Building an Outstanding Customer Service Team

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By Jacob Garcia

The National Alliance is currently accepting nominations for the 2016 Outstanding CSR of the Year Award. Every year, hundreds of insurance CSRs and account managers from across the United States compete for this honor.

But what exactly does it mean to be an outstanding CSR? What are the traits that make an account manager exceptional? And, just as importantly, how do agency managers find job candidates who possess these qualities?

To answer these questions, The National Alliance Research Academy went to the source—the agencies that employ four of last year’s finalists in the Outstanding CSR of the Year competition. The following are excerpts from interviews we conducted with the agency managers who work with these customer service winners.

Interviewees:

Jolene Schaa, CIC, CISR
CSA/Manager
Chastain Insurance Agency
Omaha, Nebraska

Maureen Arndt, CISR, ACSR
VP of Operations
The Starr Group
Greenfield, Wisconsin

Dan Hale, CIC, CRM, CPCU,
ARM, AAI, LIC, AU, AIC, AIS
VP/Account Director
Marsh & McLennan Agency
Livonia, Michigan

Alexis Dowling
Operations Manager
William Gammon Insurance
Austin, Texas

Where do you look to find CSRs and account managers?

Jolene: Our company underwriters and marketing reps have been a great resource to contact when we have a position open. Sometimes they know of someone from another agency who is looking to make a move. Another way we have searched out individuals is to ask people in the office if they know of anyone that they would refer to our agency. We have also used a staffing or personnel company, but that can sometimes be difficult, as they don’t always have someone in our area who is looking for an insurance position, so it may take a while to obtain some prospects.

Maureen: We just went through a lot of interviews looking for people and LinkedIn seems to be working well for us. We find some candidates through employee referrals, but LinkedIn is probably the best at this point.


What traits do you look for when you’re interviewing?

Dan: I think there are probably three main things that I look for when interviewing: demeanor, personal drive, and people skills. Demeanor is basically how a person carries him or herself. I look for someone who is confident, pleasant, and professional—everything from appearance to posture. The second factor is the candidate’s personal drive. What have they accomplished so far in their education or career? What are their goals and objectives in the years ahead? Are they willing to accept new challenges? Are they willing to accept special projects? Are they willing to challenge themselves to earn new designations? The third factor I look for is people skills. Do they work well in a team environment? Are they willing to share workloads and help others?

Alexis: I start communicating with the potential hire via e-mail. I start looking at how they respond to me. How do they communicate? How do they write their e-mails? I ask very specific questions to see if they read through each question and answer it correctly. Since the majority of our communication with our clients is via e-mail, I like to see how they respond and whether they can communicate effectively. So that’s the first thing.

And then, when we get to the point of the phone interview, how is their phone presence? Do they listen? Do they sound cheery, like they’re smiling on the other end even though I can’t see them? Are they engaging? That’s a big part of it as well, because once the e-mails aren’t working with your client, then you’re picking up the phone and calling them.

Then the third thing: we do a face-toface interview. How are their mannerisms? Are they friendly and responsive? Do they seem like they would get along well with others in the office?


What about industry experience and education? Are these important factors in a job interview?

Maureen: Having industry experience is helpful. We have hired some people without industry experience and trained them for the position. College education is preferred, but not required. When we go through our interview process, we’re measuring two things. We’re not just looking at their résumé and their experience or job knowledge; we’re also looking to make sure they’re fit into our culture. We’re looking for someone who shares our same beliefs, practices, and attitudes.

Dan: I have had success focusing on the candidate’s education and work experience, without necessarily focusing on their insurance experience. For example, one of our CSRs came to us from a plumbing company and had no insurance experience at all. I think it is important to find someone who we can invest in and teach the business from the ground up. That way we can build each team member on a personal basis. Of course, experienced candidates are valuable and much easier to bring upto-speed, but they are difficult to find and have a wide variety of backgrounds.


How do you train new hires?

Dan: Training usually falls into two main categories: academic and mentoring. No matter where you fall in the organization, I recommend that everyone start with agent licensing, even if you’re not in a producer role. In fact, just about everyone in our office holds an agent’s license. From there, staff members proceed through a series of designation exams, starting with AAI, CIC, CRM, and similar designations. This ongoing education gives them a higher level of technical ability when assisting clients and analyzing complex issues.

The second category of training is generally described as mentorship and job-shadowing. About two years ago, our office created a formal mentorship program. Everyone in the office is assigned a mentee/mentor relationship with someone who is not on his or her regular service team. These mentors offer guidance on operations, strategize about goals, and act as career coaches.


What job aspects do new CSRs most often struggle with?

Alexis: That would probably be learning the details of the account. Our customers are used to things being done a certain way, or the producers are used to things being done a certain way. So, a new CSR has to figure out those personalities and figure out what is expected of them, because every client is different.

And learning the workflow is another aspect. If you already have insurance experience, all that stuff will come easily to you. But when you’re on a book of business and you’re brand new to it, then you have to learn the personality of the book and the character traits of each producer and how they like things done. So I think that becomes the most difficult part for people.

Jolene: When we have had new individuals come to us from other agencies, we find they have done things a little differently, or maybe not to the same degree, so they find it challenging to learn our procedures. One of the biggest hurdles for them is getting to know the coworkers and the agents they work with, and how they want things. Agents in every office can work a little differently—what they want or what they don’t want, and that can be difficult. And getting to know the new accounts they are working with and developing new customer and company connections can present challenges, as well.


How do you evaluate the amount of work that each CSR is doing?

Jolene: Our reviews include auditing procedures and close-day reports that help us evaluate the CSR’s work. Another good way for us to evaluate is when they’re gone for more than a day, I will cover their desks to help them out, and since I’m handling their accounts, that gives me a good picture of how they are doing.

Dan: It starts with knowing your CSR. That means knowing what their short and long-term goals are. How do they handle stress? Do they have all the tools they need to efficiently complete their tasks? Have they completed the necessary training? Understanding your CSR is really the first part of knowing how much work they can handle and how much they’re able to process.

Some agencies also objectively measure workload by looking at metrics. For example, how much does a CSR handle in terms of commission or number of accounts? I think that a great way to measure workload is by a CSR’s ability to volunteer for special projects. Ideally, a CSR has the ability to keep up with their regular duties and then take on special short-term projects, such as researching issues, writing reports, or acting on committees. When a CSR contributes on special projects, it furthers their growth and experience, which, in turn, makes the company stronger.


How do your CSRs contribute to the sales process?

Maureen: We’re servicing the clients’ needs, and we’re also helping the salesperson produce that new sale. We’re always there for the salesperson to take what we can from them. If the salesperson comes to our desk and they have new business, we welcome that new business because we see it as an opportunity for growth. CSRs are rewarded when there’s net profit in the book that they work. CSRs earn a quarterly bonus because they’re an important part of that new business process. When they’re there to support the producer, they’re rewarded for their effort.


What differentiates a great CSR from an average one?

Alexis: It’s someone who is not hesitant to go above and beyond. It’s someone who wants to get the job done and do a good job, and doesn’t worry about, “Well, that’s not my job,” or “It’s 4:30 p.m. It’s time for me to leave.” They’ll stay to get things done, and they have the client and the agency’s best interests at heart.

Dan: When people don’t like their jobs, it comes out in everything they do. When you find a CSR who’s friendly, happy, and genuinely likes their work, it shows. This is what separates a good CSR from an average one.


Conclusion

All insurance agencies would benefit from having outstanding CSRs. Finding people with potential is key, and providing the right training and guidance is just as important. Good customer service representatives, account managers, and other service personnel help retain accounts and maintain workload efficiency, leading to better profitability. While top sales producers are extremely important, don’t ever forget about the contributions made by key customer service employees.

Continuing education can help develop a good CSR into a great one. Dynamics of Service and the CISR and CIC Programs are excellent ways to invest in the education of your service personnel and show that you value them. Understanding the challenges of the job and providing the right training, mentorship, and education can help these important service employees rise to the level of OUTSTANDING.


Jacob Garcia joined The National Alliance Research Academy in March 2015 as Associate Research Director. He brings with him a background in media and journalism, and produces the weekly podcast, Speaking Insurance.

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