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Leveraging technology

Ryan Pinney; Steven A. Plewes, CLU, ChFC; Edward C. Skelly, CLU, ChFC

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Want to increase office efficiency and make Top of the Table without ever seeing clients in person? MDRT members discuss how technology has created several effective processes including virtual meetings, email organization and more. Presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting.

Plewes: How are you guys using technology in your business?

Skelly: Ryan, you’re using a lot of technology in your business, aren’t you?

Pinney: Yes, we are primarily technology. We do almost everything virtually these days, so I don’t think I’ve met with a client in over a year. Almost everything is done over the phone or through the web.

Plewes: What? You don’t see clients? How do you make Top of the Table?

Pinney: Well, I just repeat the same process and make sure that we can do it over and over efficiently.

Plewes: OK, what is that process? I’m dying to know, because we spend a lot of time with clients; it’s kind of the opposite end of the spectrum. I’m really curious to know how that all works.

Pinney: For us, we generate most of our leads online, and so most of the consumers we talk to are coming to us from that digital or online space. Over the last 15 years, we have spent a lot of time creating a process that works. The way we’ve done that is by approaching everything from the perspective that we need to standardize our processes, and then we need to systematize them—basically figure what things can use a checklist or can be done in a repeatable fashion over and over by anyone on our staff. And then, finally, over the last few years, we’ve been automating a lot of those processes—utilizing things like CRMs and rules within email and trying to make it so that everything we do is repeatable and has a knowable outcome even before we start the conversation.

Plewes: So what’s that thing with the rules in the emails? How does that work?

Pinney: If you think about it, I’m like many advisors out there in that I get a couple of hundred emails a day. And, if I’m trying to sift through them all on my own, it’s pretty challenging. If you’re like me, you’re likely getting emails from a lot of the same people, whether it’s your staff or insurance carriers or home office or whomever. So I determine which ones I want to deal with and when, and then I set up rules in my email inbox that automatically sort each message. For example, emails from MDRT go into one folder, and I look at those messages each Friday. I have another folder for carrier information that I look at on Monday mornings. And I have things coming from my staff that I look at in the morning and in the afternoon. Even then, I try to get away from interoffice emails by using instant messaging, which I find to be more efficient and effective. This has helped me be better at managing my time and making sure that I’m doing the right thing when I need to. I’m not letting my inbox or my email run my day; instead, I’m running my day the way I want and using my email as the tool it was designed to be in the first place.

Plewes: Wow, that is worth the trip for this already! Thanks! What about you, Ed? What are you doing?

Skelly: Well, I think a lot of the same things Ryan’s doing, but we’re also looking at things a little differently from the standpoint that we view service now as the new sale. What I mean by that is, we’re doing the traditional old-fashioned mailings, emails, phone calls, and face-to-face meetings, but we’re doing more virtual meetings through GoToMeeting, Skype, or FaceTime and cutting back a bit on our travel time. We’re also using, like Ryan, processes for our review meetings. So we can do things ahead—we can schedule, we can do things in my conference room on my 50-inch, big-screen TV, or we can do them virtually. Living outside DC, as you well know, has you wasting half your day on the road, so we’re now able to do virtual meetings when we can have three to five meetings a day. So that frees us up to be more client focused. We’re also using a concept called “block scheduling,” where I’ll block four to five weeks a quarter, and we commit that to reviews for clients. So I’ll pack 40 to 60 meetings in a month, and then I’m free to focus on the business—or free time.

Plewes: Can I interrupt for a second? I want to ask about block scheduling. Are you using some kind of data system to manage that?

Skelly: Great question. We use an online scheduler, and it’s probably one of the most utilized technologies that we use in our office. And, oh, by the way, it’s the cheapest! It’s freed up staff to focus on client issues. We’re not going back and forth between missed calls, playing phone tag, and rescheduling canceled meetings. We just send a link to the client. We have links set up as a 30-minute call, or an hour meeting, or a hour-and-a-half presentation. So depending on what it is, we will send a specific link. Then it comes back to us, and it automatically gets scheduled on my Outlook calendar. We review my Outlook calendar, and staff is off to the races for whatever we need to do. Once it appears on the calendar, we have a process initiated to get everything ready. This one thing was a game changer in the automation of our client meetings.

Plewes: Wow. You guys are killing me here! It’s amazing what you do—good stuff!

Skelly: How are you using technology, Steve?

Plewes: It’s funny, because I find I’m somewhere between you guys. I don’t know that much about technology, but what I’ve figured out is that I don’t need to know a lot about it, because I just needed to know what I wanted to do. Basically, what I did was, I built my business to be location independent. Because, at this stage of my life, I wanted my business to work around my lifestyle instead of the other way around. So I’ve kind of embraced technology in the sense that it allows me to outsource and delegate. Honestly, I don’t even have an office anymore. I spend time in Florida for half a year and half a year in Maryland, and we still have time to move around. I just woke up one day and realized that 65 percent of my clients didn’t live within a three-hour radius of my office. I had built a lot of infrastructure with staffing, files, and things like that that weren’t being utilized. We had a real nice office, but people just weren’t coming in that much. So I found that I was going out to see clients more often. I would visit with clients when they came into town to visit their family, but a lot was doing what you guys are doing—using GoToMeeting or virtual systems like that. And I found that these systems allowed me to get rid of my office. If people aren’t coming in, and most of the software we use is online anyway, I didn’t even need to have a server anymore! So then I started thinking, I don’t need a server; I don’t need an office; and I don’t need an office manager. All of a sudden, I could see how independent I could be and where I needed to be in terms of my clients. It gave us more freedom at this stage of my life, but also I find that the clients served are well adapted to this. Now, the time I spend with them is real quality time when I go to see them at their place in Arizona or Illinois, or wherever they might be. In Florida, we’re spending good quality time with them and doing things we wouldn’t have been able to do with just an hour or hour-and-a-half meeting in our office. So that’s how I use technology.

Pinney: I think it’s really interesting—we’re all using similar technology but in different ways. My background is a little more technical; that’s where I came from before I started in insurance. But neither one of you strike me as being tech savants, or techies, so how do you manage your infrastructure? How do you deal with this? Steve?

Plewes: As I mentioned before, you’re absolutely right—I am not a tech savant! Anything but! And I think it’s surprising, because a lot of people do know how I’ve used technology. I found out a long time ago that that’s not my core competency. So I learned that if I’m going to use technology, I needed to hire someone who really knows this stuff. I call them “tech geeks”—you know, with duct tape on their glasses, and thank God for them because without them I don’t know how the world would work! But what I found out is, if I don’t know what I’m doing about something, I’m better off delegating that to somebody who does. This allows me to focus on what I’m really good at, which is building relationships, creating value in the company, and providing strategic direction for my clients and for the business. It allows me to make my relationships deeper. One thing I always like to bring up is that technology is not necessarily cheap, but it is important to make that investment because it does free you up to do the things you’re really good at doing. That’s what I took away from all that.

Skelly: Ryan, I think that the advent of the Internet has dramatically increased our ability to not have to be a tech geek, as Steve said. With cloud-based software now, we have not had a server in our office for 14 years. We don’t have to have the technological competency from a pure technical standpoint anymore because most of that is outsourced to the vendors. So as a small- to medium-size business, we don’t need to maintain the hardware, and the software is very intuitive. I would say it’s even a liability at this point to have a server in your office, from a security standpoint. With hackers today, your office could be vulnerable to security breaches, which could then bring in things like ransomware. Recently, I heard of a company locally that was in the HVAC business and that was held up for a Bitcoin claim last year, at the height of its summer season. I think that technology today is more about being user friendly and less about the actual technology behind the scenes—for a lot of what we do, anyway.

Pinney: Yes, even in our business, even though we use technology heavily, there are really three ways to do it: You can hire for the knowledge or expertise; you can partner with somebody who has those abilities; or you can outsource it. It sounds like you have taken the outsourcing route. We have also done a lot of outsourcing of technology, especially when it comes to things like CRM systems, to manage our clients and databases, and do things like screen sharing or file sharing or even electronic applications. More often than not, like you, we are relying on third parties. I think it’s a good thing to remember—you don’t have to be the expert. You can definitely find somebody who knows how to do it if you don’t, especially in today’s world. There’s usually a Google search or a way to find whatever you’re looking for.

Skelly: Also, the cost of implementation has gone down so much too, so something that may have taken hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands of dollars years ago, today you can do for a relatively inexpensive cost. So the cost of entry today is a whole lot less.

Pinney: Definitely! I think back to our first lead and client management system—we had to build it ourselves. I think we paid $250,000 for it; today, it goes for like $10 a month! I wish I would have known then what I know now! So that’s something to be aware of because a lot of times, especially in our business, we tend to be on the forefront and do a lot more trailblazing than some of the others. Just because we were first doesn’t mean we’re the best or smartest. A lot of times, people come in behind us and do it more efficiently and less expensively. I know from MDRT that I see other people do things and think, Oh, I can see a way to improve upon that or use that in my own practice. I think MDRT is a great opportunity to learn from our peers.

Skelly: Steve, I wanted to bring up a point. I don’t know if you recall this, but it was 14 years ago that you and I designed our paperless office systems. Can you imagine—we have been paperless for 14 years!

Plewes: I know, it’s unbelievable! I can only imagine how many file cabinets we would have today if we hadn’t paid somebody to scan all those pieces of paper. You know, what’s great about that, and we’ve done this for years now, is that we can just pull up right on our iPads, wherever we are, client files, policies they’ve bought, all that kind of stuff. And it’s amazing—when you guys talk about the tools you can get and the low cost of these things, it really makes it tempting to download every app and go after every piece of new technology. But I wanted to bring up that technology can be a really expensive type of caller avoidance. I’ve seen people get caught up playing with these new toys—they think that they can just send out an email to people and market that way. And that may work to a certain extent. But I just read an interesting data point the other day that said if you send an email to get information from people, you actually have a 34 times better chance of obtaining the information you need by simply picking up the phone and calling people. So I like to point that out too when we talk about technology. People get excited and want to download programs, and they get sidetracked from the main issue, which is to have those deep relationships.

Skelly: Right, technology should be a tool, but it should not be a replacement. It should be an aid to help you do those things and to continually remind you, but it should not be a replacement.

Plewes: Right. So this what I always say: The more high tech we become, the more valuable high touch becomes. Because how many times have you been online with somebody or some computer or robot on the phone, and it makes you crazy? When you actually get a voice and speak to somebody whose invested in helping you, you appreciate it so much. That’s the position we’re in as advisors. We use our technology to be very, very efficient and automate processes (and we can outsource), but the core of it is to be able to provide that value to the client, whatever it is—product, planning, or service.

Pinney: It’s a good point that both of you mentioned: Technology should be a replacement for redundant or repetitive tasks; it shouldn’t be a replacement for the service we provide. In our business we have a motto, what I like to call “wash and repeat”—like the back of a shampoo bottle. When we go through our processes and we look at how we’re performing, how our technology is being utilized, and the results, we are constantly adjusting our processes to make sure we’re getting the most effective and efficient result on the back end. Really, I think to your point, Steve, is that we’re seeing things like email being less and less effective over time, which means that we have to change our process. So we started using a lot more text messaging; it’s kind of like email was a decade ago—it results in a relatively high response and it’s inexpensive, so it’s a really good way to make initial contact, remind clients of appointments, etc. It’s one of those things that, if we weren’t paying attention to the numbers, reviewing our results, and constantly tweaking the processes and monitoring the success we’re having, would be really easy to overlook. If we did, we would find ourselves a couple of years down the road and just realizing that we had lost traction, because people weren’t opening their emails or responding to the processes we put into place a decade ago. I think it’s important to remember that just because it worked before doesn’t mean you can rest on your laurels; you have to continually review the process to make sure that what you’re doing is still effective and efficient and that you’re still having the same end results you were before. You should always be testing—using the iterative design process where you know that a specific method A works, but you test it against a slightly different method B to see if it works any better. Basically, you tweak along the way. One thing we’ve found is that a lot of times A was pretty good, but then we make a small tweak and find that B is even better. You have to evolve by making repetitive, small improvements to the process.

Skelly: I think the underlying theme here is that all of us have gotten to Top of the Table because we’re more efficient, and we’re using tools to be more efficient. I would say the old adage that “time equals money”—the more time you have, the more money you can make—is now “efficiency equals leverage”—the more efficient we are, the more we leverage ourselves, and we can do more with less. I know that, for me, I don’t have a huge staff; I’ve stayed away from having a huge staff. But because we are efficient in how we utilize our systems, we’re able to get similar output as larger firms that have more people. So efficiency is another underlying theme, and efficiency comes from the constant tweaking that Ryan does, with his processes, and also with you, Steve, with your keeping your processes and interactions with your outsourcings all fresh.

Plewes: Ed, that’s a good point. I really want to focus for a minute on that word process. Process is not a new word in business, period. You know there is a process for making a hamburger at McDonald’s. Everyone has a process—a lot of people do it by the seat of their pants; they react in their business. And one of the things that I love hearing about your business, Ryan, is that you have created this process and automated so much. And, Ed, you have automated efficiency around your service, and I just want to say that I’m so impressed with that. I’ve always thought that with workflow and process, if you get those things automated to the point where they’re repeatable, you can delegate. Then, as a business owner and advisor, you can start to let go of control of some of these things and let the process actually work. And that frees you up to do what we’re really all about, and that is to serve our clients and continue to build our business. What you guys are talking about is really letting technology help you let go of all this micromanaging control that is so prevalent in our industry so that you can just do what you do, your core competency, and that’s super powerful.

Skelly: It frees your time—it frees you to be more creative in your business.

Ryan Pinney is a nine-year MDRT member with nine Top of the Table honors from Roseville, California. Recognized for his innovative technologies, Pinney leverages his experience in social media and online marketing to help agents and agencies create their online presence and profit from it.

Steven A. Plewes, CLU, ChFC, is a 30-year MDRT member with four Court of the Table and nine Top of the Table honors from Germantown, Maryland. He currently serves as the Divisional Vice President of the Member Resources-Practice Management Division.

Edward C. Skelly, CLU, ChFC, is a 24-year MDRT member with nine Court of the Table and seven Top of the Table qualifications from Ashburn, Virginia. The founder of Sterling Financial Partners, he is a tax efficiency specialist who prides himself on fulfilling clients’ financial needs with ethical solutions.


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