Aligning Sales and Marketing to Go from ‘Just Dating’ to ‘Happily Married’

By | August 8, 2018

CNA’s Emily Hathcoat launched a sales and marketing therapy session that promised tabloid-worthy confessions. Here is how she set the stage:

“If you were to give your marketing and sales teams a relationship score, what would it be? Is it keeping it casual? Just dating? Are you too hot for words? Or are you living on separate planets?”

But first, why initiate a therapy session at the Insurance Marketing and Communications Association (IMCA) annual conference?

“Some people think sales is from Mars and marketing is from Venus. It’s no wonder that these two different, yet as we know, complementary, departments do not see eye -to-eye,” she said.

The relationship is important, Hathcoat added, because when sales and marketing “get along and share objectives, great things can happen.”

Of course, bad things happen, too, which is why there are therapists.

But a positive alignment between marketing and sales promises “potentially the largest opportunity” for proving business performance today, Hathcoat, CNA’s vice president, Corporate Marketing and Advertising, told the IMCA audience.

Now, back to scoring the relationships. Hathcoat’s question was directed at executives from Risk Placement Services (RPS), Westchester and Starr. The “therapists” asked to analyze their sales and marketing relationships were:

  • Chris Crawford has been involved in the insurance business for more than 30 years, working for carriers as well as wholesalers. She’s currently the vice president of human relations for RPS, a managing general agent and specialty insurance wholesaler that is part of Arthur J. Gallagher. Crawford manages a team of national and regional client relationship managers, who are responsible for developing the national client base, forging relationships with prospective clients as well as the main RPS network of retail customers.
  • Steve Hood is the senior vice president in charge of marketing, distribution, and business development for Westchester, an excess and surplus specialty group within Chubb serving the large corporate, middle and small market segments. He has more than 25 years of insurance underwriting, marketing, and sales experience.
  • Lisa Sanders is the regional vice president of the southeast region for Starr Companies, and is responsible for the marketing and sales for three branch offices, including Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami, and national, serving brokers across Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Sanders has more than 20 years of experience in the insurance industry.

Love Triangle

Since this was an insurance conference, the therapists’ answers were more suitable for Family Circle than The National Enquirer but what they lacked in salaciousness they made up for in candor and relevance.

Crawford, from RPS, got right to the heart of it: I would have to say that our relationship is really like a love triangle.”

RPS has a marketing team handling communication (including a separate social media, print and email team); a client relations or business development team; and third, a production team that incudes underwriters and brokers.

Crawford called the arrangement an “odd shape” for a wholesaler like RPS but said it has come about because underwriters and brokers value their direct relationships with the retail agents and have long felt they are the marketing arm.

The love triangle is in the throes of a serious makeover.

“In the last two years, we have really restructured and completely changed the face of what client relations looks like for RPS,” she said. There were several reasons for the change. But mainly the firm wanted to put all business development people on one team out in the field to drum up business while keeping underwriters in the office to work.

RPS has grown considerably over the past 20 years, primarily through acquisitions, and now has about 80 locations. One challenge has been that many of the marketing and business development people inherited through mergers knew their markets but knew little about RPS. Crawford said the company needed to train and focus everyone so they all have a “strong understanding” of what RPS does.

“After the extreme makeover, now we are putting an anchor on that triangle. And it’s just a matter of making the alignment all work together,” she said.

Happily Married

At Westchester, there is no love triangle because there are four players, according to Hood. The four are: brokers, “who are the ultimate sales team to buyer of the policy;” a business development team working with brokers with “no underwriting authority, just sales;” an in-house marketing team that is centralized at corporate level; and underwriters who work with brokers and also have also some sales responsibilities.

Hood rated the relationships among the sales and marketing groups at Westchester differently: happily married, friends with benefits, and just dating.

“For sales and marketing within the division, within Westchester, where there’s really good organizational alignment, we are happily married,” he said.

For sales, the business development team and the underwriters in marketing who are centralized in the Chubb home office are like “friends with benefits,” Hood said. “They’re pretty friendly and there’s some real value that we get from that centralized marketing unit but we’re not ready to get married, by any means.”

Finally, regarding business development and underwriting within the Westchester division, things that were rocky are smoothing out. When the business development team was first being built, underwriters did not want to date. “But over the last few years, we’ve met and they actually are starting to want to date,” Hood said.

Just Dating

“Just dating” is also how Sanders characterized the relationships at Starr Companies where she is Southeast regional vice president.

Starr has a central marketing unit in the New York headquarters for marketing, branding of printed material and communications which she depends on for coverage highlight sheets, underwriting contact sheets and similar guidance and support.

Sales, however, is structured around production underwriting; there is no business development team at Starr. “It’s separate generalists that go out and market business on behalf of those underwriting groups,” she explained. So most of Starr’s underwriters have a production underwriting role attached to their objectives.

Starr has a “very structured appointment process” for the brokers with whom it does business and the brokers are expected to perform at a certain level to keep their appointment. “That does give us a more focused audience when we go out to see brokers. We’re not an open brokerage to everyone. From a marketing perspective, definitely we’re just dating,” Sanders said.

Common Complaints

There are challenges in every relationship, whether the parties are just dating, divorced or somewhere in-between. Moderator Hathcoat’s inquiring mind wanted to know more:

“Let’s talk about what’s the number one complaint that you have received from either your marketing or your sales counterparts and how do you address that.”

The therapists really opened up.

Starr’s Sanders cited tension between the need to “homogenize” or brand a company and its material in a consistent and legal manner versus the desire to be unique, fresh and “able to change quickly,” especially in an organization focused on sales goals.

“We need to be able to turn on a dime and customize certain things. We don’t want it to be stale. And I can certainly understand that push and pull, in saying we need to look a certain way,” she said.

She noted that top salespeople sometimes see things differently from corporate and may want to “go rogue” or think outside the box.

But she said she also understands the importance of working with a team to make sure things are consistent. “I’ve seen it go the other way, too, where you have something that’s out there that overextends coverage or it speaks to something that you are actually not prepared to offer,” she said. “And then you have to reel that in with brokers and wholesalers and it’s very difficult to do that.”

Crawford said that at RPS some of the complaints were due to there being a lot of new players on teams and resistance by some to letting unfamiliar people have contact with their clients.

The reaction might be something like, “You are not sending a business development person into my client because I know everything best for my client. You’re not going there,” she recalled.

But corporate persisted and the working relationships were changed. RPS restructured its client relations division about 18 months ago by creating several layers of client relations managers: a national team, a field team and a desk team. For example, the national team connects with the largest clients, some with thousands of retailers, to help coordinate efforts and move them towards sales goals.

Once this client relations approach started producing results, the complaints from branches and underwriters shifted from telling client relations to stay away from their clients to asking them what more they could do for them, according to Crawford.

It has been a challenge doing this for 80 locations.

“The way we overcame it was really, truly just communicating. We put the client relations people with the underwriters and the brokers and let them do calls together and work the projects together,” Crawford said.

They would, in turn, then use market communications to develop specific campaigns for the national clients.

“Productions are up. Submissions are up,” she said, and the approach is helping branches meet their goals.

Westchester’s Hood cited two typical complaints that tend to follow one another.

“The first one is, ‘Why do I need you? I don’t know why I need you. You’re expensive,'” he noted. “Then it’s usually followed by, ‘Can I have more of you?'”

He agreed with Crawford that communication resolves most tiffs. “If you understand each other’s goals and if you are talking to each other, the complaints go down and the value starts to get more evident,” he said.

The most effective communication involves proving the value of any effort.

Hood said his team is always looking for ways to “quantify and value” what any sales or marketing unit is delivering to the business. “Because it ultimately comes down to whether you are helping the business grow its top line in a way that grows the bottom line,” he added.

“I’ve sort of trained my team, my business development team, my marketing team to always be thinking, are you adding value? Can you quantify in some way that others can see, whether it’s for underwriting or executives, or other?”

Start from Scratch

Hathcoat redirected the session to the basic question of why alignment and organizational structure are even worth discussing, asking:

“How important is organizational alignment? Where should we start? Should organizational lines be the first place we want to start when you bring this together? Should we start someplace else? Is there another key ingredient to aligning marketing and sales successfully?”

She boiled down the issue: “If you were to start a business from scratch, what would you do?”

“Wow! If I were to start a business from scratch, would it be insurance?” Westchester’s Hood quipped before agreeing to stay insurance-focused.

Business development and marketing both report to Hood and he reports to a chief operating officer who has “tremendous influence” on the underwriting side of the house.

“So we are pretty aligned and can very quickly resolve conflicts by escalating one level up. That doesn’t mean that there are no conflicts, or at times, friction,” he acknowledged.

Hood believes organization alignment is important, while recognizing that it can’t always be done quite the way Westchester does it. But if he were starting from scratch, he would build a similar culture.

“What I would instill into my culture in any kind of organization where there’s not perfect alignment is the mentality that marketing and sales and underwriting all have one important goal and that is to enable sales that generate a profit,” he said.

“Our goal is to enable sales that generate a profit for the company,’ he reiterated. “We all have a role to play in that.”

The culture must answer some basic questions to make it clear what the roles are.

One of the questions is, who is the customer? “I think in some organizations this is still blurry and not always agreed to. Is it the broker? Is it the buyer? I think that’s important,” Hood said.

Another question is, who actually makes the sales? “Is it the underwriter? Is it the business development manager? Is it the marketing person? Through mass media or social media? Who is making the sale? It’s important to understand that,” he stressed.

A third question asks how others support the people who are making the sales. “How do I bring them solutions?” is how Hood put it, adding that sometimes sales people “don’t know what they don’t know” and may need to be educated.

“So, to put it all in one shot, our number one job culturally and our organizational structure is built around enabling profitable sales,” concluded Hood.

Starr’s Sanders agreed “wholeheartedly” with Hood. She stressed the importance of sales planning for the year that includes open dialogue from the beginning with as many people as possible. “Sometimes that happens; often, it does not happen. The buy-in isn’t there at the beginning,” said Sanders, who has worked for several large companies.

Too often there is too little understanding of why a company has chosen the direction it wants to go. The marketing folks may not be included early and don’t understand what’s going on. “Then there is the frustration of trying to create something after the fact without being a part of it from its inception,” she said. “I see that happening over and over again.”

She said that at Starr, she has been able to include more people from the beginning. “The planning process includes so many more people in that process so that people see where you are trying to go and you are not trying to explain that at the back,” she said.

Crawford agreed with them both. “[B]ringing all of the pieces together when you are actually planning to start something out is crucial” and “nothing works if you don’t have shared goals and you don’t communicate those shared goals,” she said.

As someone who has been dealing with a rebranding, she has a heightened appreciation for what marketing communications can do for branding. If she were starting from scratch, she would start there. “It’s huge, it’s everything,” she said.

“Everyone has to be shouting the same message or otherwise, the customer doesn’t understand who you are,” she said. “I think if everyone is in alignment for the planning, and communicating and sharing your goals, your whole process of branding or rebranding is going to make you more successful.”

What Success Looks Like

When the marketing and sales stars align, what does success look like? Hathcoat asked the panelists to describe one of their successes in integrating marketing and sales.

Crawford offered a real situation she said was probably not unique to RPS. “It’s a story that could happen to any marketing entity. But in our case, in particular, it made people feel really good. And we got some credence out of it,” she said.

It all happened last fourth quarter in the workers’ compensation market when there was a shake-up, with some players dropping out. Immediately, the RPS field team, those working the state territories, recognized it as an opportunity, saying “Oh my gosh, there’s so much work comp business out there. How can we get our hands on it?”

As a wholesaler, RPS can’t go direct to buyers. Crawford described the sales process this way: “We have to go to a retailer and we have to beg them to bring the business to us. We can’t touch it ourselves; we just have to tell somebody to touch it.”

She acknowledged that a company like hers with 1,700 employees and 80 locations can sometimes move slowly. It could take weeks to green-light a marketing email. But with the field offices clamoring to do something right away, this time was different. “Can we please just punch it out there as quick as possible?” was what marketing communications heard. They knew what they wanted to say and they knew where to send it.

All the points of the “love triangle” came together: marketing communications, client relations and production.

“Our team immediately connected with the work comp practice leaders all across the country. Our team is in connection with the production team and saying, ‘We are going to knock this one out of the park,'” she recalled.

Within a few weeks, workers compensation business was up more than a million dollars.

“Some of that might happen anyway because the business was lost in the marketplace,” Crawford said. “Could we capitalize on it without that coordinated effort? I don’t think so.”

Saturation Campaign

Hood’s success story revolved around what he called a saturation campaign.

“Some people call it carpet bombing. But it’s an example of where marketing, sales and underwriting are really aligned,” he said. “When they are really aligned it works very, very well. It involves picking a product line and deciding you are going to go into a region of the country. And you are going to increase the flow, the business flow, in that region.”

The goal of a saturation campaign is to dramatically increase the amount of business that gets booked, not just submissions. It begins with getting underwriting to agree to send underwriters into the region to travel with the business development team. “There is a synchronizing that goes on there. Who are the target brokers? Who is going to go out and travel with the business development people over a two week period?”

Meanwhile, marketing is working on a message for product fliers and email campaigns, perhaps with a gift card incentive for brokers for new business.

The marketing effort is synchronized with the visits out in the field so that emails arrive right before the underwriter, then the business development person arrives. After the visits are completed, marketing follows up with more communications.

“Those are by far the most successful short-term impact campaigns that I’ve seen done in my time,” he said.

Starr’s Sanders offered a lesson from a previous employer selling a product she said is not easy to sell, accident and health insurance. Selling it in a property/casualty environment only adds to the difficulty.

Her team began with a regional sales campaign and then grew it to a national sales campaign where they regularly tracked submission activity and business development team leaders, where they went and whom they spoke to.

She likened the challenge to switching from workers’ compensation, which is bought, to insurance products that must be sold. “[W]hen you get into something different, is that the reason you are not selling it? Is it that you need to train them? Role play?”

It became evident that the most pressing need was indeed product training for those individuals so they could answer questions, “making sure that people understand how to get out of the weeds” when pitching the product.

So as part of the campaign, her team created marketing pieces with specific talking points to help them educate clients and advance the process to the point where they could refer people to underwriters.

The result was a 35 percent jump in new business for a line that was very profitable for the carrier.

One other lesson Sanders learned: Don’t expect a thank you.

“[W]ho gets the credit Grammy on something like that?” she asked.

She has learned not to expect immediate or wider recognition for marketing’s contribution, although she knows the value of thanking people she works with for their efforts.

“You are pleased that the business did well and that’s the report card,” she said. “But don’t necessarily think you are going to get an immediate response on the marketing end. Sometimes it takes a while, a year or so, before you really see the benefits.”

According to Hathcoat, that’s a thing about relationships. “You have to take a moment to thank your partner and thank the folks that you are with,” she said.

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