Customer service is at the heart of any insurance agency. After all, the purpose of an agency is to identify and provide the coverage its customers need. But there is a significant difference between providing service to customers and offering what’s known as a “customer service culture,” and understanding that difference can give your agency a powerful edge over your competitors.

What is a customer service culture?
In basic terms, a customer service culture is an environment built around creating value for both customers and employees. While that may seem obvious and applicable to every agency, the fact is that most agencies do not rise to that level. Yes, they provide service to their customers, and yes, they provide a livelihood to their employees.

A customer service culture is more of an attitude than a structure. It’s built around a shared commitment to do more than simply meet a customer’s basic needs or an employee’s basic requirements. It involves taking a genuine interest in the well-being and position of other people, and going above and beyond basic expectations. In addition to the business rewards, it provides a sense of personal accomplishment and fulfillment.

Why pursue a customer service culture?
Two reasons. First, maintaining a customer service culture will keep your existing customers satisfied and encourage them to recommend you to their friends and relatives. It can be one of the most effective ways to differentiate your agency from your competition.

Second, today’s employees (particularly younger people) place a strong value on a company’s culture. They want to do more than hold down a job and get paid — they want to feel that their daily work is accomplishing something meaningful. Having a strong customer service culture will attract that kind of employee to your agency, and it will influence the way they treat your customers (and each other).

It starts with you
A customer service culture isn’t something an owner or manager can demand. It’s a kind of behavior that has to be modeled at all levels of any organization, but it has to begin at the top. As an agency owner, your attitudes and behavior will set the tone for your employees.

That means more than treating customers well. You also have to treat your employees the same way you want them to treat your customers. Demonstrate that they have value and that their satisfaction matters to you. Find out what’s important to them, and invite their input about the best ways to serve customers.

What is your culture?
Creating a sustainable customer service culture begins when you define it. You don’t need a complicated philosophy, just a simple statement that summarizes your vision for the way in which your employees should treat customers. Your philosophy may be as short as “We will always treat customers better than any other agency in town.” Or, it may be more specific, as in “In every contact, call, and conversation, we will do more than just meet the customer’s need. We will always do more than they expect and try to surprise them whenever possible.”

When you define a philosophy, you make it easier to share what matters most with your employees, and you give them a framework to follow. As they make decisions, they’ll keep the philosophy in mind and act accordingly. You may want your philosophy to extend beyond customer service, perhaps addressing how you want employees to treat each other, or the role you wish to play in serving your community.

Share (and live) your core values
Expand on your philosophy by creating a short list of core values. Again, they don’t need to be complicated. In fact, the more simple and straightforward you make them, the easier they’ll be to understand and memorize. When you discuss those values with your employees, explain why you think they’re important for the employees, your agency, your customers, and the community you serve.

Don’t make the mistake of writing the values on a sheet of paper and putting them on a shelf. You should reinforce their importance on a regular basis. For example, you may want to begin each staff meeting by mentioning one of the core values and asking each employee how it applied to a situation they encountered during the past week. They may be hesitant at first, but when they see that this is something you take seriously, they’ll become active participants.

You can also reinforce the values by keeping them in plain sight. You might have a sign with the values in your lobby area, you can attach a small copy to each employee’s phone, or you can even include the values on your letterhead or in your marketing materials. Seeing the values regularly will encourage your team to adopt them.

Hire based on your values
When it’s time to add to your team, choose new employees whose attitudes, behavior, and work experience demonstrate that they share your philosophy and values. Don’t be afraid to bring up the values during an interview, or to ask candidates what they think about them. Someone who brushes a question like that aside isn’t likely to take your philosophy seriously, but someone who clearly grasps the meaning may be a great fit for your team.

That’s important, because you can only achieve a true customer service culture if everyone in your organization buys into the concept. A prospective employee may have the right experience or good connections, but if his or her attitude and approach doesn’t fit with the culture you want, the results are going to be unsatisfying and possibly even frustrating for you, the new hire, and your other employees.

Encourage learning and development
No matter how much we know and how well we do our jobs, we can always learn more. Encouraging your employees to learn more — and rewarding them for doing so — will improve both their effectiveness within your agency and their personal satisfaction with their job.

That can include everything from giving them paid days off to take classes for additional licenses (and footing the cost for both the training and the license) to reimbursing them for part of the tuition they pay for college classes. You’ll end up with employees who are even smarter and better able to serve your customers. In return, they’ll view you as someone who values them as people and is genuinely concerned about their well-being.

Is there a chance that they’ll use their newfound knowledge to find a new job? That risk never goes away. But the more they enjoy working for you, and they more the feel valued and rewarded for the time they invest, the less likely they are to leave.

Be flexible and empower employees
If you want people to be able to provide extraordinary customer service, you have to give them the power and freedom to make decisions where customers are concerned. If a customer calls with a problem or a concern, and they are able to address it immediately and confidently, that customer is far more likely to stay with your agency over the long term.

Conversely, if the employee responds by saying, “Sorry, but those are the rules,” or says that he or she has to wait to get your permission before making an adjustment that seems small to the customer, you probably won’t keep the business (or the employee) for long.

Should you feel that the employee made the wrong decision, stand by it. Later, sit down with the employee to review the facts of the situation, and explain how you might have handled it. Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of both approaches, but do not scold or punish employee for taking the initiative and doing what he or she thought was the best way to serve the customer’s needs.

Putting people first is key
Our industry really isn’t about insurance policies. It’s about people, and about protecting them from life’s risks. If you truly want to create a customer service culture, you need to adopt that attitude in both the way you treat your customers and in your relationships with your employees.

When your employees know that you care about them and believe that they are valuable members of your team, they’ll work harder and do more for you. That will help your business grow even more, but more important, it will do wonders for your satisfaction with your daily work. You’ll truly be making a difference in other people’s lives.

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