Presented here are the top five essays submitted for the 2018 Outstanding CSR of the Year® award. Competitors from across the nation shared their insights related to customer service within the industry. From the pool of state winners, we selected four finalists and the national winner.
Ashley Fitzsimmons, CISR, a CSR/Producer with Fitzsimmons Insurance Agency, Inc., in Forest City, PA, is this year’s national winner. Ashley and the four finalists have been presented with gold pins, cash awards, and more for excelling in the national competition. The National Alliance extends heartfelt congratulations to each of these deserving professionals.
The essay topic for the 2018 competition:
“In today’s business environment, CSRs are finding that more work is required from a smaller staff pool. As a CSR, what four ways have you found beneficial in helping you accomplish work tasks while still providing excellent customer service? In short, how do you do more with less?”
THE NATIONAL WINNER’S ESSAY
Ashley Fitzsimmons, CISR
Fitzsimmons Insurance Agency, Inc.
Forest City, PA
There’s a saying that “not all superheroes wear capes”—and personally, when it comes to customer service representatives in an agency, this saying couldn’t be more true. We are the front line. We are the people that clients first think to call when they have a question. When there is a problem. When they just had their first loss or accident, are panicked and don’t know what to do. They call us. They rely on us to make things better and put the pieces back together. Doing just that is such a rewarding part of my job. Knowing that I personally helped make a scary process much less intimidating for a client and helped get them back on their feet is the best feeling.
But not everyone loves insurance. It’s an industry affectionately known to be “stale, male and pale.” Millennials—or, pretty much people in general—are not banging on doors begging to be hired to work for their local agency. In an environment where I feel essentially any agency will say they are understaffed, it’s important for us as customer service reps to find the best way to manage our workloads while still being able to provide the customer service that our clients deserve. Three of the ways I’ve learned to “do more with less” within the agency have been developed over my eight years here, while the fourth, I think, came naturally.
Whether you’re ready for it or not—the industry is changing, and clients’ preferences are changing with it. You’re reading this essay right now and I’ll bet your cell phone, iPad, or computer is within arm’s length. There are so many forms of communication available now, beyond snail-mail and the landline. I’ve learned that adapting to my clients’ preferences, when it comes to communication, not only keeps them happy, but also increases my productivity. Email allows me to get confirmations on policy changes instantly as opposed to mailing individual forms for signatures. Texting allows for questions to be answered and issues to be resolved faster than playing phone-tag and leaving multiple messages. My clients are happy that I’m flexible in my methods of communication and I’m happy because I can successfully cross things off my to-do list much faster than ever before. Which leads me to my next secret on doing more with less…
Eat That Frog
If you’ve read the book—you know what I mean. We’ve all been there. The file that just sits on our desk. The one that collects dust because we are forever “getting to it eventually.” I’ve learned that you need to handle that task first. Don’t put items off just because they can wait. Get them done. You’ll thank yourself later for it. You don’t realize it, but that file sitting there can be causing you anxiety subliminally which ultimately affects your productivity. There’s no better or more motivating feeling than taking care of and completing a daunting task.
This Isn’t a Nine to Five Job Anymore
Changes in technology not only allow for more forms of communication, but also allow for greater accessibility. I encourage my clients that in the case of an emergency, to feel free to contact me outside of office hours. Being available on Facebook messenger, via text or by phone pretty much all the time allows me to better service my clients. Getting in the office an hour early allows for time to clean up items from the day before and get a head-start on the day. And on occasion, when things really get hectic, I’m not afraid to put some time in the office on the weekend. Which leads to my final secret on doing more with less:
Genuine Love of the Insurance Industry
This is huge. I truly believe that when you are passionate about something, it makes you that much better at it. If you didn’t like people—it would be very hard to be a great customer service rep. That being said, I think it takes a special breed to be an insurance agent. Not only do we have to deal with people daily, but we have to educate them and sell them an intangible product. We have to show them the importance of something that they can’t physically hold in their hands. Why am I so productive? Because I love what I do on a daily basis. I care about people and I want to help them.
Sure, there is a great financial return—but the emotional return is priceless. Some superheroes wear capes—this superhero wears high heels.
Starr Marshall, CISR
Life/Health CSR Reliable Agency
My name is Starr Marshall, and I am a CISR at Reliable Agency in Cloquet, MN. I am in the Life/Health Department and I work mostly with Medicare clients. I love working with seniors! I have a wonderful relationship with them and I have new referrals come in on a regular basis. They know I care about them and will always go the extra mile. I have helped with their checkbooks, attended doctor appointments, made home visits if they can’t get out, and just in general, been there for them when they need a friend. I live by the motto, “no one cares what you know until they know that you care.”
Do it right the first time! This is the MOST beneficial thing in accomplishing more with less. It may take longer to visit with the client, to put the information in your management system, and to establish a relationship with them, but it is going to save you considerable time down the road. If a call comes in and I look for the information and it isn’t there, I have to spend the next ten minutes trying to locate it and this looks unprofessional to the client. If I have to place a call to a carrier and I don’t have the proper information, I end up having to call back after I find it. If I don’t give the client the information they need when I first meet them, I may get several calls or voice mails, and will have to take the time to answer their questions. These things are time-consuming, inefficient, and avoidable.
Delegation is important! I tend to try to do everything myself, but with the number of clients we have, and only three people working in the Medicare field at our agency, it can be extremely time-consuming, and the job may not get done as well as it could. I think you have to have a clear picture of where your strengths lie and where you should be letting someone else use their talents. One thing I do not excel at is Excel spreadsheets. If I can delegate running a report or spreadsheet to one of our IT people, I save myself time and I can trust its accuracy. This is important, because if data is entered wrong, it could cause delays in processing and input. For instance, I am licensed to sell home and auto, but it is not my preference. I am, however, happy to initiate a cross-sell and refer clients to one of our personal lines agents. It is my belief that in an office, the Montessori School of thought should always be present, and everyone should be working in the area they enjoy and are good at. I am truly passionate about what I do.
Know your job and your product! If there are aspects of your job description that you are not comfortable with, learn them. Every fall, I spend hours learning the new Medicare guidelines, plans, and benefits. This affords me the ability to look at a medication list, a budget, or a medical issue and know which plan the client is going to get the richest benefits from for the least money, and I know which formularies will or will not cover their medications. If I do the homework up-front, my client meetings will go better. Medicare can be confusing. It is my job to help my clients gain an understanding of the process and what is covered, and I take it seriously. In order to be effective, I have to be an “expert” in my field. Clients appreciate the confidence I have when I am knowledgeable and efficient. When a client comes in, I find at least an hour to spend with them, explain the plans, the pros and the cons, and I establish a good relationship. When the client has enrolled, I am confident they have made an educated decision on what is going to work best for them. More importantly, so are they. I would say 95% of my clients have a good working knowledge of their plan when they leave my office.
Be willing to stay late and give it your all! I very seldom leave on time. Assigning task importance is vital. I make a promise to my clients that if they leave me a voice mail, I will call them back the same day, and I always do. I let them know it may be after 5:00 pm, because in the fall, during open enrollment, my normal work hours are crazy-busy. They are understanding of this and supportive. I like having my work done and leaving my desk clean at night, knowing I can start fresh the next morning. Extra effort never goes unnoticed and attitude is everything! LOVE YOUR WORK! My seniors are the best. I never had grandparents growing up, so I think this area fills a niche for me, to make sure the elderly have a voice and support. My bosses and work environment are amazing. They have an open-door policy and know they will get more from us by putting more into us. They stay late most of the time, too, and are great examples. The technology and education opportunities they provide us are stellar, and it helps us to be the best we can be. It is so rewarding to work for an agency that values you.
In summary, we, as CSRs, always need to do our jobs to our best abilities. If we don’t have a certain skill-set, we should delegate the task to someone who does. It saves time and money. We are blessed to get the education that comes with the CISR, CIC, and other designations, because it helps us do better for our clients. Never be afraid to stay late. It is actually nice when the office is quiet! When we grow, our agency grows. Ultimately, it is the client that is important, and they need to know that. It is cliché, but I totally believe, “It is nice to be important, but it is even more important to be nice.” The more efficient you are to begin with, the less you will have to do later. I believe having a helpful, encouraging attitude (with coworkers and clients, alike), being excited about your work, loving your clientele, and being a team player are the keys to a productive career and a successful agency. Keep striving to be challenged. A day without learning is a wasted day!
Stacey Migliano, CISR
Insurance Agent/CSR The Trottier Insurance Group
Ready, set, focus! If I were to ask you what your job description entailed, would you be able to tell me everything that you do? Most would probably forget a detail or two when passing along information to the next trainee or even when refreshing their own résumé. Some may even lack the enthusiasm to help a new trainee if their own “boat” is already rocking and ready to tip over. But do not worry!! I am here to tell you how I have survived over the years when the demands are high and the amount of staffed employees are deficient. Please take note: What I am about to tell you may be slightly blunt, but it is all too true and very relatable in multiple offices over even a wide variety of industries.
Be Organized! By this, I do not mean all the fancy racks, crates, boxes, pen holders, paper-clip shakers, binder clips, etc., on your desk (although I personally LOVE them). What I do mean is, have a day-to-day plan. Use calendars, task checklists, reminders, or anything else that helps you follow-up on the duties at hand. Whether those be client changes to process, a variety of calls to return, supplies to order, or an in-box full of emails. A few of the items I use daily for organization include:
• Email Sub-Folders: As items in my in-box are complete, or work is delegated to another service representative, I label each individual email with colors and then file them into individual folders. Some are broken down as internal office mail by each employee, external mail separated into clients (even broken down by month and year), companies, morning activity tasks/logs, personal business and continuing education.
• Notebook Tasks: If an account/client is tricky and has lots of items that need in-depth review, I list them on a separate legal pad notebook. Once I have them recorded, I will rate them by priority date and an estimated due-date that I feel is early enough. This allows extra time for any hiccups that may arise prior to the exact due date.
• Software Management Systems: In our agency management system, I also set activity tasks that alert me daily for items due for attention as of a certain date. If items are not yet able to be completed or waiting for additional information, I make sure to reset the follow-up reminder within the next week or two—depending on the urgency of the assignment.
Have Initiative! Please do not be the employee that sits in the corner with “nothing to do” or works on personal items constantly! Take initiative to find tasks or assignments that you can complete, otherwise, assist another coworker with some of their duties. Spend some extra time with a client and review in detail their account. DO SOMETHING, PLEASE! Make projects for yourself that will benefit the company or your job security. Go the extra mile to set yourself above and beyond the bar.
Gain Knowledge! It does not matter what industry or business you are in—if you are not constantly learning, you are losing knowledge. Find something within your company that you do not know how to do and study it! Whether it be through self-instruction, shadowing another employee, being trained in a new task, or attending continuing education courses. It is ALWAYS worth it to gain more knowledge and skills. The world is ever changing with each generation becoming more technologically savvy, while diligently working their way to the next level. Knowledge will also help you stay in front of the curve while still raising that bar by taking initiative.
Time Management! Use the two-minute rule. If you do not know what I mean by this, pay attention. If a follow-up task, email, or phone call will take only two minutes or less, do it right away. Do not push it off, and push it off, and push it off until it is the end of day and you finally tell yourself that you will just “do it tomorrow.” This is completely unnecessary and an unproductive way to manage your days. Arrive at your place of employment on time and take your lunch breaks as scheduled. If you need to step away for a quick moment to gather your thoughts, refill your water bottle, or grab that third cup of coffee, go ahead. However, please do not be the one standing at the water cooler or pot of coffee ALL dang day. If you need that many refills of hydration, buy a bigger bottle or mug; heck—double-fist it if you need to. When it comes to doing more work with less staff to assist clients or carrier representatives, I have found that having multiple ways of organization, taking initiative on job tasks, gaining knowledge through continuing education, and managing my time has made my efforts to provide outstanding customer service a lot easier. I hope you have found my four tips to success in the workplace useful. If not, I hope it at least brought a smile to your face. Thank you!
Kendall Pori, CIC
CSR and Commercial Lines Manager
Protectors Insurance, LLC
Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts about my job as a CSR, and this topic. I believe that the most important way to perform any job in the agency, to “do more with less,” is to enrich your relationships. Here are some components of that ideal.
Inclusion of all staff is a key in building the team relationships in an agency. Meet, share, and learn together. Welcome questions and ideas of the group, and practice, review, make changes, and repeat. Seek out the advice of those you respect and admire, and listen. Some see this as a management role, but I believe it is the role of the CSR and other staff, as well. There is room for leadership in every role. There are no secret answers, but it is a process that should never end. No one should be an island in the workplace. Staff seniority should never outshine wisdom. In addition to this, focus on the relationships you have with carrier representatives and insureds. Always remember that you serve both. Many times in my career, I have been able to draw on a strong relationship with an underwriter to help me find a coverage solution for our insured. Also remember that all the insureds should be served by all the employees in the agency, to the best of their abilities. That may only mean a welcome smile and a promise of a return call by someone else. Inclusion matters.
Listen to insureds. Offer up a variety of ways to serve your insureds in the insurance policy sale, claims, and payment processes of transacting insurance. Find out how they want to work with you on their insurance program. No matter what agency management system or technology you work with, there are many ways that you can communicate and work with your insureds. Do they prefer email, standard mail, web-based, fax, phone call, or face-to-face communication? Do they want policy delivery to be electronic or on paper? Do they have any special requests or time lines for coverage reviews? There should be no judgement regarding “old fashioned” ways of working with an insured. Our agency has been “paperless” for 14 years, but at the request of an insured, we still print policies and letters that go out in the standard mail service. Keep record of what the insureds’ preferences are, so when others in the agency work with them, they will also know. If you don’t ask, they might not tell you, and then may be unsatisfied with your service. Do your best to meet these standards, so that they remain comfortable doing business with you and your agency.
Take a strong look at your habits. Assess what you are doing with your time at work. Distractions from outside sources have slowed my work process many times. Prioritize and organize what service needs, sales needs, or claims handling are in your workload each day. Working with Producers adds a different dynamic to the relationship than you share with management, peers, and assistants, so flexibility and a willingness to adjust a habit might be in order. There are many tasks brought to a CSR’s desk that can actually be done by other staff members, simply due to their personal strengths or individual workloads. By working on strengthening these relationships, you will find that others will respond to your needs when you respond to theirs. Many of my coworkers have helped me in countless ways to get my work done, over my entire career, and I have helped them, as well. I’m grateful for that, and this practice, and it also builds satisfaction at work. It is commonly known that workers who are satisfied with their workplace and their coworkers will stay longer and work harder for the company. Simply put, everyone should take stock of their work habits from time-to-time, and get on track to make improvements.
Self-improvement is something that is very important in all seasons of life. When you have a diverse lifestyle, it shows in your work. Always read, investigate, and learn new things, and try out creative pastimes in your personal life. Gain awareness of what is important to others in all of your relationships, both in and out of the workplace. You can honor these things for others, regardless of your personal beliefs or strengths. When you learn more about others, and show that you care, it is just another way that you are serving them. I have been blessed when others have shown this care for me, and I want to spread that around when I can. Part of self-improvement is giving back to others, because it is yet another way we can build relationships. Whether your agency is community minded and requesting that you represent them outside of the workplace, or your insureds have a cause that needs volunteers, there is something out in the community for everyone. Try to find something that you can present and serve in this way on a regular basis.
While the ideas I have for doing more with less to accomplish my work tasks and provide excellent customer service are not new or innovative, they are a way of living that I seek. This is a life-long growth process. Enrich your relationships!
Laura Alice Vandersteeg, CISR
Commercial Accounts Manager II
Fisher Brown Bottrell Insurance, Inc.
It has been a true privilege to work with, and for, dedicated insurance professionals over the last five years. After working on teams in New York City, Baton Rouge, and now in Jackson, I am a firm advocate that positive teamwork makes all the difference. We work in a fast-paced industry with urgent and time sensitive matters where the bottom line is preventing losses or getting someone back on their feet after one. There have been countless times in my short career where I have needed to ask for help. Whether it is a mentor and I need assistance on understanding a coverage form, or a colleague and I am in dire need of an auto ID card to go to one of my clients while my hands are tied up. With that being said, I have learned when I have moments of downtime, lending a hand to an overwhelmed coworker provides the opportunity to learn and assist someone in need. It also creates an environment where we can openly ask for support. It takes a dose of humility to say you need help but it can be the world of difference for our insureds. One contractor needing a builder’s risk quote within the hour will not stop another client’s urgent need for a certificate of insurance to drive onto a job site. I have found being a good colleague to others is tremendously valuable, as there will be a time in the near future when I will need help. Dedication to creating a teamwork environment would be one of the four ways I’ve found to be the best CSR I can be.
The second of my four ways to better my position—in no particular order—would be time management. As previously mentioned, our jobs frequently require urgent attention to time-sensitive matters. When I work my book of business as designed by our online platform (Oracle/EPIC), it provides the flexibility for unforeseen requests. For example, when creating a renewal proposal, I must start 120 days prior to expiration. At this juncture I have contacted available markets and have a better idea of where we would like to place or keep coverage. Not only does this early start provide a template to work off and allow a continual work in progress, but most importantly, it allows me to stop when needed. Being able to juggle more than one assignment at a time makes for a seamless workday. I may need to pause a project for one client to issue an evidence of property for another. I need to work my book this way as there is a large possibility my client needs a quick turnaround on an evidence of property while I have three months before we present the renewal proposal to another client. All aspects of our position are vital, but it is important for me to determine priority. I always ask a client if there is a need-by date, as well. If I were to work only one program or project at a time it would not allow me to service my book efficiently or fairly.
An ability to adapt/change is another necessary way for successful CSRs to thrive. My specialty is construction, but it does not stop my producer from targeting other niches. I’ve been fortunate to shadow and assist colleagues with real estate, public entity, hospitality, healthcare, and other businesses. Over time, it has provided a high level understanding of different industries and allows me to service other than construction accounts. I must remain ready and willing to learn for when my producer brings in new clients. Another reason why an ability to adapt/change is important is, we will forever be learning in this job. New endorsements, ISO forms, and exclusions are forthcoming, and I must be able to explain and utilize. It is imperative I stay informed of current conversations in the industry so my clients have the best and most comprehensive coverage available. I must be able to interpret, but also advise and encourage new products our clients may not be aware of. We are there to get people back to stable grounds after a loss, but also to advise in hopes of preventing and protecting.
The final way I have found most beneficial in completing work tasks while maintaining exceptional customer service is quite possibly the most important: keeping a good attitude. Our job entails stressful and intense situations, but also requires entering in hundreds of VIN numbers or opening and scanning in the mail. It can involve overnight trips to exciting cities with happy hour marketing events or checking in policies. There are times where insureds are unkind and unhappy. There are many requirements of our job that are not fun or exciting, but they are important, and the men and women who complete them are important. I have learned no matter the request at hand, whether big or small, it is essential to ensure my clients and our agency remains in good standing. I might not be able to change the outcome of a bad situation, but I can be helpful and kind. There are countless agencies and brokerage firms in today’s world, and at the end of the day we can basically offer the same products. It may differ in price and other variables, but we are using and presenting the same markets and coverages. People want to do business with people they trust and respect. People need to hear a voice on the other end of the phone right after an accident, and as CSRs we have an opportunity to be that person. It is up to us if we want others to be pleased with the agency they chose. I have a long road ahead of learning in this position and I’m certain a good attitude will make for a far less bumpy road. I’m proud of the work CSRs do and look forward to a career of it.