On a hot, summer Saturday, insurance agent Mark Larkin was enjoying his vacation on Lake Eries Catawba Island when his pager alerted him to a problem with a long-time client. Hours before her wedding, the customer realized her husband-to-be didnt have insurance to drive their rental car.
Literally, I was standing on a beach helping this young man get automobile insurance, recalls Larkin, vice president of Insurance Agencies of Ohio.
The ability to help that client on perhaps the biggest day of her life was made possible by the companys new telephone system, which includes an emergency paging service. Of course, in the insurance business, client calls often are more dramatic, Larkin points out. For example, the owner of a multifamily rental unit called when a building collapsed due to ground settling; the client wanted to know what the insurance ramifications would be if he took emergency workers advice and tore down the rest of the building.
Emergency paging is just one benefit of Insurance Agencies of Ohios phone system; more phone lines were added to accommodate growth, and enhanced voice mail capabilities facilitate communication.
In short, its a better way for Larkin and his associates to keep in touch with clients and vendors.
In 1994, Larkin set about the task of improving the 8-year-old phone system at Insurance Agencies of Ohio, an independent agency formed by the merger of four others.
We realized our phone system wasnt adequate to serve our clients. It didnt allow for after-hours calls. It didnt allow for a lot of conferencing-type systems available today, he says.
He worked with Digital & Analog Designs Dublin office to assess the companys basic needs:
- New phones and four additional lines, bringing the total to 10.
- Tying the sales staffs cellular phones to the central system, so calls coming into the office could be forwarded directly to an agents car phone.
- Voice mail capabilities. I think theres probably a little reluctance on the part of all businesses to install voice mail because of the concern that they will lose the personal touch, Larkin says. Insurance Agencies of Ohio addressed that concern by having a receptionist answer the phone, but giving the caller the option of leaving a message in voice mail if a representative is unavailable. If the caller prefers to leave a message with the receptionist, she records that information in the voice mail system. If sales people are out and about, this gives them the opportunity to retrieve messages quicker, he says, adding that messages can be forwarded within the office to try to solve a customers problem.
- After-hours calling. When the office is closed and the phone system is turned over to the voice mail, a family member can still reach an employee by getting through to a specific extension.
To meet these needs, Insurance Agencies of Ohio purchased a Toshiba DK280 phone system with a building-block design that allows for future growth, says BeaAnn Bedford, systems programmer with Digital & Analog Design.
Larkin purchased the system and new phones for approximately $11,000, and the voice mail capabilities required another $10,000. Bedford says the price on the AVT voice mail system has come down; now the cost would range from $6,000 to $7,000.
Not only did this new system make life easier for employees at Insurance Agencies of Ohio, it gave the company a better way to keep in touch with clients and vendors.
We expanded it because we felt that our competitors today have [toll-free] phone numbers and are staffed 24 hours a day, particularly for claims, Larkin says. It was our feeling that we needed a way to let our customers contact us in an emergency.
To that end, the voice mail system features an emergency mailbox, which tells the caller a company representative will return the call within 30 minutes.
When someone leaves an emergency message, the system automatically dials a calling tree, beginning with the person whose turn it is to keep the emergency pager after hours. If there is no immediate response, the system starts a cycle, calling Ralph Guarasci, president of the agency, at home; Larkin at home; Larkins car phone; one of the companys leading producers at home; that persons car phone; and then Guarascis car phone. Within 12 minutes, the sequence will be complete; it repeats until someone calls the voice mail system to answer the emergency page and retrieve the message from the client.
The company has more than 3,500 clients, so the emergency system gets used an average of five times a weekend and just about every evening. Many of the calls are from weather-related claims or other emergencies. For example, a major construction client called when a sprinkler system activated, flooding a retail establishment.
I think it gives the customer a lot of peace of mind to say Clean the trees up, patch the roof, put tarps over it. Everyone worries that theyre going to spend money that theyre not going to get reimbursed, Larkin says.
With the new phone system, Insurance Agencies of Ohio has a back door phone number to be used by vendors who can then enter an automated system to access a particular extension.
They avoid going through our receptionist. That allows our lower lines to be handled for customers. That took a tremendous amount of work off our receptionist, Larkin says.
When purchasing a new phone system, Bedford advises, business owners should take into consideration the reliability of the product, the dealerships business history, features available and the flexibility of the equipment to grow.
Overall, Larkin notes, the phone improvements at Insurance Agencies of Ohio increase the companys ability to be service driven.
Id say the whole system has given us much more rapid ability to respond to our customers needs, including those that are in an emergency situation, Larkin says. It basically makes us 24-hour guardians for them.