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Generating Referrals for Your Agency

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Independent insurance agencies achieve long-term success when they combine high account retention with sustainable organic growth. Achieving organic growth requires a consistent pipeline of new prospects who will become new customers. To populate that pipeline, you must generate referrals. In fact, referrals are foundational to your agency’s customer acquisition strategy. 

Here are five questions to help you generate referrals for your agency: 

1) Who’s your target market?

In crafting your agency’s marketing messaging, don’t get caught in the trap of competing on price and the “15-minute mentality.” Define your target demographic audience and their cohort’s characteristics to drive your client service philosophy. Investing time to learn about their needs reduces the possibility that they will shop around. Getting to know your customers will result in them generating quality referrals for your agency.

Accurately defining your target market will set the course for your agency to build a network pipeline. Try to mirror the composition of the agency’s book of business: personal and commercial insurance, including industry niches, such as employee benefits, and life and health insurance. 

In developing personal lines referrals, remember that your customers may not associate your agency with life and disability insurance. Not only does that negate the potential synergy of cross-selling other insurance products, but it also can result in lost referrals to competitors that do a better job of promoting those product lines. 

If your agency’s focus is on commercial insurance, develop relationships with professionals in the industries you target. Position yourself as a subject matter expert on business insurance. Being viewed as an expert on architects and engineers’ professional liability insurance, for example, can facilitate referrals from their attorneys. 

2) Do you use leads, referrals and testimonials effectively? 

Your agency should be using all three avenues — leads, referrals and testimonials — to build your customer pipeline. Determine which mix of the three is most effective for your agency, and periodically experiment with the mix to keep it fresh and effective.

A lead is someone who may not know about your agency but has shown an interest in your services. A referral is someone who knows you or your agency and provides an introduction to a lead. A testimonial typically involves a recommendation from a customer, who may name a specific staff person or the agency in general. While referrals and testimonials are exclusive in nature, leads typically are not.  

Segmenting the results from each approach will help you assess their effectiveness in generating organic business. 

 3) Who will build your pipeline?

Your independent agency has three primary sources of referrals: people who you and your staff know; agency customers; and centers of influence. Here’s a breakdown of each category of referrals:

People who you and your staff know. Have you ever considered how many people each person on your staff knows? Their potential reach can be exponential. And the digital age has taken the “word of mouth” concept to a new dimension. People you know can become online ambassadors, providing personal product testimonials by sharing their opinions and information with thousands of people they may or may not know. 

Agency customers. Customers who truly value their relationship with your agency can be fertile ground for referrals and testimonials. An invaluable tool to gauge the customers’ view of the agency is a Net Promoter Score (NPS), which captures how likely a customer is to recommend your product or service on a scale of 0 -10. This customer experience metric should also be shared with the agency staff to serve as a client service motivator to see if the agency is truly “walking the walk.” 

Centers of influence (COIs). These are a tactical source of referrals. COIs may or may not be a customer but still recommend the agency. While brand ambassadors and influencers can be included in this category, the focus is on business advisors as well as civil, athletic, hobby and other groups that can connect you to your target customers. For example, for personal insurance customers, realtors can be a source of new homebuyers. IT specialists can serve as a cyber insurance referral source. 

Remember that business advisors may not fully appreciate the existential insurance risks their clients face. Educating those advisors can help drive referrals. 

 4) Should your referral program be formalized?

Most agencies mine available sources for referrals in some manner, but often haphazardly. A formal referral program will help you imbue a culture of relationship-building at your agency.

Your referral program will be beneficial to your agency, but also helpful to others. The recommendation of a competent service provider is always appreciated by both the person seeking the right fit as well as the firm receiving the referral. People naturally feel a sense of pride and accomplishment by connecting with others to solve problems. 

To make the most of this opportunity, here are a few ways to get started: 

Program guidelines. Before you decide on a program or incentives, refer to your state insurance department’s rules, which may affect your choices. For example, most states permit an exception to the rebate rules for referrals if the gift’s value is less than the statutory amount and it does not discount or affect a client’s policy.  

Regardless of your state’s rules, these are general guidelines for a referral program: 

  • The person making the referral should not discuss the specific terms and conditions of the policy. 
  • The reward you provide must not be dependent upon whether the referral results in the sale of insurance. You offer a reward for a referral, not for a sale. 
  • Referrals should not be a one-way street. Reciprocate. 
  • Always ask for referrals. 

Incentives. You’ll want incentives for employees, customers, COIs and for all of their acquaintances who provide referrals. A variety of incentives work for a formal referral program. Common examples include gift cards, cash, contests and event tickets.  

Scope. The scope of your referral program can be straightforward. Begin with a budget. Next, determine the number of incentives or rewards (within state rules), the length of the referral campaign and measurement of both referrals gained and for conversions. Not all sales will be immediate, so referral tracking should take that into account.   

If you have a meaningful budget in mind, referral program vendors can offer platforms that facilitate campaigns, incentive management, data integration and personalization.   

The whole team participates, and results are rewarded. It is critical to create a culture of referral building across the agency. Forget the notion that producers sell and CSRs service. Every employee should be engaged in marketing your agency to drive referrals. 

Encourage employees to participate in community activities. And when an employee forms a relationship that leads to new business, provide firm-wide recognition and a commensurate reward to that person. 

If your agency has longstanding relationships with charitable agencies, you may decide to develop a charitable referral program. It’s a natural fit, given that insurance is based on helping restore people’s financial and personal health. If so, encourage your employees to become involved in community-based charities, and be sure to provide examples of charity donations on your social media outlets.   

 5)  Who can you tap?

As an independent agent, you use your knowledge and ability to tap multiple insurance companies to tailor coverage that meets their customers’ needs. Exclusive agents and direct writers do not have this flexibility. That is a key competitive advantage for you. Educate people about how your independent agency is different.

Getting in front of people — in person or online — is the best way to generate awareness about what you provide. The person listening to you may not have an immediate need. But your listener may remember that one of their 150-plus acquaintances has that very problem and refer you as their problem solver.

Align your target demographic audience with the civic groups, sports teams and hobby clubs that fit their criteria. Local business groups like chambers of commerce are logical choices, but they also can include more than their fair share of insurance agents.   

Look to other less obvious opportunities to impart your knowledge. Some examples of groups to approach to speak or provide content: 

Cycling and running clubs. Offer to speak about how uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage can protect them if they are hit on their bike or while running and the driver is uninsured or has low insurance limits. Most people have no idea of their exposure and appreciate learning how they can protect themselves. Youth sports leagues, such as soccer, basketball, lacrosse or baseball. Discuss the insurance perspective of transporting players to games and how a personal umbrella policy provides higher insurance limits in the event they have an accident and are found at fault or passengers sustaining significant injuries. 

Community group volunteer board. Discuss their risk exposure for being sued. Discuss the role that directors and officers insurance plays. Some national charities no longer cover their local chapters for liability insurance due to the cost. This has become a major issue for attracting volunteer board members. 

Civic or library groups. Speak about the reality of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Talk about the financial realities of long-term healthcare and the costs of ongoing custodial assistance. Address misconceptions about what is and is not covered. 

Exclusive groups. Some business mentoring, educational and networking groups invite just one category of consultant or business owner. For example, one lawyer, one home improvement contractor, one insurance agent. They trade leads and help each other. If you aren’t in a group like this, find one or start one of your own and invite others. 

The Net-Net 

Building a strong pipeline of referrals starts with exploring your book of business, prospecting and community involvement. Get everyone in the agency on board with the effort. Formalize the plan and talk about it regularly. Don’t leave it to chance. 

Be up to speed on local or regional publications and online community sites. Tap into media to uncover promotions or contracts awarded to local companies. When charitable organizations hold fundraising events, check out the sponsors and reach out to thank them for their support. 

There is a wide insurance literacy gap. Why not become a local thought leader to close that gap? Be sure that relevant media and community groups are aware of your availability to discuss relevant insurance issues. The time invested will pay dividends. 

Headshot of Peter Aartrijk
Peter Aartrijk
Principal at Aartrijk