Empowering Independent Agents
Once you learn of his deep love for baseball and the value of team effort and social involvement, it becomes clear why Mike Becker is the ideal person to lead the National Association of Professional Insurance Agents (PIA).
“We grew up in a town that still is very civic-minded, where you’re very much involved in the community,” says the Vienna, Va., native. “My dad coached sports, my mom worked in the schools and it was just a great example of how to be part of your community — and not just be part of it, but to contribute to it.”
That sensibility imbues Becker’s work as executive vice president and CEO of PIA National, which represents independent agents in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Becker’s leadership strengths lie in two elements: his skill at keeping an eye on the ball when it comes to agents’ needs and concerns, and an affable, disarming sincerity not always found in an insurance professional of his stature.
It doesn’t hurt that Becker is 36 — a relative youth, in insurance-industry years. Yet his ability to lead this national organization is unquestioned — so much so, in fact, that Becker just signed with PIA to renew his contract through 2022.
“We foster a culture within this organization of compassion, honesty and good will toward each other, and that’s our differentiator,” says Becker. “We have no gaps in between the collegiality, the respect and transparency. That was evident to me from day one, and it’s up to me to continue to engender that sense of community.”
From the Hill to the Heartland
A great number of successful individuals in P&C insurance ended up in the industry without consciously deciding to do so, and Becker is no different. After earning his bachelor’s degree in Government and International Politics from George Mason University, he pursued a career on Capitol Hill and served as a legislative staffer for former Congressman Nick Lampson. Becker then worked in congressional relations for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), a national trade association representing manufacturers and marketers of over-the-counter medicines and dietary supplements, before he found himself intrigued by a job opening managing political affairs at PIA.
“Like a lot of people that end up in the industry, I wasn’t looking for a job, I wasn’t pursuing insurance and knew very little about it,” he relates in conversation at the Hilton Crystal City in Arlington, Va., during PIA National’s annual Federal Legislative Summit.
Becker came onboard in March 2007. “I quickly fell in love with the broader part of the industry, the agents,” he says. “I fell in love with the people. That’s what’s kept me in it.”
Prior to his first day in the office, Becker was encouraged to attend PIA’s Federal Legislative Summit “so I could start to get a feel for the people and so they could put a face to a name as the new guy on the block,” he recalls. The experience was slightly overwhelming — not just the learning curve of getting up to speed in a new industry, but experiencing the camaraderie of PIA’s members and executive leadership. “As overwhelming as it all was, I knew there was something there that was bringing these people together,” he says. “Just the overall sense of community at the meeting.”
Eleven years on, “What I have learned, I’ve learned from the first minute I was part of this organization — that the quality, the integrity, the compassion of our members and all those that make up this organization is at a level far superior to any other group of people I’ve ever interacted with,” he adds.
One such individual who gave Becker a sage piece of advice was his first supervisor at PIA, Kellie Bray. “My first week after I started at PIA, Kelly came into my office and she said, ‘I want to tell you something.’ She said to me, ‘I want to let you know that you’re going to have good days, you know that.’ I said, ‘Fair enough.’ Then she said, ‘But when you have a bad day, push your seat back from your desk, close your eyes and think of the people.’”
It was advice he took to heart, and still keeps in mind. “When there are good days, when there are bad days — it is true, you can think of the people, and that’s what gets me out of the bed in the morning: the people who deserve the absolute best out of me and the absolute best out of the organization every single day,” he says.
Today PIA National remains an incredibly complex organization, Becker adds, and just as a great number of business models are changing, insurance in particular is likewise evolving. Professional associations like PIA, he notes, must evolve in tandem.
“People used to join associations because that’s what you did,” he explains. “That’s how you gave back to your industry. But now, the value proposition of associations has changed. There are more organizations, a lot of them online, that are offering products and services to agents. It’s been important for PIA to continue to evolve, and we’ve pivoted from your standard affinity programs to putting out resources and adopting a more intense focus on bringing meaningful programs and services out that will have a greater impact on the daily lives of agents.
“With that in mind, part of PIA’s value proposition to our members is to help them take on those challenges and to help provide them markets, help with their carrier relations, and help with digital technology so they can get at the root of what they do, which is advocate for their clients.”
Empowering with access
To that end, the trade group has launched PIA Market Access, a wholesale-market access program for PIA members offered in partnership with Fort Worth, Texas-based InsureZone.
The PIA Market Access platform provides PIA members with a single-entry, multi-carrier quoting platform for comparative rating in personal and commercial lines. Agents with their own carrier contracts who are looking to augment them with carriers available through the PIA Market Access Program can quote both sets of contracts through the PIA Market Access platform, keeping 100% of commissions earned through their agency contracts.
“We want to bring carriers to agents so they have the products that they need to advocate and to deliver to their customers,” Becker explains. “Dozens of carriers are a part of this platform; it’s a cloud-based dashboard that agents log into that has all sorts of reporting capabilities, binding abilities on the website matched with these carriers.”
The tool not only provides independent agents access to more carriers — something especially craved by agents with fewer years in the business — but also offers the ability to better quote rates among those insurers. “When we put together a program like this, it’s driven by the needs and expectations of the agents to make it efficient, to make it agent-friendly and not be bound by heavy fees,” says Becker.
Now more than ever, he stresses, time is of the essence: “People are working 24 hours a day. We all have an iPhone, we all have a tablet, and at 11 o’clock at night we’re answering work e-mails. Delivering a product like this gives agents the markets they need. It’s technology-driven, and it’s not riddled with red tape. It enables agents to hone in on needs, on customer-experience expectations that we can really nail.”
Accelerating the process for independent agents has become increasingly important as the relationship between agencies and carriers has, to hear agents tell it, changed over time — and not for the better. Gone are the days when an agent enjoyed a longtime relationship with one individual at a given carrier, and the sentiment expressed by many agents these days is that insurers greatly favor results over relationships.
“One thing that agents continue to battle with is the rapid change of carriers and greater pressures that they face from their carriers,” says Becker. “As advocates for agents, we recognize also the increased pressures and expectations that carriers are placing on them.
“The industry is increasingly being driven by data and by numbers,” he continues. “There’s great benefit in data and numbers and analytics, but reducing or eliminating those relationships with agents would be a grave mistake.” By eliminating the relationship component with independent agents, Becker adds, the client ends up with a product that’s become a commodity.
“We are driven by the passion and the people, but at the end of the day, what this [program] is all about is making our members more successful,” says Becker. “If we’re able to provide them the right tools, if we’re able to do our part to help them become as empowered as possible to increase their stake in the market, then they can focus on what they do best — serving their clients.”
Hurdling modern obstacles
Yet access to markets is only one hurdle for the modern-day independent agent. Becker is fully aware of the current business environment and how it continues to evolve — and how agents must evolve with it.
“Agents have endless challenges that they’re faced with on a daily basis,” Becker says. “Keeping up with the evolution of running a small business, keeping up with the evolution of the insurance industry, keeping up with the evolution of consumers’ behavioral characteristics, increased pressures and expectations of not only their clients, but of carriers.”
Additionally, social media marketing opens up a new slate of promotional possibilities for Main Street agents — if they know how to do it. “Agents have always advertised; it’s not that advertising your agency is a new thing. It’s changing the way you advertise,” says Becker. “You’re seeing fewer Yellow Pages advertisements and more sponsored Facebook posts. Social media-based advertising is, generally speaking, very affordable.” It also provides the ability to target your message and products to specific audiences.
“You’ve got to know how to do it, though, and that’s a learning curve,” he adds. “Yesterday’s agency is not today’s agency, nor should it be.”
Agency principals who have been in the P&C business for 20, 30, 40 years now suddenly hit with the curveball of marketing themselves in a new way need to embrace these new capabilities. Unfortunately, digital tools are often viewed as hurdles and just “one more thing” an agent needs to do.
“It’s one more role in the office that has to be filled, and it’s an important one,” says Becker. “But what’s going away? Nothing. They’re all additional things, and they all contribute to the burdens and challenges that agents face on a daily basis.”
Becker says the social media marketing issue is just one question that agents must now be asking themselves: “How am I keeping up with the changing behaviors of consumers? How am I filling the employment voids in my agency? Does my agency have what it needs to attract and retain new employees? What am I going to do when I retire? Do I have an option to perpetuate internally? Do I have a family opportunity to perpetuate?” he asks. “It’s an overwhelming time to be in this industry.”
Then there’s the thorny issue of recruiting young talent. “It’s one thing to attract millennials as potential employers for the workforce, but it’s another to retain them,” says Becker. “If you hire somebody and you put them in an office that operates like it’s 1980, you probably won’t retain them.” Legacy agents must understand that millennials have certain expectations of the workplace, that their work will be digital-focused, and that allowing them to work remotely when necessary is part of the equation now.
“We recognize as an organization that the challenges that agents are facing on a daily basis are seemingly endless, and that’s where PIA comes in,” he adds. “We are driven by our members to help them take on these sorts of challenges — to help them evolve.”
Meanwhile, the backbone of the P&C insurance distribution system will continue to demonstrate its value proposition in a world where at least once a year, like clockwork, some consultancy heralds the complete disintermediation of the independent agent. Becker doesn’t see it ever happening.
“The things I’ve seen in this job that have been most impactful for me are when I’ve had the opportunity to visit agents’ offices across this country,” he says. “When these clients walk in, and you see firsthand the admiration and respect they have for their agent. When we drive through town and you see that banner up for the local Little League, sponsored by the insurance agency. When we try to grab lunch on the way to the office, and it takes us an hour and-a-half just to sit down because we’ve stopped at every single table. When I can see the impact that an agent can make in a community, that far exceeds any story that they’ve told me along the way.”
An attribute that sets PIA apart from some other organizations is its sense of mission, Becker asserts. “This is one thing I hope never will change about PIA — our sense of mission,” he says. “PIA has a vision of how our industry, lawmakers and regulators should treat independent insurance agents: with the respect they earn every day.” To earn that respect, he notes, PIA engages in advocacy — before Congress, state legislatures and regulatory bodies.
But there’s much more at work. Becker says there’s a sense of common interest, of camaraderie, that “has bonded PIA members from our founding in 1931 until today. It’s part self-interest, of course, but there’s an intense feeling that our association contributes to the greater good.”
While the challenges faced by the entire P&C insurance industry aren’t going away, Becker remains steadfast. “I’m an optimist. I’m a realist, too, and I believe that these challenges bring opportunity,” he says. “We don’t get bogged down by the challenges. We recognize them, and we’ve developed solutions to take advantage of the opportunity in front of us. At the root of that, the most impactful thing that an agent can do is to continue to serve and continue to be the true advocate for their clients.
“I don’t know what the silver bullet is, but we will continue to do everything we can to support our agents,” Becker adds. “The best thing an agent can do is to continue to be compassionate for their clients, get the referrals, and be an active participant in the community. Retaining that personal element of what an independent agent does — that’s the differentiator.”