Brokers have embraced the professional development mantra of producing highly skilled employees.
Across the UK, there are now more brokers of all shapes and sizes that are committed to professional development — and it is not just because they feel they have to. The mood has changed and, despite the economy, there are fewer grumbles about costs and instead more positive words about the benefits and indeed the necessity of having a highly skilled workforce.
It is a given that the nationals have always had the resources and commitment to train their people, but for smaller brokers, when it came to training, there was only one port of call — use a friendly insurer and never mind the quality. However, it would seem that insurance companies have cut back on this option — more brokers have switched towards taking greater control and are prepared to absorb the cost.
Janet Moody, commercial manager at Halifax-based Wilby Insurance, says her firm picked up on the theme of professionalism when it was just a whisper in the air. "It was something the board was talking about a few years ago. Brokers are in a unique position in terms of acting independently for their customers and also negotiating with insurer suppliers. There is scope for conflicts of interest and other problems. We felt that the Financial Services Authority could impose more stringent standards and we wanted to make sure our staff could meet any challenge."
Wilby is a member of Brokerbility, an affiliation of like-minded independent brokers, and she says she was aware that other brokers also wanted to raise their game. "There was a mood about greater professionalism among brokers before the Aldermanbury Declaration. In recent years we've introduced a range of measures to improve professional development — and it's already become a differentiator."
She explains that around 20 members of staff are currently going through an apprenticeship scheme and more than 80% of employees have a professional qualification. "What I've noticed is both competence and confidence improve. We had support staff who were unqualified but now, as a result of training, they understand policies, for example, and so are able to deal with clients and colleagues far better. Not least, people enjoy their roles more."
Wilby has also taken on a graduate trainee and encourages employees that have taken a basic qualification to move onto more advanced ones through the Broker Academy. Ms Moody adds that brokers are also encouraged to say what training they want. "The one problem is that costs can be a consideration, but we try to accommodate them where we can. We have people attending a local college we work with and also hold in-house courses — it can be a sacrifice in terms of time, but those who now have letters after their name are far more motivated. We have also seen people helping each other more — some have not studied for years, for example, but they receive support from others."
Brokers also see well-trained people as a way of dealing with the intense competition in the market. As Gillian Anderson-Brown, HR manager for East Anglian broker Alan Boswell, says: "Brokers are most definitely a distinct profession within the sector and commercial brokers in particular. While there has been a small move towards online commercial products, there will always be a need for professional advice and broking services for buyers of commercial insurance as these risks are too complex for the product to be commoditised and the sale non-advised. We, as brokers, market ourselves more on the advice, service and professionalism as opposed to price which is common in the non-broker sectors of the industry."
She says her firm has been taking a series of online training courses on particular areas within commercial insurance, "not only to emphasise the need for development of all staff, but as a requirement to confirm and demonstrate competency within our company". She adds: "This then aids staff learning when undertaking the Chartered Insurance Institute modules and we bring in specialists when a certain topic is covered to then be able to apply and adapt the learning to the workplace environment."
Ms Anderson-Brown adds that Alan Boswell also works with the National Skills Academy, which it sponsors, and a local college to support a number of staff through the apprentice programme. "Succession planning is important to our business and we prefer to recruit and promote from within, so if we support and encourage development of skills and knowledge this will ultimately not only raise the standard of our competency and professionalism, which will lead to us providing and demonstrating a competent service, but recognise talent."
Meanwhile, Ms Moody also works at raising the profile of broking and Wilby within local schools. "I want young people to see brokers as professionals — too many of them just think of Sheilas' Wheels and call centres. When they know about the variety of jobs on offer — whether with us, at Lloyd's or perhaps working in another capacity for a broker, such as in a financial capacity — they start to become more interested. They could be dealing with major businesses or perhaps advising a premiership footballer on insurance — we all need to give kids something positive to think about."
One ongoing and arguably negative perception about brokers is that they are little more than salespeople, with the connotation they do nothing more than undercut rivals. However, Ms Moody says sales ability is nothing to be ashamed of: "The role of some brokers is to sell — what matters is that customers are treated fairly and are sold to in a compliant manner."
Raising the status
And, Julian James, chief executive of Lockton International, agrees that a talent for selling should be applauded: "I would not see being described as a good salesman as a criticism — it's a skill and some need to sell as part of their job alongside sound training and technical expertise. You need people to get across why clients should use your company."
Mr James, who is also deputy president of the CII, is passionate about raising the status of broking, as well as being committed to boosting development across Lockton.
"In terms of the industry, things are certainly better but there is still more work to do in terms of improving the image of broking as an attractive career. It is not just broking — around six months ago, a survey in The Times showed there were no insurers within the top 100 businesses graduates wanted to work for. There are problems with perception."
He is a fan of moves made by the CII through its Discover Risk initiative and the way Lloyd's has stepped up activities through online and graduate recruitment fair activities, but believes more dissemination is needed. "It is easy to find a young person who is already in the industry and enthused by working in broking, in terms of the variety, experience and intellectual challenges. That message needs to get out."
Mr James believes brokers also have a responsibility to make training an intrinsic part of their business — and to foster a culture that encourages self-improvement. "One of the advantages of our recent office move is the existence of a good-sized training room and it's pretty much in constant use — but you also need the right culture where people want to improve their knowledge, rather than it just being seen as something to go through.
"One example of how positive our people are came from a recent e-mail sent out internally about a course in Mandarin Chinese — it was fully subscribed within four minutes. There are also advantages in bringing people together from different departments; we have lunch and learn sessions, which are always well attended."
In January, Lockton achieved chartered broker status — being only the second top-20 firm to do this. "It is a differentiator and something that is highly prized — we were also incredibly pleased when Karen Brown, who is based in our Bristol office, won the Chartered Broker of the Year Award."
Ian Jerrum, managing director of broker specialist Searchlight Insurance Training, says it is good news that the past few years have resulted in marked differences in brokers' attitudes towards training. "Despite the economy, more brokers are willing to pay for training — it is often not the cost, more the time involved, but there has also been a move towards quality."
He adds that while there are still brokers who want "something for nothing" in terms of simply looking for free insurer-provided training, there are plenty of others who value independence. "Some insurers provide independent training. Others will talk to brokers only about their own policies — sessions may be given by an underwriter, for example — so the content is going to be limited. Where some brokers do need more guidance, however, is in ways to monitor what training works."
He explains that Searchlight is poised to offer a two-day training course available to managers and those in HR, to show how training can be measured and the benefits evidenced. "It will help companies budget for their training because they will be able to see what benefits it brings — for example, they could see that £5000 spent on training brings in £20 000 of new business."
And, David Carr, regional director for Hays Insurance, agrees that more has to be done to enhance broking as a career option. "It's not helpful that a lot of young people have the impression that insurance is all about aggregators and buying the cheapest. What we are seeing more of though, is CII activity in the regions — we are also linking up with the CII at regional events to talk about developments in career opportunities and the type of skills that are needed."
He continues: "We hear a lot of doom about the economy, but in terms of broking vacancies there are a lot of positions available — and a shortage of people with skills. There are also a number of brokers looking at diversifying, say into an area like financial lines, and bringing on new people." Mr Carr adds that Hays is presently working with a training company and will be introducing a testing facility that can show up skills gaps.
Sense of proportion
But, while there is undoubtedly more commitment to professional development from brokers than ever before, Lyndon Wood, chairman of Moorhouse Group, calls for a sense of proportion and for brokers never to forget that independent, entrepreneurial streak when developing programmes.
He details the degree of investment his firm has made in training, including launching an initiative called Moorzone, which provides a wide range of facilities. "We worked out that staff who were in Moorzone had, as of this August, taken 2800 training hours. This was on a range of topics, both technical and softer skills, covering areas like specific business classes, FSA compliance, equal opportunities and other legal topics."
The company also has a number of in-house trainers, called performance leaders, and a coach that works with employees on a one-to-one basis, in addition to having people on apprenticeship schemes.
However, he says from a personal perspective, he would not have benefited from too formal an approach. "I was never someone who was good at exams or who liked a lot of structure. There are many great business leaders who do not have formal qualifications and I always see people as individuals — it is about providing training that enables them to be better, rather than offering training for its own sake."
He does agree that getting the culture right is essential: "I want someone who is in a junior job in the call centre to feel they can get on. Our managing director, Sian Pryce, started in a standard HR role, but she stood out as she had ideas on how to improve the business and put forward strategies."
Mr Wood continues: "I am convinced there are huge opportunities for people in broking. And, it is right that we provide as much development as possible. But, we also need to encourage people to show initiative. Someone with a very senior job for an insurer once said to me 'It does not take a lot to stand out' so my philosophy has always been to be a bit unconventional — why spend your life trying to fit in when you were born to stand out? I want to employ people that know their trade inside out, but can also challenge the boss and feel able to come up with great ideas."
There are plenty of brokers out there who have shown they have that indefinable business nous — and it is positive that they are also thinking about the next generation through placing professional development high on the agenda.
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