Using market challenges to create value

The Affordable Care Act could have stymied independent agency growth, but one agent saw it as an opportunity to create his business value.
The Affordable Care Act could have stymied independent agency growth, but one agent saw it as an opportunity to create his business value.

Don’t tell Jason Creech that change creates upheaval.

Creech’s whole working life has been spent in a state of continual change. Having worked as a mechanic, millwright, and laborer to auto sales, telemarketing and pastor, Creech is used to reinventing himself. But when a friend approached him about becoming an agent, he was skeptical, so he brushed him off. The friend persisted. So when Creech found himself out of a job, he finally listened.

Now four years later, Creech is not just a licensed independent agent, but he’s also an agency owner with four agents working for him in various states. It’s something the Kalamazoo, Michigan-based Creech never expected out of his life, but something he says allows him to use quite a few of the skills he’s learned in his blue-collar (and ministerial-collar) days.

Starting from scratch

It wasn’t anywhere near an easy road to his current success as owner of Insurance One, his online agency. Creech says he spent the first three months of his career at a captive agency, but says that within three months, his entrepreneurial spirit emerged. “I’ve always been the type of person to say I can do this better or on my own. I was on the road, going door-to-door, and I had a lot of windshield time.”

Too much time on the road, he says, and not enough time locating business and working with clients. Once again, his friend intervened. “He said ‘Hey, I can show you how to sell insurance over the phone.’ So I thought I’d give it a shot.”     

Now, his business is 100-percent virtual, he connects with clients over the phone or the internet. “I don’t see clients. I don’t have walk-ins, and I work from a home office. That really fits my style.”

The transition, he says, was easy. Creech’s previous work in telemarketing, fundraising and auto sales became the unlikely basis of his current sales strategy and technique. The sales part, he says, is the piece of his business that he felt most comfortable with.

Still, switching to selling an intangible product was tough, he says. For me, it’s being creative. I have to sell the value of the policy as opposed to the policy itself. So you have to know the policy and how it works.”

That’s where his blue-collar skills come in handy, he says. “It’s the same as mechanics — you have to know how the machine works before you can fix it. What I got down to were the nuts and bolts of how policies would operate, and would be able to relay that to a client — how it would affect them and fit their life and being able to piece it together and have it make sense to a client.”

It must be working. Creech’s business has grown from a one-person shop operating locally to a 12-state business employing four other agents. He chose the states in which to do business based on his own market analysis. Then he goes through the process of obtaining licensure.

That in itself presents a challenge, Creech says. “Being independent, you don’t have a guy in the front office doing all this for you. Sometimes at the end of a day, I want to throw my hands up and say ‘I’m an agent, not a paperwork guy.’”

Despite that, Creech says business is booming. Right now is open enrollment time for the ACA, which is a primary source of his business (about 80 percent). During the off-season, as he calls it, he markets short-term health plans, life and ancillary products.

Growing the agency from one person to five including himself is something Creech is particularly proud of. The agents, he says, are located in different states and supporting his operations through writing business and growing the health insurance side. “Last year during open enrollment, we wrote well over $1 million in annualized premium.”

Still, Creech says expanding business wasn’t easy, especially when it came to recruiting new agents. Lately, he’s more selective with whom he contracts because of how time-consuming the recruitment process has been for him in the past. “I’ve contracted many more agents — about 50 of them. But recruiting is like selling insurance; you have to have a hundred prospects to get ten clients.

“The same thing with recruiting. Everyone wants a contract and everyone wants to sign up and it sounds great, especially the rookies, but they don’t know what they’re getting into and you’re self-employed. It’s commission only and you’ve got to work and you’ve got to grind and you’ve got the good with the bad and the ups with the downs.”

The value proposition

That means making missteps and learning how to recover. At first, Creech sold just life insurance, specifically final expense coverage to the senior market. Yet once the ACA was enacted, he realized it was an opportunity to specialize, though at first he admits he wasn’t enamored. “I was like most people — I snubbed my nose at it. I thought it was going to be a nightmare — they’re not going to need insurance agents. But now I think our jobs are more relevant than ever before. That’s become a great surprise to me because it becomes more complicated. The more I educate myself the more I can help people understand it.”

That demand for information has helped his business take off. It’s a situation he didn’t expect to be in. Creech admits he assumed most people knew as much as or more than he did about ACA. But conversations with clients revealed that they had no idea how to navigate the market.

No wonder — even agents, he says, have a tough time keeping up with the changes. It’s a market that changes constantly, he says. For instance, carriers exit the market and new ones enter, which Creech says means agents have to continue to learn new products and ways of doing business. “And now I have four more companies I need to get contracted with because they’re brand new on the exchange, and they’re competitive.”

For newer agents, Creech says the immediate hurdle is locating clients and prospects. To new agents, he offers this advice: Make prospecting a scheduled part of the workday. “Commit to a schedule of prospecting of at least two to three hours a day, and always ask for a referral. If I’m talking to somebody, I’ve done 90 percent of the job — the other 10 percent will come. Make a friend, make a sale.”

Know a great young advisor who is making a difference in the industry? Nominate them to be featured in The Succession Initative or LifeHealthPro’s 30 under 30 feature by emailing kbeckman@alm.com.

Related: 30 under 30: Meet the millennials who are transforming the insurance industry

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