Episode 017 — The Digital Broker Podcast

Hiring and Retaining Quality Employees: How Effective Onboarding Keeps An Insurance Agency Afloat


In this episode of “The Digital Broker”, Steve and Ryan discuss the lifeblood of a successful agency – the employees and explore what it takes to attract, engage, train and retain both seasoned employees and new blood to make an agency successful.

By listening to this episode, you’ll learn:

  • What is “onboarding” and why it is important
  • How employees were trained in the past and how that is changing
  • How the hiring process can be improved and the most effective ways to retain staff
  • What a good onboarding process looks like
  • The role of job descriptions and training as part of onboarding
  • Identifying the most effective players to drive the process
  • Understanding the role of culture and organizational mission
  • Understanding roadblocks, obstacles, and problems in the creation of an effective process

Full Recap

This episode is the first part of a two-part series discussing how to create a process of effectively bringing on new employees and creating a recipe for success. This process includes ensuring that the correct employees are identified for the proper roles and then properly trained and engaged. This includes an understanding of not only processes and procedures, but also the mission, culture, and goals of the organization.

What is “Onboarding” And Why Does It Matter To An Agent or Broker? (1:37)

When a new employee is hired and begins the job – first impressions matter. These first impressions include “one-on-one” impressions, business to consumer relations, as well as the employee to employer. Onboarding includes the initial bringing on of a new employee, the process of the transfer of knowledge, and ultimately communicating to the new hire how to understand what they can and cannot do in their capabilities.

If the process is effective, they will know key facts, what success looks like in the organization, which team members to go to for certain problems, what tools are available to them, and what constitutes their role.

One secret of retaining employees is to show them how your agency is organized and purposeful. There’s no better way to display this than giving a new employee an excellent onboarding experience. Effective onboarding can be analogized to going to dinner at a new restaurant – if the experience is bad, it’s unlikely you will stay or go back. It’s uncertain where the term “onboarding” comes from, however, it is frequently used in the technology industry, especially in establishing a clear step-by-step process of bringing new customers on board with an app. This same concept applies to new employees. With younger employees, they are often “metrics-driven” and are looking further down the road as to how the current position prepares them for future roles.

What About Onboarding New Employees From Outside of the Insurance Industry? (6:15)

When bringing people in from outside of the insurance industry, it’s even more important to have an effective onboarding process. It takes a significant investment to get new employees up to speed. With people from outside the industry, there is the insurance education piece PLUS the organizational culture education. It is frequently rare to see knowledge transfer from seasoned employees to new employees within an organization, but this is critical. It is already difficult to get people attracted to the insurance industry. If they have a terrible experience during the first year, they’re often lost. The Independent agent and broker are the most at risk, often losing employees to larger brokers that have procedures and better organization in bringing on employees.

Where did employees get training in the past? (8:05)

Originally, many employees got training and knowledge by working at insurance companies which had training programs. Often this training extended from eighteen months to two years, providing a background in what insurance is, understanding the role of producers and the production process as well as an overview of underwriting. However, these days, carriers aren’t providing as much training as in the past. Sales training for producers is still offered as well as some continuing education (mainly for compliance purposes). In the case of account managers, however, there is little training. This is why it’s critical for an agency or broker to define their culture and provide an effective onboarding experience.

What Does a Good Onboarding Process Look Like and How Does That Improve Hiring? (9:30)

A hard look needs to be applied to the hiring process. This includes the identification of various indicators of traits that are right for particular roles. Human Resources needs to know what attributes are important for success at each position. Training people is expensive, and that expense is wasted when people leave. An effective organization will create a training curriculum. The organization needs to recognize that there is a greater expense in NOT training people who STAY then in training people who might leave. A good onboarding process is a concept that you iterate to your specific organization and is developed over time. It’s an important and proactive process where personality is matched up with roles and finding the right opportunity for the right person.

What Is The Role of Job Descriptions? (11:52)

Job descriptions are a critical part of the onboarding success. The job description sets the expectation for what success looks like for that particular role and individual. In addition, it establishes a framework for growth. The job description spells how the individual will be judged in doing a good job. This is also helpful to the hire, presuming they are motivated to do a good job. Some agencies and brokerages spend time on job descriptions, but most do not. Some use a more generic job description which can do more harm than good. In some circles, there is a fear that people will look at a tightly defined job description and say, “that’s not my job”. In the insurance industry, that’s not the kind of person you want to be hiring. The job description should capitalize on the “value proposition” that the position offers. The job description is more than simply a list of activities. It is the mindset and a career path which fits in a longer-term concept of answering the employee’s question of “Here is where I am, where am I going and what do I get?”

What Is The Optimum Training Process? (15:16)

The appropriate job description can move training from the responsibility of the organization or the employer to the individual. The individual will recognize that in order to move from one position to another, more training is required. This shifts responsibility for training from “top-down” to “bottom up” creating more engaged employees who recognize what training is needed to move forward. In a smaller organization, if you can’t create different career paths and positions, you can create different skills and different abilities to keep people engaged to allow them to try new things. Different levels within roles can be created such as Account Manager 1 and Account Manager 2, which would distinguish different levels of responsibility and experience. This can help attract new people as well as retaining existing staff.

Who Drives The Onboarding and Training Initiative? (18:40)

The initiative should begin with Human Resources but the agency’s owners must be committed and understand the importance of onboarding and training. If they’re not, it becomes very hard for Human Resources to do their job well. Agency owners will often be committed to the training of producers but sometimes lack a commitment to quality training to other departments and teams.

What Are The Most Effective Ways to Retain Staff? (20:00)

The first step lies in the understanding of roles, which as described above, emanates from job descriptions. It is important to have a solid grasp of position responsibilities. It is valuable to identify the most conducive ways of bringing an understanding of the organizational culture. This can vary from organization to organization, but one effective way of doing this is by having the new hire spend a week in different departments. Through this sort of cross-training, it is possible to break down the various silos and allow the hire to understand the entire organization’s system and flow.

Another step is to analyze the hiring process in regard to the onboarding process. Everyone has an onboarding process of some sort. Whether the process is good or bad, it should still be reviewed on a regular basis to look for areas of improvement. Some questions to ask  when analyzing your onboarding process include:

  • How do you engage employees?
  • How do you set expectations?
  • How are you communicating?   

A third step includes examining whether the existing programs are effective. The analysis should identify primary weaknesses which can include problems with technology or problems with education. Once problems are identified, the logical step is to devise and test various plans to address the problem.

What Role Does Culture Play In The Process? (22:00)

Understanding and communicating culture to employees is important – and critical –, especially in a smaller agency. One way to do this is by having regular meetings run by the CEO or other senior management to explain the culture of the organization. The CEO can offer history, explain where the organization is now, where it came from, and where it is going.

The agency mission, such as how clients should be treated, should be regularly discussed and is important for giving new employees understanding.

Explaining and enforcing a great culture can have a major impact as to why an employee stays at an agency long term. When a family culture is created and the employee feels valued and engaged, the results can have a major positive impact on retention.

What Other Key Roadblocks, Obstacles, and Problems Exist In Creating An Onboarding Process? (23:30)

The biggest piece of an onboarding process is maintaining focus. Often a process is created and victory is declared. Then everyone moves forward and slowly the process falls apart.

The organization must be constantly reinforcing the process because it’s easy for onboarding (and any process for that matter) to easily slip through the cracks of daily tasks. Successful onboarding is illustrated by employees understanding the process, comprehending what is needed to be successful, learning the culture, and feeling that they know how to “move the needle”.

A red flag indicator of lack of focus is not giving HR the resources they need to succeed. HR is in many ways the most important department because they bring the new blood into the organization, whether they be seasoned or new folks. New employees bring in new ideas, energy, and innovation. Human Resources has the responsibility of finding and helping to retain good employees as well assisting in the identification of employees that are a bad fit.

In a 100-person organization with only one HR person, onboarding is probably not happening. There are too many other tasks to complete – administration, compliance, etc.

Successful onboarding will lead to an engaged employee who sees their own potential, ultimately to the employee identifying what training they need and essentially training themselves.

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