Good news: it’s not as tough as you think
By Alan Katz
I write this in early May. The pandemic is in full swing as are the steps being taken to combat it. I hope you are well and safe. And I am guessing that by now things have eased a bit.
Still, I assume many of us are still working from home. Which means now is a great time to think about pulling together a business plan.
Seriously. A business plan. Why not? You have more time to think about your business. And a greater need to think about the future of your business. What you have done your entire career will inform what you do moving forward. However, what you do moving forward will be different than what you have done in the past. This is the reality we all need to face–and to prepare for.
Why a business plan
If you are like most insurance producers, you are hearing a voice in your head insisting that business plans are for other people, not you. Like Indiana Jones, you are good at making things up as you go along. No, you are not. Leave aside that Indiana Jones was following a carefully crafted script, the reality is that being prepared invariably trumps faking it.
Imagine you are about to take to sea. A storm is brewing. (Please, play along for a few paragraphs!)
There are two boats available.
The first is skippered by an experienced captain. He claims to have a feel for the sea. When seas get rough, he listens to his gut and decides what to do and where to head.
A long-time captain helms the other ship, too. She, however, uses maps. She knows where she is and how far it is to safe harbors.
When the waves get big, both have the skill to steer into them. But the first captain is taking them as they come. The second is maneuvering not just through the immediate concern, but knows where she wants to be and how to get there. For the first captain the journey is a series of discrete crises. For the second captain, the journey is aimed at getting to a specific, desired destination.
Which captain are you going to sail with?
Your agency and your career are heading toward rough seas. You can make things up as you go along, or you can have a plan to guide you. Which would you prefer?
Business Plans Matter
A brief digression. Ten years ago, I did a study to determine what successful insurance professionals did that was different from what their less successful colleagues were up to. We interviewed 200 health insurance agents in six states. Some had been in business for decades; others for not much more than a year.
We focused on health insurance agents because we all sell the same products at the same price. Success, then, is the result of what we do, not what we sell. (Full disclosure, insurance companies and general agents underwrote the study.)
What we found is that one of the strongest correlations with sales success was whether the agent had a plan. High Growth Producers —those whose business grew by at least 20% year-over-year—were twice as likely to have a detailed business plan as producers with less or no growth.
It makes sense that having a business plan coincides with success. Change is always happening. It may take the form of new laws, new products, new technologies or even a pandemic.
Creating a business plan requires you to think about your agency in the context of that change. Writing a plan focuses your attention to determine what is important, what needs to change, and what you want to accomplish.
The result is clarity and focus. This means you are not wasting time pursuing every potential opportunity, but are instead efficiently pursuing those that move you forward. And it aligns your entire team toward that goal because they know where you and they are headed.
Heading into a new world, efficiency and alignment in the pursuit of a clear focus is a powerful advantage.
Writing a business plan the easy way
Many insurance agents instinctively understand the importance of planning their work, but still avoid writing a business plan. They are rightfully concerned it will take too much time and it is too complicated. It can, but as I will explain soon, it can be relatively quick and simple.
I wish I could say that you can write a business plan without actually, well, writing it. Sure, writing a business plan can be a long, dreary process. But that is not a requirement. The process can be simplified. Drafting can be broken down into pieces so you can take a break when your mind wanders. And wander it will.
The key is to keep things simple, useful and concise.
Keeping your plan simple not only makes it more likely you will write one, but that you will use it as well. With this in mind, I recommend keeping your plan to just four elements:
- A Mission defining where you want to go.
- Strategies for getting there.
- Goals describing what needs to happen to get there.
- Milestones laying out the discrete steps along the way.
That is it. Each element leads to the next. And next month we will walk through how these come together into a powerful plan.
Business Planning Part II: Keep It Simple
In the June issue of Cal Broker I wrote about the value of business plans. How they help you stay focused through challenging times. How they align your team. How they help you grow your business.
That article explained why you should have a business plan. This month we’ll focus on how to write one. Hint: Keep it simple. Make it specific.
A Plan to Use
There is a mountain of books on how to write a business plan. Some call for eight sections; others 12. If you want to do that much work, go for it. For me, four elements are enough.
Books and articles on business planning seem to use the same words, but apply different meanings. This article uses the following.
- Mission: defines where you want to go.
- Strategies: how you will get there.
- Goals: what needs to happen to get there.
- Milestones: who does what.
When you are done reading, please feel free to call each section whatever works for you. It is not the label that is important; it is their purpose that matters.
A mission describes your destination. Your mission should be clear and concrete. Everyone on your team should know where your agency is headed and what it will look like when you arrive.
President John Kennedy’s famous mission statement was inspiring and specific. “This Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”
Compare this to an all too common mission statement like “We will be the leading insurance agency in our community.” What does “leading” mean? Where is our community – our neighborhood, city, or region? Vague and murky mission statements result in vague and murky business plans. Avoid them.
Your mission statement need not be as grand nor as exciting as President Kennedy’s. But at the very least, make it clear.
Missions define where you want to go. Strategies explain how you plan to get there. You can have only one mission – a journey has one destination. You will have several strategies, however. How many? There is no magic number. Aim for five, but if you have three-to-seven you are doing fine.
Strategies provide focus. They help you say “no.” Opportunities move your strategies forward or they do not. Decline those that do not. Yes, chasing every acorn can be fun. Just ask squirrels. But in business you need to focus on the right acorns. Strategies help you do that.
Strategies also drive alignment. They help everyone on your team understand what they need to be working on. A vague strategy – “Sell more” – is useless. Sell more what? To whom? How much more? When?
A strong strategy statement, however, helps your team work together. “Increase the number of clients with more than one product by 25% this year” is a meaningful strategy. Your team knows when they are on the phone with an existing client, they should determine if there is a potential for an additional sale.
Goals lay out what needs to happen to implement your strategies. Each of your strategies will have multiple goals.
As with strategies, make sure your goals are specific. One way to do that is to make them SMART:
- Agree to
Writing a meaningful goal can be a challenge. There is a tendency to state them in terms of actions. They need, however, to describe results. Most people find this a hard distinction to implement.
A goal to “Meet by July 15th to discuss products to sell to existing clients” does not move your strategy forward. If you meet before July 15th and discuss cross-selling you met your goal. Congratulations. However, whether you achieved anything is an open question.
Consider a SMART alternative: “By July 15th identify 50 clients with one policy in-force who are eligible for other policies.” You may still have a meeting. You meet your goal, however, only if you identify 50 prospects in that meeting. That is a result, not just an action.
Milestones drive accountability. They define who does what by when. If you have a goal of identifying cross-sell prospects, who makes that happen? What are they to do?
Like goals and strategies, milestones must be specific and concrete. They should identify one person who “owns” the milestone, the team that will help that champion, and what they are to accomplish.
Milestones transform business plans into action plans. They let everyone know who is doing what to move the plan forward. They not only improve business plans, they can make staff meetings productive, too. Simply review upcoming milestones. If a milestone is on track, ask how the owner knows that. If you are satisfied with the answer, celebrate and move on. If the milestone is off-track, ask what the team can do to help.
Put your plan to work
Once completed, your business plan will have a single mission defining where you want to go. You will have several strategies for how you will get there. Each strategy will have several goals specifying what needs to happen. And each goal will have several milestones identifying who is doing what to achieve that goal.
Each of these will be specific. There should be no ambiguity as to whether you are on course. Everyone on your team (even sales reps and others outside your agency) should know what they need to do to help you achieve your plan.
More than a decade ago, I headed up what became known as the trailblazer study. We wanted to determine what successful insurance professionals did that was different from what their less successful colleagues were up to. We interviewed 200 health insurance agents in six states. Some had been in business for decades; others for not much more than a year. My team found a strong correlation between having a business plan and sales success. Simply having a plan can help. Using it can propel your agency’s growth.
High growth producers were 32% more likely to use their plan than less successful colleagues. They referred to it. They tracked results. Based on what they saw they acted. In short, successful sales professionals put their plans to work.
We are going through challenging times. We will get through them. When we do there will be a host of new challenges and opportunities. Those with a plan will be in the best position to succeed in this new world. Be one of those with a plan.
Alan Katz is a co-founder of NextAgency, an agency management system with customer relationship management (CRM), marketing and commission tools for life and health agencies. Learn more at www.NextAgency.com. Alan is a past president of NAHU and CAHU. He is a nationally known speaker on sales, marketing, business planning, and health care reform. Alan is the author of “Trailblazed: Proven Paths to Sales Success,” available through Amazon. Follow Alan on Twitter (@AlanSKatz), connect on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/alankatz44) and contact him at AlanKatz@NextAgency.com.