It's easy to focus on the things you need to reach your goals.
But what if putting the needs of everyone else first got the job done instead?
That's how significance can lead your agency to develop a brand people are attracted to.
Like being an agency that calls every single client, just to see how they're doing.
That's one of the ways Peter van Aartrijk, CEO of Aartrijk, thinks you can improve the level of significance your agency creates.
Full Episode Transcript
Joey Giangola: Mr. Peter van Aartrijk, how are you doing today, sir?
Peter van Aartr...: I'm doing good, Joey. Thanks for having me on the show.
Joey Giangola: Peter, I'm curious, I want to know what is the place that you go to that is maybe unlikely for marketing, branding, education. Just to kind of feel like you're peaking in something that's maybe outside of the traditional industries that you deal with or even just pay attention to what maybe some would be considered untraditional branding that you just admire from afar.
Peter van Aartr...: Well, I listen to a lot of Ted Talks and I listened to a lot of podcasts, even the true crime ones that don't have anything to do with brand or do they? The brand is all around us and so is the culture, which is the internal brand or the employment brand. I find myself having bounced around insurance for, gosh, it's been well since '82, when I joined AM Best company as a reporter. I've been bouncing around the industry, so you've got to get outside of the industry. And even the local chamber of commerce meetings, which now occur on Zoom here in Fairfax, Virginia, it's refreshing to see that other small, because the majority of them are small business, Joey, and to see that they kind of have their challenges, kind of rhyme with insurance agent challenges. Not exactly the same but they kind of rhyme and it's a good break from all the insurance stuff. But I do love the insurance industry.
Joey Giangola: Yes, we certainly all do. I do agree though, I think it's important to kind of take a peek over the fence more often than not, to see what's going on because if you stay looking at what everybody else is always doing then we're stuck with the same ideas again getting passed around.
Peter van Aartr...: Yeah, and I will say this, I feel really fortunate to be working in the insurance industry, and I don't know how the viewers and listeners feel about that on your end, but it just seems to me, kind of like a survival, it's a survival industry. It survives all of these crises, whether they're manmade or supernatural, like our COVID is. It just chugs right along. Now you can say, there's people hurting out there, for sure, in our industry but it does okay. You look at most people that have lost their jobs in COVID. The last recession in '08, '09, they called it a man session because a lot of people in financial services, a lot of senior executives who tend at least 10 years ago, tended to be on the male side, lost their jobs.
This time it's largely women who have lost their jobs. A lot of jobs have come back, but there's a lot of suffering in commercial lines, employee benefits, the restaurant industry, Joey, and where we are here in Fairfax County, about 20% of the employment base is restaurants. So, if you're an agency with a restaurant book, I know that's got to be pretty painful what those guys are going through and you feel it for your customers. But overall insurance, people renew their policies. In some commercial lines, that's not the case. They're cutting back on coverage or they're maybe not buying that endorsement or maybe not even renewing. If your restaurant's not open, it's hard to pay for the insurance. Many other lines have also actually increased, like landscape architects. People are sitting at home, and they're saying, hey, let's take that tree down. Let's put the pool in. Let's get the bathroom remodeled. And so those guys are doing really well.
Joey Giangola: Yeah. What do you think because there is that sort of comfort, there is sort of that traditional the policy generally renews, at least if you're on the low end, 80 to 85% of the time, even some of the times. So what do you think is maybe necessary during this readjustment period for agents to consider, in terms of that communication? How do they extend their brand? How do they allow it to live, maybe in a different space that they have never really thought it needed to at this point?
Peter van Aartr...: That's a great question, Joey. I don't know exactly where to start with answering because there're different layers, we can get into it. I feel like now is not the time to take your customers for granted. I mean, it never was, but now is certainly not the time. Reaching out to them, even the ones that you have talked to frequently, I think over communicating right now is a good thing.
Starting first though, with your own employees. A lot of agencies have not actually stopped going to the office. A lot of them, I don't know what, maybe it might even be half, doesn't mean the entire staff is going to the office. But your people can't do their jobs if they're not feeling secure, so making sure you communicate with your own teams is really critical. And then in turn, reaching out to the customers. I mean all of them, literally contacting all of them. There's nothing like a personal phone call to somebody. It's hard to visit with them now, of course, but I'm a big fan of Daniel Burrus, the futurist, again, another outsider where I get some ideas from.
But he talks about now is the time to be of significance to people as opposed to worrying about your own success. When you worry about your success, it's all about your own financial growth and your own numbers. When you worry about significance to others, you care about your family, your employees, your customers, and how you can help them, and just talking through some things. I mean, a lot of people are hurting. A lot of people aren't sure. So chatting with them and not trying to always sell them something, although that's, as we all know, that's part of this process. But checking in on a purely human level is really important.
So if I'm an agency owner, if I'm in charge of service at an agency, if I'm a CSR, if I've got spare minutes in my day, I'm on the phone. I'm just calling people. I'm just chatting with them. Nothing replaces that reaching out and talking to people, Joey. I mean, we always say, this is a human business. This is a relationship business. What an opportunity now, when we're all just all upside down with our workdays to spend time on the phone with people.
Joey Giangola: Well, that's an interesting thing. It's one of those things that it sounds too easy. It sounds too simple. It's like, oh, hey, guess what call your customers. No, just call all of them. And I mean, I would imagine, too, the ripple effect that, that would have beyond just those singular interactions would be pretty great, just in the sense of, that's going to ripple out to, they're going to say, "hey, guess what my insurance agent just called me and was just wanting to see how it was doing and reviews and things like that". Do you think it's a little shortsighted a lot of times where like, "I'm not going to call every", it's just one of those things. It seems too simple, but if you executed it fully, just the overall impact that it could potentially have.
Peter van Aartr...: I know it's a challenge when you've got thousands of customers, but what a great opportunity to talk with them. Even the ones that are like your C customers. They buy one policy or they're on the books for years, home and auto and you don't really chat with them. It's just renewable, renewable, renewable. What a great opportunity and let's say you don't get to a hundred percent because you have thousands of customers. But why not try? Why not try to actually chat with them?
I had a great chat with our CSR, the one who handles our companies coverages, professional liability, the Bop policy, the whole shebang, and we had a great conversation. I mostly, emailing with her over the years. She handles our personal stuff, too. But it's not like, she called me and that's why I got this idea. It's like, this is really interesting. She's working out of her house. And she said, "just calling people I haven't talked to in a while". And I think that's useful time.
I don't know how it translates to email marketing and prospecting and those things that agencies need to do. But I find it really refreshing to think that on a purely human level, to see just how you're doing. And I tell you what, if you're a restaurant owner, I'm sure you've been on the phone with them delivering the news that this ain't covered. Even if you bought the business interruption or contingent business interruption coverage, it's not covered. The virus is not covered and it's painful news to deliver. But I think people from what I've heard from agents, they've delivered that news and the restaurant owners understand, and they've had good conversations. I think it's the human touch right now is really important, to put your arms around your people, put your arms around your customers and try to have some meaningful conversation.
Joey Giangola: I think what's important there is just the initiation point of how are you doing. Not, well, hey, let's just make sure the policies. I mean, because there's a tendency to do that, too. There's just a, "Hey, how is your business doing? What's going on there?" And even if, like you said, even if you don't get to everybody, they say it's the effort that counts or something like that. They'll say, "Oh, they're at least trying."
What do you think can be done besides that to sort of differentiate that communication because we have been, I don't want to hear the word unprecedented again. There are certain words that have now triggered me in terms of saying like, let's try a little bit harder here. How can we level up that communication a little bit to sort of be more authentic and just kind of cut through the noise?
Peter van Aartr...: Yeah, we could play some COVID buzzword bingo.
Joey Giangola: Yes. That would be great. That should be a fun...
Peter van Aartr...: Then new normal and unprecedented time. It's sort of nauseating. I actually think that we're going to have a lot of just bizarre events happening in our world for years and years and years. All kinds of things are going to happen, natural catastrophes, the hurricanes this year are going to be off the charts. All these things are going to happen in the financial markets. We have social unrest. It's like a crazy time. Again, my point, what a wonderful time to be in the insurance industry, which is that just chugs along and supports the economy in a huge way. It keeps businesses working, surety bonds make construction projects happen. You really step back and look at it and say, well, this is a really good industry, a solid industry and we're going to be there for people. We have the financial capital to do it.
But to answer your question, Joey, I think if I'm an agency owner, I would dust off, hopefully not dust off, but for some of us we have to dust off our core values. Which are, for me, it's the North Star of what guides, how our people behave. And so, usually it's a list of five to seven action items. It's the X, if you think about brand and culture. So brand externally, the external expression, on one side of the infinity symbol on the other side is the internal, the culture, the employment brand, the infinity symbol. In the middle, where that X is, is where core values live. Because core values are lived on the inside and shared on the outside. But you have to capture, what is it like to work here? If one of our core values is challenge the status quo.
Well then maybe we do call every single customer on our list. It sounds like something that's an impossible task, but if we're going to challenge the status quo of what relationships are all about, maybe we should do that. I think agents have a tendency to create these mission, vision, value statements. They have other information on their website, their narrative, like here's how our agency was founded and it's three generations, and here's what we're all about. They have a tendency to not really talk about things that are really meaningful to customers.
And so, to get back to your question. I would look at our list of core values. And there's some really good examples out there. I like, if you look at Thimble. Thimble of InsureTech, that ensures all kinds of people. But also if they're challenging the status quo of the annual policy, and it's sort of like the gig economy. Let's insure you for an hour, for a day, for a week, for a month, then a year, if you want. But Thimble has their core values on their website. And you look at them and say, "wow, that's really New York City". That's what it's like to work downtown Manhattan at Thimble. It's like, be on time, you're late, stuff like that. They talk in New York about the New York minute, like we're always in a hurry.
But those core values are something that should be shared with the customer. So changing the conversation away from just coverages and talk more about the people side and what it's like to be working at Smith and Jones Insurance and how our people behave. Those kinds of conversations, people look at it and say, "Wow, you guys really are a human brand." It's not just the logo. It's not just the name. It's not all about the primadonna producer or the high ego owner. It's really about your people. They really do seem to care about others.
And when core values are authentic, like if challenge the status quo is one of yours, it has to be good for you. It may not work for the guy down the street, it might be good for your firm. When they're authentic to you, your people are free to use that as their employee manual and just stay on script and say, "well, this is who we are, this is how we act". The other piece, the second piece is your vision, which is your why. And that's one of the tenants of the brand strategy. The vision is why you exist as a firm. And I would say in times like this, times of trouble, you want to return to your core values and your vision statement, which is not about how much you want to grow, not about your success. It's about, again, being significant to others.
So what is the better world you're trying to create by helping people with their risk management needs, detecting them financially? What is the better world you're trying to create for your customers? And when you talk about your customers with your vision, and insurance is a wonderful industry to talk about vision of protecting people, standing behind them, backing them up. These are really important words. And I think we have a tendency in our industry just to seem, it's all about the stuff. It's all about the coverage. And it's so much more than that. People don't care about stuff. They care about why you care about them.
Joey Giangola: Yeah. And that's, I think, one of the things that does, like you'd said, kind of go untouched for a while and let's say, maybe it's outdated, so how do you refresh those core values? How do you put those different pieces together to where they're relevant today, if you haven't touched them for five, 10, 15 years, maybe you never had them before? How do you start to develop those and really put them at the front of your company and your brand?
Peter van Aartr...: Well, that's a great question. I think one of the first things that could have happened, the very first zoom call you had with your staff could have been around core values. After you got the phone systems worked out and who's going to answer the phone and so on, when you're working at home. I know that's a challenge for, especially for those agents that did not have a telephone and IT plan for working remotely. The core values, they're not created by consultants. They're created internally, again, authentic to the team. So again, if you have a list of five to seven statements, not things like the customer's always right, which isn't true and isn't even a core value. How is that an action statement, the customer's always right? So really looking at how we, as a company, are going to, things like communicate honestly.
So when you have a call with your team, which if you haven't done since this all started with COVID, this would be a great meeting to have with your staff, where you gather them together remotely and go right down the list of core values. Dust them off, as I said, or create them. And say, what's it like to work here? If we're going to say communicate honestly, what does that mean? Celebrate diversity, what does that mean for us? How could I use that in my job, whatever the job would be?
And they have to work for everybody from the CEO owner all the way down to people who are working in processing. They have to work for the staff. So having conversations around each, and one at a time. In a larger firm, you got to have each department talking about the core values. And I would say too, if it's been 10 or 15 years, as you said, what a great time to look at the ones that may not make sense anymore, and some that may make some sense for your firm.
Joey Giangola: You mentioned the word significance a couple of times, Peter. I'm curious if you had to pick one way that, I'll give you a choice, either you think is a good way to be significance for yourself or for your company, or a one way to be significant from the agent's perspective, what they can do beyond the call everybody. Is there something else that they could center that mission around?
Peter van Aartr...: I think if you say, if you really look at that significance versus success, success, let's talk about success for a second. Whether it's for our company, I mentioned we're having a really good year because people need to communicate and they need help doing it. Okay, so you look at say, well, we're growing, we're getting calls, etc. That's all great and that's the result of our marketing, etc., of our own firm. For an agency, this is very much a left brain business, the right brain management by objectives, I'm sorry, left brain, which is rational numbers focused, growth, net new clients, policies per customer, these kinds of metrics. The insurance industry on the carrier side is run by left brain rational thinkers, transactional thinkers who are important because if you don't underwrite well and don't have good actuaries and good data and stuff you can get in big trouble real fast in our industry.
When I think of being significant though, that's where it's a bit more of a transformational thinking, Joey, instead of transactional. It's a bit more of the right brain emotional side. And I think organizations need both of those things to be successful. But what our industry needs more of is transformational thinking where you really do care about other success. You care about managing change. A time like this for people who are transformational thinkers, this is a great time to put in place some things that you may not have been able to do before. Because I mean, here we are forced to work at home, so what is the ramifications of that are just amazing. Could this be a permanent shift? Could this be a tremendous opportunity to lower your expenses as a firm and actually write more business using technology?
Because there's a lot of unrest out there, a lot of agents are feeling pain. I looked at numbers from some of our clients, which are the Big Eye, REG Consulting and InsurBanc. And I think we're going to see this lag, Joey, of sales and revenues that are going to be struggling in the third and fourth quarters of this year, because it's taken time for all the sales pipeline to dry up. And some of this stuff with commercial lines to employee benefits, in particular, to come home to roost. But I think significance is about them. First, how can I help you, the employee? If the employees are not feeling settled, it's impossible for customers to like your agency, if the employees don't like their situation. So don't assume that you're going to jump right away to prospects, if you haven't taken care of your employees, your customers and your business partners really well first.
So being of significance to those three groups before you worry about new growth, I think it's really important. Just asking an open ended questions, Joey, how are you doing? Let them do the talking is one way to be significant. Do you have any pain? How can I help you? I know this sounds real touchy feely, I'm a branding guy, I get that. But it is incredible what people will tell you. I mean, I love research. If you do qualitative research, where you sit down and talk with people or over the phone, they will tell you some astonishing things you did not know about your own brand, about your company. You just got to ask the question. And stay away from the jargon, stay away from the selling and just ask people. That's how you can be significant.
Joey Giangola: Peter, I got two more questions for you. And where do you think, we've talked a lot about righting the ship, sort of stabilizing things and just getting that foundation back, but as we peer up and to look to see what's next, what is the next frontier, as far as branding and communication goes for agencies? Where should we be putting our attention to that message down the road here, right around the corner?
Peter van Aartr...: That's a really good question, Joey. Part of me is feeling that it's the old stick to your knitting, stick to your brand, stick to your culture, work on the internal external brands, the messaging that supports what you're about and where you're going as a firm are still critical pieces you can use in times of strife like this and in the good times. Making sure you have your story straight, that it resonates with people still that's one thing.
I would say the bigger picture might be, today, is ensuring that you're not a, I know this is going to, this might irritate some people, but that you stay away from the word generalist. I think a lot of agencies are forced to be "generalists". If they're on Main Street in a small town. I mean the vast majority of agencies are actually pretty small. 35% of them have less than 150,000 in revenue. So over a third of them are real mom and pops, so I get that.
But when you think about your messaging, you can still be a generalist behind the scenes, but when you talk about, let's say families, let's say personal lines is a big part of your book. So how do you make it, not that you are take all commerce. You're just a generalist, personal lines, insurance agency. We help families. Find words that describe niches within those general buckets. I think that would be really useful. We know the fastest growing agencies are already in the niche business, whether that's programs or they're really good at writing horse farms or whatever it is. Everywhere you go, there are focus areas. So because from the customer perspective, they want to know that you're listening to their needs and you have good coverages to back them up. So, get the word generalist out of your vernacular.
But the other thing is, maybe this is more internal, Joey, but before you can expect to write these vast numbers of newer generations, emerging customers in their twenties and thirties, I think you need to have those people working at your agency. And so, you can't expect, as you know this is not a new thing, but people tend to buy from other people that are sort of like them plus, or minus five years their age. And so, before you can look cool, if you're an older agency principal in your forties, fifties, sixties, I think you have to kind of, you got to walk the walk with having staff who can resonate with those groups.
And also diversity, which is a real narrative today in 2020. I think the more agents I talk with and this was my own silly assumption. We are a very, very diverse country, but we're also more diverse an industry than we give ourselves credit for. We have more work to do. But I think the agencies that have gone that route who hire diverse talent, not only just in terms of race and religion, but also age, gender, of course, but age and how people think. Having that balance of right and left brain, as I mentioned, rational and emotional thinkers. And just challenge how you're doing things, but start looking at your staff before you worry about prospects and customers. I think that's really critical.
Joey Giangola: All right, Peter, last question to you, sir. I'm going to hand you a magic wand of sorts and it's going to allow you to change, really anything a little bit differently. Have something happen a little bit better, a little bit faster in the industry. Something that you just feel has the potential to be where it needs to be. What is that thing? What's going on? Where are you putting all of that effort?
Peter van Aartr...: I would rip up all our insurance policies, especially the ones that are in all capital letters. I think we need a reboot of what we're doing. I realized they have years and years of legalees and under contracts. I don't mean to be flippant about it. But I feel like we have to rebrand the entire industry. And I mentioned Thimble, but there's other InsureTechs out there who are coming in from the outside and they've been for several years now, with some new ideas that we look at and say, "That's kind of wacky. Those people don't understand our industry at all. They're going to fail." Well, a lot of them will. But a lot of them will help the folks in our industry become more modern. And I look at InsureTechs, Joey, and it's everything I mentioned earlier about the employment base of those firms.
They're not telling people where to dress, how to work, when to come in, when to leave. They are very well diversified. They have bright ideas from all around the world. They have maybe one idea that might change, let's say how people buy renter's insurance or how they process commercial lines coverage. You look at some of their logos, which I know is the fun part, the artsy part of it. But there are these bright, new colors you don't see in the insurance industry. You see a lot of blue, because the shirt I'm wearing is from Acuity, right? Not knocking on Acuity, but this is kind of insurance blue. And you look at all these clues, like the jargon we use, the policies and it's hard to read them.
If I could wave a magic wand, we would just be hipper, cooler, more modern, we're friendly, more human, because we are a relationship business. We always say that, but why do we make it so hard for the customer? Why? Why not be more, I don't know what the word is. I'd say hip or cooler, but that's not even, hip isn't even a cool word anymore, and hip was like something from the sixties. But I mean, why can't we be more of a human business? That's what I would love to see.
Joey Giangola: Peter, hip is definitely cool with me still. I appreciate it. This has been awesome. I'm going to leave it right there, sir.
Peter van Aartr...: You got it, Joey. Thanks for your time.