How to Take Control and Lead Your Clients With Confidence
Niki Henley, owner of Extra Mile Insurance Solutions, talks about how quickly she sets ground rules and commands respect.
This is one of those special situations where one plus one might actually equal three.
It doesn't matter how many great people you bring into your agency if you can't train them to stay.
Your ability to transfer knowledge also greatly impacts how far outside the industry you can look.
When both of these skills function together at a high level is when you truly unlock your full potential.
Nikki Brandt, owner of NB Talent, talks about the people she has helped find success in our industry.
Joey Giangola: Nikki Brandt, how you doing today?
Nikki Brandt: Good. How about you?
Joey Giangola: Nikki, I'm doing all right. I'm doing all right. I want to know this before we really get too serious about anything. Is there an activity or event that you have maybe an abnormal level of anxiety when inviting somebody to?
Nikki Brandt: No, I don't think so. Do most people have that?
Joey Giangola: It just means that you're maybe a confident party planner or something. You're always sort of confident where you're telling people to go. I personally don't like to obligate people to things. And maybe that's says more about me than it does about you, but I don't know. I feel like I never like to make somebody want to go somewhere.
Nikki Brandt: Yeah, no, I don't feel like I have issues with that.
Joey Giangola: Well, we'll track that confidence up and we'll sort of move on. The reason I ask is because I wanted to move that over to the world of insurance and the idea of asking people to join and come into it and how to get people involved in this industry. What do you come across in terms of their reception to it and how do you get that ball rolling?
Nikki Brandt: I mean, I think that insurance is not an industry that's enough talked about. People don't really know what they don't know. I hate to use that saying, but it's true. People, I thought for example, that it was just this boring, clerical behind a desk type of job. And my father-in-law actually was in the insurance business for, I don't know, 30 some years before he retired. And he introduced me to the idea of being an underwriter, and I didn't know what that was. And he's like, "The starting salary is $40,000. You're a people person, you'll do great."
I'm like, "All right, well, all I know is that's more than double what I make now doing public relations out of college. So sign me up." And what I found was it's a people business. It's working with people and it's a relationship business, whether that's underwriting or sales or claims or really most any sector within the industry. Marketing, risk control, you name it. And I don't think people know that that exists. And I think if it was more portrayed to people that it really is a fun job of people business that I think more would get into it.
Nikki Brandt: So I think it's just really about educating people and letting them know what the opportunities are and what they actually will be doing versus what they think they're doing, just sitting behind a desk. I think people think actuary, numbers, accounting type stuff, which is not really what our industry is.
Joey Giangola: It's definitely sort this chicken and egg sort of thing. How do we get that message out to them? But at the same time, we also have a hard time from the agency side of thing, agency owners kind of starting that conversation as well. Do you have any suggestions or solutions? What have you seen work well in captivating attention or at least helping to create that introduction?
Nikki Brandt: I mean I think the word of mouth coming from someone that you know and can trust, who's already successful in the industry can go a long way. So I think that kind of reaching down and mentoring and sharing the opportunities with someone that you know who's maybe an up and comer coming out of school or maybe who is, I've had a lot of success with new producers, conversations with new producer prospects from other industries, sales and other industries. They're selling some sort of product or service that's not like a recurring type of sale and it's more of a widget type of thing that can be sold by anyone with little to no expertise. And I kind of have this conversation of, "Hey, what if you had a product or a service that was recurring revenue, would pay you every year as long as you took care of it and it required some expertise on your part. It takes more time to learn up front, but that really, you can position yourself as an expert to really demonstrate that you are better than the next guy because you know your stuff. Does that appeal to you?"
Nikki Brandt: And I think if they like the hustle and the thrill and the fun and the money of sales, that definitely feels like an upgrade for most of them. So I think getting that word out, having the conversation with people who are that kind of personality, just aren't in the right place for them, can be really successful.
Joey Giangola: The recurring revenue, what is, I will call the secret lifeblood of insurance. It's this thing you didn't really know about until you get into it. And then once you figure it out it's like, "Hey, this is pretty nice." Is there something that you think agency owners are maybe neglecting? Is it not looking outside of the industry enough? Because we always want somebody with experience and it's hard to get experience, like you said again, how do you get one before the other? Do you think it's that lack of imagination to maybe consider other industries as viable solutions?
Nikki Brandt: For me, I see two big things. One is, I don't know if it's lack of imagination or vision that they can look outside the industry. I think it's more of either they're too strapped too thin with staff already to have the time or the resources in some cases to train that person. So it's not that they think they can't or they don't want to, they just don't have the programs or people in place to do it. And so they are coming to me and others for plug and play candidates, which them and everybody else are fighting over those same people. So I think that's part of it. It's just the inability to train. And I think the other piece of it is the lack of recognizing that, I mean I'm 39, my generation, I say my generation and younger, especially the 20 somethings they really want COVID really had everybody, I think, reassess what they want out of a career, what their priorities are, especially women. I'm a mom, I'm a wife, I want to have a career and I want to do those things, too. And it's like how can we do all those things? And before I think it was just we had a career and it was the number one thing and all that stuff came second for many of us and now we've kind of been thrust into this world where we can do it all.
Nikki Brandt: And I think a lot of companies, especially with older leadership who have that old school mentality where you have to be in an office, you have to work nine-to-five, you have to do this in a certain place at a certain time. I think that's kind of a turnoff for a lot of the younger people. And they'll say, "Oh well they're just lazy."
Nikki Brandt: No, they're not lazy. They want to do it differently. They want to do it on their terms so they can balance all the things. They'll get the job done but they want to do it differently. And I think the companies are recognizing that. I have one client who very much more forward thinking than most of his peers and their turnover is next to nothing. And then I have others who are like, "Come hell or high water, we're back in the office." And people are leaving in droves and it's like I see it every day. So some of them don't want to admit it. Some of them I think, they're just burying their head in the sand. But I think we'll see more and more of that. But I think that flexibility would definitely enable them to attract the younger talent that some other industries are a bit more progressive already are.
Joey Giangola: And that flexibility is something that again, it felt like we were playing catch up before COVID and now it's again, it's a whole new world that we're still trying to figure out and bring people into. How much of that flexibility as somebody need to give on because there are some people that maybe want a little bit of that. It'd be nice to go in the office one or two days a week. Have you seen something work in terms of a combination to where the employer is getting a little bit of what they want and the employee is also getting a little bit more freedom?
Nikki Brandt: Yeah, I mean I think everyone's pretty much at this point been forced whether they want to or not to some version of hybrid. I think, for me personally, I don't love, I'm self-employed. I work from home every day. I actually need it. I would love to have an office to go to with people to be around. So I don't think... And I think a lot of people are like me, I think they would prefer to have an option to go in and be around people. And I actually did a post about this the other day. I think it's not so much the remote work that everyone gets hung up on. I think the bigger thing that they're not really realizing they actually want is simply the flexibility saying, "Here's an office, be here when you want. Stay at home when you want. You have a contractor coming, you have a sick kid, whatever. Just get your job done and figure it out."
Nikki Brandt: I think that's what they want. They want to not have to punch a clock or answer to where and when they are. If they have to drop a kid off at school or get them on the bus and then come into the office, who cares? That's the kind of thing I think they really want. And I feel like our industry is notoriously kind of an old school, older people industry. And so I think a lot of those older managers are struggling with that because it wasn't the way that they came up. But I think two, three days a week from home is definitely becoming more of the norm. But I'm not really seeing much yet in the way of true flexibility of saying, 'Hey, you're an underwriter, you make a hundred thousand dollars a year. Generally speaking, agents want to talk to you during the day, during the week, just get the job done within those hours-ish. And we're not going to really check on you if you're on at eight and off at five."
Nikki Brandt: I'm not seeing it as much of that as I would expect to with companies. I won't be surprised if there's a shift in our industry to having people go out and be like 1099 at some point. Because I like the job, I like the work, but they don't like being babysat. And if you're a salaried position, not some jobs, yes, customer service, you have to have someone available but let them take turns. Let them have... This person's responsible for these hours, this person's responsible as long as you have some coverage. I just don't see it being as critical to be so regimented. But I think most companies as far as they've gone really is just the two to three days from home. Some are offering like unlimited PTO banks, that's kind of a newer thing that I'm seeing. I think that's kind of cool. Not nickel and diming, I'm on time off for sick kids or vacation. But as an industry we're definitely still pretty old school.
Joey Giangola: I think you said something that was interesting, the whole responsibility of it. Right. And have you gone through any sort of exercises when you're talking to people, sort of gauge that responsibility level? Because I think the biggest concern is one, is it going to get done as effectively as if again, they were being babysat? Have you been able to point to any characteristics that an agency owner might be able to lean on when determining that sort of responsibility up front?
Nikki Brandt: I don't think it's any different than when you're screening a new hire who's going to be in an office during hours. I mean I think that some hires are going to be a miss and some are going to be a slam dunk. And I think you check references and you ask the right questions during the process. I don't know that it's really any different. I mean to me, someone who's going to screw off at home is going to screw off in an office. I mean I've been at jobs where I hated it and I was bored and I was searching Facebook or I was, well this is back, it wasn't Facebook back in the day, but shopping online, reading books, whatever it was that you do. You find time to ways and distract yourself no matter where you are. So I think that finding the right people is the bigger issue versus so much where they sit. And I think that you have to go into it knowing that if you hire five people, one or two of them won't be here next year. And that's just the way it is regardless of where they're working.
Joey Giangola: So you mentioned hiring the right people. I mean what is your definition when you go to somebody of saying, I guess maybe more better question is how often do people know exactly what they're looking for, that right person? Because a lot of times they're just saying, "I need this position filled." Versus maybe more specific set of characteristics.
Nikki Brandt: Yeah, I think my general opinion is that too many hiring managers are too focused on experience, on a resume, credentials, check boxes of experience doing this, that and the other. They should be more focused on personality, I find, I'm a firm believer, find the right person and teach them. I can't tell you how many times I have situations where the person is just such a go-getter, has great attributes for a position and easily could learn it and the company will shy away from that and go for the person with the credentials who's an okay hire and is certainly at the tip-top of the pay scale. And they could have gotten someone who, in my opinion maybe wouldn't be as plug and play, but six months, a year down the road would easily out pace that first person. And sometimes they just don't have the ability to train again. And sometimes I think they just don't have the vision.
Nikki Brandt: I have an agency client who was looking for an account manager position. He tried for a while, couldn't find someone and I said, "Are you open minded because I know somebody who's awesome and she works in the hospitality industry, not at all insurance, not a lick of insurance, not licensed." But I said. "I actually know her really well. She's incredibly smart, super ambitious, very reliable, everyone loves her. She just has that personality that makes you feel good which I think would translate quite well to customer service." And hospitality, running a restaurant is all about customer service. And he was like, "I trust you so if you like her I'll talk to her." And he interviewed her, he called me afterwards, he's like, "I freaking loved her. She was great." And he hired her. Next month will be a year that she's been there and he said she's one of his best pickups. And I told agents that story and I'm like, this was a great success story. If you could think a little bit more open minded, you could get. And he didn't have to pay her some exorbitant amount to pull her away from another agency, which was great. Pay her a fair rate. She was happy. He was happy. So I think if more could be more open minded, they could get some great hires.
Joey Giangola: Yeah, I think you mentioned that personality piece is pretty dramatically underrated I guess, in the overall, because I mean if you get a bad fit personality wise, that can be just as costly as anything else in terms of what it does to not just that employee but multiple employees around them. How much, I guess do you think there is maybe a discount to the ability you can fill that knowledge gap a lot quicker than you can because you're not going to really change somebody's personality. That lack of imagination is probably something that you've run into quite a bit.
Nikki Brandt: Yeah, I mean I see it a lot and I think it's unfortunate because you can't help... Someone's likability is huge, you know can teach them to meet. And I always think that in any position, if you just say to the person, the client, the producer, the agent, whoever you're dealing with, "I don't know the answer, but I'll find it and I'll get back to you." And then do that. People are fine with that. I've been on both sides of the house. So as a producer, I went to the underwriters who were fun, who were caring, who were responsive, who actually gave a crap and wanted to write business. I went to them because I knew that they would try to get it done for me, that they would take care of me. They would try, they actually cared. And the underwriter maybe had all the credentials but wasn't super responsive or didn't care. I didn't go to him.
Nikki Brandt: And then same thing as a client. If the producer's calling on you, you want somebody that you think cares. Yes, it matters if they know their stuff, but you're not going to be like, "You have the personality of a doormat, but I bet you know your stuff. I want to work with you." It doesn't work that way. So I think that, for me, personality, drive, hustle, all that is foremost. Teach the meat of it. I mean you can't learn to be likable, responsive and hardworking.
Joey Giangola: You mentioned the training piece of it a couple times and I wonder how often that's made your job maybe more difficult than it needs to be just because you find a great person, you find a great agency, but then they can't get them up to speed and they can't really get them into the mix of things fast enough for them to actually feel like this is the right fit. Do you think that also is something that maybe needs to be a little bigger focus across the board in terms of standardizing training? And I'm not saying there needs to be an academy or anything, but I've definitely heard it from a lot of different corners. What have you seen when it works well, I guess, is the ultimate question from an agency that has sort of a good set process.
Nikki Brandt: Most of them don't have. At least, I mean the bigger shops have some sort of a school or an academy. They can put people through the smaller shops. It's really just come in and sit with somebody and learn it, which works. But then you're also taxing that person who's the trainer. I mean I feel like many of them don't do it well and that's why they don't hire new people. I think that it's interesting how specific the skill set the companies want. I have underwriters, underwriter spots open sometimes and they'll want this premium band and these lines of coverage. "If they only have small business, we don't want them." And to me that's an easy translation. Or if they have comp and we don't want them or if they have a claims background, we don't want them. So I don't know if it's just shortsighted in some cases or if they really just know their limits and that they don't have the ability to train. But I think the smaller companies definitely struggle with that more than the larger ones. The larger ones seem to have a more formalized thing.
Nikki Brandt: But as far as what works, I mean, I don't know. I think having someone who has the right drive to learn and at least having someone who knows their stuff and has the patience to teach whatever that looks like with a big group or one-on-one. I mean that's kind of how they're all doing it in some form or fashion.
Joey Giangola: If you had to leave an agency owner with sort of one thing that you have found to be invaluable in finding new talent. What's the thing that stands out to you? If you could give a blanket statement, "This is the thing you need to pay attention to."
Nikki Brandt: I think likability. I think when they meet someone that they kind of click with, you know you're at an event or seminar or something and there's somebody that just, you like talking to them and they kind of just make you feel good. I think that's something that you have to think, "Okay, well if they make me feel that way, then they're going to make a client feel that way and a prospect feel that way." That goes a long way in our business is just the likability and trust. I think the general public doesn't think warm and fuzzy thoughts about insurance. It's the thing they have to buy. They don't want to pay for it. They're off when they use it because their rates go up. It's just not a warm and fuzzy industry. And many people think that it's because they have a bad experience that they get shady or it's or it's crooked or whatever.
Nikki Brandt: And so knowing that is the general perception of many people, business owners or individuals with the personal insurance side. I think that going in there and having that likability, that ability to connect with someone and make them feel good, make them feel like they can trust you is the biggest piece of it. And so if I come across someone who makes me feel that way in a five minute conversation, I kind of make note and I have a conversation later, "Hey have you ever thought about... I don't know what you do, but you thought about this." Because that can be definitely a flag for me that they could be someone good for our industry.
Joey Giangola: All right, Nikki. I've got three more questions for you. And the first one is, what is one thing that you hope you never forget?
Nikki Brandt: I think I'm super comfortable in my role and my industry and my space. And I think that, I hope that I remember how uncomfortable I was in it when I first started because I think that gives you such perspective and courage to try new things. Like to go into it and come from something you're good at and go into something that you stink at. It's super uncomfortable, it's not fun, it makes you regret, not regret, but second guess your decision and then you learn it, you get good at it and you move on to the next thing. And I think that it's so important to remember where you came from and how hard things seem impossible, but you overcome them and you just get comfortable like you do with everything else.
Joey Giangola: Now on the other side of that, what's one thing you still have yet to learn?
Nikki Brandt: Oh man. Have yet to learn? I feel like insurance, there's always so much to learn. One thing, I mean I would love to, I don't know if this is learning, but I'd love to figure out a way to effectively tackle the training issue that we've talked about so much. I'd love to find a way to, I mean, gosh, for the greater good of it, but also with my business. I think that will be a great business avenue. I'd love to be a part of the solution on that. I think our industry is a great one and I think that I would love to have some way to help fix that challenge because everyone's talking about it. Everyone has the issue and no one has the solution.
Joey Giangola: All right, Nikki, last question to you. If I were to hand you a magic wound of sorts to reshape, change, alter, speed up, really any part of insurance, what's that thing? Where's it going and what's it doing?
Nikki Brandt: I don't know, maybe I feel like the claims process, I don't know. That's the piece that people are always griping about. I feel like I have friends and family come with claims issues. I think it's a challenging sector in our business because it's such high turnover, which is no surprise. You're talking to people at the most frustrated, stressful time of their life. So I feel like if that could be expedited and smoothed a bit, that would probably make our industry less heated.
Joey Giangola: Nikki, this has been fantastic. I'm going to leave it right there.
Nikki Brandt: Awesome. Thank you so much.