Customer Service at Its Best: Defining the ‘Perfect’ CSR

By | September 17, 2001

When asked to list the major strengths of their agency, most owners usually include the agency’s quality of service to the client. In the typical agency, the customer service representative is the foundation of good service. Logically, one can say that the CSR is therefore a major part of the strength of an agency.

Because of their personal contact with clients, CSRs are a critical component to the retention of accounts. They must provide consistent, quality support to keep the business on the books. If accounts are lost, revenue drops and the value of the agency diminishes.

CSRs account for roughly half of all employees in an agency. The ratio of CSRs to producers in the industry is about two to one. Keeping in mind that payroll is the largest expense in any agency, the productivity of CSRs is directly related to the profitability of the agency. Hiring and retention of good CSRs then becomes a key to increasing profits and value.

What ingredients make up a good CSR? What do you look for in terms of skills, knowledge, education and experience? How do you measure their performance? How much authority should they have? Which responsibilities should management give them? The answers to these questions—which will vary by agency—determine the profile of that agency’s “perfect” CSR.

The CSR role requires a responsible, knowledgeable person with excellent customer service skills. Is there a perfect blend of these abilities?

Yes. However, it will change from agency to agency because each agency has a unique personality and approach to customer service. The type and style of an agency’s CSRs will be directly related to the type and style of the agency’s producers.

The profile
Before hiring any CSR (or any employee, for that matter), management needs to sketch out a basic profile of what they are expecting. Should the agency hire an experienced CSR or should the agency start from scratch? Outline objective minimum standards and compare candidates to this standard. Don’t hire anyone who fails to meet any minimum requirements.

The typical CSR is a woman or man who graduated from high school and took a few college classes but did not graduate. Some CSRs get into the business because of family connections; others are persuaded by their friends to join. However, most CSRs (and producers) “fell into” the insurance industry. Working as a CSR in insurance was not their specific career goal.

CSR responsibilities
The responsibilities of a CSR vary based on the culture of the agency. Some agencies expect the producer to do a lot of the service work and the CSR to support the producer. On the other end of the spectrum, some agencies require the CSRs to handle their own book of business with little input from the producer after the account is written. Some CSRs may be expected to sell or do some other duty as well, such as accounting or management of the computer.

It is important to match the temperament of the CSR to the agency’s culture. Don’t hire a “go-getter fireball” when the producers like to control the account service. A meek CSR will fail in an agency that treats the CSR as an account executive.

The basic job of the CSR boils down to the collection, processing and distribution of information. The collection of information tends to be the most significant skill. The CSR needs to know what information to gather and how to ask for it. Patience, determination and diplomacy are necessary, whether probing the client for pertinent information to complete a claim form, or getting a quotation for coverage, or quizzing a producer when filling out an application.

The skills required to be effective at the collection of information are rooted in a person’s natural abilities. The CSR needs to follow a logical path to collect all the data. Then, when each fact is determined, the CSR needs to rapidly recall all the related issues and understand how they may affect the other aspects of handling the account.

The typical CSR spends about half of his or her time talking to clients or insurance company personnel gathering and distributing information and problem solving. The balance of time is spent on paperwork and computer input.

The CSR needs to be a “people” person. Good social skills and the ability to act as a go-between for the different parties—clients, producers, underwriters and agency owners—are a must. A CSR needs to be able to handle complaints and negotiate a favorable outcome. A qualified CSR has the ability to say “no,” can take criticism from others, and provides constructive input to resolve problems.

Because of this emphasis on listening and talking, communication is a CSR’s most important skill. Look for it when hiring—it is a natural skill that the individual must already possess. Technical knowledge can be easily taught later.

Common issues
How does management keep qualified CSRs? First, management must understand why CSRs leave an agency.

The most frustrating aspect of the job for most CSRs is dealing with difficult people. The inability to effectively communicate with someone prevents the CSR from properly doing the job. A CSR may feel that one producer dumps too much work on his or her desk, work that the producer or someone else should handle.

When a CSR can’t get along with a person, management needs to act quickly and decisively. If the problem is with a client, the reassignment of that account to another CSR could solve the problem. A stickier problem is when that “difficult” person is another employee, such as a producer he or she works with.

If a rift erupts between the service staff and the sales staff, it can bring down the agency. The parties need to be a team to get the job done properly for the client.

Management should not jump to any quick conclusions without uncovering the facts. Reassigning jobs to minimize contact between the two parties may help the situation. However, if problems continue and the main instigator is determined, that person should be dealt with, even if he or she is a top producer. Failure of management to back up the staff will result in poor morale and even mutiny.

The agency needs to make sure that specific ground rules are established and fairly enforced. Management should outline the role of the CSR versus the producer.

Communicate expectations
Another very common reason why people leave an agency is that management never clearly communicated what they expected from the employee. When responsibilities and authority are not specifically discussed, then miscommunication and hurt feelings can occur.

Write a job description spelling out the CSR’s tasks and responsibilities and make sure both parties agree to it. A key component that is often overlooked is setting performance standards.

A CSR needs to know what size book management expects him or her to handle. Management, on the other hand, needs to offer proper training and support to allow the CSR to get the productivity level expected.

The size of book handled by the CSR varies based on the size of account handled. In personal lines, most CSRs handle between $75,000 and $120,000 in commission. High-performing CSRs are in the $105,000-$180,000 range, again based on size of account. In commercial lines, $165,000-$250,000 in commission handled per CSR is more common, once again with size of account driving the standards. For the high-performing CSR, commissions handled are in the $250,000-$350,000 range. These make a good comparison for the firm. However, for both CSR and producer productivity, the commissions and number of accounts handled by the best people working in the agency should be the benchmark.

Very often, CSRs struggle with time management. Sometimes, something as simple as an additional fax machine or better copiers can improve everyone’s productivity. With the exception of small agencies, CSRs should have technical and clerical support. A good ratio to follow is one assistant for three CSRs.

Delegation is a great antidote for the time management disease—work should be delegated to the least costly, qualified employee whenever possible. This is known as staff stratification and positively affects both productivity and profitability.

Management can also assist employees in balancing their business and personal life. Flextime is a good start. Giving an employee one day off per month for appointments, a three-day weekend, etc. is also recommended. Some agencies may even pay for daycare or provide the services of a financial planning expert for the employees to use. Sometimes a health club membership is provided to reduce stress and help keep the employees fit. Be creative.

A final analysis
The role of the CSR must never be under estimated—just ask any owner who just lost a great CSR. Take the time to find the person who possesses that “perfect” blend of diverse skills and knowledge. The “perfect” CSR looks different when placed in front of the background of each agency.

Understanding the agency’s needs and expectations must precede any hiring. Hire only those who will “fit” the agency’s culture. Don’t allow a candidate’s technical skills or years of experience to cloud judgment—hire only those who have good communication skills.

Good CSRs will make the operation run smoothly and efficiently. Hiring the right CSRs for the agency will enhance agency value, which benefits everyone.

About Catherine Oak

Oak is the founder of the consulting firm, Oak & Associates, based in Northern California and Central Oregon. Oak & Associates. Phone: 707-936-6565. Email: catoak@gmail.com. More from Catherine Oak

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