – unless we have the courage to ask them.

Over the years I have touted a simple “focus” group session that requires you to buy your client a cup of coffee, lunch or dinner.  During the course of conversation, ask that client three questions:

  1. What are we doing right?
  2. What are we doing wrong?
  3. What do you need us to be doing to prepare for your future needs?

Although asking those questions takes courage – the courage to take action on their answers, that simplified focus group session is no longer enough in today’s world.  We need to involve our clients as partners in our business.  After all, we think of ourselves as partners in their business.  It’s time to think of them as partners in ours.

So how do we involve our clients as partners?  All you have to do is think CIA -- Communication, Involvement, Action.

Communication. All too much has been written on this topic, but it bears repeating.  Communication is not a one-way street; it is not a monologue.  Communication is a two-way street; it is a dialogue.

Here’s an example from one of my clients.  We send out a monthly electronic newsletter.  Each month we would review a number of potential articles to determine topics that we believed would be of interest to the customers.  We never asked them because it would make the process too unwieldy, particularly with deadlines.  Suddenly the light went on!  The tracking results of each newsletter showed how many people clicked through to each article.  They were already telling us what they wanted – we just weren’t listening.  (By the way, the articles they wanted weren’t the ones we were choosing for them.)  Today we maintain running tallies of article topics and the reader response.  This enables us to provide articles on topics that we know are of interest to the clientele.

Communication in and of itself can be worthless, even annoying – unless we provide what the customers want.  And we can only find that out from them.  Which means we also have to listen to them.

Involvement.  Now we’re really getting into the danger zone.  We’re dropping our defenses and inviting clients into our inner sanctum.  My suggestion is that every agency should have a client advisory board. And it shouldn’t be board of your top clients, but one that represents a mix of your business.  Maybe it’s three “A” clients, two “B” clients and one “C” client.  Remember many C’s become B’s and B’s become A’s over time.

Before you nix the idea, please remember that most business owners are problem solvers.  So doesn’t it make sense to surround yourself with people that know how to solve problems and are willing to help you become the best insurance agency you can be?

The board can critique advertising and marketing campaigns, help plan risk management education seminars, etc.  But more than that, the board is there when the excrement hits the fan.  For instance, let’s say a market pulls out.  Wouldn’t it be nice to lay the problem out to your board, review available options and come to a consensus on the best action to take to move the book?  The critical aspect is to be honest, open and forthright with these board members.  If you aren’t, they can’t help you.  By vesting them as your partners, you are also instilling in them a sense of loyalty because they become part and parcel of your agency process.

If you are afraid of making a total commitment to an advisory board, start with some baby steps.  Select several clients that you respect and seek their advice on an informal basis.  It’s a start and everyone wins.

Action.

Here’s the kicker – anytime you involve clients in your business, you need to take action on their suggestions and comments.  That doesn’t mean you have to implement everything they suggest, but you do need to take time to review their suggestions and then to advise them of any actions you’ll be taking – even if it is to take no action.  If you don’t, they will consider their involvement an exercise in futility and question how much you really care about their input.  So unless you are willing to take action, don’t get your clients involved – you could lose them.

There are a lot of action items that an agency can undertake to better serve the defined needs of their clients, but I do offer one other warning.  Don’t tackle them all at once.  Take time to research, review, discuss and prepare for any actions that you will be taking.  Plan for when the action will be implemented, what the follow up will be and how it will be monitored/managed.  If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right.  Once you’re done with one, move on to the next.  Too many good ideas self-destruct because the agency was not able to truly focus on the necessary implementation.

Remember the only asset you really have is the loyalty and good will of your clients.  Solicit their input and feedback, respect their thoughts and enjoy the success that they will give you.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Bashing the Big Boys By: Jack Burke

When discussing issues of customer satisfaction, it's easy to bash the big guys. The larger an operation the more difficult to maintain solid, one-to-one relationships. That's why I've always maintained that the companies need the independent agents more than the agents need the companies. Agencies are small enough to focus on the relationship, the company usually isn't. To the “Big Boys” customers are numbers, not entities.

For instance, living in California, Mercury provides my car insurance through an independent agent. The agent is a long time friend. Unfortunately Mercury handles the billing and I've often used them as an anecdotal case study of how to do things wrong. Mercury's director of marketing had gotten so used to my jibes that he automatically assumed anything I wrote about Mercury would be bad. After an article was published that said good things about Mercury, I got a call from him asking me to back off and quit writing about their mistakes. The fun part of the conversation was when I explained the article was very positive about Mercury. He hadn't read it. Seeing my name and Mercury on the same page, he automatically concluded that I must have taken them to task again.

But today I really have to give the “Big Boys” a break. Sometimes they can get things right and we can learn from them.

Several weeks ago I received a letter from one of the really big companies – Bank of America. They handle our credit card processing and the letter explained that it was necessary to update the software in our machine. This wasn't an option and there could be substantial fines and penalties for failure to comply. The letter went on to provide an 800 number that we were to call to initiate the updating of the program via telephone lines.

I immediately called the number and was put on hold. After 20 minutes of waiting I hung up. Figuring that everybody who got the letter was trying to call at the same time, I waited several days before trying again. After 30 minutes on hold, I again hung up. Annoyed at the abuse of my time, I set the letter aside and waited a week before trying again. The third time I was again put on hold. After five minutes, I put the call on my speakerphone and began typing a letter of complaint as it endlessly played “Someone will be with you shortly” in the background. When I finished the letter I hung up the phone and mailed the letter.

The letter expressed my frustration over their inability to handle the calls, bemoaned the time I had wasted trying to comply with their demands, denied any liability for fines and penalties by not having the system updated, and offered a potential solution. When they were prepared to update my system, they could call me and we would do it at that time.

Within a few days, I received a call from a Bank of America representative. She apologized for everything and admitted to the fact that they had misjudged the capabilities of the vendor hired to handle the updates. Acknowledging the viability of my suggested resolution, she took it a step further. Rather than expecting any additional effort on my part, Bank of America was sending out a new machine that had the updated software pre-installed. All I had to do was switch out the machine and send our old one back on a postage-paid basis.

Her resolution was better than my suggested remedy. My expectations were exceeded and I was impressed.

But the story didn't end there. The day the new machine shipped I received a call to let me know when it would arrive. Several days later I received another call to make sure it had arrived and that the switch-out had gone smoothly. This attention to follow-up detail impressed me even further. Bank of America had definitely learned how to handle a customer complaint effectively and efficiently. In fact, based on their level of performance, they know how to turn a problem into an opportunity for furthering a relationship.

But the story didn't end there either. After a few more days I received a letter from B of A Merchant Services vice president Robert Uyehara. He further apologized for the inconvenience and expressed hope that customer service had adequately resolved the problem for me – giving me a specific number to call if I was still encountering any difficulty. The letter closed with “We apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you and your business. Please accept a gift basket that will follow this letter as a token of our sincere apologies. You are a valued client and we look forward to continuing to work together toward the success of your business. We appreciate the opportunity to serve you.” The basket arrived shortly thereafter and I am totally “WOWed” by the way Bank of America handles its complaints. If I had ever thought of switching to another merchant card processor (we get at least a call a week from competitors), that thought is history. When someone handles problems this well, why would I go anywhere else?

The lesson is that complaints can truly be opportunities if handled properly. When upper management personally follows up, that opportunity becomes Golden. And when you top it off with a gift as a “token of apology”, you've just reached Platinum. Big isn't always bad, sometimes it can be very, very good!

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

Anger or Satisfaction? The First Step in Regaining Consumer Rights By: Jack Burke

“I can’t get no satisfaction!” A war cry of the sixties, this simple lyric has become embedded in nearly every 50-something American. It has come to mean a lot in a world that moves speedily

Unfortunately it has often become a cry of acceptance.  Consumers accept the fact that they just can’t get the satisfaction they deserve.  They accept the fact that lack of satisfaction is the price they have to pay for speedy and convenient transactions.  They have allowed business to commoditize all too many services and products.  Companies tell them, and they believe, that they can’t expect great service if they’re demanding low price, well-stocked inventory and quick transactions.

The truth is that these are misconceptions perpetrated on the general public by business that is more interested in bottom-line profits and stock values rather than consumer loyalty and good will. The real truth is that consumers do have the right to satisfaction, along with fair prices, well-stocked inventory and great service.  Your battle cry should be that you CAN get satisfaction and that you demand it from the companies where you spend your hard-earned money.

Getting angry about bad service is easy – and that anger can actually diminish the possibilities of effective complaint resolution.  Consumers need to begin learning how to create a paradigm shift in consumerism and take back the power that rightfully belongs to them.

Beginning in the late seventies, corporate gurus began extolling the virtues of customer satisfaction. Surveys were written and re-written. Business seemed to revolve around quantifying the satisfaction levels of customers. For some industries, like the automotive industry, it became obsessive. Dealers watched their vehicle allocations metered by their satisfaction ratings. Customers were bribed with tins of Danish cookies and flowers. Dealers produced audiotapes to show their commitment to quality and satisfaction. Automakers and dealers swapped surveys multiple times a year. And let’s not forget the additional surveys from J.D. Power & Associates, a company that was founded on the concept of surveying the satisfaction levels of automobile purchasers and has since become the icon of customer satisfaction surveys and reports. Other industries, however, like the insurance industry, did very little initially to determine their customers’ satisfaction. They didn’t follow the auto dealers’ lead by conducting surveys and modifying their products and services accordingly. It took them time to realize the value of quantified customer satisfaction, but in the end, they, too, began to talk about it. Have you not seen a commercial from an insurance company that boasts about customer satisfaction?

We all want to receive good customer service, but sometimes that’s not possible. In my experience, only about 25 percent of businesses truly have committed to exceptional customer service and have implemented a culture of service.

As an expert on customer service, I continually receive horror stories from friends, acquaintances and readers about bad service. Most people vent their anger and frustration without taking aggressive actions to resolve a problem, however. The few who want to take action often don’t know how to approach the problem, and they ask me:

• Whom should I call? 
• Should I write a letter? 
• How can I get my complaint heard up the chain of command? 
• Is it worth fighting over? 
• Can I really beat the corporate bureaucracy? 
• Where can I find contact information?

The unfortunate fact is that many of these problems should never have occurred.  The consumer failed to exercise problem prevention prior to even making the purchase.  They failed to adequately research not only the product or service, but the supplier.  Too often the purchases were made strictly on price and/or emotion – the rational mind never entered the picture.

However, once the problem surfaces, the consumer (either individual or a business in the role of consumer) too frequently faces a wall of frustration.  Ironically, the electronic age worsens their frustration. For example, those who try sending complaints through a company Web site don’t get far, as those e-mails often get ignored.

My father spent his entire career managing the service department of a large automobile dealership. Long before the days of Lemon Laws, Consumer Protection Agencies and customer satisfaction surveys and ratings, he came home one night with a story about a customer who had reached the point of rage. My father called this man a “crazy customer.” The man had bought a new car that was a lemon. It was serviced repeatedly and to no avail. Factory engineers couldn’t fix the car’s problems, either. Refunds and buybacks were unknown concepts at the time, as the business operated under the philosophy of “let the buyer beware” (caveat emptor).

Feeling frustrated and helpless, the man fashioned a hangman’s noose from rope and arrived at my father’s dealership. He paced back and forth in front of the general manager’s office, swinging the noose. People tried to talk to him. He didn’t say a word as he continued to pace with the swinging noose. After an hour, the general manager came out of his office to physically remove the man from the building. The customer ultimately lost; he was hauled away by the police and he was stuck with the lemon.

I think back to that story and sympathize with the customer. As a disgruntled customer myself, I’ve shared similar feelings. Although I’ve never gone as far as swinging a noose in front of anyone, I’ve had some raucous moments myself when confronted with inept service personnel. (I’ve chalked those moments up to a “heightened sensitivity to bad service” because I am customer service “expert.”)

Through the years I’ve learned more constructive ways to vent ill feelings and avoid the blow-up scenario. I haven’t needed to return to apologize for any inappropriate behavior with a store clerk in a long time. (But I have exercised frequently the right not to buy from a store that fails to meet my needs.)

In my first book on customer-centric business, Creating Customer Connections, I opened the first chapter with the story of the Kogi. The Kogi is an isolated, pre-Columbian civilization that lives in the forests of South America. The Kogi are thinkers with a very complex and rich intellectual structure. They believe that the universe was first an intellectual life force known as Aluna. Creation was the result of Aluna’s thinking and imagination. The Kogi define Aluna as memory and possibility. In the Kogi cosmology, all creation begins with an idea, followed by the process of thinking through all of the possibilities of that idea, finally resulting in a plan of action.

Recently I began to apply the Kogi process to the consumer’s side of the service equation, I realized that the majority of consumer experts (like myself) were trying to teach business how to treat their customers.  Often our words fell on deaf ears.  The realization then hit me that although business may not listen to the experts and consultants, they WILL listen to their customers.  Only the consumers truly have the power to change the way business is done!

Good service is subjective. Everyone has a different idea of what good service is. What is good service to one person may be lousy service to another. Your past experiences, current expectations and even your personality all factor into what you think is good service.

People’s expectations are always changing. In the early 1990s, people’s perspective of speed changed dramatically when the fax machine became popular. It amazed us to watch a machine transmit a piece of paper in 30 seconds to another location—across the street, the nation or the world. Compared to several days for mail delivery, or even Federal Express’s overnight delivery, these 30 seconds changed expectations when in came to a sense of speed.  I don’t know anyone who stands in front of a fax machine now and marvels at its speed. It has become a slow moving dinosaur. Why? Because the Internet is the benchmark for speed now. Instantaneous, real-time transmission of information is the norm.

Good customer service is a two-way street. There is an implied (or actual) contract between two parties—the buyer and the seller. That contract entails responsibilities for both parties. Even as a buyer you have responsibilities, such as making payment for services or products rendered, properly registering warranties and following the operational guidelines for problem resolution (at least initially). Too often we focus only on our expectations from the provider instead of thinking about how we should be acting as potential buyers.

If we begin thinking from the perspective of consumer power and engage in rational purchasing, we have taken the first step in changing the dynamics of service to better serve us, rather than business.  It’s the first step in actually getting what we want.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

An Underwriter Story By: Jack Burke

As many of you know, I enjoy restoring older cars. Upon completing a `67 T-Bird recently, I had it professionally appraised for my insurance since I intended to drive it on a regular basis. Shortly after my agent submitted everything, I got a letter from the carrier stating that they would insure it for less than half the appraised value.

Aggravated that I would have to take time to contest this, I called my agent for guidance. He said, “You'll have to contact them directly and appeal the decision. They will probably require that you take it somewhere for a Vehicle Damage Assessment. But you have to do this yourself, I can't do it for you.”

Well after two letters and several messages left with the underwriting department, I had not been contacted and two weeks had passed. I tried calling once more and was amazed to get a live underwriter on the line.

“This is great”, I said, “I've been leaving messages but nobody has called back and I want to appeal the stated insured value you've placed on my car.”

“You've left messages?”, he queried, “Who did you leave them with?”

“I don't know, just your voicemail system.”

“Well, let me check into that. I don't want to jump in on something that somebody else may be working on.”

Seeing where this was heading, I immediately called myself a liar and said I hadn't left messages with anyone and he could therefore service my problem. He finally gave in and left me holding for about five minutes while he looked up my account.

Upon returning to the line he said, “Judging by the appraisal and the photo,

this car would appear to be worth more than the amount we've decided upon. BUT, we really aren't in the business of insuring specialty vehicles like this. We like to insure regular cars. So, there isn't really much to talk about.”

“If you're saying that you aren't interested in insuring this car for its actual worth (far less than the insured value of my other “regular” vehicles), maybe I should look for another company that wants my business.”

“That's up to you”, he replied.

“Well, I imagine my agent would be interested in knowing how you feel about my business”, I snapped, “Let me talk with your supervisor!”

Long story short, the underwriter and the supervisor finally told me that I could request a Vehicle Damage Assessment--but it could result in a lower value than the one I was contesting. I retorted that if I was worried about that I wouldn't be requesting it in the first place. So they checked their scheduling and told me to take it to such and such a body shop for the appraisal. The conversation was over, but I was not in a good mood.

A week later, I drove to the appointed body shop grumbling to myself. My thoughts were centered on the ridiculousness of paying for a professional appraisal, when the value of my car was going to be determined by some mental caricature I had of a “pot-bellied, dust covered body repairman walking around the car with a dust mask hung around his neck”.

The reality was far different. The appraiser was an employee of the company who specialized in appraising specialty vehicles and definitely knew his business. The body shop locale was just a convenient location to his office for doing such work. We had a nice chat while he appraised the car--and he was amazed at the my experience with the underwriter.

Shortly thereafter, the insurance company revised the value upward and the case was closed. But, I still have the perception (based on their failure to acknowledge my letter and calls, and the attitude of the under-writer) that the company really doesn't give a damn about my business.

Under the same circumstances, how would you feel? Or, better yet, how would your customers feel? A far better scenario would have been for my agent to have conferenced me to the company while he remained on the line as I made my request. A little bit of assistance can go a long way towards preventing problems and losing customers.

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.

A Case in Point By: Jack Burke

While researching this unique interactive service from AT&T, their public relations liason, Kelly Statmore, identified a few companies currently using this tool: Mercedes-Benz of North America, Inc., Outrigger Hotels & Resorts, and within our industry--GEICO Direct.

Accessing www.GEICO.com, I found an icon for a “free rate quote” which opened the door for their interactivity feature. Just like AT&T’s demo, my phone rang within a second of entering my phone number and within ten seconds I was talking with a licensed agent, Gene Cook, in their San Diego center. According to Cook, “Upon filling out the data capture forms, I can have a rate quote for you within five minutes and actually set you up with a policy within ten. Potential customers love the speed and convenience.”
Cook went on to say that he is part of a team that handles Internet inquires, sponsor marketing (alliances), and the military. Inquiries come in via the phone, as well as from their website.

The website, which became active in February ‘96, added the interactive feature in the spring of ‘97. Jess Reed, GEICO Direct’s assistant vice president for Telecommunications in Washington, D.C., indicated that “this is a natural expansion of our normal direct response marketing which, by the nature of the Internet, has widened the range and reach of the people reached by our marketing. It’s the way customers today want to do business.”

What does all this mean? Well, for GEICO Direct, it translates into a goal of 25% growth in new business for 1998. Reed also told me that GEICO is looking at ways to further speed the process by imbedding all necessary rating information into the web-based system, “Our aim is to cut down the time for rate quotes from five minutes to thirty seconds.”

Jack Burke is the founder and president of Sound Marketing, Inc. http://www.soundmarketing.com, author of Creating Customer Connections and Relationship Aspect Marketing, host/producer of Audio Insurance Outlook and editor of ProgramBusinessNews.  He can be reached at by phone 1-800-451-8273 or by e-mail at jack@soundmarketing.com.