How Laura Harris Transformed Her Insurance Agency into a Systematized Business With Over $750,000 In Annual Sales!

Do you feel or know for a fact that your business currently depends totally on you?

In today’s interview you’ll hear from Laura Harris, Allstate Insurance Agency Owner and Business Speaker. She realized her insurance agency badly needed systems in place after going on short vacation and seeing how everything broke down in her absence causing the business to come to a screeching stop. The business was entirely dependent on her for it to function properly!

You will hear how she completely systematized her agency to the point where now it generates over $750,000 in annual sales without her constant involvement!

Laura Harris, owner of a Systematized Insurance Agency

 

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In this Episode You will Discover:

  • How to build a profitable business where your employees think and act like owners
  • How to connect with employees by talking about what’s in it for them
  • How to create a vision for your business that you can others can follow
  • Why being the source of all knowledge in your business is a bad thing
  • How to document every business task and prioritize the most important tasks
  • Why businesses need to bring in new sales
  • Why you should farm out repetitive tasks like payroll so you can focus on getting new customers and providing great service to existing customers
  • The importance of a “What’s Not Working List”
  • How to get good feedback from employees
  • The difference between micromanaging processes and micromanaging people
  • How to make employees feel ownership of processes

 

Noteworthy items Mentioned in this Episode:

  1. Fonality for calling and CRM
  2. IdealTraits for identifying the best employees for you

 

Episode Transcript:

Owen: Hi, everyone. My name is Owen McGab Enaohwo. And welcome to Process Breakdown Podcast, where I bring on successful entrepreneurs to reveal how exactly they were able to create systems and processes for their businesses which have now enabled them to literally run their business on autopilot without their constant involvement. And my guest today is Laura Harris. She’s the Agency Owner at Laura Harris Agency. Welcome, Laura.

Laura: It’s so nice to be here.

Owen: So Laura, let’s talk about what does your company do and what pain did you saw for your customers?

Laura: I own an insurance agency for 19 years and unfortunately as an insurance agent, sometimes we’re about as popular as the IRS. But I guarantee you, people are madly in love with us when it comes to claim time. So it’s not always fun to be in the insurance business and certainly people don’t grow up wanting to do it but I guarantee you they’re happy when it’s done right.

Owen: Were you part of like a franchise or something because I thought I saw something about Allstate Insurance at one point.

Laura: Yes. The agency that I own today is an Allstate Agency. So I’ve been 19 years as a franchise owner for all state.

Owen: Okay. I just want to make sure I understood that. And so, how many full time employees do you have?

Laura: There are 8 full time people in my office today. It starts with me and 2 people and absolutely no customers though. So it has taken while but we’ve grown.

Owen: And just so the listeners know, you’re actually based in Canada but your company is based in Texas, right?

Laura Harris: Yes. My agency is in Corpus Christi, Texas. Right on the water, so we’re very familiar with hurricane exposures. I actually spent 15 years there in Corpus Christi but for the last few years, I have moved to Canada because that’s where the cute boy lives so I married a Canadian, I lived to Toronto. So I’m enjoying working remotely which is fun.

Owen: Good. And I just want to tell the listeners so that they understand what’s going on. And so, one of the things my listeners always ask me is they want us to understand in terms of how well your business is doing. What was last year’s annual revenue?

Laura: Yeah. We were a little over $750,000 last year and we’re up about 15% from that this year.

Owen: Great. So now let’s jump into the interview because there’s a lot of point where you can literally walk away, go to another country and run your business from another country. It wasn’t always like that. So, let’s go back to the lowest point of your business and describe how bad it got.

Laura: Yeah. Now, it was really bad. As a matter of fact when I was originally hired by Allstate to run this agency, I was told in Chicago that I was never going to make it because I was no good at sales which puts hysterical. I went back, opened my office as I said with two employees and absolutely no customers and the first year, we were so successful that they sent me to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a vacation. That was my pay-off trip. What was really fun was going to San Juan, what was really not fun was realizing that the entire time I was there, I was completely and utterly stressed out because I could not sit and relax for worrying about everything falling apart back at the office.

Owen: And did everything fall apart while you’re on a vacation at a point?

Laura Harris: It wasn’t that bad. I had two employees that were absolutely fantastic but here’s where there was a challenge. What I realized laying on that beach in San Juan, was I had created a business that totally and completely revolved around me. So as long as I was in it, I knew it was working perfectly. I mean, it was fantastic but there were so many things that I realized that only I knew how to do. So sadly, for a 100% my own fault, there were lots of things that whenever I was out, no one knew where to find the answers. So I realized that me, being present was a requirement in order for that business to be successful and it was my fault that it wasn’t messed up in that way.

Owen: One of the things we try to do with the interview is when we share a point like this, I’m always trying to give the listeners a concrete example. What was one of the things specifically back into the vacation back then that literally cannot run because you are not available?

Laura: Yeah. Now I remember it like it was yesterday because I remember sitting on the beach and thinking, “Oh my gosh, I left Mrs. Smith’s file on the top-left corner but I didn’t tell anybody where it’s at.” And when she comes in, they’re not going to know where to go look and then so I ran up to the hotel and I called the office and told them where the folder was, had to explain to them what status the folder was in so that they would know exactly what needed to be done when she didn’t come in. I went back to the beach and hour later I remembered that a yellow button pops-up on our computer when a customer is going to be non-renewed and that no one in the office knew how to handle that except me and they didn’t even know whether or not that was big deal like it could wait until I got back or not. So I had to go back up to the hotel, this is before cellphones and calling office again and explain to them, “By the way if that yellow button pops-up, don’t worry about it. The customers that are coming up for non-renewal, I can wait and handle that when I get back.” You know, it’s sad to say but there were so many things that I was handling and I wasn’t even helping someone else understand how they do it encase I was out. I can’t even go to lunch and have a break without being stressed out or whether or not everything is going to fall apart.

Owen: So it literally took you a vacation to really see, like, “Hey. This cannot continue.” At that point, you came back and you solved the problem. And so we want to talk about how exactly did you solve the problem, what did you do?

Laura: Yeah. I got into this business as far as being an entrepreneur very specifically because I thought I would have more time, more money and more freedom and what I realized real quickly is I’ve created a business that was completely revolving around me. So I had less time, less money and less freedom because I was stressed out over it. So I had to go back and I would have used the word at the time but now I know what I was doing was actually systematizing everything. I was very intentional about making a list of every single job that existed inside of our office whether it was something I was doing or something or someone else was doing.

And I sat down with my two employees and we take a silly little piece of paper and we wrote down every single job that had to take place in the office. Some of them, they were daily, some of them weekly and some of them only come up once a month but everything made it on to the list and from there we had to stop and say, “Okay, now. Exactly, what’s the best way to do each one of these processes?” And the good thing was I included them in creating these best practices so that when it came down to it, we weren’t arguing while I was gone about whether or not it was really happening that way because we created it together.

And then the final step had to be putting those things in writing and making sure that every single process was specifically assigned to one person because what I’ve learned over the years, not so much in that first year but certainly after that was any process can be defined, any process can be in writing but if one person doesn’t ultimately have the accountability for that particular process, when it comes to things falling through the cracks, everybody thinks that it’s not going to be their problem. When there’s clarity about exactly who owns it, everyone knows who’s going to get in trouble if something doesn’t get done on that particular tasks. So we had to be very intentional about making a list of the tasks, defining those tasks in writing and then giving clear accountability.

Owen: I have done some research on you and something about How to Build a Business Where Employees Think and Act Like the Owners when I heard that, I was like, “Wow, I like that.” Let’s talk about how exactly are your employees in your business acting as the owners, and now we’re other we’re talking about what you did for to create systems and process for your business. Can you tell us what was the very first things you did? You show us the entire overview of how you went about doing a bit. What was the first thing you did? That way, we can add some color to what you just said.

Laura: Yeah. One other thing that I think was an advantage to me is I actually worked for other people for 13 years. So I kind of knew what was the dark side of not being the boss? So one of the first things I had to do when I went back was make sure that everyone in the office understood the importance of the systemization. So sitting down, having meetings, defining things and using everyone in the office to do that was absolutely crucial. I also thought it was really crucial when you talk about having employees act like owners. They have to see a very clear vision of how is all of these going to benefit them long term because we all are always in the mode of “What’s in it for me?”

So what I had to do with my employees, because the first two people I hired, both took a cut and pay to come work for me. So I was constantly having a vision of “If you hang on long term, I guarantee you, you’re going to be real happy down the road.” And let me tell you the good news, five of my employees have been with me over 10 years including one of the two that I hired when I started 19 years ago. She’s still with me.

So what I’ve had to do very intentionally is create a very clear vision of where we’re at and where we’re going so that everyone understands that. Then very intentionally empower the people in the office to understand exactly how their daily tasks fit into that overall vision and make sure that they understand that if they ever make a mistake, I’m totally going to back them up even if they’re wrong because I would never degrade one of my employees. I don’t care how crazy a customer gets.

So as long as your employees see the vision, feel empowered and then you have strong systems in place, they will support you all day long and a several other people that work for me could easily go be their own boss. But they’re smart enough to understand they’re better off staying with me because I’m going to take really good care of them and they don’t have as much stress as I have. So boy, if you take good care of people long term, that’s the actual benefit is you’re creating fantastic jobs and the good ones don’t leave you but bad employees will though.

Owen: I don’t want to be disappointed there but the level where you are right now, you can really see the entire full step but the way you came back from the vacation and literally distribute the fact, I’m thinking to myself, were you thinking about the big picture for the person at that point where you’re thinking about a situation where they take ownership? Is that the mindset you had when you came back from the vacation?

Laura: I had to paint the big picture but I had to point at me as the problem because she did hit the fan but it was none of their fault. They were licensed, they were knowledgeable, they were bust in their buns but I hadn’t created a system where everyone had access to all of the information. I hate to say it. I was arrogant enough to enjoy being the encyclopedia in the office. And if everyone had to come ask me a question, it kind of fed my ego a little bit. What I realized laying on the beach in San Juan, it wasn’t feeding my ego anymore. It’s not fun when the world revolves around you.

So yes, we had to start with very basic things like exactly how are we going to do the deposit, exactly what time are we going to do the deposit. I mean every single detail, detail, detail, so you’re right. There’s a ton of detail attached to this but you start with a big list of every single job that must take place and then what I did is I undefined the five that were the absolute most important. So for example, taking money is a deal breaker. I can lose my job over that. Another one that is a deal breaker for me is claims. I personally follow up on every single claim that is turned in with my office the following day, myself and I’ve been in the insurance for 34 years and I still personally follow up on every claim.
So we sat down and defined “Okay. What are the most crucial test? Can we tackle those first?” And then another really cool thing was we did a lot of personality testing to find out, “Okay. Now that we’ve kind of really got this down to a Science, who out of the three of us would be the absolute best person to make these claim phone calls or to call people who don’t pay their bills on time? I am not the best person for that because I have zero patience.” So we’ve been able to take every little detail and you just have to start with one because if you look at this as a whole, it’s overwhelming. It’s not overwhelming if you just take, “What are the two or three most important processes?” We’re just going to take one this week because the rest of the world doesn’t get to stop. I can’t stop doing everything else that must take place but over a period of 6 months, we had everything defined in writing. We had every tasks very clearly assigned to one person and at that point in time, oh my gosh, when one person is out, if I have to do their job because they’re out sick for a whole week, I don’t have to worry about what is it that they do. I don’t even know. In most businesses, they don’t even know what all that person is doing, let alone how they do it which is what allows support staff or employees to get their employers handcuffed. They’re completely and totally dependent even on the incompetent ones and shame on me if I allow that to happen.

Owen: So let me see if I get that correctly, so at that time when you came and the easiest way for you to get started was to identify those critical tasks that really required your attention and then basically now said “Okay, these are the critical tasks that regardless or always require my attention. But then besides that there are other tasks that maybe someone else on my team can handle. Okay, let’s discuss exactly how we’re going to have you handle the task. There are steps involved in you and your team member.” You’ve got your employees discuss what the task, the steps involved and literally you handed that task to one person. Say, that one person is responsible for you and that’s how you started by documenting that way. Did I miss something with my summary?

Laura: That’s exactly right but I want to make a really important point. What normally happens in business is you hire someone, you figure out all over the first 30 days what they’re good at, you assign all those tasks to them and then guess who gets to do all of the junk that’s left over.

Owen: You are the owner.

Laura: So the mindset now is “No. We figure out what I need to be doing to bring the most to the bottom line.” “The boss first!” What are the most crucial tasks that that person can do to bring dollars to the bottom line because I cannot be dead way. I have to do something that brings money in. So, what I need to be doing first and then the next time I hire someone I make sure I hire someone who can do the things that I shouldn’t be doing in the first place. So you’ve really got to start at the top. Instead of starting at the bottom and assigning jobs and you’re wearing way too many hats if you do it backwards.

Owen: And I like that too because what you just actually saying is, you know eventually, you, yourself, the owner of the business, you’re going to be the bottom line at one point. So if you start by identifying what you should be critically doing, most likely the income generic and activities that bring more revenue and if you focus on what does ones are and identify those tasks for yourself, then you’re literally moving yourself from everything else and having them take ownership of the things that don’t require you I guess.

Laura: Yeah. Now, let me tell you how fun it gets over a period of time. It took me about 6 years but by the end of 6 years, I had every single tasks assigned to someone else in the office.

Owen: Definitely.

Laura: Every single task. So technically I don’t do it but technically I can be out of that office forever and it would work without me. Now, I don’t do it but I could do that and that makes your business 10 times more valuable when it comes time to sell it because it’s not dependent on your activities.

Owen: Definitely. And one of the things that when I asked about specifics about how you’re able to run the business on auto-pilot without you being there, you say, “Last 5 year’s technology is really helpful to your business” and let’s talk about that for a few minutes. What kind of technology do you have in your business to help you guys?

Laura: That has been extremely crucial particularly because not only do I work remotely. I have the business in Texas, I live in Canada, I have an employee that lives in New York and I have an employee that lives in Colorado Springs. So in order for this to all work, there has to be a lot of accountability that’s very clear because I’m not going to put cameras in their houses where they work out. And boy, it’s amazing when you’re in an office sitting there by yourself. It’s like, “Okay. I’ve got to keep me focused and motivated because no one can tell if I’m reading a magazine.” You know what I mean? So some of the things that we’ve done the first thing and I think it was the most important is we switched to a Voice Over Internet Protocol Phone. I could not possibly do this job and it’s seamless.

My customers don’t know that I don’t live in Texas. I talked to them all day long and they have no idea that I don’t live there. But it’s seamless for them because with the Voice Over Internet Phone System, the call comes in, I answer the phone a lot of times. And so, they’re assuming I’m sitting at a desk in Texas. So Voice Over Internet Protocol has been absolutely fantastic because we all have the ability to see whose on the phone, how long they’ve been on the phone, who they are on the phone with. I can barge phone calls if I need to do training and in addition to that and I love this feature. Every single morning, the computer systems sends me an e-mail telling me how many incoming phone calls each person took the day before and how many outgoing calls each person made the day before.

So talk about heaven. It’s a heavy ability to know exactly what everyone is doing. That is absolutely crucial. Our contact management system also does a lot of the same things. It measures like crazy because technically if you can’t measure it, it really didn’t happen. You know what I mean? I need to know exactly what activities are happening during the day. So our CRM System allows me to do the same thing with managing prospects and customers both by measuring activity on a consistent basis. I’m also blessed because of this crazy arrangement and it’s fantastic for any job. Our CRM System includes a Cloud for our documents.

So 100% of customer documents are in a cloud. I can go to any computer anywhere in the world and pull up the document if I need it for some reason. So I don’t have to be sitting in that office in order for things to work. So having those type of capabilities has been huge as far as allowing this business to be very seamlessly managed from a distance and keeping it to where everyone knows exactly what they need to accomplish and they get regular fee back on what exactly the results have been. So they can see how I am doing.

Owen: Definitely. What tools are you using for the Voice IP and also the CRM tools? That way, my listeners can keep up.

Laura: Absolutely. I am a firm believer in both. I use a company called Fonality for the Voice Over Internet Protocol Systems and they’re fantastic and they’re international, they’re all over the place. And I use a system called E-Bridge for the cloud system as far as the documents and stuff like that and it also handles the CRM System. So it’s very helpful but anybody can e-mail me if they need more details or contact.

Owen: Definitely. I was trying to assume that like their business is a conveyor belt but where what you have on the other end is the customer being happy and getting whatever they sign up for your service for. But on this other end, a bunch of things that need to happen for them to have the smile on the other hand and be happy, “Oh, we got what we want.” Can you picture your business like that and what cost you the different from the departments and all that in your business and how processes in them? As quickly as you can, that way the listener can put themselves in your shoes and see how the different parts of your business are working together without you even being there.

Laura: Yeah. I learned a couple of really huge lessons on this one. In my business in particular, I think it’s like this with most businesses. There’s typically a sales aspect of your business and as a service aspect of your business. When we first started, I’ve already told you we had zero customers. So guess what? Everybody is jobless.

Owen: Marketing.

Laura: We are going sales, sell, sell, sell. Back on the archaic of old days, we would get on the phone and telemarket all day long. Now we have search engine optimization and 70 other things but there was nothing to sell when we first started. So it was very easy to keep everyone focused in that one direction. What we realized over a period of time thought was that once the phone started ringing with service work, the sales started dropping. And at first, I felt this doesn’t really make sense because it’s not like we had thousand customers at the time, we had hundreds but it’s like they call in everyday. So it didn’t seem like it made sense that we were having such the distraction but when we would sit down because we’ve sat down every single morning and say, “What are we going to work on today? How are we doing?” When we would sit down for our morning meetings, one of the things that I noticed over a period of time was sales was going down more than it should have and the excuse was always and I’m using the words excuse not just for them but for me also. I was really busy yesterday with lots of service work.

Owen: Okay.

Laura: We’ve all heard that in any business. I was really busy yesterday. I had this paperwork I had to do. I was really busy yesterday and I don’t believe for one minute than anybody I’ve ever worked with was just you know, [22:02]. They were doing something but what I realized was it’s my job to keep the focus so that we don’t lose sight of what is not optional which is “sales”. So there were three of us at the time as I said. So I stopped and I said, “Okay, listen. There is plenty of service work but for one person only. There’s no reason for three of us to be distracted during the day. So here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make a Sales Department and a Service Department. Service Department person, you are going to be assigned to seeing to it that we don’t ever catch an incoming phone call, that we don’t ever catch anybody office. Our job will be 8 hours a day, calling, calling, calling, calling and closing deals.”

The first day after we made that arrangement, me and the other person that were supposed to be doing sales were practically having the chase because we’ve gotten out of the hat of doing sales all day long and it was very distracting because the service person was doing a great job of not letting us have any work. And so, what I realized in that is we were kind of not being lazy necessarily but we weren’t being focused. So after the first 24 hours, we kind of get focused to get on selling and sales went through the roof. I mean, really, really, really through the roof.

So it taught me a lesson that you have to be very careful because distractions can completely ruin any business. So we have to be very intentional about keeping some people that were focused on nothing but bringing in the clients because otherwise we’re all doomed if we don’t have that happening. But in addition to that, I made a huge mistake because they called on the Sales Department and the Service Department. Well, the person handling the Service Department was talking to customers all day long and helping us with sales at all. And what I realized over a period of time because I kept telling the person, the Service Department, “Listen. If you notice that we don’t have all their insurance, ask them about the other lines.” And it never was happening. And after, seriously… this is terrible to admit. After 3 years of calling this, the Service Department, what I did was I changed the language because any time service messed up, I thought I’d created it.

Owen: Yeah.

Laura: Which we arranged it to Internal Sales which means their job is to cross sale at existing customers and get business here and External Sales which means we’re responsible to go get new people off the streets. So we had to be very careful not to make it sound like sales is an everybody job because if you’re getting a paycheck, more job or sales, there should never be anyone in any operation unless you’re so huge that you have literally minimum wage, pay for pushers that never speak to a customer because they should never be talking to a customer if they’re not selling something. You know, everyone in any business with 15 employees or less in my opinion should be responsible for some level of sales. You know what I mean? So in my office we changed it to the Internal Sales Department and the External Sales Department and everyone have specific requirements for the sales.

Owen: So besides the Internal Sales and the External Sales and also what the other was a customer service. What parts of your business interact with these parts you just mentioned?

Laura: Well, we really don’t have to. I’m kind of lucky in that because Allstate does all of the building directly. So we do have people in the office that have to do some building and accounting and things like that. But again, I learned my lesson. When I first started, I was doing payroll, I was doing all these things, that’s insane. I form out the payroll, I have as much as possible is formed out to a 3rd party if I can have them doing it because we need to be focused on two things and two things only. For my business, that is finding new customers and making the ones that are already with us completely and obsessively aware that they’d be crazy to ever leave us.

Owen: You know, I think that point you just mentioned because what I hear from that is that you literally figure out what is the core of your business and once you’ve understood what the core of your business was, you literally figured out a way to handle it. Anything that wasn’t necessarily core of your business, they maybe kind of require to some other party to handle and let them take ownership of it, not necessarily your company. You company and your employees focus on the real core of your business is what I get from that.

Laura: A 150%. And if I ever have something like right now, I’ve got for the last 3 days, I’ve had a temporary firm bring someone in to do some paperwork, administrative things that doesn’t normally happen day-to-day. If I have something that I can form out to someone for you know, $8 to $10 an hour or even $15 an hour, I’m going to do it.

Owen: I can’t hear you.

Laura: I can work more than that. If I’ve got [26:48.12]

Owen: Sorry about that. We had the Skype issue for a minute. You were mentioning something about how we can get someone from the outside to come in and do something. Can you give me examples of what that would be?

Laura: Absolutely. If there’s times for example, if I’ve got a lot of monotonous computer input or scanning projects or something like that that’s not normal day-to-day operations and does not involve talking to my customers because I’m not going to put crazy people. I’m very protective of who’s allowed to touch my customers. If there’s admin stuff that I can have someone do, think about it. We’re in a whole different world. There’s no filing today. Any business that’s still filing is stupid. You know what I mean? I mean, there’s not a lot of admin work. There really shouldn’t be admin work. You should be able to streamline your business so that everything you’re doing is either improving customer satisfaction or improving sales, everything else, you should be forming it out to somebody or getting rid of it completely like filing should be non-existent.

Owen: Definitely. So we’ve covered how you went about coming to this process of now creating systems in your business. But with all things, there were challenges that you experienced initially when you tried to create systems for your business and I’m trying to figure out what those challenges were? Let’s talk about them for a few minutes.

Laura: Actually, the biggest challenge is falling back into old habits because if you’re used to doing everything or if a customer is mad, you’re used to taking the call and handling it and it really took a lot of intentionality for me to no longer be the sinner of the universe. I had to spend a lot of times sitting down and educating employees. So every time something came up, here is the rule. If something came up and they didn’t know how to do it, I would show them how to do it so that that would never ever happen again and if there was no place work was in writing, then we would put it in writing. So if it happens to come up again, they know where to find the answer. The answer should never be in my brain. The answer should always be in writing somewhere on a computer system that’s cloud-based so that everyone has access to the answer. It should never ever be in my head.

Owen: Let me play devil’s advocate here for a minute because like you’re saying that it should never be in your head but you in a business way just mentioned that some people could have literally gone out and started their own and to stop them from literally swiping the whole system that you built and just going somewhere else and do it on their own.

Laura: They could and they could with my blessings. They’re not dumb enough to want the pressure of worrying about, we’re constantly having to study the market and understand where the market is going and figuring out how do we need to adapt to that. And if I purchased 3 small insurance agencies and emerge those into my business, I’ve written checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have to go to the bank and loan, you know borrow… Who wants that? If you can make a good living, there are people who are crazy mavericks like us. Bust most people just want to be respected in a job and to be paid what they’re worth. If you do that, they will gladly let you have your silly name on the sign. They don’t want the pressure, they don’t want the stress. They want to be treated with respect and they want to feel like they’re compensated fairly and so, I don’t hire crazy mavericks. I’m very very very careful.

I use the company called Ideal Traits to do testing for my employees and I only hire people who they don’t want to be in their own boss, they don’t want to run a show because as you can tell, if you run a very systematized business, you can’t have somebody who thinks they know everything whose wanting to run their own show. But there is no one in my office that couldn’t take every single thing we have and go open their own operation tomorrow. But I’ve already told you, I have very little turnover and the reason why I don’t is because I’m very careful with who I hire and I hire only people who are going to be loyal to building this business knowing that I will take care of them. They don’t need to have their name on the sign.

Owen: Definitely. I’m sorry if I will interrupt you where you were talking about the challenges you were having. I just want to play devil’s advocate and throw that in there and see what you’re going to see and I love your response. And so, you were talking about how the challenge you were having was going back into the old habit. How did you beat that?

Laura: Yeah. It was extremely difficult and more on me than it was on them when we originally started because when you’ve got these bad habits like, “I’m picking up the phone the second it rings because I’m thinking I’m going to handle the situation better than anyone else in the office.” How stupid and arrogant is that? You know what I mean? So I had to stop myself and say, “No.” The person who is handling the Service Department is going to pick up the phone. I want to stay focused on what I’m supposed to be doing. So it was really hard on me originally but here’s what I had to do. Any time someone had to come and ask me question, I would stop and think, “Okay. Is the answer to that question already in writing?” If it is, I just need to show them where it is in writing. If they continue to keep asking me questions when answers are in writing, I have said this to people’s faces, “Do you need me to read to you because if you cannot read, I need to get new employees.” [32:10] once or twice they’re having that attitude in your face. Instead of coming and asking you the question, they’ll research it first and then if it’s really not in writing anywhere, then they know it’s okay, it’s safe to come in. But in the old days, all of these things were on paper, they weren’t on the computer and I would tell them, “If you come into my office, you must have the book in your hands.”

Owen: You literally had books?

Laura: Yeah. Because 19 years ago, there was no computer that had all these things in here. So I would tell them, if you come in my office, you must have the book in your hands so that I know you’ve looked first and it was so cute because they walk in and say, “Look. I can’t find it in the book.” Well now, it’s all in the computer so it’s much faster and easier but it was much harder for me to let go of my old habits. They wanted to be knowledgeable. They wanted to feel like there was nothing and I tell my customers this all time, “There is nothing I know that they don’t know.” So if I happen to be on the phone when you call in, I promise you, whoever answers the phone is going to drop what they’re doing and take care of you right that second and they will take care of you exactly the way I would have taken care of you myself.

Owen: Also, I’m always excited when I meet people back in the old days had like literally book manuals on their business and now, people today, they don’t know how good they have it or we don’t know how good we had it with all the internet and everything is all on the cloud. In your case, where someone comes to you where there is something not literally in the book because it’s not been addressed before. What do you then do? Back then when you had the book. I’m just trying to understand how that happened.

Laura: If it’s something very minor, then you just add it in to the computer, it’s no big deal but in a lot of cases, it’s actually a new process like SEO didn’t exist 15 years ago. We didn’t have processes for search engine optimization. So as new things come and they will always come, otherwise I’m getting ready to die. If I’m not constantly finding new things, we’re probably out. In the long run, we’re going to be in trouble. So, as we come up with new things that we’re having to deal with, the ideal situation is first of all, try and vision exactly how that would operate perfectly. But don’t do it by yourself, sit down with the people in your agency or business or whatever and sit down and figure out, “Okay. Based on this new thing that we have to do, what’s the ideal thing for the customer? What’s the ideal way for this process to take place and then we’ll define it.”

And then I’m well opinionated about taking advantage of other people. I have thousands and thousands of agents that I’ve e-mailed on a consistent basis at least once a month and what I’ll do and particularly with those that I know with the (Kuku Superstars?), I’ve had them on speed dial and also I’m going to e-mail them and say, “Hey. This is what we’re thinking about doing. What do you think? And they will shoot holes in it and send it back to me and say, “Well, that sounds good but it’d be 10 times better if you did it this way.” And then the final product goes back to the people in my office and we say, “Okay. Does this make sense in this format?” So you can’t just take advantage of the warning inside your agency or your organization. Oh my gosh, if you’re smart enough to connect professionally with others, crazy people like you that you’re giving more than you’re taking and then we you’ve create the final product, you throw it back at them and say, “Okay. This is where we landed. Tell me if I see anything wrong” and still it’s constant improvement.I mean, you’re constantly having to work on.

And one of the things that I still do is I’m constantly going out and visiting business owners, the best of the best and not just with my company but with other companies because it’s like, “You know what? I can learn from somebody who is running a furniture company. I can learn from someone who is doing Bookkeeping.” So constantly being aware of who the crazy people that are thinking outside of the box and taking advantage of that and then going back into your business and defining it in writing and making sure that each one of those things is very specifically assigned to one person. But one of the things you asked me earlier was where do you start?

Owen: Yes.

Laura: Let me tell you the best place anybody can start. First of all I think everyone should have an employee handbook. It has saved me. I have never paid an employment once in 19 years and it is because of my employee handbook and a Spy Software that I have on my computer. That’s a whole another story. We can have another half hour.

Owen: I don’t want to even go into that because that’s going to take a lot of time but go ahead.

Laura: Yeah. But the place that you have to start is you create a “What’s not working list?”

Owen: Okay.

Laura: So we have on the computer our list of operations and how we handle things and all of this step-by-step and assign and all that other stuff. There is always, still going to be things that aren’t working ideally, whatever that might look like. And so we literally keep a list of what’s not working in the business or it’s not that it’s not working but it doesn’t feel like it’s working as well as it could be working and we keep the list because I felt like as a business owner, I have to be working at least 7 to 8 hours a day on things that will make us money immediately. But then I have to be spending at least an hour a day on things that won’t make us any money maybe for 3 months, 6 months or 12 months down the road. And that’s where the “What’s not working list?” comes in and I’ll pull that in and say, “Okay. Which one of these things can I look at and who should I be talking to figure out how we can tweak it?” And in my case, I’m very blessed to work for Allstate because that company is fantastic. I can call Chicago. I’m in lunch two weeks ago with the CEO of the company. I mean, I can talk to someone who is an unbelievable expert and they will help me figure out how to take what’s not working list and figure out how to make it work.

So if you start with just as you see during the day, things that don’t seem to be ideal, add it to the list electronically in the cloud so that if you think of something at 2:00 in the morning, you can add another thing to the list. And then you just take at least once a week, take something off that list and decide, we’re going to tackle it this week. So the list gets short for a little while and then you have all these great ideas and they get along again. That’s okay as long as things are coming off. If things don’t ever come off, now you’re in trouble.

Owen: And I like how you start by looking for what’s not working and then you prioritize to figure what’s the one you should build a system or process. Basically, you go to the emergency room and if you don’t literally have a bleeding neck or bleeding hand, they’re not going to answer you. It’s kind of the same way with what’s not working. “What’s really, literally making our business bleed? Let’s fix that first” and you go in there and do the process. But if you don’t even understand how to do it, you mention how you go out for other insurance agency or even going outside of your business or your actual field or businesses to see how they’re doing it so you can take that idea and come back and work with your team together to build a process for it. I like that. Did I miss something by summarizing that way?

Laura: No. I actually think that’s wonderful. The only thing I didn’t make a point at is make sure that when you’re having your office meetings whether it’s daily or weekly, your staff are able to add to the “what’s not working list” because a lot of times they see things that aren’t working that you don’t.

Owen: Also, can you give us an example of maybe how that happened in your business?

Laura: Yeah. Here’s the thing. If I’m focused primarily like for myself in my office, I’m very seldom doing External Sales anymore. So I’m not normally looking for green customers off the street. I’ve got a whole team of people that do it all day long. So if something was falling through in the software that they’re using for example, I don’t even use it on a daily basis. So if there was something that we need to tweak or another good example, just today, I had somebody who was offering to have us use their software and there was one functionality in it that I didn’t feel like it was going to work ideally in our office and I told them, “I’d love to use your software but you have to fix this first.”

And let me tell you, that company said, “Okay. Is there anything else that’s a deal breaker for you because we want you to be using our product.” And sometimes I think we kind of feel like we have to settle for what things look like off the shelf or the way things are. For example, even with the company that we represent and it’s like, “No. If it’s stupid and it’s broken, anyone should have the ability to say it’s stupid, it broken.” And if I can’t fix it, if I have to find a software out there that can or a person who is way higher up on the chain in Allstate than me that can, that’s okay for every single person in the office but I have to give them permission because leaders are technically are very domineering and as you can tell I am very domineering. So I have to make sure that they know I need them to tell me what’s broken.

Owen: Sorry about that, but anyways.

Laura: No problem.

Owen: It’s a very important thing you mentioned on how you opened that feedback because literally your employees are on the ground doing the work and since you’re not really working the same level with them, they’ve got to see more about things I need to be fixed. And maybe, how best can the listener listen to this to really open up that feedback so that the employees could keep bringing back ideas with them on what to improve on their system?

Laura: A lot of employees will automatically do it in a group meeting, no problem. What you have to do though is realize who is and who isn’t. So for example, introverts kind of get run over by all those external crazy people who are aggressive. So sometimes what I’ll do if I realized that there are certain people who are just not speaking up probably because those of us who are so extroverted are is pull those people in separate and bring them into my office and shut the door and say, “Listen. You know what? I need you to tell me front line on the street what can we be doing better?” And if they say nothing, I say, “You know what? I know I kind of like surprised you here so I’m going to give you 24 hours to think of one or two things that we could be doing better and then tomorrow morning at 10:00, you can come back in and we’ll talk about it again.”

Owen: I like that.

Laura: Because “nothing” is never a good answer. They’re seeing things that need to be better but I have to give them permission to talk and I have to not allow them to not talk.

Owen: In your book you mentioned something that I like. I can put it in quote. You said, “Micromanage Processes don’t Micromanage People.”

Laura: What do you mean by that? I do a lot of professional speaking and I was speaking to a group in Seattle, Washington years ago and I was actually going out for the third or fourth time and someone that is in that particular area who had hired me multiple times had gotten a phone call from someone else who had never hired me before and that third party called me and said, “She says you’re a micro manager?” And having then an employee for other people for 13 years, that word is very offensive to me because the way I look at it, micromanage means that I’m looking over your shoulder that I’m not allowing you to have creative thoughts that I’m constraining you and it really bothered me and I started to call the lady who have used those words and I thought, “No. Calm down.”

And so, I thought about it for a couple of days and I thought, she knows I’m very system and process-oriented. She knows every desk in our office is organized identically. So if I sit down at your desk by where something is sitting, I know what stage it’s in. There’s none of this, it’s up there and I’ve got to tell people what to do. If it’s sitting in the top-left corner, I know what we’re waiting for. So what I realized after a couple of days of pounding and feeling really bad in my [44:24] party was I don’t micromanage people, I micromanage processes. So that people feel the freedom to make decisions, do what’s right and even make mistakes and know that I will back them up 100%.

So that’s why creating systems and having things in writing is so important and having very clear accountability. Everyone has a list of what we call our goal sheets which these are the processes that they own and they know if one of those processes falls through the cracks, they’re going to be in trouble. But I don’t check with them every day and say, “Did you do that today?” because they know they’re responsible for it, they know how to do it, they know exactly what the expectations are. I will spot check everyone to make sure things are happening right but I don’t babysit anyone ever. So it’s important to not be constraining people but to create systems so that people have freedom.

Owen: But what happens when the arguments with someone would say like by micromanaging the processes, like you’re not allowing people to have that creative freedom. What would you say to that kind of argument?

Laura: That was easy. They’re helping create the process.

Owen: No, but the thing is…

Laura: Just think about it. If they’re sitting down and defining, this is how we’re going to do it, this is what we’re going to do, then they’re a part of creating the processes that will take us from where we’re at to where we need to be going. So they know exactly what success looks like. We start in January and we know exactly what we have to do in order to be successful by December then we define what processes have to take place and they know exactly how each process that they’re doing ties into that final goal.

So they’re not just doing something to be doing it. They know how that impacts the final goal. So if they’re helping to create the process itself and exactly how it’s going to take place, I couldn’t say they agree with me a 150% of the time, of course that would be stupid and naive but they know that we have sat down together and figured out what success needs to look like and sometimes I have to make the hard decisions but very, very, very seldom. Do they not feel like they had input? And almost probably 99% of the time, we as a team make decisions that are 100% unanimous but every once in a while, I just have to make a decision that’s a hard one even if people don’t agree but that’s very unusual.

Owen: And I think by your answer, I just realized something that anyone who asked that question, “Okay. If I create procedures for everything and removes the creativity part from my employees but then by your answer and the way you structure and the way you give you give your employees ownership, the mere fact that they are helping to build the systems and procedures for your business, take me from the level where it is to the next level based on their input and their feedback, they are being creative.

Laura: Completely.

Owen: You fell into creative use in them I guess.

Laura: That’s part of expecting them to act like business owners.

Owen: Definitely.

Laura: I’m not the center of the universe anymore. You know, we as a team have to sit down and figure out how we’re going to get from where we’re at to where we’re going. We have to have a very clear vision. We have to empower everyone in the office and we have to have systems in place. If those three things happen, we will get there.

Owen: Definitely.

Laura: But I think that improves their ability to be creative because they are part of creating the processes and once the processes are created, I stay out of their way.

Owen: Definitely. And so now, we understand the power in creating procedures and systems for you business and understand the reason why you need to empower your employees to be part of it because it helps them to foster their own creativity. But there is this part ways like, what you do to track and measure what you can improve? So what exactly do you track in your business?

Laura: Yeah. We have what we call a Critical Variables Form which in the insurance business, there’s only two things you ever need to measure. How much did you sell and how many of your customers did you retain? So back to the Sales Department, the External Sales and the Internal Sales Department which is holding on the customers and building that customer-based, those are the only two things we really need to measure. Now, the Critical Variable Sheet gets into a little more detailed than that because for example, we’ll look at claims to see how many claims have we had overall…

 

What You Should do Immediately After Listening to the Entire Interview:

  1. Document every detail about every task in your business
  2. Prioritize each task by how important it is to your bottom line
  3. Create systems or procedures for each task in priority order
  4. Delegate or outsource every task
  5. Empower employees to improve procedures

 

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