The most important thing you can do is to give people a chance.
Because old habits die hard and changing the direction of your agency doesn't happen overnight.
However, there will come a time when tough decisions have to be made.
The truth is, some of your longest-tenured employees might not buy into where you want to go.
Bogus Handzel, Chief Operating Officer at Handzel & Associates, talks about the journey his agency has been on for this new generation of ownership.
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Full Episode Transcript
Joey Giangola: Mr. Bogus Handzel, how are you doing today, sir?
Bogus Handzel: I'm doing great, Mr. Giangola. It's been a long time.
Joey Giangola: It has been indeed, longer than I care to admit. But before we jump into anything all that serious, I want to know this first. What's one thing that you should trust but you just can't find yourself to actually take that trust in the thing that is mostly in assuming that most people have no problems with?
Bogus Handzel: Roller coasters.
Joey Giangola: All right. I mean, that's a little severe. I mean, I guess that's more valid, because there has been actual instances where things have gone wrong.
Bogus Handzel: Yeah, I don't know. I've always been afraid of roller coasters since I was young. My mom claims that there was a boy on our block when I was just a few years old that would like to push me in my stroller. And once he pushed me too fast and ever since then I've been afraid of heights and speed. The speed thing has obviously gone away since I'm super into cars and doing high-performance driving events and stuff like that, but the fear of heights still exists, and I don't think I've been on a roller coaster since I've probably been 10 years old. And even then, I'm pretty sure I cried when that happened. So fear of roller coasters, which most people, they don't have a problem with. They trust that.
Joey Giangola: I don't know, I'm with you. I feel like it sometimes could be just an unnecessary risk. I mean, what are we doing here? Like I really need that 45 seconds of excitement in my life that I-
Bogus Handzel: Yeah. It's the hook of the adrenaline. Once you get it, sometimes it's tough for people to give up. Right?
Joey Giangola: Is it the combination of the speed and the heights coming into play at the same time that you might be taking the biggest issue with?
Bogus Handzel: I think for me it's heights. I think heights has always been kind of [inaudible].
Joey Giangola: Just heights. Well, for me, mine is much less life-threatening, but for whatever reason, I can't seem to trust the ice cream truck. It feels like just such a strange occurrence to me, a dude drive around with food in a car that you have no verification of, and I don't like it. And usually my kids are involved, and so I want to ask for some sort of certification from the county commissioner. I don't know.
Bogus Handzel: Has the health code been [inaudible] by? Has it been recently checked? Yeah. I mean, it's an interesting ... I mean, it's summer now. It's getting hot in Chicago, so I'd love to have some ice cream, but it's one of those things where, I mean, it's an interesting business model. I'm really curious to see how much ice cream you've got to push to really make a good living with that.
Joey Giangola: I mean, it might come back to the whole don't take candy from strangers thing that was berated into us as children. But I mean, yeah, just the idea of like, "I'm just going to drive and hope somebody is outside for me to sell to." I mean, it is very strange.
But let's move on to something maybe a little more relevant in terms of I don't want to say that you maybe necessarily fit this mold, but you are a person that ... I don't want to say doesn't trust things at your agency, but you're always looking for ways to make sure that you guys know what's going on and that you are trusted and have the right things in place. What does that look like in your agency in terms of how do you approach making sure that you guys are always doing the right thing?
Bogus Handzel: Are you talking about from as an agency perspective or from a management perspective? Because I think that's two very different questions, right?
Joey Giangola: Let's go the operations route.
Bogus Handzel: Operations route? I think it's one of those things where I'm always in a position to try to improve a process. And you've known me long enough for the fact that sometimes I get stuck on things because I feel like they haven't reached that necessary level of readiness for me to release them. And then I just overthink, overthink, overthink, and it just doesn't end up going anywhere, where 90% of the people out there would be perfectly fine with what they've already come up with at that point.
But even now, as the agency has gone through so many changes in the last five years, I still hear things that we're constantly adjusting, and those are simple items, like the way that we talk to customers on renewal calls or the way that we email clients, the verbiage in those emails. Whenever I see it and whenever I hear the reaction between either the client base or my service team base, I try to always find small little areas of improvement to keep that ever evolving to hopefully get to that final form.
But it's a job that's never done, and my office is strategically positioned within the building where acoustically I basically can hear every single corner. So I can hear conversations and know exactly what needs to be addressed quickly to make sure that that doesn't happen again in the future. Just constant betterment of all the processes.
Joey Giangola: I mean, office position could be some sort of indicator of trust factor overall, but I mean, that's an interesting dynamic you have there. Well, so I guess in terms of getting over that fear of releasing things before they're ready, have you made progress in that? Is that something that you feel maybe ... Well, better question. Do you think it's actually served you well in some cases or has it maybe hindered your progress?
Bogus Handzel: There's definitely been a huge benefit. With that transition phase came obviously ownership from my father to my brother and I and the agency. And plus, on top of that, we were looking at tenured employees that have been with us between ... Our longest term employees are 30, 31 years for employee number two at the agency. Next one's 28 years. So there is a huge mind shift of the way that they're doing operations.
So I think when we start changing everything and really changing the team, we had buy-in. We had people that just couldn't see the new vision that unfortunately we had to part ways, because it just didn't work out. And then we had new people come in that were referred by current employees, which is the best source of referral for new employees. And we just have a good team now where that trust exists mutually, where I can push things off or get things to a certain point and then have someone else finish out the details and put that into motion. So that's been a huge improvement as to where we were a bunch of years back, where now I'm not the only one doing it. My brother, Lucas, isn't the only one doing it. But now we have a whole organizational team that works together to meet the goals of the agency.
Joey Giangola: Yeah. I mean, so all right, let's dive into that process a little bit of sifting through making that transition, having to deal with people that probably saw you running around the office as a little kid in some way, shape, or form, and now you're in the seat of, like you said, ownership and guiding the direction and vision. How did you handle that? And like you said, some people necessarily didn't come on board, but that can be a difficult time to have to have those conversations with those people.
Bogus Handzel: Yeah. It's definitely a difficult time. For me, it was the hardest because it's something that I've always, like you said, I grew up in the agency. I was running around at the age of five putting files in and people were picking the [inaudible] or grabbing me hot dogs from the corner hot dog place when our office was a little bit more in the city.
It's a level of proving yourself to them. In some instances on the people that you parted ways, I always did everything I could to make sure that that transition included everybody that we had before the ownership change and the change of the processes and the systems. I wanted to include everybody and say, "Hey, we're thankful for all the years you've put into the business to make us as successful as we are today. This is what our next vision is for the next 30 years. Let's see what we can do to move forward and constantly have those follow-up conversations to see where it goes."
But that change was hard, because you start seeing those ingrained tendencies of people that have just been stuck in a single set mind of the way that they do things. And there were just some breakups that were unfortunate. But it was definitely hard, and I think I took it personally, just because of the level of having to prove yourself, and you build relationships with these people for so many years. You hate to see those breakaway, unfortunately.
Joey Giangola: What's the one thing that you would either do differently or maybe tell somebody else to look out for, if either they're, one, about to come into that position where they're going to be taking ownership in the agency and they have some of these decisions or conversations to have, and/or maybe somebody that has already done it and it's just lingering and it's a problem, right? It's something that they constantly think about. Is there something that you would look back on and say, "Boy, pay attention to this. Don't do that"?
Bogus Handzel: It's tough to say there is something specific to focus on, because every agency operates differently. For me, personally, where I see where issues come up or let's say things evolve into issues unnecessarily is on the side, for me, of lack of communication, where I think it might be a small issue at that time, but then I notice that same issue maybe three or four times. I still don't bring it up and have that discussion, and then it turns into a bigger issue at that point. But that's a personal issue with me where I sometimes have trouble communicating as clearly as I'd like to to make sure that both parties understand.
And then when you're having a conversation like that with a team member, it's super tough to also make sure that they'll understand the way that you want them to. So it's the conversation. It's the follow-up. It's making sure things are improving. And sometimes on my side, with all the changes going on, before I had the team that I have now where I can delegate things, it was tough to tackle all that at once and the things that fall off were those important conversations, unfortunately, in those situations. So for me, it'd probably be make sure that you're communicating with all parties involved to make sure that the vision is the same and no one's being left behind in that.
Joey Giangola: I guess we've talked a lot about the internal focus on what had to be done, but externally, what did clients see? What was the thing that maybe stood out that was you and Lucas's primary objective? Like if we're going to change one thing right away, what is that thing that we think needs really to go first? And what is that, I guess, message out out to everybody that you do business with?
Bogus Handzel: Rebranding. Rebranding was a huge thing for us. We updated our logo about six years ago. The first change was website mindset of clear goals for what the agency wants to be, the vision, then getting the right team in place. And this year, last year we were hoping to really focus on brand image. COVID put a little hiccup on that, because you weren't able to be everywhere you wanted to be. All the events were canceled and stuff like that, but that's a huge focus for us this year, and the team's on board making sure that we're moving in the right direction.
Actually, today is our first day. We just hired someone from marketing specifically, and that's our first day in the office today. So that's a big move for the agency, because that's something else that I can now delegate to someone. And she has experience in Chicago [inaudible] working for a few large grocery chains in the area and specifically focusing our niche, which is the Polish community.
But it's really brand image and education. You have every agency out there advertising for price or every company advertising for price. And we're constantly trying to evolve that conversation to coverages, making sure, because we understand that price at the end of the day is super important, but the knowledge that we're trying to teach our clientele about the coverages that they have and the differences in the product for them to make the right choice for their family, we've really doubled down on that one, making sure that our whole team is continuously learning more and more about insurance as a whole so they can answer the difficult questions when they're proposed and make recommendations on that behalf and change that.
We want to move away where people think that their insurance with is hands-on associates. We're the ones paying the claims. That's a tough mentality change, where some of the things might get lost in translation since 90% of our bulk of business is specifically Polish speaking. It's a little bit different for other agencies, but for us, it's all the work that we put in on the English side, we also have to duplicate on the Polish side, which we've also doubled down on duplicating Ukrainian, Russian, and then soon, hopefully, ,Spanish too, because that's the corner of the market that we want to niche in a little bit more.
Joey Giangola: Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up, because that wasn't something that I didn't realize for a long time that was such a big part of your business. Just exactly like you said, 90% of most of the business you do is in Polish. Right? And that's something that I don't even speak another language, so it doesn't even make sense to me.
If you were to, I guess, maybe say something, a benefit of that, outside of obviously knowing exactly who you're talking to and how you're talking to them, but is there anything that stands out to you over the years that you're so dedicated to not having to dictate how people talk to you. You're going to talk to them the way that they want to talk to you. Is there anything that you would say to other agencies that might not do that yet?
Bogus Handzel: I think that's a niche. I think that it's hard to be a generalized agent and do everything. In the '90s, that was much easier. Now with all the different forms of advertising, all the different forms of raising brand awareness for individual agencies, if you don't have a really strong niche for yourself and your agency, you're making it more difficult for yourself to be successful, in my opinion.
If I look at our client count and I look at based off of census reports, because that's basically what I could base it off of, the number of households within my local area that have Polish as a language within the household, we've only got 7% of that internally within the agency. Now imagine, as we increase that percentage, the size of our book of business and we do it, and we've also rolled out is that we've also added five other states to our book of business where we're writing, and that's specifically targeting data that we've found out there where we know that our niche community has migrated to. So Florida, Arizona, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana.
So we know where that clientele is and that population is, and we want to just make sure is that they're understanding insurance in whatever language is most comfortable for them rather than having to be uncertain of what they're signing or what they're purchasing and constantly being with that client throughout the journey of that financial reassurance.
Joey Giangola: I don't think I've ever asked you this question, but was part of that vision following that niche and saying like, "Listen, we can be more than what we are right here right now to this small circumference diameter of people"?
Bogus Handzel: Yeah. I mean, definitely when we started looking at it, obviously when you're ... There reaches a point in an agency, and a lot of agencies have been around for a long time, where you feel the necessary need for change. Okay? You might not know what that change has to be at that moment, and you overanalyze and then reanalyze and figure out which path you're going to go to.
So we explored different options, but we really realized about our specific place within the Polish community here in Chicago and all the things that we've done outside, raising money for charity, being at numerous sponsorship events, and constantly being involved in the Polish community here in Chicago, we just decided that it doesn't make sense for us to tackle other markets. Let's really focus on what we've been doing good for the last 30 years, and let's roll that out for the next 30 years, because city of Chicago, it's a giant city. We've only got 7% of the market, and our book of business is still pretty big, but we want to basically try to eventually expand that throughout other states and really service where it's a great layout for the customers to communicate in the language that they prefer.
Because when we made the biggest change over to our new current AMS system, one of the things we wanted to make sure is that it was easily visible as to any client that calls in, we know right away what language preference they want to be communicated in. So we already know, and then all the communications go in that specific language preference, so on and so forth, so that we want to make sure that they really understand what they're getting rather than getting the typical insurance jargon. And that's also reaching out to our carriers, making sure that our carriers are okay with us translating things, and verifying that it's okay for us to send that, because there's a lot of portal issues where clients can't service themselves because they don't understand.
So it's constantly a work in progress, making sure that they're able to function the same way as, let's say, you and I are able to function with technology in the insurance space for our own personal policies.
Joey Giangola: So you brought up that transition to the new AMS, and this is one thing I'm curious, again, of all the stuff that you've overcooked, I doubt that you've undercooked anything, but of all the different projects that you've ushered through the agency, what's maybe the most important one that has happened that you thought maybe it wasn't at the top of the list at the time, but ultimately ended up being? And then maybe what was one that you were really excited for, but ultimately had minimal impact on the overall agency's performance?
Bogus Handzel: The one that made the biggest changes, I took probably three weeks of my, the first, let's say, quarter of the time that we were starting to process the changes. Before we changed the EMS system, before we did anything, I really got down in the weeds of making sure, hey, figuring out what we did is I sat down as a customer service rep and handled the frontline calls for three weeks to see the processes that they were handling and doing, because, I mean, they are the forward-facing representatives of your agency, right?
When I saw that, I'd have the data to communicate back to them, "Hey, this is what I saw. What are you as a team doing in these situations? Where do we need to improve? What needs to change? Where are you going to need help?" And then start trying to figure out in those little gaps that I'm seeing, where I can use technology to make their lives a lot easier in those situations, which ended up leading to, hey, let's see what we can do in our current AMS system back then. And then noticing that old habits die hard. And then it's like, okay, clean slate. Everyone's starting on something new. But it took some time to get to that point where we were going to make ... It took about two years of cleaning up data, making sure our processes are the way that we want them right now before making the switch to new AMS system or pulling that trigger.
But I think that that was the biggest ... The biggest thing that was the first step is really understanding and cleaning the job site, as Billy Williams liked to say, knowing what was going on from the smallest incident within the agency, and then moving forward from that, because they're the ones picking up the phone calls. They're having those conversations. And then transitioning over.
And then after all that was cleaned out, then we focused in on the new business side. How we're onboarding clients, so on and so forth. But we wanted to make sure that during the changes we retain the customers that we currently have so they don't feel any interruption in that.
On the thing that, let's say, made the least amount of impact, I'm not sure. I've never really thought about that, so I don't have an easy answer for you there.
Joey Giangola: All right. I guess I'll let you off the hook, Bogus. I mean, or wasted the most amount of time, maybe? Maybe I'll take that, if there's something that just took a whole bunch of time that you felt like maybe just you felt like you wasted a lot of it.
Bogus Handzel: Back and forth conversations between then staff about where we're going and why we're going there. I think that may have been a little bit of time-waster. I probably could have cut that off a little bit early, but I'm one of those people that doesn't give up on people easily. But then when you after the fact you take a look at it and say, "This is what I probably should have done. This would probably have made it a little bit better." But if anything, it's the over-analyzing of changes that may have slowed things down, but eventually everything that we've put into play, because that over-analyzation on my side, probably it's turned out pretty well, because I've tried to view all the angles that it could come across there.
Joey Giangola: All right, Bogus. I've got three more questions for you. First one, real simply, what's one thing that you hope you never forget?
Bogus Handzel: Honestly, my love for the industry. I think that as I've grown into an agency becoming, working up from the mail room to where I am now today, it's an industry that even after I expect the agents who have been around for a long time, but if something were to ever happen, I don't see myself working in a different industry because of the context of friendships and the possibility of just improving the industry as a whole being out there. So that's something that I've fallen in love with, and I don't think that's anything that I'll ever forget, and I hope not to ever forget.
Joey Giangola: Now, on the other side of that, what's one thing you still have yet to learn?
Bogus Handzel: Every day something new. Lately we've had, with the weather and the current economic situation, there's all sorts of new claims instances that are coming across. You're diving into those situations, you're learning or you're teaching your team about that. I continuously try to learn something new every day, and you know that about me. In the agency world, it's tough because there's a lot of shiny objects out there and you're going to just have to pick the right shiny object to learn more about. But there's nothing really specific that's on the top of my mind right now. I've just gone through a lot of changes in the last five years in the agency. And now for me, it's time to come back and take a look at everything from the beginning and make sure that they're still functioning with all the additional changes that have gone through.
So I've actually been focusing on for the next two quarters is going back and just double checking everything with the team and making sure that, "Hey, this is where we are. This is what needs to be done," and hopefully having my team better those changes that once implemented. So I think on a learning point, I'm always trying to improve communication. So if it's anything, I'm constantly trying to learn how to communicate better with my team. That's probably the easy answer to that, but nothing specific knowledge wise other than that.
Joey Giangola: All right, Bogus. Last question to you, sir. If I were to hand you a magic wand of sorts to reshape, change, alter, speed up any part of insurance that you saw fit, what is that thing? What's it doing and where's it going?
Bogus Handzel: It's a loaded question. I think that there needs to be a little bit better communication from the carrier standpoint about what their vision is on their technology and how that's going to involve agencies. There's too much clutter. Agents, we know that the industry is slow to pivot to change. The carriers, the larger carriers, the ones that have been around for a long time, those are the ones that usually are the slowest to change. There has been a significant increase in speed as how they implement things and how they view the way that business is done today.
But you have these carriers go out there and put so much money into creating new systems just to launch that new system, and then that new system doesn't work half the day. It's super frustrating. I think that there needs to be a task force to make sure that they're communicating between all the available options out there. And there's a handful of one that interact with each other on everyday basis, and even those just don't work very well. So if I were to wave a magic wand, it'd probably be to have everybody get over their egos and sit down in a room and say, "Hey, how can we as a whole make this industry better and easier so we as a whole succeed?"
Joey Giangola: Bogus, this has been fantastic. I'm going to leave it right there, sir.
Bogus Handzel: Sounds good.