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Agent to Agent: Is It Possible to Make Cold Calls a Thing of the Past?

Donna Gray photo_color 143x200.jpgBy Donna Gray

That’s certainly a common question pondered by sales professionals at AIMS education sessions, where our mission is to provide the marketing and sales tools any property/casualty insurance agency might need to generate sufficient incoming sales so cold calls are no longer necessary. One agent seems to have a real answer.

“We do a lot to make the phone ring,” says Gordon Wenner, president and chief executive officer of Jones & Wenner Insurance Agency, Inc. in Fairlawn, Ohio. “People arrive at our door ready to buy. All we have to do is convince them we’re the right fit. How we’ve created that interest certainly isn’t brain surgery, but it does require a dedicated approach.”

Wenner explains that the growth his firm enjoys today followed a deliberate decision made around 2010, when the economy stalled and insurance sales suffered. Wenner knew then it was time to evaluate how to move the agency forward.

In the past, the agency had relied on fairly traditional marketing efforts, including direct mail. “We were pretty much saying what every other insurance agency was saying — what services we offered, why insurance is important — but we weren’t doing anything to set ourselves apart,” he explains.

“And like so many other agencies, we were handling our own marketing,” he adds. “We weren’t really highlighting why choosing Jones & Wenner mattered, how it helped the customer. Probably the best thing we did at that point was recognize that we weren’t the marketing experts, and we hired a marketing firm to help us figure out how to improve and focus our efforts. We started designing things for the public, rather than for ourselves, and that was an important shift in perspective.”

There was a short list of requirements for the agency’s new marketing partner. “We wanted our messaging to appeal to a spectrum of generations, so having a team with diverse age groups represented was important,” Wenner says. “They didn’t need to be insurance experts — we could fill in the gaps there — but they did need to bring enthusiasm and a forward-thinking approach. Ultimately, all we had to do was share our vision. It was their job to tell us how to get there, and that’s exactly how it’s worked. They’re constantly after us with new ideas, while at the same time keeping us focused on a consistent message.”

He goes on to explain how technology has played a role: “People buy differently today. It used to be a salesperson had to really educate their customer. But now with the Internet, people come to you already knowing what they want.” Jones & Wenner’s approach capitalizes on this customer behavior pattern.

When people are in the research phase of their search, the agency has made sure to provide detailed information online, particularly as it relates to their specialization in transportation. “We want to make sure people find us when they’re just starting to look around online,” says Wenner. Targeted methodology helps reach a niche market. Email blasts, search engine optimization and pay-per-click campaigns work together to move Jones & Wenner to the top of buyer consideration lists. Highquality direct mail pieces reinforce the electronic efforts. “We don’t skimp on our direct mail pieces, believing it’s better to present ourselves the best way possible. It’s not cheap initially to create high-impact pieces, but in the long-run, our numbers back up the investment. The payback is definitely there. We’ve had some customers come to us saying they received our brochure and held onto it for months, recognizing that we might be the kind of firm they want to work with in the future.”

It’s somewhat ironic that technology has also changed the nature of face-to-face sales. Because the customer arrives at the sales table already armed with knowledge about agency details and insurance facts and figures, a salesperson has to seal the deal by solidifying trust. “People can buy their policies and review coverage options anywhere,” says Wenner. “The way we become their longterm agency is by establishing a personal connection.”

While targeted pieces — the direct mail and online efforts — work to grow agency income, Jones & Wenner’s brand image advertising is what really positions it as the community agency, the one that protects the customer and treats them as a valued partner. “That’s the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ portion of our marketing plan,” explains Wenner. “You don’t see overnight sales gains with image ads, but it’s the only way to improve brand name recognition and build long-term value. The key is repetition with the same message.”

Jones & Wenner is onto something with their one-two punch: targeted information delivered when customers are beginning to investigate their options and existing brand awareness to make them receptive to the sales message. Just one proof positive: Auto Owners Insurance named Jones & Wenner the number one agency in Ohio for their company premium growth in 2013.

“Our firm’s growth has continued since we outsourced our marketing,” says Wenner. “It forces us to stay onmessage and our brand image is delivered in a creative, consistent way. We don’t have to find customers; customers are finding us. Ultimately, it turns out that letting the marketing experts do what they do best freed us up to do what we do best.”

Donna Gray is the executive director of the American Insurance Marketing and Sales (AIMS) Society. The AIMS Society provides marketing and sales training and tools to property/ casualty insurance agency owners, producers, support staff and insurance company personnel. Membership is open to anyone in the insurance industry in the pursuit of sales excellence and professionalism. The AIMS Society offers the Certified Professional Insurance Agent (CPIA) professional designation and offers other beginning and advanced-level marketing and sales training workshops. Visit www.aimssociety.org for more information.