With profits up 30% “there’s no negative in being able to communicate better with each other!”
In my recent interview and case study with Erik Russel of Russell Insurance Services, Erik notes how profit is up 30% for the year, and how he has freed up a significant amount of his time to focus on the truly high-value functions — focusing on business development and being a strategic advisor to his clients — all because his team is equipped with a process and he knows with great certainty that he can count on them to deliver.
Erik Russell founded Russell Insurance Services, a Farmers Insurance based financial services agency, and is consistently in the top 20 commercial producers across the nation. Earlier this year I worked with Erik and his team on The Practice of Listening, and recently we sat down so he could share key insights into how critical the act of listening is to his business and how Listening Intelligence has transformed his organization. In the interview, Erik notes how both consumer and commercial insurance is such a high-touch client-service-based business. He estimates that 90% of the time that his team is interacting with a client it is because the client is having an issue with their world; an issue related to their home, their assets, or their business. Erik notes, “For the client, it can be high stress and high emotion. To them and for them, we are problem solvers.”
I interviewed Erik Russel at a coffee shop here in Denver, CO, and then we took a walk to learn more about his journey building his business, crafting a powerhouse team, and constantly evolving an intentional process for growth and service as he scales his agency. The coffee shop interview is below and the longer story we captured in the accompanying video. Take a read, and have a listen!
Dave: “Describe the biggest ongoing challenges of building and running a successful insurance agency?
Erik: “You always have to prospect or perish. You always consider that anyone is a potential customer. If you aren’t selling, you aren’t eating. Then once you can get some transaction, you add some staff. But you have to properly delegate, empower, let go and trust your team to do great work. The goal is to hire and grow a team that can get the job done.
One of the biggest obstacles you have — each person you hire has a unique style, personality, etc. And in our business, it’s important for us to communicate rationally. You can sell on emotions, but we hope to solve problems rationally and quickly. That’s our role to our clients. People call with problems. Not with praise. This is an emotional business. We [my team] are often receiving information from our clients in an emotional way, which makes sense. But we are best serving our clients when we stay poised and rational and listen intentionally to their actual concerns so that we can solve their problems. Our clients need to feel heard, almost more than anything. If we respond emotionally, that’s when our process and value breaks down.
And in our business, when people have a complaint or a bad experience they tell 20 people, so you have to constantly be vigilant that you are handling people’s issues gracefully and efficiently. The consequences of making a mistake and mishandling a client’s problem, especially in a referral business, can break you. It’s a cut-throat business and there is a lot of competition.
Our team and how well we communicate and solve problems, that is what differentiates us and helps us to stand apart. It’s good to feel competitive and win, and do good things for our clients. But you have to constantly find new ways to solve problems, be relevant, and solve problems across a multitude of generations and scenarios — it’s a spectrum — we have to be flexible in our style and means, our approach, the way we market, the way we serve, and we have to put listening first.”
Dave: “What has the impact of Listening Intelligence had on the way you lead your team?”
Erik: “Personally, I’ve become less emotional. I solve problems more efficiently. I’m actually faster at solving problems, even though I’m slower in the way I process and synthesize information. It’s about being intentional. That whole take a break, think, and then respond concept, that’s gold. And that makes us more efficient overall. There’s less of a chance of an argument, or a negative interaction with a customer because we have the skills and take the time to understand what our client's issues really are, or what my team really needs from me.
We are constantly dealing with unique problems, and as we get bigger and bigger, as our book grows, naturally we have more clients, more issues, and we need to be constantly using this skill set to handle these problems and challenges in a productive way.
For us as a team, we comprehend and we listen more effectively because we understand where our clients are coming from. You know the way they bring issues to us…, we can tell a bit about what kind of communicator they are, and what they care about. What’s most important to them. If we can pick up on these clues and queues, we can more productively handle their problem or challenge, and they know they can count on us as their trusted partner.”
Dave: What has the impact of Listening Intelligence had on the overall operation of acquiring and serving clients?
Erik: “Where am I right now? I’m with you, in a coffee shop, because I can trust my team to take care of our clients because we have a practicum and a shared process. I know my staff is equipped and I don’t have to be a babysitter or a micromanager. I have staff that is rocking and rolling. They can handle almost all aspects of the business without me there, which really results in freedom for the first time ever. I have clients that have only ever dealt with me that are now fully entrusted to my team. I’m comfortable with it — I trust my team. And most importantly, my clients trust and are confident in my team.
This allows me to actually put new staff in with my existing team, and there are processes in place. We have a set of communication values and protocols — people know there’s a certain way to handle things. There’s a best-practices way to interact with our clients that both represent our values and intentions, but also impacts profit and client retention.
Dave: “What has been the ultimate result of approaching listening as a strategic business function?”
Erik: “All in all, profit is up 30%, and the amount of time I spend in the office is probably down 30%. I’m out being the relationship manager, which is what I wanted to create for the last six years and I’ve finally gotten there.
We have a one-stop-shop policy — if we have an opportunity to solve the issue in one “interaction” we seek to do it, and my team is empowered to do so. We are all connected via chat, internally, and with HQ — and we strive to solve the problem right there on the spot. For me as the owner and the leader of this team, that’s leading to more profit and more freedom to truly be the relationship manager and business builder that I’ve always wanted to be.”
Watch the full 13-minute in-person interview here:
Thank you to Erik for sharing his journey and insights. To learn more about Erik, visit Russell Insurance Services.
If you are an executive leader seeking to drive productivity, profit, and happy people, get in touch at DavidMomper@ThrivalConcepts.com