A sponsored interview by Virtual Insurance Pro
Peter Milnes has been a fixture in the insurance industry ranging from the days of the initial formation of The Insurance Exchange. Whether buying and selling insurance agencies on his own behalf or for others, engaging in his expert witness practice, developing new agencies or exploring the application of technology to insurance distribution and service, he conveys his passion for the insurance agency business in all he does.
He has founded numerous insurance entities, consummated over 200 agency transactions and most recently developed Quincy Perpetuation Partners in conjunction with Quincy Perpetuation Partners.
What is Virtual Insurance Pro?
VIP is a virtual staffing solution for insurance agencies which includes both customer service and processing capabilities. In many ways, you could think of it as an ‘all insurance company’ service center staffed by licensed, experienced, work-at-home customer service reps. VIP becomes an extension of an agency’s in-house personal lines and/or commercial lines departments.
We work with independent insurance agents who have challenges, such as locating qualified service personnel, have plans to re-focus their internal staff to handle growth opportunities with current clients, wish to enhance their client retention and/or are ready to re-align their in-house personnel to facilitate sales and marketing success.
How did VIP come about?
Back in December 2010, I was approached by the original owner, an industry veteran, who was the regional manager of an insurance company. He had already begun the development of the Company and then had an opportunity to go in a different direction. The firm was then known as Agency Interface Management. I took over the operation of AIM and ultimately rebranded it as Virtual Insurance Professionals (VIP) which is more representative of what the Company actually does.
The Operations Manager at the time, and still to this day, is Cris Webster who had worked with me for many years. Cris was our first telecommuter back in the days of dial up modems with the screech and slow speed, and subsequently was a Quality Control Manager for the NE arm of a large brokerage firm. Cris and I started working together again in March of 2011. Today, Cris oversees our implementation processes, workflow documentation protocols, day-to-day operations, assignment and training of employees.
“We work with independent insurance agents who have challenges, such as locating qualified service personnel, have plans to re-focus their internal staff to handle growth opportunities with current clients, wish to enhance their client retention and/or are ready to re-align their in-house personnel to facilitate sales and marketing success.” – Peter Milne
“Being a virtual employee has certainly become easier over the years,” says Cris. “Faxes when necessary, saved as a .pdf of course, can be sent via email and video conference technology puts us in the same room for a meeting or a presentation. Remote access software allows us to log in and troubleshoot technical issues while allowing a screen share from the agents’ office when discussing workflows. While in the role of Operations Manager, I truly enjoy working with our agents during the implementation phase. Collaborating on workflows to provide optimal support in the most efficient manner is a win for both sides.”
Our file documentation in the agencies management system makes it easy for anyone to step in behind us and know what has transpired. This provides a sense of security to the agencies as they can stay current with the daily activities of their client base. Our cross training of staff in both insurance and agency management systems keeps extra hands at the ready should an agency need to ramp up services quickly in the event of a crisis. More than once I’ve received a call advising ‘we’ve got staff members stuck in traffic or out due to a storm/accident etc., can you cover the phones?’ And my answer is always, “Absolutely, your virtual team is in place ready to go.”
Who are the other key members of the VIP team?
Joining us next was Norma Milne. Cris and I had both worked with Norma, and she stepped in as our relationship and business development coordinator. The synergy between Cris and Norma is evident, and their respect for each other’s talents makes working together very successful, from each sale to “Go Live Day”.
Norma’s ability to connect with agency principals and listen to their specific needs has resulted in developing a variety of innovative programs. As she has told me on numerous occasions, ‘Outsourcing has become more acceptable and valuable to agencies as they experience staff disruption, retirements and growth. Their challenges are our opportunities to become part of their service team solution.’
When we got up and running we had just a few employees and just a couple of agency clients. Today we have grown significantly, servicing the clients for agencies up and down the east coast – from Florida up through northern New Hampshire, and have more than tripled our employee count. Do we service agencies with one or many locations, multi-state clients or not, you ask….no problem!
Tell us about your staff and why they are suited to work with agents’ customers
Our employees must fit what makes a virtual employee successful – adaptable, reliable, knowledgeable and professional.
To attest to our success with attracting and retaining loyal employees, even as we grow bigger, here are what some of our longest serving employees have to say about working at VIP:
After working in the insurance field in various conventional agency settings for over 25 years, I was contemplating a move from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to be closer to family. I was browsing various insurance employment opportunities and came across an ad for a “Work From Home” position in insurance customer service.
After a round of telephone and Skype interviews I was offered my position at Virtual Insurance Professionals. This worked perfectly into my plans as I was able to make my home, my office, and take my job with me when I moved to a new home!
The standards at VIP are high as the agencies we are contracted with place their trust in us to handle their customers with diligence, professionalism and respect. Being a part of VIP, utilizing my years of insurance experience in this way, has been both personally and professionally rewarding. When the snow is falling, I know I don’t have to travel outside my home to go to work and that is just one more reason I know I’ve made the right choice to work for Virtual Insurance Professionals.”
— Kathy D., A Seven-Year Employee of VIP
I’ve been in the insurance industry for 15 years, beginning in customer service for a NE based insurance company, where I moved up to the position of associate underwriter. My next position was an underwriter at a regional company where I grew my knowledge handling multi-state exposures and was mentored by the experienced senior staff. In-between all this learning, VIP “found” me and I began working part-time in the evenings for VIP – almost 8 years ago when the business began. I’m proud to be able to say I’ve been here since the start and have seen our company grow by leaps and bounds each year. I started full time with VIP two years ago and haven’t looked back.
“Every day is still a learning experience and I love the challenge! To share in the excitement of a new vehicle purchase or to add a piece of sparkling jewelry that’s an anniversary surprise makes each day unique. With the broad range of insurance carriers that we work with, I know that we can assist with most any request. No two days are ever the same here at VIP and that’s my motivation to keep coming back. Plus, there is nothing like looking out your window on a snowy/icy day and not worrying about commuting to and from work because you are already there!! However, there are days when I worry that my car misses me so I try to take her out for a coffee each day or so!”
— Kim S., A Seven-Year Employee of VIP
Tell us what an agency owner might have as concerns about outsourcing to VIP – such as, will their clients think they were being handed off to a “service center” or other outside party; What about the vulnerability of their client information; E&O exposures, & What exactly will an agent have to commit to?
Our call flow technology, along with the workflows established with the agency, allows VIP CSRs to assist an insured and have them feel as if the CSR were sitting in the agency office. When a VIP CSR takes an incoming call, they have the agent’s database up and ready to speak with the caller. Furthermore, VIP CSRs assigned to the agency are knowledgeable on the agency management system and trained on workflow. Email accounts utilized are on the agent’s email server, so any documents or communications sent to the client have the agency’s standard disclaimers and appearance.
One key advantage of using VIP, is that our CSRs are familiar with multiple carriers and will service all the client’s policies. Company service centers don’t do this, and so their scope is limited to those policies they have in-force. Also, the rapport that our CSRs have with the agency’s clients is deeper. The client isn’t just a “Policy Holder” to them.
Agents only allow VIP access to those portions of the database that are required to service their client. Our LastPass software is managed so VIP CSRs do not see passwords and cannot remotely log onto an agent’s database, nor carrier portals, before or after business hours. We have a written information security policy and confidentiality agreement which our employees must adhere to.
In addition, agents should know that:
- VIP carries E&O coverage for those transactions we handle.
- VIP CSRs are licensed, and we obtain non-resident licenses as required.
- Due to time and effort both parties engage in to make this a successful relationship, we have an annual contract. We, typically, are not providing temporary or part-time services, but can assist in times of additional needs.
- What if an agent’s service needs change? We are a business partner, not simply a vendor, so are just a phone call away. Working with the agent, we can adjust in times of need.
Deciding Whether or Not to Outsource Your Agency’s Customer Service? Read This Checklist First.
A sponsored checklist discussing the various concerns, questions, and issues an independent insurance agent should consider before deciding to outsource one’s agency customer service.
What does the typical virtual CSR set up look like?
Imagine a home-based work force: They are our direct employees with high speed internet connections supporting audio, video and internet access. We configure a computer system to our specs, either as a pc or a thin client. We administer security centrally and audit on a regular basis. No paper stays with the CSR – everything is done electronically. Note pads used by the CSRs for quick notes are returned to us monthly and shredded.
Our CSRs run video/chat sessions between themselves and our Operations Manager and use triple monitors. That gives them the ability to have enough screen real estate to keep our procedural info at their fingertips, directly accessing the agency management system and carrier websites all simultaneously. We utilize a cloud based automated call distribution unit to route calls from the agency’s clients to our folks based on, skill set, agency assignment and a representative’s availability. Our Operations Manager monitors calls as well as wait time in real time. Calls are answered with the agency name so whether the call comes directly to us or via the agency receptionist, there is a consistent feel that the call is being handled directly by the agency.
How difficult is it to find skilled Customer Service Representatives?
The breadth of our recruiting is a real advantage. We screen for insurance knowledge first, and foremost, but the ability of a CSR to think on their feet, demonstrate technological savvy and be truly customer-focused is what ultimately gets them hired. We train our CSRs on multiple agency management systems, and while there is a migration to a certain level of commonality and functionality as the agency management systems get updated, our CSRs still need a high level of computer literacy. Also, a great customer service mind-set is a must have characteristic.
There must be pros/cons to a geographically diverse workforce.
We have an unrestricted talent pool — someone in NE can service business in Florida — so it gives us a vast talent pool from which to recruit.
There are more state peculiarities to deal with, but we do match up and train our CSRs to learn Mass. Auto, Coastal exposures, or exposures unique to any given geographic territories.
Isn’t every agency different in the way they handle things?
Many agencies adopt a version of our vetted, ‘best practice’ workflows, but we do build a procedural documentary process with the agency to customize if they wish to take that step. Some agencies have no formal workflows, so our workflows help them achieve consistency – in their office and with VIP. That is one of our “value added” features.
Agents appreciate the suggestions that our Operations Manager will make for streamlining workflow or for documentation standards. We believe that standardization assists the next employee who will be picking up the phone or reading an email. They can quickly follow the trail of what has happened.
Are some agencies a better fit than others?
Size isn’t the key to success with VIP. Agencies that have VOIP for phone, an agency management system with fully detailed client information, utilize download in personal lines (download in CL is also an advantage, but not necessary) and that utilize imaging are a great fit. Successful agencies today tend to be on board with all these technologies or are moving in that direction. And, certainly those agents who are comfortable with technology have an advantage.
Tell us a bit about how you use your technology.
It’s a fascinating experience to watch the interaction of our folks on a daily basis. Because of our chat/video capabilities, you get the same feeling as shouting over the cubicle walls at each other in a bricks and mortar office. For example, someone might lose a client because the client’s cell phone drops a call and you’ll see a message hit the chat feed saying, ‘I just lost so and so… when he calls back, pls pass him to me;’ or, ‘XYZ carrier’s website is locked, is anyone else having trouble?’
In addition, many of our folks take advantage of the video chat component to login in early and enjoy a ‘Coffee Club’ where they have a group chat on the personal side of things.
What are the most compelling reasons for an agency to use VIP?
Effective and efficient responsiveness to the agency’s customers, excellent turnaround time and client satisfaction, and improved in-office morale: VIP allows in-office staff the backup they need for daily customer calls, and for extra assistance when the phone is ringing off the hook or someone is out of the office. A big advantage is the in-office staff can focus on what they need to do, which results in strengthening your relationships with clients, performing account reviews, writing new business and rounding out accounts. And these additional advantages appeal to the bottom line:
- No Perks or Benefit Costs for VIP CSRs.
- No Vacations for VIP CSRs. VIP provides coverage when employees can’t get to the office due to storm related events.
- No Sick Days for VIP CSRs.
- No Continuing Education costs; fewer performance evaluations to do.
- No Desk/Phone/Cubicle/Cabinets for your VIP CSRs.
- Less recruiting/advertising/resume flood/interviewing.
How scalable is your model?
We believe this is ultimately a national model that doesn’t have a size limit. We may franchise it at some point but we are still building the business.
What is the most unusual experience your folks have had to deal with?
In one of last year’s bad storms a client had significant and exposed roof damage. They flagged down a roofing truck and were able to get if fixed on the spot, but had minimal information other than the name of the roofer on the check.
One of our Virtual CSRs received the call and was able to track down the roofer, get the estimate and scope of what had been repaired, submit the claim which was then paid by the insurance company. The client subsequently showed up at the agency with candy and flowers, asking for the CSR by name, to show his appreciation!
We didn’t have a protocol built for that, so the receptionist stammered something about that individual being out for lunch, but that she would make sure the thanks were relayed. I heard the flowers graced the lobby and the folks in the agency enjoyed the candy, much to the disappointment of our Virtual Insurance Professional who handles that agency!