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Using Technology to Grow Your Business

Here are some easy steps to leverage your computer and the internet so that you can reduce your administrative work, find more high-quality prospects and spend more time with clients.

By Kip Gregory

If were to ask you, “What’s the one thing you’d like to change about your daily routine?” you’d probably say, “Finding more time to get in front of clients and prospects.” You’re not alone. According to an Insurance Advisory Board survey, agents spend nearly twice as much time on office administration, and preparation and follow-up on sales calls as they do on actually meeting with those who buy from them.

With that kind of ratio, shifting just 10 percent of the time you spend on nonselling activities to face-to-face time with buyers increases your selling time by 25 percent. But how do you actually make that happen? Simply put, by delegating, eliminating or automating as much as possible, you free yourself to concentrate on what you want to do—meet with clients, prospects and those who can refer business to you.

Between the software installed on your computer and the resources and information you have access to over the Internet, you already have most of what you need to build a rock-solid business.

Problem or opportunity?
When it comes to automating, many advisors find it’s easier said than done. Feature-bloated software, online information overload and no clear path out of the confusion leave them frustrated and leery. Even those who use technology well acknowledge that there’s a fine line between success and failure. One advisor I know puts it this way, “We couldn’t be in business without technology. The challenge is not being overwhelmed by it. It’s so easy to get bogged down in it that the real work gets compromised.”

But there’s good news! Between the software installed on your computer and the resources and information you have access to over the Internet, you already have most of what you need to build a rock-solid business. You just need to learn what you have and how to use it more effectively.

Business as process
To figure out how technology can help you do things faster, better or cheaper, you first need to be clear about what you do and how you do it. Without that framework, you end up wasting lots of time and money on tools and software you don’t need and may never use.

To avoid this, your first move should be to document your procedures. You can do that quickly and easily in a word processing program like Microsoft Word. I use an approach I call knowledge journaling (see box), but you can use any method that gets you to put your business procedures down in writing.

Each section of your procedures file should detail a key process you follow—the steps involved, who “owns” each one, the technology used (if any) to complete each step, and the order and timeframes in which each is completed.

Descriptions can be as brief or as detailed as you want.

When getting started, keep things simple. Pick no more than three processes, such as client communications, generating referrals and proposal development, and map those out.

Explore alternatives
Once you lay out a few of your key processes, ask yourself questions like: How can I/we do these things better? Is each step necessary? Is the person handling it now the one who should be responsible, or can it be delegated further down in the team structure? Can it be automated? Can it be eliminated? The goal is to get as many steps as you can off your plate, so you can concentrate on establishing and managing better client relationships.

In addition, ask others, “If you were in my shoes and you wanted to improve results, what would you be doing?” Sharing the details on the various processes you follow will make it easier for those people to provide specific suggestions. Start with your staff, but don’t end there. Make a list of others with whom you can consult: a mentor or agent you admire, your manager, product and service providers, those with whom you network or a business coach. Use them as sounding boards.

Know what you own
Before you run out and buy any new programs, make sure what you already own can’t do the job for you. Aside from the industry-specific software you work with, that probably means Microsoft Office (Word, Outlook, PowerPoint and Excel) and Internet Explorer. Those applications, together with a good contact management program, give you more power to manage data, prospect and communicate with your audience than many Fortune 1000 companies possessed just 20 years ago. All it takes to begin leveraging that potential is a little exploration.

To build your knowledge, take a few minutes before or after hours to open up any program you rely on and poke around. Take a lead from David McKinney, an advisor in Northern Virginia. “I frequently open up a program and just play with it. I go to the selections, tabs and menus that I’ve never used and start clicking away. It’s amazing what I’ve learned,” McKinney says. “I’ve found ways to solve problems with stuff I already have that saved me from having to buy new software.”

If you work with a team, divide the responsibility for exploring the different programs you use among team members and compare notes. Some advisors even put a standing item on their weekly meeting agenda to share the most useful features they discover so everyone can benefit. Keep a list of useful features you discover—this is where the electronic journal also comes in handy.

Working the Website
If there’s any tool that advisors underutilize, it’s the website. Most barely scrape the surface of what it offers. Sure, they may use it for email, to get headlines, or maybe to check stock prices, but considering the website’s capacity as a business tool, it’s amazing how little people really take advantage of it. With millions of sites and billions of pages of content, the website is an unequalled reservoir of potentially priceless information. The problem is finding what you need. Like mining for gold, if you dig in the wrong place on the Internet, all you’ll find is frustration.

On the other hand, there’s an excellent chance that solutions—or at least partial solutions—to the pressing business problems you face are out there online. For example, lots of advisors use direct marketing as a prospecting tool (think seminar invitations) or a communication vehicle (think newsletters). The process of prospecting traditionally involves shopping for a mailing list, putting it into a database, developing a mailing piece, merging and printing letters, folding them, stuffing and stamping the envelope and getting the whole package out the door. It can be very time consuming.

Did you know all those steps can be automated? Sites like GoLeads, infoUSA and zap data let you build custom mailing lists according to criteria you select. Your firm or programs like Text Library Systems can provide you with a library of preapproved correspondence. Vendors like ThinkDirectMarketing, a NAIFA affinity partner, or the U.S. Postal Service (through its NetPost Services) can handle fulfillment of traditional mailings—from mail merging a letter and database through delivery to each recipient. Services like Connecting Point from Romni and Clientelligence can deliver email messages that are customized for each recipient.

You can complete a full-blown marketing campaign in under an hour, without ever leaving your desk, if you know what resources to use. But to uncover them, you have to understand your process, know how to ask the right questions and where to ask them. A great place to do both is Google.

CREATE AN ELECTRONIC JOURNAL

“Knowledge journaling” gives you instant access to information on your computer by automatically adding a table of contents to a file you create in Microsoft Word. The table of contents links directly to the section you want. That allows you to scan the table, find a topic you’re interested in, click on its title and instantly jump right to that information.

You can use it to map out your business procedures, organize and store all those useful nuggets of wisdom you pick up at meetings or from the Internet, plan your business strategies—the uses are endless.

To learn more about how to create an electronic journal, read “Creating an E-Journal.”

The power of Google
You may already use Google to search for what you need online; in a few short years it’s become the search site of choice for most website surfers. However, there are three things about it you may not know—features that can make finding useful information even easier. First, Google offers a fabulous, free add-in program called the Google Toolbar that puts most of Google’s advanced features in a handy dashboard right within Internet Explorer. With it you can access Google’s search capabilities from anywhere on the website without having to go to Google’s home-page first.

Jim Urich, an advisor in Illinois, specializes in college planning. He uses the toolbar’s “Backward Links” feature to uncover information that gives him a leg up on his competition: “I want to be familiar with any website that might provide me or my clients with useful information on the subject. Whenever I find a helpful new site, I use the toolbar’s ‘Backward Links’ feature to see what sites link into it. It’s led me to many other resources I never came across using a normal search engine. With access to information like that, I’m better able to serve my clients and position myself as an expert in my niche market.”

You can complete a full-blown marketing campaign in under an hour, without ever leaving your desk, if you know what resources to use.

Second, Google offers two pages on searching (The Basics of Google Search, www.google.com/help/basics.html and Advanced Search Made Easy, www.google.com/help/refinesearch.html) that will pay back a hundred fold the 10-minute investment you make in reading them. Together they spell out how to structure your search to get the results you want.

Third, Google’s Directory provides prioritized lists of sites relating to hundreds of thousands of topics, all organized under about a dozen major categories. For instance, the directory contains a list of more than a dozen life insurance-related lead sites, which you can find under Business > Financial Services > Insurance > Agent Resources > Lead Generation Services. If you work in or target a particular market, are looking for a specific type of software, or just want to get information on a chosen subject, check Google’s Directory to see if it contains a listing of relevant sites.

Find your natural niche
Think of your best clients, the top five or 10 people with whom you do business. Wouldn’t you rather target prospects who look like them than shotgun the population at large? To do that, start by jotting down what you know about each person: the industry or company he works for, his occupation, personal interests, club affiliations, etc. Better yet, record that information in your electronic journal.

Now, ask yourself what characteristics each of them shares. Do they come from the same background, employer, trade group, neighborhood or country club? What common threads are woven across those relationships? Once you identify them, go online and do some homework to learn about the issues and concerns they share.

Besides the Google Directory, you can check out About.com and the American Society of Association Executives’ (ASAE) Gateway to Associations. Both are free. About.com is a collection of hundreds of special interest groups, each organized around a specific topic. The ASAE Gateway page lets you search a database of more than 6,000 professional trade groups worldwide based on name, category or location. It’s useful if you target corporate executives, entrepreneurs or self-employed professionals, or if you’re interested in a particular industry for worksite-marketing opportunities and need to find out what’s happening in your chosen field.

Using the common characteristics you identified as keywords, search Google, About.com and the ASAE site to locate websites and information relevant to your markets: seniors, HR executives, small-business owners—whatever. Once at those sites, look for member and staff directories (which may or may not be public), information on meetings, articles and postings that indicate what people in that niche or group read, watch on TV or listen to on the radio.

With that knowledge, you can approach clients you’re close to for advice. Saying, “I want to get in front of more people like you, how would you do it?” is one way to get the conversation started. Use what you learned in your research about common concerns, opinion leaders and centers of influence, and ask which avenues or people they’d recommend you pursue first.

Like mining for gold, if you dig in the wrong place on the Internet, all you’ll find is frustration.

What’s in it for you?
If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to do or look at all that stuff. My job is to call on people, not map out a business plan or play researcher,” fair enough. If you already know who you’re targeting, where they meet, when and how to approach them about your services, and you have all the time you need to do so, then have a go at it.

Few advisors, however, have a strong grasp of their market or the time they would like to make those sales calls. Ask them who they target and they’ll say “seniors,” “retirees” or “rich people.” Those aren’t markets; they’re census classifications.

If you want to expand your business and increase its value, start leveraging the technology you own, along with what the website offers, to get closer to your ideal clients and others who look like them. That’s the essence of affinity marketing.

People like to do business with those who understand their world, their thinking and their experiences. Companies pay consultants handsomely to immerse their salespeople in “the client experience” so those sales reps will appreciate what it feels like to live in the world their clients and prospects occupy. If you want to do that for yourself, the website can give you many of those same insights a lot less expensively.

Beyond that, taking control of your processes and game plan for getting to the next level will give you and your staff more time to execute and more confidence in doing so. You can work harder—more calls, more appointments, more proposals, more hours—or you can work smarter. Which would you prefer?

Here’s one last reason to act on these suggestions. Sooner or later, you’re going to want to step out of your business, which means selling it or handing it off to your successor. What will you be selling when that day comes? Why would someone else want to acquire what you have? Putting processes, systems and standards in place that let you continually improve your productivity and profitability will enhance the attractiveness of your business to clients, prospects and acquirers alike.

Kip Gregory is the author of Winning Clients in a Wired World: Seven Strategies for Growing Your Business Using Technology and the Web, which will be published by John Wiley next month. To learn more about his consulting and coaching services, visit www.kipgregory.com.

USE TECHNOLOGY WISELY

To grow your business, you need to better leverage the technology you already have and make the internet work for you and your business. Get started with these steps:

  • Map out your business processes and delegate or automate as much as possible.
  • Make sure you know what software you have and what it can accomplish before you go out and buy anything new.
  • Learn which websites offer you instant solutions to business needs like prospecting.
  • Make use of the powerful search engine, Google, and all its bells and whistles.
  • Use websites such as Google, About.com and ASAE Gateway to find out more about your top prospects and how to reach them.


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