Brokerage Ops the April 2012 issue

The Last Mile Predicament

Brokers need to face their fears and change—or be left behind.
Posted on April 11, 2012

In the current business climate, Patil told the magazine, “We’ve entered a next-two-hours era.”

That business models are shifting is impossible to ignore. People are buying differently and consuming information differently. This new landscape creates more opportunity for those with the right skills and resources yet makes you more vulnerable than ever with even long-standing clients. Everyone is trying to infringe on your territory, whether it be a payroll provider that is expanding its services or a consulting firm opening a new umbrella of offerings to your clients.

Council member Jennifer Walsh, of Woodruff-Sawyer, says that until now brokers have been able to avoid discussing the value of their services. “This conversation isn’t only new to us, but to the buyer as well,” Walsh says. “We are asking teams who are nervous anyway to go out and ‘sell it’ to buyers who aren’t used to procuring insurance consulting services this way. It is a challenge.”

The state of affairs brings to mind the phrase “the last mile.” According to the website Investopedia, the last mile is used in the telecommunication and technology industries “to describe the technologies and processes used to connect the end customer to a communications network.” The phrase is often invoked, as in “the last-mile problem,” to describe cases in which the final connection proves disproportionately expensive to solve.

These days, sustainable business growth requires a sales force to combine its strategic tools—market research, branding campaigns, marketing initiatives—with the tactical skills necessary to do the simple things better, like writing an email that gets a high response rate or having a clear process for when to talk about price. Of course, it helps to consistently pull all this together. Otherwise, growth is limited by what is, in effect, the last-mile issue for every sales organization—inconsistent execution.

I see plenty of businesses spending time and money on the strategic side and not enough on the elements most in their control, such as communicating with prospective buyers. What if they spent more time improving mental and verbal skills in these key moments? Even people who have been in business for 30 years tell me they need to sharpen their skills to avoid wasting time on the wrong kinds of opportunities.

I see many in the field struggle to pinpoint why people buy from them. They haven’t really had to think about it before. This can be disorienting, even scary. Amid all the uncertainty, it’s important to be willing to dig deeper into the little things that remain within your control. Sure, talking to new prospects and getting them to share more details about their business needs is not as sexy as embarking on a new branding campaign. When business isn’t where it needs to be, it’s easy to blame market conditions. Resist the temptation. Challenge yourself to reach the people you want to talk to and to spend your limited time to more quickly convert solid opportunities. The consequence of wasted time is greater than ever.

Your tendency to avoid change can actually be a valuable asset in your formula for success, but now it’s a glaring liability. Many people want to hold on to the past when encountering significant change. Dig into your fears. Talk to your peers. Hire a coach. Maybe you just need to pour out your heart to your dog. You are not alone in your discomfort about the changes taking place. Sometimes asking for help is the most obvious thing you can do—and the hardest.

This brings to mind another phrase—“GenFlux,” coined by Robert Safian, editor of Fast Company. He describes it as “a mindset that embraces instability, that tolerates and even enjoys recalibrating careers, business models and assumptions.”

Sometimes radical change can actually be easier than gradual changes. (Think about pulling off a Band-Aid.) It might take a crisis to get you motivated to make significant changes. When you see even small results, it can inspire you to continue to change. Create a set of guiding principles, a way to measure progress while knowing that you’ll have to correct your course along the way. Revive your support systems to ensure that you get the needed encouragement—and the occasional kick in the backside—you need along the way. There are no guarantees, of course, except that, if you don’t embrace change in the coming year, I can guarantee you’ll be left behind.

Which brings us to another phrase, The Council mantra: Think Forward.

I’m just sayin’.

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