As a 34-year veteran of this industry, it sure doesn't feel like I am in the same business today.

In 2008, the insurance plans for the hundreds of small-group clients we served (along with many larger groups) stopped paying our company a percentage of premiums. We suddenly received a per employee per month fee and with the layoffs happening at the time, revenues began to plummet.

The environment of increased annual commissions came to a sudden halt so growth only came by selling more clients.

Suzy K. Johnson

At the same time, the competitive environment was heating up as advisers (some with knowledge and some without) started giving away free stuff, such as COBRA administration, benefits enrollment technology, HR services and wellness consultants to attract customers.

Even though we were no longer getting raises annually unless we sold new business, the "rate shopping wars" continued with one broker after another touting their ability to get a better rate because of their status with the carriers

It took me a while, but I eventually found my way to a business coach and coaching group (notice I didn't say a benefits advisory group even though that is important, too) to help me understand what to do to grow again.

From the inside out
I discovered it isn't what is going on outside that matters — it is mostly what is going on inside my company. Why do we exist? What is our purpose? What is it that I am trying to accomplish with my chosen work? Why does it matter? Does the team know our "why" and understand? Why do they work here? What is it we stand for and mostly...what is the client in desperate need of?

So I recognized my calling through this process....we know this business and we can provide plan design solutions that work and that our competitors often find too difficult to explain, implement or understand themselves.

We also have created great internal processes to deliver a consistent and efficient but effective experience for the client that we constantly strive to improve.

By participating in a coaching group with other non-insurance companies I learned the single biggest differentiator of any successful business is orientation to process.

Also concern to meet the client's needs with integrity is critical. This means always creating recommendations based on what is best for the client, even if it isn't the most profitable solution for us. Integrity can often be hard to come by in the insurance world, but we have built our company on this behavior.

Integrity itself doesn't work if not paired with dedication to be students of the industry. We must be constant learners who share a willingness to adapt and change quickly to adopt new ideas and proven solutions to bend the cost curve. This is what the client pays a benefits adviser to bring, along with electronic enrollment solutions, compliance solutions, data analytics, a strategic plan and a service experience that is second to none.

And then there is discipline to a sales process and constant sales activity — nothing happens without this.

Also see:Employers should partner with employees to fight financial stress.

So now our company looks more like a professional accounting firm or law firm or management consulting firm than an insurance brokerage.

We have great expertise in all welfare-related employee benefits. It is a narrow focused area, but we have mastery in our arena. We focus on providing value so we can be the one to be awarded the advising contract. And when we do, our services don't come at the lowest cost. We provide expertise and help our clients create a plan that works to attract and retain the best employees. They will pay us our consulting fees when they understand the value that comes with that. This is our purpose.

Glad to have my team around me to encourage and embrace the investments we are making to attract the customers we identify and want to work with. I am not waking up as often in the middle of the night as I get more comfortable with the decisions required to grow.

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