National Crop Insurance Services
8900 Indian Creek Parkway, Suite 600
Overland Park, KS 66210
office: (913) 685-2767
fax: (913) 685-3080
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By Dr. Laurence M. Crane, NCIS
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.
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.
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 products.
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.
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.).
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.
E-commerce 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.
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 issues.
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.
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, terms.
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).
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 for opportunities.
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.