Wal-Mart and independent agencies seemingly have little in common. Not so. There are many helpful ideas to cull from Mr. Walton’s amazing odyssey from one store to the largest retailer in the world — as revealed in his autobiography, “Sam Walton: Made in America” [Doubleday]. Here are eight of them.
Core belief. Wal-Mart grew because Sam Walton wasn’t afraid to innovate, to advance his business beyond what others were doing. He believed in discount retail merchandising when others did not. Agency principals, likewise, need to develop their own core sales strategy (other than discounting) and use it to propel their business forward.
Sell specifics. Sam believed in selecting specific items and promoting them through aggressive merchandising. It was his passion. Agencies can similarly select under-promoted policies and endorsements and direct attention to them via digital and traditional means. Personal umbrellas are an easy example as they appeal to existing insureds and new prospects.
Customer loyalty. Loyalty starts at the top and works its way down. According to Sam, this is “because the way management treats the associates [employees] is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers.” Client contact via social media, newsletters and more all encourage loyalty, but the real test is how CSRs and producers treat individuals and businesses when they need actual service. And it all starts with how well you treat your staff.
Critique yourself. In the early days of Wal-Mart, store managers met every Saturday morning to critically assess the effectiveness of their efforts. They reviewed purchases and sales, planned promotions, etc., to identify and discuss what was working and what wasn’t. These meetings continued as the company grew and were instrumental in that growth. Agency executives can conduct similar meetings to regularly evaluate their marketing efforts, critique individual and overall sales results, select potential targets, and more.
Critique rivals. Sam loved to check out the competition. He visited the locations of endless retailers across the globe. He asked his managers to explore them as well, looking for the good and the bad, and to find ideas they could use. While independent agencies have far more rivals than Wal-Mart, they can scrutinize a reasonable selection. Ask in-house staffers to monitor the websites and social media postings of key local and national competitors (agencies and carriers) to look for approaches to emulate and avoid. Encourage producers and CSRs to score the strengths and weaknesses of the carriers and agencies against which they compete. Furthermore, agency executives can talk shop with chatty principals, producers and CSRs to learn what works for them and what doesn’t.
Ego kills. A litany of larger retailers underestimated Sam Walton to their own detriment. He used the information he gained from visiting stores and questioning their staff to help build his chain. In our industry, boastful principals and staffers who egotistically reveal detailed plans and procedures to outside agents unnecessarily risk their agency’s future.
Think small. It’s great to get excited about growing your agency, but it’s injurious if you let success go to your head. Ditto with Wal-Mart. The bigger the retail giant got, the more Sam wanted his people to “think small.” Humility keeps you thinking like an entrepreneur, which, keeps you in business. Otherwise, your large volume can distract you from your core belief, impeding your ability to serve current and future buyers.
Look outside. Sam Walton built an enduring empire based on an evolving series of insights derived from instinct and information. He wasn’t afraid to try new things and to follow his vision. Insurance sales and retail merchandising share many characteristics. Don’t hesitate to learn from sources outside of our industry. There is a wealth of thought-provoking ideas out there if you are willing to look.