Using a Marketing Approach to Recruiting Employees

This is the first in a series of articles offering “best practices” for the hiring process in the independent agency. More information is available at: www.iiat.org, under Agency Management.

The lifeblood of the independent insur-ance agency system is sales. You are the distribution system for insurance carriers, and your long-term success is rooted in your ability to produce business. As a result, you probably understand the importance of marketing to create sales opportunities. Yet when it comes to staffing for the growth your marketing produces, how good are you at attracting qualified candidates?

What may not be immediately apparent is that employment is also a service that must be marketed.

Employees are, in reality, customers who purchase employment services from you. In fact, employment services and insurance services share many similar aspects. Both are intangible. Both are difficult for the “customer” to evaluate until after purchase. Both involve the goal of a long-term, consultative relationship.

If you want to improve your recruiting results, you may want to try adopting a marketing approach similar to that used for attracting customers. The following outline represents basic steps of a typical marketing plan; although it is discussed in an employment context.

Define your product: If the product is the job and the employee is the customer, what are you selling? Create a job description that does more than explain the tasks and responsibilities. Think in terms of what you want the position to accomplish–the purpose for the position. A customer service representative doesn’t just issue certificates, he or she serves as the primary contact between clients and the agency to resolve all inquiries and develop solutions to their problems. A receptionist doesn’t just take calls–he or she lays the groundwork for a smooth, pleasant and productive transaction between the client and the agency. A producer doesn’t just make sales calls, he or she establishes relationships and helps to identify and manage risk.

Identify the target market: Given the objectives of the position you are trying to fill, what attributes and core competencies are necessary? Think broadly and non-traditionally. A typical job-wanted ad for insurance agencies looks like this: “Commercial CSR, minimum 2 years experience, must be licensed.” Limiting yourself to insurance experience may severely shrink your labor supply, possibly forcing you to hire an employee rejected by other agencies or causing you to poach from competitors, each of which inflates wages. Instead, target candidates with the attributes necessary to become capable agency employees, regardless of their level of industry experience or training. Look for candidates who have skills such as active listening, empathy, problem solving, anger diffusion and rapport building. Herb Kelleher use to say that Southwest Airlines “hires for attitude, trains for functionality.” One employer boiled the requirements down to “looking for nice people who care.”

Create a positioning strategy: Positioning is about differentiating your employment opportunity from that of other employers who compete for the same target segment of candidates. What is special about working at your agency? Be able to articulate advantages over other employment opportunities both within the insurance industry and outside. Sometimes we take for granted how attractive the agency work environment is relative to other service industries. Not all employers can offer meaningful work, economic security, professional development, and, in some agencies, flex time, incentives and teamwork. Ask your current employees what they like best about the agency. Examples of workplace inducements being offered by some agencies include flex time, self-directed work teams and valet parking.

Develop a promotional plan: Having defined the position and identified the targeted attributes, determine where and how to promote the employment opportunity. Your promotion strategy should establish a presence in the applicant segment that fosters the desired image of the firm as an employer.

Where to promote: Start with people you know and who know you and the agency. And who knows you and the agency better than your current employees? Provide them with a detailed description of the attributes you want, and ask them to be on the lookout. Other sources of employee leads include key customers, carrier personnel and your marketing centers of influence. An often over-looked resource is the local community college. Community colleges are filled with mature students who, in many cases, have returned to school later in life having come to recognize the value of an education. Get to know the career counselors, and help them get to know the opportunities your agency business has to offer as well as the attributes you are seeking. This is analogous to center-of-influence marketing that most agencies do to get customer referrals. But, as with those centers-of-influence, be prepared to invest in a relationship through the long-term for it to become fruitful. Regular contact is necessary to stay on their radar.

How to promote: Attempt to “tangibilize” the intangible nature of the employment experience. This can be done by creating physical cues that convey the advantages you offer relative to other employers. For example, produce an agency business card or brochure specifically for recruiting. Include agency contact information, key employment selling points and testimonials from your employees. Ask your employees to pass the information out whenever they encounter a great service experience. One agency found a new producer after a superior service encounter with an employee of a lumberyard. She even went on to become an agency owner. An added bonus of this strategy is that your current employees will be more cognizant of good customer sales and service.

As the service sector in this country continues to expand, competition for talent will intensify. This is especially true in the insurance business, where good service is the primary source of competitive advantage. By thinking of employees as customers and employment as the service being sold, agency managers can apply the marketing expertise they have for attracting customers to their recruiting efforts, increasing both their supply and quality of candidates.

Rick Bondurant is director of agency manage-ment resources for the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas. E-mail rbond@iiat.org.