Insuring loyalty Featured

8:00pm EDT September 21, 2006
 John J. Bishop graduated from Ohio Northern University on a Sunday and began working the next day at The Motorists Insurance Group as a marketing management trainee.

Over the next 34 years in a variety of roles with the company, he learned the importance of cultivating strong relationships with customers and the value that experienced employees bring to a company’s growth. Growing up in the group, he’s also seen first-hand the important role that independent agencies play in its success.

Those lessons guide him now as chairman, president and CEO of The Motorists Insurance Group, which is headquartered in Columbus and consists of nine separate companies with offices in Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Collectively, these companies contributed to the group’s $633.5 million in premiums written last year.

But to continue growing, Bishop needs a commitment from employees to create high levels of service for agents and policyholders so that they will continue to do business with the group. Longevity breeds commitment, so he focuses on keeping people in the organization. If those employees grow with the company, then they will have a vested interest in the company’s success, so they will exceed customers’ needs and keep the group growing. To accomplish that, he must mold an environment worth sticking around in, for employees, agents and customers.

Developing culture
Fostering a commitment from employees takes a lot of work, and at The Motorists Insurance Group, it begins before an employee even sets foot in the door. To get the results he wants, Bishop has put a great deal of effort into creating an environment that promotes and cultivates teamwork and success.

“Consistency, fairness and equity is key to creating a healthy and positive work environment,” Bishop says. “No matter how big the organization is, you’re going to have interaction with different companies, different divisions, different parts of the group, and if there’s any sense that there’s not equity and parity and fairness across the group, that’s a prop for potential problems.”

It’s impossible to address and fix inequities if you don’t know about them, so the group has an anonymous line employees can use to report problems or incidents of inequity. While some may say this invites petty complaints, the group has received only two calls in about a year, and both addressed issues with fellow associates, not problems with the company.

Bishop also fosters communication between himself and his employees, especially as it relates to teamwork. When managers see selfish behaviors, he hopes those are as distasteful to them as they are to him.

He encourages them to bring those issues to his attention before problems spiral out of control. Between open communication and the anonymous tip line, the company promotes dedication to the team instead of to oneself.

“We don’t have time for personal agendas, and I don’t have a lot of tolerance for those that have those tendencies to think, ‘It’s all about me,’ or ‘I don’t get along with this person.’” Bishop says. “We don’t have time for that. If we’re going to succeed in our business, you have to have a candid, straightforward, constructive, working relationship where there’s no preferences. ... If you have the opportunity to work in that structure, it becomes much easier to be motivated about your responsibilities.”

Having that fabric in place ensures that employees feel the team atmosphere on their first day in the group. CEOs before him met with new employees as part of the orientation program, and seeing its success, Bishop continues that practice today. He and his senior management team meet with new hires throughout the year to communicate the group’s message and its commitment to cultivating and growing the employees within the organization.

The company looks from within when jobs open up, and although it sometimes hires from outside, it’s only after management has determined that nobody within the group has the skills or expertise for the opening.

“The message we want to send is we’re the type of organization that you could feel comfortable being associated with for a long period of time,” Bishop says.

The average length of service is 14 years, and keeping employees around that long has its competitive advantages.

“The huge advantage to me of promoting from within is that associates know that if I work hard, and the organization does have the tracking and recognition programs in place ... then there’s going to be opportunities as far as they want to go,” Bishop says. “That’s the message we send from Day One. That’s pretty well understood. That’s our fabric. That’s our culture.”

Promoting from within also eliminates the learning curve of hiring someone unfamiliar with the group’s practices. This knowledge and expertise then trickles down to the independent agents, who ultimately reach the customers.

“In the long run, the advantage to the company of long-tenured employees is we develop a core group of dedicated and well-trained employees,” Bishop says. “If those agents ... can look at a company and see stability, tenure and predictability because they know the people they’ve done business with, that’s a competitive advantage, as opposed to a relationship that has not endured over the years.”

Rewarding employees
While the opportunity for advancement is important to most workers and helps sustain customer relationships, it’s equally crucial that employees are nurtured, empowered and rewarded. Otherwise, they may not stick around.

To keep those employees and that competitive advantage, the group has to actively create an environment where its 1,250 employees feel valued. That, like ensuring fairness, revolves around communication and consistency, which begins between employee and supervisor.

“Employees want to do a good job,” Bishop says. “What they’re looking for is direction on how they could do it, as opposed to being pushed into something they may not want to do.”

It’s crucial for employees to understand how their personal responsibilities tie to the group’s objectives. Corporate goals are broken down by department, and supervisors meet with employees to discuss how what they do directly impacts the success of the group.

New employees meet with their supervisors at least once a quarter until they attain a ranking of “Meeting or exceeding expectations.” After that, they continue to meet with their supervisor at least twice a year.

It’s not enough to simply meet for a few minutes, get a pat on the back or a reprimanded and then wait another three to six months to lather, rinse, repeat. Instead, supervisors and employees use those meetings to reinforce the employee’s positive behaviors as well as collaboratively create a plan to facilitate individual growth that contributes to better accomplishing those corporate goals.

Bishop also realizes the importance of public recognition, so he encourages managers to copy him on e-mails that celebrate and recognize employees’ successes.

“We send a message that we’re big enough, that we have in excess of a billion-and-a-half in assets ... and at the same time, we’re not so big that your individual contributions won’t be recognized,” he says.

In addition to recognition, the group is committed to maintaining competitive salaries and benefits.

Every three to four years, the human resources department participates in industry surveys and researches each type of position for every geographic region the group operates in. While tedious and time-consuming, benchmarking benefits and salaries every few years ensures that employees receive competitive salaries and benefits.

“There’s a cost certainly associated with that, but in the long run, if you truly believe that your employees are one of your most important assets, you want to invest in those to retain them and develop them,” Bishop says. “If you do that, if you’re more efficient and more effective as a business because of the efforts of your associates, in the long run, you should be more effective and efficient in what you have to charge for your product.”

The group also has a profit-sharing program, known as the Employee Appreciation Plan. Each company within the group offers the plan to its employees based on that specific entity’s performance during the year. Employees can earn up to 5 percent of their annual salary based on the company’s performance, and they are kept informed about that performance each month throughout the year.

The program keeps them engaged in the company and makes the financial goals of the group more participative, which creates employee buy-in and establishes a stronger sense of ownership and belonging. When employees receive financial rewards for their efforts, it helps them to better identify how the goals they created with their supervisors fit into the big picture, and it challenges them to improve and work more effectively

“The job is to make sure you have the balancing act, have the appropriate resources to do the job that is expected, and make sure those people are appropriately compensated,” Bishop says. “The longer they’re in that position, the more knowledgeable they are, and they have a better effectiveness standard.”

When that balance is made, customers reap the benefits of the company’s efficiency.

“If you are, in fact, the most efficient and effective, then you’ll be able to offer competitive prices for your product,” says Bishop.

Driving service
Happy and experienced employees are critical to retaining customers. If employees genuinely enjoy their jobs and believe the company is looking out for them, that enthusiasm and passion bubble over to their communication and interaction with customers.

For The Motorists Insurance Group to do that, it’s critical for it to create and nurture relationships with the 5,000 independent agents it primarily markets its products through.

“They are independent businesspeople,” Bishop says. “They are not obligated to do business solely with us. ... They choose to place their business — that’s very competitive — with companies they have a comfort level with.”

To create that sense of comfort, the group has councils set up comprised of agents, and Bishop meets with them throughout the year.

“That’s how we reach the customers, through the independent agent,” Bishop says. “The independent agent has a vested interest in making sure their customers are getting treated fairly, because that’s going to enhance their relationship and build a basis for a long-term relationship. If we’re not taking care of those people, independent agents have the opportunity to express their independence and say, ‘Hey, something isn’t right.’”

Nurturing that direct channel to customers ensures that the company is meeting agents’ expectations and gives them a sounding board to voice concerns, which strengthens their confidence in the company. That confidence filters down to the policyholder and ensures customer loyalty and corporate growth.

“We have to first take care of the policyholder if we’re going to be successful, and how you’re going to do that is the best service you possibly can provide them and treat them in a manner in which they expect and exceed policyholder expectations every time, every day,” Bishop says.

If the company exceeds customers’ standards each time, then it will continue to grow, but that all rides on employees making the extra efforts and raising the bar to improve themselves, their service and, ultimately, the group.

“If they’re here over many years, the hope is they have that investment in the company — their personal investment in the company that they want us to be successful,” Bishop says. “We’re in the largest service industry in the world. What we do is keep promises. ... A long-term associate is going to have that commitment.”

How to reach: The Motorists Insurance Group,