Agency Interviews is a monthly column that focuses on the people working and thriving in the Massachusetts insurance marketplace – be they agents, insurance companies or insurance associations. We want to see what they’re up to and what they think about the state of the insurance industry in Massachusetts and how that affects the independent agents of this Commonwealth.
Earlier this week, Agency Checklists spoke with independent agent Geoff Gordon, of the A. Gordon Inc. Insurance Agency located in Norwell, MA. Incorporated in 1966, this independent insurance agency has been in existence for over 150 years. The Gordon family has owned and operated it for over 50 of those years. In addition to being a traditional storefront agency, the Gordon Insurance Agency has embraced its online presence and boasts a content rich site and social media presence. Agency Checklists talked with Mr. Gordon to find out more about the secrets to his success.
Tell me a little about your agency – its history, whether it’s a family business, etc.?
The agency is actually about 170 years old; my dad bought it in 1953, and I bought him out in 1987. My wife works here, too, and my son is the janitor, so it’s definitely a family affair.
Agency Perpetuation is a topic that is often overlooked by agents, even though most agencies are still family businesses. Have you dealt with this issue yet?
We had a standing buyer for our agency for a number of years, but the buyer withdrew when we went to competitive auto. So for now we’ll see. We are really developing the commercial lines business as it makes the business more valuable, and saleable, going forward.
As your agency has changed with the times, how have you modernized and brought your business into the internet age? Has it been an easy transition?
We have always tried to stay on the leading edge of technology; even my dad was one of four pilot agencies nationally for an “agency management computer system” in the early 1980’s. Personally, I was writing code in BASIC when I was 17. I brought the town of Norwell online in 2000 with www.NorwellMA.com, so I’m comfortable in the on-line / technology space.
You seem to have a strong internet presence; especially the whiteboard videos. How long have you been on the internet?
I think we got www.agordon.com in the early 1990s, but that was so long ago, it’s hard to pin it down. But when searching for a name, I remember searching for www.insurance.com and www.gordon.com, and was surprised they were taken.
Is it really necessary for an agent to be on the internet? Have you seen increased business since you launched your site?
It is critical. Some 70% of insurance purchases begin on the internet. People like to understand the landscape before making a decision on provider or product, so we want to be in that space where research is so important. If you’ve seen our site, I think you’d agree its content rich. We always prefer to work with customers who want to understand their choices. As far as increased business, I’d estimate that 90% of our new personal lines business came from internet inquiries.
One of the things we do and where we get a lot of new business leads from is that we use www.netquote.com. How netquote works is that they receive internet leads and then sell them to various agencies at the same time. So, we’re competing in that same space with other agencies, some of whom are giving an initial quote immediately, right off of eight or ten questions. In order to compete effectively we have had to develop a system whereby we can give an effective initial quote in order to continue the conversation with a potential client. We can then ask the essential additional questions later on, which may really affect a policy, like whether someone has an office in their house, etc. in order to give them an accurate quote.
How big is your agency?
We have a premium volume of a bit over $6,000,000 and income just over $1,000,000. We have nine full-time employees, which is heavy, but that’s why we’re so committed to revenue growth. We should be well positioned to grow revenue 20% with existing staff.
What insurance companies do you represent?
As members of Renaissance Alliance, we represent lots of carriers. Our largest PL carriers are Plymouth Rock, Commerce, Quincy Mutual and Andover Companies. All in all, we represent about 8 or 9 auto carriers, about 15 home carriers, and dozens of commercial lines companies.
Is your growth internal or have you done or are planning to do acquisitions?
It has been internal, but I’ve bought three (3) agencies’ books in the past and was a finalist for a local agency last year. We are always looking. We also have just hired a new sales guy and hope to hire another person by the end of the year, to take the lead on the sales track into both the personal and commercial lines. Presently, with our new guy we need to provide two-thirds (2/3) of the leads and then he has to hunt down the rest. We want our agency to grow and since our agency understands marketing pretty well, we are using that to further our goals.
What about aggregators? Do you use them? They seem to be popular these days. How do you see them affecting the business?
As I mentioned before we are a member of the Renaissance Group. Historically, we’ve never had a problem with markets, but on the commercial line side we did. Now being part of the Renaissance Group, I can go to a commercial account, and it allows us to offer advice and other professional service with less of a focus on getting the least expensive product, because we’ll always do that. We want to make insurance make sense, not just be the cheapest vendor. Moreover, being a Certified Risk Manager I can concentrate on talking about the overall cost of risk and can basically give my clients the additional benefit of a Chief Risk Officer in addition to being their commercial lines agent. It changes your approach with clients and potential clients.
What companies are doing things right in your opinion? Why?
Plymouth Rock definitely is near the front of the pack – making the processing piece for both new business and existing business streamlined. Commerce is also doing a lot of things right, including dedication to technology. I’m sure there are others, but these two come to mind right away.
Agency Checklists first contacted you regarding the Plymouth Rock online insurance tool you integrated into your website. We wanted to see if the tool was really helping agents and since they told us you already had it up and running we decided to talk to you directly. How long have you been a Plymouth Rock agent?
We’ve represented Plymouth Rock since the mid 1990’s.
How did you find out about the Plymouth Rock online insurance tool?
I sit on their Agents Advisory Council and have been a big proponent of this for years, so when they introduced it, I was early in line. We want to be available as insurance providers to do-it-yourselfers as well as people who rely on our expertise for more complicated matters. Actually, many do-it-yourselfers are very happy to have an advocate / advisor, especially when they realize it won’t cost any more.
You said it was an easy implementation process, how long did the whole process take to get it up and working, for those interested in adding it to their sites?
I am (or my social media engineer is) editing our site almost daily, so for me it was duck soup – just a link and a banner. Maybe five minutes. Thus for others, it depends on how active they are in their site maintenance.
How are you marketing this new tool or are you?
We monitor our SEO efforts by watching internet traffic occasionally. We blog, we are on Facebook, etc., though we haven’t actually promoted this new link from our site much yet…it’s only been up a couple weeks. (I was on vacation last week, and my social media engineer is visiting his college for next year this week.)
You say you have written two new policies in the two weeks since the system was introduced. What kind of policies were they?
Very different! One had coverages that we would have recommended; the other minimum limits. But both were in a place where Plymouth Rock’s rates are good, younger, a couple minor incidents, which is not a surprise.
Do you think this will be a valuable tool to attract new clients to your agency?
Absolutely. Just because we haven’t hit it hard yet doesn’t mean we won’t.
Do your clients mainly come from the Norwell area or does your internet presence attract clients from all over?
Interestingly, we do pretty well on Nantucket…not so much with Islanders, but more with the second home or rental home crowd. But otherwise, our marketing focus is Norwell and the surrounding areas. Generally, our customers are from to two to three towns distant in personal lines. For commercial lines, I’m regularly on 93 & 95, Route 1, and 24, simply because that is the nature of spread of business.
What about community involvement? Is that still important in this internet-focused day and age?
Essential. For this, we use our Facebook page, which allows us to show a personal side. For example, this past Saturday was clean-up Norwell day. We used our site to promote it and we were out there picking up the trash on Saturday as well. I also was Citizen of the Year and I run www.norwellma.com, so I personally do a lot in my community, which is where I work and also where I live.
What other online marketing tools have been successful for your agency?
Cross linking, blogging, whiteboard videos, especially when the latter help to explain stuff people want to know about. We blog heavily, we don’t do much withh email marketing campaigns, but that is by design. I personally don’t want to see another marketing email in my inbox and I don’t want to be one more agency sending them. We write about the issues in our blogs, and it’s a way to reach customers and then we can follow-up with interested individuals via email. As for twitter, we have an account, but, honestly, I don’t get it. I see its power for some business types, but I don’t see its value for our agency as of yet. We’re also still using traditional postcards for customers and prospects, because they’re effective.
Since we are talking about the internet and the opportunities it provides to agents, what opportunities do you see for your agency in being social and online?
Same as above. It all cross-pollinates.
What online resources do you or your agents use to get information on the insurance market in Massachusetts?
Property information from assessors’ and realtors’ databases; Google ad words; mapping (we’re close to the water – real important); this list actually is huge…we do 99% of our research on-line.
How do you find the new competitive rating environment for auto insurance? How are direct writers impacting you under the new rules?
They are definitely getting their share, but we get ours, too. It depends on the buyers.
Agents now have competition from direct writers? Does this change your agency’s focus?
While auto insurance, strategically, is still important, we are committed to developing our commercial book more extensively, and using technology to let consumers who want to be do-it-yourselfers buy on-line and do other “self-serve” things online. We’ve been competing with Liberty, Amica, and other direct writers for years, so this by itself isn’t a big deal. Their advertising budgets are hard to compete with. The dynamics of the insurance buying public is that there are a certain number of people who are comfortable buying insurance on their own. They never wanted to use an insurance agent and so those people are going to prefer using GEICO, etc.
Do you feel that competition with other agencies has changed because of the introduction of direct writers? Not really. We’re getting fewer “price only” inquiries, which works well with our problem-solving approach (making insurance make sense).
Are you hopeful for the future of independent agents or worried?
Optimistic overall, because at the end of the day people need advice about reducing the cost of risk. It is still an information based business, and people are still willing to pay for that type of advice. The market will change tremendously, however, over the next several years, and will continue to change. Consumers still want fast and perfect answers, though, and our commitment to “making insurance make sense” should continue to resonate for years.