Ben Woodward is Vice President of Liability in the Mount Laurel, NJ office of Admiral Insurance Group, a Berkley Company. He is responsible for Admiral’s professional liability business in the entire Northeast region. Ben joined Admiral in 2011. Prior to his current role, he served as a Senior Underwriter and focused on larger architects & engineers, technology, and insurance agent risks with Admiral’s key brokers. Ben is a graduate of Rollins College in Winter Park, FL and earned his MBA in finance from The University of Tennessee. He serves on the board of the PLUS Mid-Atlantic Chapter and frequently presents at industry events for the Construction Specifications Institute and ExecuSummit.
As we approach the anniversary of the pandemic lockdown in this country, we continue to ponder the seemingly endless journey toward the horizon of “back to normal”. Months have gone by and the predictions of the greatest research minds in the world have been inconsistent at best. The reality is, the normal that we all knew is history. Not to say that at some point in the next year, our lives won’t begin to resemble what they were in 2019, but the subtleties that fall under the radar will redefine how we live and do business. Just think about some of the basic hot button trends in society such as hygiene, personal space, gatherings, savings and buying patterns as well as the countless possibilities of gradual change to our industry as a result of these trends impacting behavior. The past year initiated and accelerated a number of forces that will drive drastic changes in our business. While back to normal is a common and logical human question right now, the innovator in all of us needs to be thinking about how our future has been affected in both the short and long term and what behavior changes will be necessary to adapt and succeed in this environment.
I’ll admit, my first thought, probably like many of you last March when our world shut down was “two weeks”. I had not done any research on pandemics and considered much of the media to be chasing headlines. I figured that a couple of marketing trips would be cancelled and we would be home for the remainder of the month. Come the turn of the calendar to April, we would get back to our lives with the sunshine of Spring. Weeks quickly turned into months and here we stand a year later, still without much clarity on exactly how our days will look when the pandemic officially concludes. What complicates matters is the likely varied approach that companies and individuals will take to reengaging in the traditional sense. We are all ready for the world to formally reopen, but many of us have settled into a routine that will again need to shift. It is natural to be apprehensive about what the new rules of engagement might bring. Flexibility, long a growing virtue among insurance professionals of the modern age, will become even more important. Embracing changes and the entrepreneurial ideas which they ignite will be critical for up and coming professionals looking to lead in this rapidly changing time.
It’s amazing when you take inventory of how engagement has already changed so drastically in a year. If you were not familiar with Zoom prior to March of 2020, you most certainly are now. The phenomenon has gotten to the point where we all have Zoom fatigue, but video conferencing is undoubtedly here to stay. The question becomes – what is the most effective long term use? At first, the Brady Bunch grid provided a comfortable pathway to routinely seeing teammates and customers, but quickly it began to feel like a drag and the fatigue label caught fire. Turns out that there is likely some scientific truth to this feeling. A Stanford University study is underway looking at the effects of the business and educational sectors turning on a dime to video conferencing. Early research indicates that user concentration due to the portrait view emotes stress and takes substantial energy. We are simply not wired to concentrate on faces all day. Think about it – did we ever sit in a conference room or office and stare at each other? So maybe we’ve overdone it with frequency and duration, but I’ve experienced the connection power of one on one meetings or small group gatherings over this medium. A big positive is that it erases the constant tendency for people to check their cell phones, while essentially creating a new social norm for being engaged. You can’t be glued to your phone in a face to face setting and not be outright rude. Even more important is the obvious convenience factor. An in person interaction that would have likely waited weeks or even months if travel coordination was required, can now be setup immediately and have a similar impact. Prior to the pandemic, something urgent might be addressed with a phone call but nearly all of us now have the capability to look each other in the eye when something important is on the line. The current environment is also ripe for this connection because people are available. While we are all insanely busy with a hardening market, if you have something important to address, your contact has likely never been more accessible for a direct conversation. Personally, I’ve connected with customers and colleagues on market information and the latest rumors more frequently during this stretch than at any other point in my career. Who would have thought that a year without travel and limited, to no in person interaction with customers would actually yield more networking of substance?
Breaking bread will clearly still be important, and we are all deprived and ready to breakout, but executives will be taking a hard look at expense dollars post pandemic. I have no doubt that the insurance industry will remain a relationship business at its core, but I think we will see a much more targeted approach to marketing, at least in the short term. The office visit quota could be very difficult if many traditional, brick and mortar offices disappear. This begs the question- how do you efficiently connect individuals to form new relationships in this environment? It is hard to say exactly, but certainly more relationships will be born out of necessity rather than the wine and dine mentality of making friends then asking for business. Boondoggles will surely return, and conference “speed dating” is likely to as well, but I imagine many of you will need to be more measured with your time. Instead of the visit quota, a great takeaway for me has been a contact quota, which involves setting up short, half hour max video sessions every day to catch up with customers and teammates, either one on one or in very small groups. There is a specific reason for the meeting relayed beforehand but no extensive formal agenda. Topics usually range from information sharing and brainstorming to problem solving and conclusion drawing. I’ve found these sessions to be incredibly productive, while keeping them relatively casual, free flowing and minding the half hour and alleviating Zoom fatigue. I’ve had a number of colleagues mention to me that they were uncomfortable with the video conferencing trend prior to the pandemic and can’t imagine doing business without it now. Market research confirms this notion as a McKinsey survey showed over 75% of respondents, from both coworker and customer communication points, preferred a video medium over a traditional phone call. This dynamic is a perfect example of how quickly behavior can change on a major scale. Traditional thinking would say communication was headed in a completely different direction. Phone calls and voicemails were being replaced with text messages and emails for speed and convenience. You would think that phone calls would have made a comeback, but the fact to face engagement that is necessary to capture the total communication picture quickly won out. The old adage that communication is over ninety percent non-verbal apparently does hold water.
I’ve spoken to industry colleagues with a wide variety of experiences over the past year. The stories range from their day to day activity completely changing, such as the business development managers who spent well over fifty percent of their work lives on the road to the full time remote professionals, who had little travel to begin with, let alone going to an office. All seem to agree that we’ve entered a new frontier and there is no turning back to the world of engagement that we knew previously. When environments change, there is a huge opportunity for a new process. Revolutionary technology will continue to make giant leaps and create efficiencies that we never thought possible, but these breakthroughs ultimately require incremental, unheralded changes by us, the experts that know our business better than any technology. As restrictions subside, less might actually be more. Most people are used to seeing family under the same roof, or small groups of friends at most. It would be quite the shift to jump back to daily in person visits with a strategy of saturation to stay relevant. Fewer events or visits mean more competition to get them scheduled and greater emphasis on making them count. People will scrutinize the necessity, so gaining a deeper understanding of customers without seeing them as often will become a new challenge. More effort will need to go into developing an overall engagement strategy with the courage to try new ideas that might fail. In fact, those that eventually find the most success in this environment will likely strikeout on a number of new ideas to start. Resiliency, like flexibility will become an increasingly important characteristic. The insurance industry has carried the dinosaur label for years when it comes to innovation. Let’s take this opportunity as another step in removing that label as we bravely enter the post pandemic world.