There’s a change happening — a big change. And some say young independent insurance agents are the catalyst for that change. They may even be leading a revolution, of sorts, says one young agent leader.
Jason D. Cass, owner of the JDC Insurance Group based in Centralia, Ill., who also serves as chair of the Independent Agents & Brokers of America’s Young Agents Committee, says there is a revolution within the insurance industry that is moving the industry forward through technology and social media.
“There is a revolution that is going on; it’s underway,” Cass says. It’s the same type of revolution that has occurred in countries such as Tanzania, Libya, Yemen, and soon to be Syria, he says. Well, not exactly, but like in those countries, social media activated big change.
Through social media, people in countries like Tanzania, Libya and Yemen, were able to see the world outside their own country. “That caused an eruption,” Cass says. That same eruption is happening today in the insurance industry, he says.
That’s not to say that agencies have held back progress, he says. But change and progress in the insurance industry has been slow to come, according to Cass.
“We’re about 15 years overdue for a revolution, but so were those countries,” Cass says.
In Cass’s view, young agents eager to make big changes in how the industry operates are generating excitement and pushing for change.
“We’re getting out there and generating a spin that is really getting people excited,” says Cass, who started his own independent agency in 2009 — an agency without a store front.
“I am a virtual agency,” Cass says. “I work out of my house. I don’t do any advertising. I’ve done four ads in 28 months. I do a lot of Facebook marketing. I do a lot of online social media marketing. That’s basically how I drive my business.”
Thirty-year-old Jill Roth, a young producer at Ahart, Frinzi & Smith based in Alexandria, Va., describes the younger generation of insurance agents as a hands-off generation, where email and social media have replaced more traditional marketing.
“It’s not really so much a face-to-face and phone call generation,” Roth says. “It’s more of a website, any time that you want, or is convenient for you (generation). It’s a generation of technology and convenience.”
When it comes to the digital world, today’s young independent insurance agents are hooked in on multiple levels.
Of the 513 young agents responding to the 2012 Insurance Journal Young Agents Survey, 75.2 percent reported having a Facebook page, 73.7 percent use Linked In, 28.5 percent use Twitter, 84.7 percent use an iPhone or other Smartphone, 44 percent use an iPad or other tablet device, and 10 percent report writing a blog — all for their work as an independent insurance agent.
This younger generation has to lead the way to upgrading how the insurance industry operates, Roth says. “It can’t be left up to our fathers.”
Roth joined the ranks of her father’s insurance agency at 24, after working for a member of Congress for a couple of years.
She says now more than ever is an opportunistic time to get involved as a young agent.
“Things are changing so quickly within the independent insurance system, including technology, marketing and social media, especially,” she says.
In her family-owned agency, the younger generation is helping to drive marketing plans for the future.
“My ideas, along with the younger people in our office, are getting put to the very top of our marketing plan,” she says.
Right now is a great time for young agents, she adds. “There are so many opportunities to do exactly what they want and think is going to be successful in the future.”
Cass agrees, now is an ideal time for young agents to lead the way in the independent agency system.
“When we can start carrying that momentum forward and start getting our revolutionaries to mount up and get going; it’s going to push this industry forward,” he says. “It’s happening now.”
Concept of Work
Young agents are using technology in innovative ways that challenge the concept of “work” in an independent agency, says Peter van Aartrik, CEO of the Aartrijk Group.
“When they work, where they work, how they work, what they call ‘work,’ and why they work. It’s all upside down from what baby boomer principals traditionally have expected,” van Aartrijk says.
Technology is the big driver when it comes to the changing work behaviors of young agents.
“The connected consumer — and the connected and mobile young agent — is always working, in a sense, and always a part of their connected communities. That doesn’t fit into a 9-to-5 work day,” he says.
The “connected community” and young agents’ role in that community is modernizing the agency distribution network, he says.
“I do think with the young agent influx you’ll see a vibrant agent and broker distribution channel evolve into something that will feel more ‘modern,’” he says. “The online and offline world will feel like they’ve merged.”
Van Aartrijk says that agency principals with vision will be served well by attracting and keeping young agents, especially if young agents are given the opportunity to help shape the future of the agency.
“These folks have a lot of energy — if you let them run,” he says. “They’re like wild stallions.”
However, attracting quality young agents can be difficult in an industry that young people view as behind the curve in terms of technology.
“In order to attract young agents to our industry, we really need to embrace technology,” says Ryan Hanley, a 31-year-old agent at The Murray Group Insurance Services Inc., an independent family-owned insurance and financial services agency in Albany, N.Y.
While almost half (47.8 percent) of young agents rate the property/casualty industry’s use of technology as “good,” more than a quarter (27.8 percent) of those responding to the IJ survey rate the industry’s use of technology as just “fair.” Just 18.3 percent of young agents say the industry’s use of technology is “excellent,” according to the Young Agents Survey.
The industry’s less than stellar technology score card could be one reason why young agents feel that insurance is not an attractive career option to other young people. The majority of young agents rated the industry’s career attractiveness to other young people as either just fair (41.7 percent) or poor (20.8 percent), the survey revealed.
“If I’m 24 and I just got out of college or just got my master’s degree and I’m a top of the line professional, who as an industry, we would love to have this person … If you’re still forcing them to handwrite applications and fax business to carriers, they’re not going to be interested,” Hanley says.
In Hanley’s view, handwritten apps and faxes don’t sit well with today’s high-tech grads.
“They didn’t go to school with that. They’re taking classes for their master’s degree using laptops and iPads and doing everything online. Then they jump into an industry, which says, ‘Oh no. We don’t do it that way anymore. You still have to use this abacus and count with shells and stuff.’…. They’re going to look at [the industry] and they’re going to go, ‘I’m not going to become part of that. That’s not what I’m trying to do,’” Hanley says.
“There are plenty of more experienced members of the industry that are doing great things in technology and social media,” says Hanley. But younger agents are the ones who appear to be pushing technology and social media, making it a priority in their business practices.
“You have agency owners, like Jason Cass, who have essentially said, ‘I only want to do business with people who are willing to communicate via these new tools.’ That’s a pretty innovative idea,” Hanley says.
Relationships for Younger Agents
Success in the insurance business is mostly about building relationships, reported 94.1 percent of young agents in this year’s survey. But how young people build those relationships is what differs from their older counterparts.
Young agents like Cass and Hanley are taking traditional means of agent-customer communications, like frequently asked questions (FAQ) and turning those into new media opportunities, such as 100 insurance questions answered through video.
“Our FAQ is actually 100 blog posts, which are essentially a 100 YouTube videos where we actually answer the question,” Hanley says. “It gives people a chance to get to know us a little better, to build relationships,” Hanley says.
Answering questions for customers isn’t new, but the methods used by young agents to reach customers are.
“It’s not necessarily doing business any differently,” Hanley says. But young agents who’ve grown up with technology have found ways to apply new tools to their profession. “I think it’s only natural that they’re the ones that do it because they’ve grown up with the technology.”
Another way in which young agents are using technology and social media to beef up business opportunities is by branding the person rather than the business.
Brent Kelly, 34, a producer for Clemens & Associates based in Bloomington, Ill., didn’t grow up in insurance but jumped into the agency business soon after college.
Kelly, who also operates a professional website outside of his agency’s website, launched a consumer-oriented insurance blog, The Insurance Coach, about a year ago. The success of his business website (www.brentkelly.net) and his blog, as well as his interest in specializing in professional liability is now leading him to another adventure.
In recent months, Kelly has investigated how he might develop his blogging capabilities to further expand his marketing opportunities outside Bloomington through a specialty niche blog in professional liability.
“The professional liability line is one thing I’m looking into doing. It’s a line of business that I’m not limited so much by geography,” he says.
Kelly says that blogging allows him to put a personal touch on a boring subject like insurance.
“I’m very involved with the process of people knowing, liking, and trusting you before they buy,” Kelly says. “How do you do that online? Through blogging, providing valuable information, and ways to help people solve problems.”
Kelly says he sees a lot of younger agents putting their own spin on a subject, and often making it better. “That’s the process I’m looking at — putting personal information, personal stories into things. … I think a lot of agents are looking at doing that too, where they can put their own stamp of individuality along with a very important financial product.”
From that, customer relationships develop, he says. “And then as they develop that trust, it’s ‘Hey, you know, this professional insurance thing is pretty important for my business. Who do I talk to? Well, this Brent guy seems like he knows what he’s doing. I think I’ll talk to him,’” Kelly says.
“It is awesome to think of the branding opportunities they [young agents] have, particularly as individuals rather than just connected with a firm,” van Aartrijk says.
Kelly says he’s been fortunate to receive support from his agency’s owners when it comes to his social media marketing experiments.
“I really haven’t had much pushback,” he says. “I’ve had people raise eyebrows, like ‘Well, why are you doing that? That’s kind of strange, that’s kind of weird.’ But I think in the last year and a half or two, as I’ve gotten more involved with social media and blogging, they’re starting to see some of the contacts I’m making, and that it works.”
At the end of the day new business success does a lot to convince skeptics, he says.
“Business owners I talk to, or even just individuals I talk to, that are in the 23 to 35 year old range, have always grown up around technology. It’s not a question of have you used it? It’s, ‘Well, what are you using?” Because it’s just always been there; it’s part of their life,” Kelly says.
The young agent revolution is trying to get the industry to move in that direction as well, he says. “I think with young agents and the movement that I think a lot of us are trying to make is getting the insurance industry on board with that.”
Van Aartrijk says that an agency’s physical environment may be just as important as its digital environment too when it comes to young agents.
“It’s not only an attitude adjustment that many principals need, it’s a physical location adjustment,” he says. “Is the work environment itself something that young agents will want to be associated with?” Or does the agency office “smell like a nursing home?”
For Cass, and his virtual agency, there’s no better time than now to be a young agency owner.
“If the average agent knew what I did 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, everybody in the world would want to be an insurance agent,” Cass says. “I play PlayStation between 10:30 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. every day, and between 2:30 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.”
For those who think Cass is wasting valuable time, he says: “It was always acceptable for smoke breaks throughout the history of work. But it’s never been acceptable for different types of breaks, or to be able to use social media at work.”
But in Cass’ view: “Businesses that are open to the ideas of today are the agencies that are going to be the best in the future.”