There's been a lot written about how COVID-19 has altered so many aspects of our lives, both personally and professionally. The pandemic ushered in dramatic shifts in our jobs, eating habits, childcare, and even our collective sense of time.

Quincy Branch, president/CEO of Branch Benefits Consultants, and Jana Foster, owner/producer at Nevada Insurance Agency, shared their experiences and changes they've made -and will be making in today's new world on the RPS Change Insurance podcast.

Step Back, Reevaluate, and "Do Things Smarter"

For Branch, the COVID-19 upheaval was a time to step back and look at the processes the agency used to get things done. He knew the agency wasn't embracing technology like it should to improve efficiencies and client servicing.

"Our technology is a Cadillac, but we were driving it like a Pinto," he says. He and his staff decided last year to change this paradigm and make a concerted effort to look at how they could do things smarter and better, optimizing the technology they already had in place.

"For example, we were not maximizing [our current platform] at full capacity. We added a couple of additional widgets to the system and are in the process of incorporating [additional software] to take our agency where we want," Branch shares.

Put Someone in Charge

Branch got everyone in the agency to understand the need to accelerate automation and embrace the plans. He also assigned his chief technology officer (CTO) with the task of taking the agency to the next level, who wholeheartedly accepted the initiative and ran with it.

"Our agency would not be where we are today if it weren't for him helping us to get what we needed to accomplish our objectives," says Branch.

Branch emphasizes that gone are the days where an operation equipped with a website and social media presence is considered a digital agency, and that those who continue to stick to this playbook will remain behind the curve.

This insight really came to a head during COVID-19, with consumer demand to make insurance really simple and the resulting InsurTech explosion. The pandemic era has proven how truly digital the world really is, how consumers can-and how they want to-be reached and, more importantly, how transactions and processes need to be done in quick and easy steps. Doing what the customer wants helps insurance agencies operate at peak performance.

"I didn't want to be the agency owner who always found the new shiny object and then, after a bit, abandoned it," says Branch. "I wanted to ensure that whatever we purchased, we then adopted and integrated into our operation.

"My CTO holds me and my staff accountable to ensure that we utilize and optimize our platforms and tools for a better customer experience and operational efficiencies. If we employ a new process, we look to see if there is technology available that can help us with it. If so, we incorporate the process into our workflow, supported by the corresponding technology."

Remember That "Change Is Inevitable. Growth Is Optional."

This quote from John Maxwell graces Branch's desk and resonates with him. It's his true north in business and in his personal life, reminding him that COVID-19 has taught us to be adaptable, but how we choose to grow from here is up to us.

"The great Bruce Lee said, 'Be like water,'" which the insurance industry needs to realize, explains Branch. "Clients change. Clients' needs change. And if we are truly here to serve the client, then our business model has to be adaptable."

That said, Branch points out that "through all the recessions, and world pandemic, and everything else, the insurance industry has stood the test of time, so we're doing something right."

For Branch, the biggest takeaways from the past year and moving forward are to look at what clients want and how his agency can do business better.

Flexibility Is Key Post-COVID

When the pandemic hit, like most professional businesses, Foster's agency went remote. With two locations in Nevada, the staff quickly adapted to working from home using Zoom for meetings and client interactions.

In some ways, Foster says, the agency's internal meetings with producers and customer service representatives were more efficient because everyone was busy balancing work-life responsibilities. People became comfortable working from home, with many employees not only embracing the change but also preferring it.

A year later, as the agency gets ready to reopen its physical offices, people are eager to go back, even those who loved working from home. With the stage set to return, though, one thing is clear to Foster: continuing to embrace flexibility is critical.

"COVID showed us how we could continue to be responsive amid a new environment," Foster says, "and moving forward we can address our client needs differently depending on their preference.

"Our agency has been around since 1935 and we have many clients who come into the agency to pay their premiums or chit-chat with their agent. This is great, and we'll always be here for those who want to come in. At the same time, we have clients who now realize they can opt to pay online or over the phone, and we are here to accommodate them" as well, she continues.

Provide the Right Tools for Employees

In addition to providing flexibility for clients, the last year also underscored the different work preferences among employees and the need to provide them with the tools they need to get things done.

"Some want to communicate via chat, others want to text, while others want to pick up the phone," says Foster. "In some cases, it's a generational gap that drives the way in which people prefer to work. We want to help them do what works best for them and our clients - as long as it's efficient for everyone and works for the agency."

Share Best Practices with Other Independent Agencies

Foster would also like to see more collaboration in the insurance industry with independent agents sharing what has worked for them, including the now in-process transition to return-to-work and any new practices being adopted (e.g., hybrid work), what new markets they are going after, diversity training, and other relevant issues.

The new era of work and how agencies adapt and make changes to continue to grow will reveal itself as time goes on. Will more agencies embrace and truly utilize technology to optimize their internal processes and customer experiences? Will companies continue to offer flexibility to employees that aligns with their work preferences and helps attract and retain staff moving forward? Stay tuned.