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As the owner of an insurance agency, your job is to guide customers through the buying process and assist them in determining what policy most closely fits their needs. In addition to the initial sale of an insurance policy, brokers regularly meet with clients to ensure the policy is still the best fit. Many agents also act as the first point of contact should a claim arise. Due to the nature of the business, many insurance agents are their clients’ most trusted advisors.
Captive Agency vs Independent Agency
When considering opening an insurance brokerage, you’ll have two options: independent or captive. Both options can be very profitable and each comes with their own set of pros and cons.
As an independent agent, you can freely sell insurance products offered by many different carriers. You are, in essence, the pre-underwriter. It’s your job to analyze the information you’ve collected to determine which companies will write the policy. You then figure quotes based on this information and offer the cheapest quotes to the customer. Policies vary from company to company, so it’s your job to explain any differences their new policy might have over their current one. Many agents prefer writing and servicing one line of business over another. As an independent, you have the advantage of focusing on the lines of business that fulfill you the most.
Captive agencies sign a contract to represent and write insurance for one company (e.g. State Farm Agent or Farm Bureau). You are still the pre-underwriter, but you only have one set of underwriting guidelines to memorize and adhere to. Most captive insurance carriers offer multiple lines of business (e.g. business, personal, life, health, and annuities), making it easier to write a household’s entire book of business. This offers a wonderful opportunity to build lasting connections with your clients. They often become like family, as you’re there to help them through some of their most difficult times. If you decide to be a captive agent, be sure you fully understand the terms of the contract, that you’re familiar with the carrier’s mission, and that you stand by their line of products.
Who is this business right for?
While it’s often a profitable career choice, most insurance agency owners don’t enter it solely for the money. They do it because they love to help people. Insurance is frustrating and confusing to most consumers, yet it’s a “necessary evil.”
A captive agency is wonderful for someone who is genuinely in it to help their clients long-term. While price is important to the client, the level of service they receive from their agent is what keeps them there, even when premiums rise. If a customer forgets to pay their premium and the policy is about to cancel, your staff will pick up the phone and remind them. If there’s a death in the family, you’ll be one of the first to know. And it’s not just about filling out the paperwork for the life insurance policy; it’s about being there for the client and taking a weight off their shoulders during a dark time. Running a captive agency is often more about service writing policies. The financial and marketing support you receive from your carrier allows you to focus on what matters most - the client.
The independent agency path is perfect for the individual who loves helping people, but who also has strong marketing instincts. Without the support of one company, the burden rests on your shoulders to show people why your agency is a step above the rest. It is a more fast-paced environment and no two days are alike.
Regardless of which path you decide to take, you should have several years of insurance experience under your belt. You must possess a firm understanding of the intricacies of this ever-changing profession and enjoy passing your knowledge on to your customers. Your days will often be long, but meaningful.
What happens during a typical day at an insurance agency?
Whether it’s assisting clients in making insurance decisions, filling out the paperwork to write a policy, or working to gain appointments with new insurance companies, agents spend much of their day in sales-mode.
Insurance is a very volatile business, so caring for your current book of business is just as important as gaining new clients. Insurance illustrations for prospective clients must be prepared and customer questions and concerns should be addressed, in order to keep both new and existing customers satisfied.
When policies come up for renewal, premiums generally change. If you’re an independent agent, you’ll want to review their policy and determine if a policy with a new company is a viable option. Each independent carrier has their own claims department and way of processing a claim. As their agent, you’re there to take down the initial loss information and provide them the details of what will happen next. At that point, most adjusters ask that you exit the process and allow them to handle any questions or concerns.
If you’re a captive agent, you’ll want to review their policy so you can explain any rate changes, should the customer inquire. As a captive agent, you’ll also often be the first person a client sees or talks to after a loss. You’re there to take the claim and will often be the middle man between the client and the claims department. Your day is, simply put, about building and maintaining relationships with both customers and insurance companies.
Without a marketing plan in place, however, you won’t have a customer base to care for. Therefore, a good portion of your day should be spent working to reach your target audience. This is particularly true of an independent agent, who doesn’t have the support of one particular carrier’s name and resources.
What is the target market?
Many independent agents build a successful agency by focusing on one target niche. Some are more knowledgeable in commercial lines and enjoy the high commissions that come with higher premiums. Others focus their attention more on personal line products such as teen drivers, art collectors, or RV’s. If you do decide to focus on writing one type of business, be sure you know your product well, as your marketing efforts will need to align with those goals.
While their knowledge might be stronger in one, most captive agents write all lines of business. Thus, their ideal customer is someone looking to keep as many lines of business in one agency as possible. This is beneficial to you, as you’re able to get to know the client and their insurance needs on a deeper level.
Loyalty and trust is built, which helps ensure a long-standing relationship. This can still be done successfully in an independent agency, but it requires a great deal more work and partnering with the best companies in the industry.
How does an insurance agency make money?
Your agency brings in money for each policy that is written. Upon policy issuance and renewal, commission is paid to the agency. Commission is paid at a higher percentage upon policy inception, with a lower percentage for renewals, which occur semi-annually or annually, depending upon the policy.
What is the growth potential for an insurance agency?
Your agency’s growth potential is directly tied to the lines of business you choose to write. Many captive and independent agencies sell personal and business insurance, as well as life, health, and annuities. This ensures you’re able to care for all of your customer’s needs, further strengthening that relationship. As a captive agent, you will have guidelines regarding what you can write and when. Independent agencies are allowed a little more flexibility and franchising is a viable option once you’ve made a name for yourself in the insurance community.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful insurance agency?
As an insurance agent, you must have a fine balance of skills. While you spend your day selling policies, it’s important to genuinely care about your clients. You should possess a thirst for knowledge, as you’ll need to consistently stay on top of the latest changes and trends. Strong verbal and written skills are critical in building relationships with insurance carriers, underwriters, and customers.
As with everything in life, knowledge is power. The insurance industry is dynamic. While underwriting and claims processes change all the time, the basic principles remain the same. Before opening your own agency, it’s important to gain real-world experience. Most agents start out as an employee for another agent. This is an opportunity to gain a clear understanding of each element of the business and achieve the licenses needed to successfully run your own agency. The National Alliance for Insurance Education and Research has a curriculum to cover every aspect of the business and offers both self-directed and instructor-led classes.
The knowledge you gain will not only help you build a successful agency, it’s also what ensures you’re able to open your doors. To sign a contract with most captive carriers, you’re required to have a certain level of experience with their company. As an independent, there’s an appointment process. Most carriers won’t appoint an agent without several years of experience.
As previously mentioned, if you plan to write commercial policies, you’ll need to gain as much knowledge as possible about each industry. Start out learning everything you can about one or two. Become a member of the organizations that are important to them. Join trade groups, unions, and chambers. The more you know, the better you’ll be able to serve them.
Remember, your prospective clients are looking to you for guidance. Many of them don’t understand anything about insurance. How you treat them and conduct business is directly tied to your success.
What are the costs involved in opening an insurance agency?
If you’re considering opening an agency, you’ve hopefully already completed the first step, which is obtaining the necessary insurance licenses. Your next step is to purchase or lease office space.
If you’ve decided to partner with a captive company, like State Farm, you’ll likely have guidelines that must be followed when determining a location. As an independent agent, you won’t face these same restrictions. Do your research and choose an area that isn’t already flooded with agencies. Try to find a location that is easy to get to, has ample parking, and a steady flow of foot traffic. While almost all policies can be written online nowadays, many customers still feel most comfortable with face-to-face meetings when it comes to insurance.
Once you’ve found a location, it’s time to start purchasing your office equipment. Since you’ll be storing personal information on all your clients, it’s important to have a computer system complete with all the necessary firewalls. Captive agents have the advantage of utilizing the computer management system the company they represent uses. If you’re opening up an independent agency, invest in an insurance management software solution that can handle all your agency’s needs. Many systems allow you to work quotes, issue policies, track commissions, and handle your accounting needs, all in one system. For a list of all available software solutions, and their ratings, click here. These systems range anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000, depending upon the number of users and the capabilities you desire.
Once you have an office space set up, you’ll want to hire your staff. They’ll need to become familiar with the new software, the insurance products you plan to sell, and must be trained accordingly. Given the role they’ll have in the success of the business, it’s critical that you offer your staff the training and support they need.
If you’ve decided to take the independent agency route, you’ll spend a great deal of time and money setting up agency appointments. This is the agreement between the insurance company and the agency. It defines what types of policies you’re allowed to write, any underwriting restrictions that might be enforced, and your rate of commission. Most companies will send a representative out to survey the office and meet with you and your staff. Each appointment costs between $125 and $250, depending upon the company.
To establish yourself as a professional in the industry, a website is critical. While it doesn’t have to have all the bells and whistles, it should educate on the basics of insurance, explain the types of policies you write, and reflect the brand you’re trying to build. Many websites now allow customers to review their policies, make necessary changes, and obtain quotes. The more intuitive and informative your site is, the more likely you are to land new clients. Many captive agents are provided a website through the company they represent. An independent agent should budget anywhere from $4,000 to $15,000, depending upon how advanced they want their website to be.
What are the steps to start an insurance agency?
Once you're ready to start your insurance agency, follow these steps to ensure that your business is legally compliant and avoid wasting time and money as your business grows:
- Plan your business. A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. A few important topics to consider are your initial costs, your target market, and how long it will take you to break even.
- Form a legal entity. Establishing a legal business entity prevents you from being personally liable if your insurance agency is sued.
- Register for taxes. You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
- Open a business bank account. A dedicated checking account for your insurance agency keeps your finances organized and makes your business appear more professional to your customers.
- Set up business accounting. Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
- Obtain necessary permits and licenses. Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
- Get business insurance. Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
- Define your brand. Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
- Establish a web presence. A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Where can I find a business mentor?
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Recommended: Fizzle.co offers video courses and a supportive online community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Try one month membership for for free.
What are some insider tips for jump starting an insurance agency?
When starting out, it's critical to have a gameplan for establishing an initial book of business. Many who are new to this business simply assume customers will find their agency once they open up shop. Few are ever so lucky. A realistic and solid customer acquisition plan is an absolute must when starting out. Before investing your first dime into your business, spend networking and learning from others who have succesfully grown their insurance agency. You might even consdier establishing relationships with insurance agencies selling different types of insurance products. Initially they can help refer you new business, and you can return the favor as you grow.
How to promote & market an insurance agency
A well thought-out marketing strategy is a vital tool for success. Remember, prospective clients have a number of options to choose from. It’s important that your strategy represents your brand and helps you stand out from the competition.
An understanding of your target audience is key. Let them know why they should come to you and how your agency can best fulfill their needs.
Captive agents have the advantage of working with a carrier that has already made a name for themselves in the industry. Many have found success through personalized mailers, ads in neighborhood newsletters and school yearbooks, and radio advertisements.
An independent, however, will sometimes represent carriers that aren’t as well-known. Your ability to educate them will define your success. In addition to the marketing tactics of a captive agency, independents should have a website that is informative and offers answers to the customer’s most burning questions. Share your knowledge on social media accounts and in strategically-timed television and radio advertisements.
Regardless of which path you take, participation in local and national business profiles such as Yelp and LinkedIn are always critical. It takes time to establish yourself as a leader in the industry. Start making a name for yourself now and it will serve you for years to come.
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How to keep customers coming back
Unfortunately, customer retention is often defined by the policy premium. Many clients react emotionally when they receive their renewal policy and realize the premium has gone up. They fail to understand that increases are standard and are typically the same amongst all carriers.
Hopefully your marketing strategy will appeal to these clients at just the right moment (it really is all about timing when it comes to emotions) and they’ll come to you with a quote request. Once you have prospects in the door, you have an opportunity to start building that relationship we discussed earlier.
While the captive agent can’t shop rates with other companies, they can inquire with underwriting to determine exactly why the premium went up. This is also a great opportunity to examine the client’s policies to determine if there are any coverages that could be amended or any discounts the client might be eligible for. The relationship you’ve built with the client, coupled with your ongoing efforts to maintain a high level of service are often enough. Many will choose a little higher premium for the peace of mind of knowing they’re with an agent who has their best interests at heart.
The independent has a slight disadvantage here. Until you’ve built a strong book of business and proven your loyalty to the customer, they feel no real loyalty to you. Clients will be basing their decisions on price alone. Customer retention is earned through strong customer service and anticipating the needs of your clients.
How and when to build a team
Like most business owners, you’ll probably feel tempted to start out running your business solo. Unless you’ve decided to start out partnering with another agency, don’t give in to this temptation.
Remember, you’ll spend much of your time marketing to your target audience and meeting with various insurance companies. You’ll be building important connections within the industry. While it’s also important to build connections with your prospective customers, your staff is who will, ultimately, be handling the day-to-day interactions with customers. An experienced and knowledgeable employee will be your lifeline. Recruit, train, and incentivize early and you’ll build a staff that is loyal to both you and your book of business.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for an insurance agency’s staff is $48, 200. The top 10 percent earned more than $122,590 and the lowest 10 percent earned approximately $26,330. Most agencies pay their employees a base salary with a bonus, based on performance.
Read our insurance agency hiring guide to learn about the different roles an insurance agency typically fills, how much to budget for employee salaries, and how to build your team exactly how you want it.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate an insurance agency. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
In particular, insurance agencies generally should obtain a sellers license as most states require insurance agencies to remit sales tax for certain types of insurance products. A seller’s permit allows states to record and collect taxes from goods (and sometimes service) sales.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, check out our informative guide, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
In addition, certain local licensing or regulatory requirements may apply. For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office
- Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Insurance Agent/Broker Licensing
One must pass an examination and be licensed to sell one or multiple lines insurance in their state. More information about state-specific requirements can be found at StateRequirements.com.
State by State Laws and Regulations
Laws pertaining to an insurance agency or brokerage vary from state to state. Specific state jurisdictions can be found at the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.
Certificate of Occupancy
An insurance brokerage is generally run out of an office. Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
If you plan to lease a office location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to an insurance brokerage business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
If you plan to purchase or build an office location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for you business’ location to ensure your Insurance Agency will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
How much can you charge customers?
Premiums and commission are set by the insurance company and vary by policy and line of business. Commissions are paid off the total premium. Most are set at 12%-15% for new policies and 5%-10% for renewal business.
What are the ongoing expenses for an insurance agency?
There are a number of items you’ll need to budget for, in addition to the standard overhead costs of running an office space. Payroll and incentive packages for your staff members will be your greatest expense. As the business grows, this expenses will grow, as well.
You should also encourage and support your workforce to expand their knowledge. Many states have different levels of insurance licensing. If your staff members come to you with only a customer service license, they’ll be limited in both knowledge and the amount of insurance business they’re legally allowed to do. If you send them back to school to obtain additional licensing, it’s a win-win - you’re investing in their future, as well as your own. Every licensed agent is also required to regularly attend a number of continuing education classes. This is another opportunity to show your employees you support them and recognize the value of a well-educated staff.
As a captive agent, you’ll represent just one company throughout your career. However, if you’re an independent, you’ll need to consistently add new companies to your business. Remain educated on the latest insurance companies, their underwriting guidelines, and how they could benefit the individual members in your book of business. This means setting aside a portion of your monthly budget for additional insurance appointment fees.
As mentioned previously, a consistent marketing strategy is what will attract new customers to your agency. Both time and money should be budgeted every month for this most valuable aspect of your business.
Your initial investment in a computer management system will prove to be a valuable asset to the company. Once installed, many software companies charge a monthly fee based on the number of users. While it can get quite expensive, this system is what connects you to your customers and is critical to the agency’s success.
How much profit can an insurance agency make?
The BLS projects 22% growth in the insurance industry over the next decade, more than 10% higher than all other occupations. Building a book of business, however, takes time. The first few years are the hardest and will take a great deal of work.
Your profits are directly tied to how you decide to set up your agency and what types of policies you focus on. Independent agents whose core business is personal lines report an average of $85,5000 plus bonuses. Some agents have reported even higher earnings by writing only high-end commercial lines policies. Captive agents report an average of $79,700 plus bonuses. Independents realized higher year-end bonuses.
How can you make your business more profitable?
Successful insurance agency owners have reported the following strategies for expanding their business’ profits:
- Outsource departments that aren’t mission critical to the company’s core business. This includes accounting, marketing, and IT.
- If an independent agency, consider buying another agent’s book of business.
- Focus on cross-selling multiple lines to your current book of business
- Sell lines of insurance that have higher premiums or offer a larger commission, such as business insurance and life insurance
- Spend time keeping up with the latest in insurance trends and carriers. Only represent the carriers whose products you stand behind and would be willing to write for your own family.
- Allow your employees to work from home from time to time. This helps cut down on overhead expenses and sends a message to your staff that you trust them.