Aspiring entrepreneurs often ask me about different types of business opportunities. Many times, people will share their latest app or business concept which, they believe, will make a difference in the market.
However, there are many forms of entrepreneurship beyond creating a new idea.
You can start a business, purchase a franchise or simply align yourself by positioning yourself as an extension of a business. Being an independent sales agent in the areas of real estate, financial, and insurance services are examples. This allows you to develop and maintain a book of business while managing client relationships.
Additionally, it provides the flexibility to run a business, within corporate guidelines, while providing a sense of entrepreneurship. In other words, it’s another form of business ownership. Understanding your professional objectives will provide you with the direction needed to determine what’s best suited for you.
Cindy Fletcher is an independent insurance agent for State Farm in Plymouth, MI. After receiving a Bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, Fletcher opened her agency in 1987. She’s been in business for nearly thirty years in a competitive, ever-changing market—the insurance industry. Throw in the economic challenges over the years and I wondered how she’s been able to manage business forces, market complexities, and changing consumer dynamics to become successful over an extended period of time.
I recently asked Fletcher for her thoughts on business longevity.
Lee: Why did you decide to become an insurance agent?
Fletcher: While attending school, I had started working for a State Farm agent in Dearborn and really enjoyed the work. What really pushed me along, though, was the fact that the agent sat me down and asked me questions. What did I want to do with my life after I received my degree? Where did I see myself in 5 years? These questions really made me focus and realize that I wanted to do what he did. He was very encouraging and even helped pay for some of my tuition to finish my degree. Not many employers would do that, knowing that the degree meant they were losing an employee. I will always be grateful to him and he greatly influenced how I treat my employees.
Lee: How have you been able to maintain longevity in a changing, competitive market and evolving consumer bases? In other words, what are your keys for success?
Fletcher: I think that the keys to longevity for me have been the willingness of State Farm to change as needed and my willingness to also, not just change, but embrace and enjoy changes. From technology (we didn’t even have computers when I started) to how our clients want to do business. Let me rephrase that: how our clients demand to do business. I am the same as my clients, I demand a certain level of service and availability from the people and companies I do business with! My staff and I are happy to accommodate them. My clients are everything to me and they are the reason I even have an agency!
In addition to our office hours, we do have 24/7 availablity and going outside the “normal” services. We pick up clients after nearby accidents, running to their house for a signature. And, in the case of one client, taking their dog out when we were there!
We have to believe that State Farm and my agency are the best choices when we are talking to people or we shouldn’t be doing this at all. The trust that my clients put in me and State Farm is not taken lightly and we will do everything we can to keep earning that trust.
Lee: As a business entrepreneur with a major insurance affiliation, what changes have you seen since you started and how have you adapted?
Fletcher: Without question, the impact of technology. As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t event have computers when I started my agency. Now, consumers are becoming more technology savvy and want information in real-time. It’s made them more knowledgeable regarding products and services and has challenged me to also adapt within a consumer-driven, technology-based business environment.
Lee: What about challenges?
Fletcher: We have relationships with our clients and when they have difficult challenges in their lives, we feel it too. When the economy was so bad and there were foreclosures every week and our clients were losing their jobs at a pace I had never seen before and we felt for them. We would do everything we could for them but sometimes it was not enough. No one came out of those years unchanged. Whether people had new jobs, different salaries, less in savings, etc., everyone was affected.
The economy in Michigan took a hit and so did we. However, people have regained a since of confidence and have purchased products which have increased their insurance needs. However, the challenge remains growth in a somewhat skeptical marketplace.
Lee: Customer satisfaction is certainly a must. You recently shared with me a story of how your honesty dealing with a customer helped to maintain their business. What surprised about it was your customer’s response. Please share.
Fletcher: I was recently talking to long-time clients who were taking out additional policies with us. They were skeptical about some of the paperwork I was telling them that I needed and thought that perhaps we were just making things difficult. I explained to them that we love to make things as easy as we can and as transparent as possible. In fact, when clients want to transfer to us I will ask if there were issues with their previous company and what they were. I ask this because if we do things the same way, they won’t be happy with us either. My client sat back and said that they had never heard of someone willing to tell a prospective client that. They were impressed and happy I had shared that.
Lee: Speaking of satisfaction, what do you appreciate the most about being an agent? And your business?
Fletcher: What I appreciate the most are two things. I love knowing that our clients are better off having spoken to my office. I say that because I know that we dealt with them honestly and have advised them as professionals. They make the final decisions but we made them aware of the risks and choices. I also really appreciate that I provide a great place to work. From the daily environment to the competitive pay and to the education I provide. My staff and I are professionals.
The influence we can have extends very far and that is very exciting to me.
Lee: How much impact has technology had on delivering products and services to customers? How has it changed your business model?
Fletcher: Technology has an ongoing and tremendous impact on our business. Clients tell us the best way to communicate with them and we can make their service requests that much easier for them. The availability of online insurance purchases makes an agent’s role vital. Our clients can do many things online but we are available in addition to that access. There is nothing to compare with professional service that is personalized and easy.
Lee: Contact information?
Fletcher: For more information, please visit cindyfletcher.com.