A top priority of every crop
insurance company is securing and maintaining a professional sales force. In fact, the success and profitability of any crop
insurance company largely is determined by the quality, and to a lesser degree the
quantity, of their agents. This begs the
question, What skills should a crop insurance agent possess to be considered top
quality by a company? To answer
this question, I informally polled the NCIS member companies to learn what skills they
look for in new agents. This article is a
summary of the skills these companies deemed essential to success.
Ability to work well with other people
Strong interpersonal skills are required to excel as
a crop insurance agent. Being an agent is
primarily a sales job, and salesmanship depends upon understanding and working well with
other people. Sales skills can be
taught, and most people have the ability to learn the mechanics of selling; however, to
effectively relate to a wide range of potential insureds, with the appropriate blend of
conversation and information is more art than science.
Moreover the ability to relate to farmers, and provide them the information
they need to make a purchase decision and at the time and in the manner they want to
receive it, is critical to success. Companies
are always on the lookout for potential agents who have this innate ability, because it is
the magic secret of sales success.
Agents not only need to be able to
work well with farmers, but also must have the skill to communicate with others in the
companies they represent. Every underwriter
and sales manager knows who the preferred agents are because they are the ones who are
able to get along well with others. Personality
is hard to teach, but anyone can be pleasant and everyone can learn good social skills and
practice patience and consideration for others. These
characteristics often are the deciding factor in succeeding with other people.
Professional attitude, high
moral character and person of integrity
Companies and farmers alike want to do business with
individuals who act ethically and exhibit professional behavior. Agents and loss adjusters who have demonstrated an
ability to do the right thing both personally and professionally are a credit to
themselves, the companies they represent and the crop insurance industry. These individuals will always be in demand
professionally because everyone knows they can be trusted.
Companies seek their services because the company knows they will be well
represented and potential legal liabilities minimized.
Farmers seek out honest agents with professional behavior because they
desire reassurance that their private production records and other personal information
will be kept confidential. Moreover, farmers
are interested in doing business only with agents who understand how crop insurance works
and who make a genuine effort to correctly and completely represent the various available
The essence of ethical business behavior is personal
integrity and moral character. The guide to
personal integrity is that moral compass we call our conscience. There is no place in the crop insurance industry
for individuals who have no conscience or integrity and have no intention of adhering to
the high ethical standards embraced by the rest of the industry.
Expectations of high ethical conduct are not unique
to any one crop insurance company. Every
company emphasizes and encourages high standards of professional conduct by the agents
associated with their company.
Locally know and respected
A sales relationship is also a trust relationship. Individuals who are locally known, have earned a
trustworthy and honorable reputation and are familiar with the local area have a good
start towards becoming a successful crop insurance agent.
Certain individuals, including many farmers, are suspicious of outsiders and
look to local ties and local interests upon which to build a relationship of trust.
Not everyone starts with an established Main
Street presence. A solid reputation can
be built however by getting involved with local civic groups and broad based church
activities. It is important to be seen as one
who genuinely helps to build the community and is involved in supporting and strengthening
the quality of life and economic stability of the area.
An important aspect of delivering federal crop
insurance is ensuring that all who are interested in availing themselves of the various
insurance products have a legitimate opportunity to do so.
This is especially important with the current single delivery system, where
crop insurance is available only from private insurance agents. Limited resource and socially disadvantaged
farmers often feel misunderstood and express a lack of trust of all outside professionals,
including those in crop insurance. Crop
insurance companies recognize this important issue and are very proactive in reaching out
to those with limited resources and who are socially disadvantaged. One successful approach is to identify and train
insurance agents from within these social communities who already have an established
trust relationship. For more information on
how to successfully reach these diverse groups see the Crop Insurance TODAY
article, Working Effectively With Limited Resource Farmers, (Vol. 30, No.
4, (1997): 19-22.).
Understanding of agriculture
As the number of people raised on farms decline, so
does the pool of individuals who have first hand experience in production agriculture. Being raised on a farm is not a prerequisite to
being a top insurance agent; however, a thorough understanding of agricultural economics
and the agrarian lifestyle is extremely beneficial.
Successful agents understand production agriculture,
how farmers formulate decisions and the specific areas that they can add value to the
process. They possess an understanding of the
big picture, including their role and the role of others who impact the farmers
decision. They recognize that the
agribusiness environment is complex and interactive and decisions and their outcomes are
interrelated and connected. Farm customers
increasingly are looking to a team of advisors (lenders, insurance agents, accountants,
brokers, lawyers, specialists and consultants, etc.) to provide coordinated and
comprehensive solutions to management decisions. There
is a significant role to play for insurance agents who view themselves as members of an
agribusiness team and act accordingly.
Successful agents also understand
microeconomics and the firm level decisions a farmer must make. Without this detailed knowledge, an agent is
unable to provide the type and level of information needed by the farmer to answer
critical production questions and make important management decisions. This need to understand the decision process will
increase over time as the structure of production agriculture changes and evolves.
Computer skills are a must for crop insurance agents
to compete in todays marketplace. We
live in the information age and computers are the tools of choice to access, process and
transmit information. Because
information is power, one becomes more or less powerful depending upon their ability to
use and apply information. Without complete
computer literacy it is impossible to compete in a world dominated by computers.
is revolutionizing inventory management and retail selling.
The impact is being felt in the crop insurance industry. Agents can receive their actuarial documents and
handbooks electronically. The move to a
continuous rating structure (made possible by advances in computer technology) will
continue to impact the work life of every crop insurance agent. Recent changes allowing electronic signatures in
certain situations is likely only the tip of the electronic iceberg. The message is clear: computer literacy and
familiarity with an increasing number of electronic applications is required.
Strong communication skills
Every vocation working with the public requires
strong communication skills. The ability to
effectively communicate with others is required. For
obvious reasons, both oral and written skills are necessary to be considered a successful
crop insurance agent. Time is becoming a more
valuable commodity all of the time, and well crafted effective communication is a way of
saving time. On the other hand, agents who
are rushed and appear overly busy and detached are offensive to farmers who expect their
agents undivided attention and consideration. Top agents have developed the skill of
conveying total attention and focus on the individual, without being overbearing,
appearing solicitous or viewed as oblivious to any time constraint. Also, poor or
miscommunication leads to misunderstanding, confusion, wasted energy and/or costly legal
Excellent communication skills are closely related
to the issues discussed above with regards to working well with others. People who communicate well are typically
excellent problem solvers because they can address sensitive issues in delicate situations
without damaging individual egos, or appearing to challenge others in an offensive manner. Individuals who have honed these communication
skills are in demand everywhere, not just in crop insurance.
Strong work ethic and good
First and foremost top crop insurance agents view
themselves as private businesspersons. Astute
agents understand economic principles, market forces and the necessity of working hard and
the value of working smart. They know that
all business decisions have economic consequences. They
demonstrate an understanding of marketing by being able to effectively segment the market
and target their efforts and activities. They
are able to bundle products and services in a fashion to add value, control costs and meet
customer demands of quality and timeliness. They
understand the demographics of their potential customer base and how demographic
characteristics effect needs and purchase decisions.
They engage in strategic business planning so that they are able to
understand their business strengths, weaknesses and comparative advantages, have
identified and set specific business goals, know what changes they need to make to reach
their goals and how they will make the necessary changes.
This empowers them to move forward in a consistent, coordinated fashion,
thus they are able to approach business decisions on economic, rather than emotional,
Commitment to education and
It is imperative that agents thoroughly understand
all of the products they make available to potential insureds. It requires a strong commitment to education and
lifelong learning to stay current, and to be able to understand all aspects of agriculture
and crop insurance well enough to provide the quality of service farmers need and deserve. Few vocations require more vigilance in personal
study and effort to stay current than crop insurance.
Nothing in crop insurance is as certain as change. Changes occur primarily because this is a
relatively new industry that is experiencing tremendous growth and expansion, both
geographically and in volume of products offered. Current
farm legislation is based on the concept of individual farmers being more responsible to
manage their own risks, thus leading to an increased role and importance for crop
insurance. Moreover, as historical experience
grows and data becomes available, modifications and refinements to policy, procedure and
rate structure are made to improve product quality.
This condition of constant change creates an environment of an everlasting
need for continuing education.
A commitment to education and life-long
learning goes hand in hand with strong communication skills. The basic assumption of strong communication
skills is that you have an important message to communicate and are skilled at doing so. Thus education includes not only understanding
crop insurance, agriculture, economics and marketing, but also teaching, training,
education and sales skills. For additional
guidance on being an effective communicator with farmers see the Crop Insurance TODAY
articles: Explaining Crop Insurance to Farmers: How To Be An Effective Educator,(Vol.32,
No. 4, (1999): 35-17,40); and Making Risk Management Education Interesting,(Vol.33,
No. 3, (2000): 15-16).
Service oriented attitude
Indeed we live in a
service-oriented, high-tech society. However, service means different things to different
people, thus an importance of understanding demographics.
There is still a strong demand for high-touch, even in a high-tech society. This is particularly true in production
agriculture with its tradition of relationship-based sales.
Typically, farmers identify with the personality of an agent more so than a
particular company. The agent becomes
the company to them; consequently it is
imperative to be seen as a risk management problem solver and not just a seller of
products. To a large degree, those in the
chemical industry have already made the transition from being seen as chemical peddlers,
to being viewed as agronomic advisors. Long-term
survival depends on being able to provide service and not just products.
Astute agents recognize
their unique role and the importance of providing total risk management. Long-term survival depends on servicing the
producers crop insurance needs this year, and ensuring that their other risk
management needs are sufficiently addressed to ensure they will be in business next year
as well. It is the ethical responsibility of
every agent to provide the best service possible to their insureds on behalf of the
companies they represent.
In a competitive industry there is little time for
hand holding, business babysitting and prodding. Unfortunately,
working hard is not enough to guarantee success. One
must also take initiative, recognize opportunities and be self-motivated to make it
happen. Being able to recognize and
capitalize on opportunities is usually the result of preparation and planning. There is no substitute for preparation. Realizing that economic principles prevail is
largely what motivates individuals to understand important economic behaviors and prepare
A pattern seems to be
emerging that typifies successful agentsthose positioned to be around for the long
term. The characteristics that describe this
agent group are similar to the characteristics of other professionals (lenders, elevator
operators, brokers, etc.) who work successfully with farm clients. As a group they are self motivated, have an
appreciation for and understand economic principles, approach their professions as part of
a larger team, know the value of education and outreach and are involved in professional
development, understand the role service plays in selecting professional assistance, are
persons of high integrity with strong a work ethic and are effective in communicating and
relating with others.