YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The rapidly evolving digital landscape of the insurance industry tasked local independent agencies with finding ways to stand out.
National insurers created mascots that are now household names – Flo from Progressive, Jake from State Farm and the gecko from GEICO. These commercial icons came with catchy slogans and attracted customers.
While independent agents don’t have Flo or Jake at their disposal, they do have a few tricks up their sleeves to set them apart.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated an already rapid shift to digital in the insurance industry. As insurance agencies halted their in-person business, customer and employee expectations changed more in 18 months than they did in the previous two decades, according to PwC.
Research from PwC shows that since the start of the pandemic, 45% more customers expect 24/7/365 online support from their carrier, 77% more prefer to submit claims via mobile and 80% more would switch carriers due to lack of a user-friendly digital interface.
The demand for the instant gratification that comes from online serv-ices pressured insurance agencies to quickly make aggressive and strategic choices.
During the pandemic, the Thompson Insurance Group in Girard made it possible for customers to file claims online, request a policy change, and request evidence of insurance. CEO and Vice President Andrew Thompson’s favorite new feature: electronic signatures. “It has been my favorite new thing, it’s so convenient,” Thompson says. “It’s quick, it’s efficient, it gets things issued very quickly.”
The company has four independent subsidiary agencies that Thompson and his father, Dave Thompson, own: The Gibson Agency, PetBizInsurance.com, Gibson Agri and Equine and Thompson Private Client Services. Thompson is the third generation to be at the helm of the family business his grandfather started in 1947.
The Griffith Agency, an independent auto, home and business insurance agency in Girard, saw its website go from an advertisement to a functional tool. What used to be a way to simply advertise its phone number became a way for clients and potential clients to request quotes and service.
Corporate officer and vice president Meghan Griffith Ragozzino says the agency also came out with an app to address its customers’ digital needs. Clients can get a quote, view their policy and pull up their insurance ID card on the app.
Ragozzino says some clients want a purely electronic insurance experience and others want a face-to-face interaction – and she quickly learned to not assume what a customer wants.
“I have young people that want to come in and go over paperwork and make payments in our office instead of mailing them in and I’m amazed at some 90-year-old customers who give me their email address and ask me to email it to them,” Ragozzino says.
She adds that insurance can be confusing, especially for a young person just starting out. She says she finds that some younger clients like to sit down with an agent. She says going digital can be easy, but a phone call can only go so far.
“Insurance is hard, especially when you’re young and you’ve never purchased it before and you’re buying your first house and getting your own car insurance for the first time. It’s a lot of things to understand,” Ragozzino says. “They don’t tend to go as much purely digital as you would think – they still want that personal explanation to know what they’re buying.”
The digital transformation came quickly and at full force, but Thompson says the transition has been a positive experience in the long run.
“The clients love it because they don’t have to wait several days for applications to be mailed to them – they click a few buttons, and we can have things done within a matter of minutes,” Thompson says. “It’s been a blessing.”
TYPES OF AGENCIES
The Griffith Agency and the Thompson Insurance Group are independent agencies. Independent agents act as intermediaries between clients and multiple insurance companies. They offer insurance products from larger captive agencies like Progressive and State Farm. Captive agents can only offer their company products.
Independent agencies don’t have the national name recognition and billion-dollar budgets to boost their exposure. Instead, they rely on the things they give customers that larger agencies can’t provide.
“What sets us apart is our advice and our convenience,” says Thompson. “We can get the information for a new quote in 30 seconds. GEICO says, ‘Save money in 15 minutes or less’ and we can say, ‘Hey, save money in 30 seconds or less.’”
An independent insurance agent represents multiple insurance carriers, typically offering consumers a choice of insurers, policies and pricing. When a client requests a quote, an independent insurance agent will do all the legwork to find the best options.
“It’s getting the client to give up a little convenience of doing their own work. Let us do it for you,” Thompson says. “I think it ends up being more convenient for them because we do all the work.” He adds that local independent agencies are often overlooked, and he believes they deserve a shot.
April Snyder, a senior personal risk manager for Thompson Insurance Group, worked for a captive agency before her current position, and she says she would never go back. “I would never go anywhere else but an independent agency,” she says. “I have a lot more flexibility and openness for my clients. I can do more for them.”
The ease of having an independent agent is only one of the benefits. Local independent agencies offer a sense of humanity that large corporations can’t provide, says Ragozzino. Local agents are fellow community members, neighbors and friends. That personal connection is unmatched.
“I know that their kids are graduating or when they’re moving houses or when they’re remodeling,” Ragozzino says. “Though they still are digital, when you live in a small area you still see them. I run into tons of my clients having dinner or at the kids’ sporting events or the Friday night football game.”
Thompson says his agency works hard to maintain open and honest communication with its clients. He says clients can text, call or email their agent at any time.
The agency’s transition to digital didn’t disrupt communication, but rather enhanced it. The loss of face-to-face conversations made it imperative that agents picked up the phone more often, and the uncertain times of the pandemic made them check in frequently.
Thompson says honesty is the agency’s best policy. He says some conversations are tough, but necessary and foster trust even in the digital age.
“I think what has set us apart in the past is just being honest with the client and being their advocate,” Thompson says. “So, in those tough situations, instead of telling them what they want to hear, we’re just honest with them.”