Continuing Education

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” Mark Twain wrote: “Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.” And the beautiful and eternally sultry songstress Eartha Kitt remarked: “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”

Those perceptive observations can apply to any field of endeavor, any chosen walk of life. Progress is never achieved by people who assume they already know it all. Education is a step-by-step process, starting with the basics and building on those basics, as Eartha Kitt said, for the rest of one’s life.

Certainly this is true of the insurance industry. In times past, perhaps no more than 30 or 40 years ago, the insurance industry seemed predictable. The manuals were there to tell underwriters how to rate personal lines risks. The cycles were there—three years of a soft market followed by three years of a hard market—so that insurers, agents and brokers, and insureds were not jolted out of their comfortable existences.

Anyone in the insurance business today, however, will attest to the fact that no such comfort remains for insurers, brokers and agents, or insureds. The old manuals gather dust on underwriters’ shelves, and predictable cyclicality in the insurance business has all but disappeared. We have gone through soft markets that have lasted as long as a decade because of cash flow underwriting. Hard markets have not lasted as long, but they have been more severe. In addition, we have seen the emergence of alternative markets that compete with traditional insurers—captives, self-insurance groups, risk retention programs, and more. Never before has there been more of a need for the insurance industry to resume and continue the education process.

But again, for the education process to continue, it must start with the basics. As recently as 20 years ago, insurance companies provided education and training for the agents with whom they contracted. But one by one, companies began to scrap those courses—probably for financial reasons—leaving agencies to do their best to train newcomers during times when the industry was experiencing significant upheaval.

Bucking that trend, in 1998 The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., revived its Hartford School of Insurance (HSI), and there are indications that other insurers may be considering doing the same thing. Shirley Woods joined the school in 1999, having worked at The Hartford in various sales, underwriting and management positions. She is now the school’s director, responsible for the development and execution of strategic initiatives, and leads the HSI staff in the research, development and delivery of training programs that will assist agencies and brokerages in training both producers and CSRs.

The impetus for reviving the school came from Hartford agents themselves, according to Woods. “Our senior leaders were hearing from agents that the cost of training employees was rising,” she says, “and they wanted help. In fact, the costs associated with losing, then recruiting and training new insurance professionals are astronomical countrywide. While there are costs involved in sending a producer or a CSR to HSI, imagine instead the costs incurred when an agency must pull full-time producers or CSRs away from their jobs to train new employees. Most agencies simply can’t bear those kinds of costs.”

Woods says that HSI offers solutions for agencies of all sizes. It includes the basics—three-week training courses that teach new producers how insurance contracts work and how to evaluate and coordinate coverages on behalf of a client. HSI also offers short, multi-day customized seminars on specific products for only a few employees.

“The program for producers consists of four training modules, including a self-study program that is completed at an employee’s agency, and then the three-week technical training course for producers developed by HSI. (The classroom training period for CSRs is two weeks.) The two primary sites for these sessions are Hartford and Orlando, Florida. More recently, however, HSI decided to “take its show on the road,” choosing locations that are more convenient and cost effective, eliminating travel and lodging expenses for some agencies. Along with this program, the agency must make a commitment to provide mentoring for the producer or CSR who has taken the course.

“We provide the tools and the road map,” says Woods, “but the agency should provide lifelong learning for the trainee. We ask the agency to choose a mentor and then we tell the mentor what must be done to continue the learning process. Producers often use account managers as their mentors, as producers and agency principals are often not in the office and cannot fulfill the requirements of the role.”

Woods says it is interesting how the characteristics of students at HSI have changed since the school’s revival in the late 1990s. “When I first started with the school in 1999, the classes consisted primarily of recent college graduates. Today, it’s more like 50-50 between new college grads and career transitioners in their 30s and 40s. These transitioners come to agencies from other industries. Some of them are experienced salespeople who need to learn about insurance. Some are risk managers. We have seen students who were plant managers who now want to sell insurance. So, in the classrooms, we have people coming at the course from different perspectives.”

Classes are kept small, according to Woods. “We try to cap the classes at about 20 students, and we break them into small groups for discussions, evaluating case studies and briefings. We operate on a pass-fail basis, and those who do not pass exams the first time around can go back to their agencies, do the self-study again and retake the exams.”

Woods says HSI has begun to integrate some sales training into its training workshops to complement the basics that are taught. It is interesting to note that the school does not “promote” The Hartford’s products. “We don’t talk about Hartford products at all, and we pride ourselves on that. Also, HSI is not a profit center for The Hartford. Fees charged are only to cover expenses of running the school. All of our instructors are full-time, dedicated Hartford School of Insurance employees. They have in common extensive experience and knowledge of the subject matter, great ability to communicate and teach, tremendous enthusiasm and energy.”

In its seven years of operation, HSI has been able to boast about numerous testimonials. Julie Zimmer, vice president of sales for HUB International, says: “We looked at other company training programs, but HSI was so in tune with our vision and so supportive of our efforts that there was no doubt about our final choice. We’ve found that individuals will take salary cuts to get the training. It has been a huge recruitment tool for us, even in our Canadian locations,” she says. “HUB wanted sales training as well as special training on policies and procedures unique to HUB’s organization. HSI worked with us all the way. HSI went through every part of the training program to ensure our needs were accommodated even in terms of getting across the special information, which might apply only to our Canadian producers,” says Zimmer.

Bruce Baird of Thomas Rutherfoord, Inc., in Alpharetta, Georgia, wrote this letter to HSI. “Thought you’d like to know last week I closed a $65K revenue account. Total revenues since January are $90K, and you’re one of the reasons for it. I recently pulled out my notes from class to help me in identifying exposures that were not covered. We uncovered a biggie by noting that the client had no ‘lease gap coverage’ and almost 65% of their auto fleet was leased. This position helped us close the deal.”

Don Way, chairman and CEO of Thoits Insurance Service, Inc., Mountain View, California, offered this testimonial: “One of our newbies (producers in training) just returned from your three-week, new Producer Development Program for commercial lines in Hartford. Please accept our kudos to Lee Puttin and the other instructors. Ryan Greene, the new producer, reports that the experience was invaluable, easily worth the investment of three weeks, and generally moved him ahead rapidly toward his goal of becoming a top producer.”

Rough Notes also spoke with other “satisfied customers” of HSI. Dave Sinclair of Sinclair Insurance Group in Wallingford, Connecticut, said that over the years, his agency has sent numerous new recruits to HSI. “As a matter of fact, we have just sent five new producers to the school to get the basic training they need. HSI is the best school out there for that purpose.”

And Farrell Bass of the Byron, Georgia-based McNeal Agency, Inc., said that HSI offers wonderful programs for producers, and that he was pleasantly surprised that the school does not push Hartford products. “The purpose of the school is not to brainwash students into doing things The Hartford way. Happily, we were not inundated with Hartford products.”

Woods says that HSI can customize training for smaller agencies too. “Recently, a smaller agency in New England wanted a cost-effective, one-day training course for their employees that focused on employment practices liability coverage and claims-made concepts. Through a combination of lectures, question-and-answer sessions and classroom coverage activities, HSI delivered a customized curriculum that served the special training needs of the agency.”

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