Brokerage Ops the December 2023 issue

Don’t Be Risky

Here are three ways your client service talent strategy can supercharge (or sink) your valuation.
By Jenn Walsh Posted on December 1, 2023

It makes sense, of course, to evaluate books of business, sales talent, pipelines and a firm’s new business value proposition when calculating its value. But especially in the midst of our industry’s talent crisis, it’s a mistake to stop there. Many firms and industry analysts underestimate the impact client service talent has to supercharge (or sink) valuations.

As a former agency owner, national employee benefits practice leader, and 30+ year industry veteran and enthusiast, I’ve been thinking about how this blind spot relates to mergers and acquisitions. I’m concerned that acquirers and sellers, both before the sale and after, during the earnout, won’t achieve historical returns. The reason: they’re using an outdated playbook.

I’m enthusiastic about the leverage firms will get from artificial intelligence and other technological enhancements, but for the foreseeable future, there’s no growth without a team to do the work. You need a client service talent strategy that’s aligned with your growth strategy.

If you’re a buyer or a seller or you simply want to run a high-performing (highly valued) business, consider three ways you have a chance to outperform your peers: recruiting, retention and revenue.

Recruiting

Most client service teams believe they’re at capacity. Maybe they are. Maybe they aren’t. In my experience, teams have more capacity than they think and much less than their leaders have banked on in their budget.

Firms ran very lean this year; it wasn’t simply a Q4 “busy season” issue. And I’m guessing your 2024 plans include growth. Who’s going to absorb these new clients into their book of business while still upholding commitments made to other customers?

The old playbook included the budget-busting solution to hire a recruiter and/or “overpay” for a new hire. I have some bad news for you if your Plan B is to hire from your competitors when things take a turn: there aren’t qualified people standing by, ready on your timeline (and within your budget) behind emergency glass. The existing talent supply can’t support the stated growth goals in the industry.

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “The America Works Report,” 50% of our industry’s professionals will retire over the next 15 years. Prioritizing retaining, attracting and developing top-performing client service professionals is a must.

Put another way, be as thoughtful about your client service talent pipeline as you are (or should be) about new business and producer recruitment. Your internal or external recruiter(s) need to continuously nurture the market so you can respond to growth or other factors that impact your client service infrastructure.

I have some bad news for you if your Plan B is to hire from your competitors when things take a turn: there aren’t qualified people standing by, ready on your timeline (and within your budget) behind emergency glass.

Retention

Firms can’t grow with wobbly client service infrastructure. Who’s responsible for your client service talent retention?

Money matters, but who’s tracking what else is important to your teams as they assess how long to stay with your organization before leaving the industry, going to a competitor, or retiring a little earlier than you’d hoped? We talk often about the mistake of making a high-performing busy producer the sales manager. Yet routinely we burden our best client service colleagues with managing teams and full books.

Neither scenario works well. We can do better and should since the stakes are high. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  • Are you tracking trends with new(er) employees and veterans?
  • Are you investing in career development and supporting role shifts?
  • Are you tracking the burden certain producers have on your infrastructure?
  • Are you paying current staff market compensation?

As a recovering practice leader, I know that the fourth bullet is painful. But believe me when I tell you that your current employees know exactly what you’re paying newer employees. You have to get them within that range or you will lose them in 2024. Your culture isn’t that special. If it were, you’d never worry about losing producers or key executives.

Further, if you’re in a tier two or three market, don’t assume that firms in high-cost tier one markets aren’t willing to hire your employees and let them work from home at tier one wages.

Don’t come for me…I see this unfolding every week and don’t want you surprised.

While sales talent plays a pivotal role in driving revenue, it’s essential not to overlook the equally critical contributions of client service teams. These teams are key custodians of client relationships, ensuring satisfaction and loyalty that directly impact the bottom line.

In an M&A scenario, client service teams can be the linchpin in retaining clients and sustaining business continuity. Their intimate knowledge of client needs, preferences and the intricacies of ongoing projects is invaluable. Their presence and consistency support the “nothing has changed here” post-sale message and allow producers and key principals to keep selling.

Let’s leverage their expertise to accelerate growth and commit to not asking them to do unpaid labor to hit revenue targets. An account executive reported last week that he was told he’d get a salary adjustment in 18 months after the earnout period. He wasn’t inspired to work for free so that someone else would make a lot of money, and it’s unlikely he’ll stick around. We can do better.

Revenue

While firms boast that their “people are the difference,” most underestimate and understate the integral role client service colleagues directly play in the growth strategy. Think about these common strategies:

  • We’ll raise new business goals, increase fees, and focus on larger clients and/or niches to improve closing ratios. I haven’t seen a producer, team, region or national practice enjoy sustained profitable growth without a client service team to do the work. Have you?
  • We’ll recruit producers from other firms. I haven’t met a veteran producer willing to join a firm before evaluating client service team capacity or negotiating for their new firm to hire their current team. Have you?
  • We’ll invest in new producers who are pure rookies or mid-career sales professionals attracted to our business. I haven’t witnessed a rookie insurance producer (regardless of sales acumen) validate without reliable client service colleagues providing guidance and a safety net to protect the rookie (and future clients) from ambition and enthusiasm. Have you?
  • We’ll keep selling, and our team can manage the transition. I haven’t seen principals maximize their earnout without retaining key client service colleagues. Have you?

Evaluate every point in your 2024 growth strategy by asking what or who must be in place in order for that goal to be successful. You’ll often be led back to your client service talent strategy.

Leaders who proactively design and implement a thoughtful client service talent strategy will reassure their workforce, minimize risk, and optimize financial performance.

Jenn Walsh Founder, GenuineShift Read More

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