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Ask a Producer: The Battle Between Google, Amazon, and the Independent Agent

Posted on June 09, 2016 by Mark Sonders

Sonders' Selling Tips

Sometimes, when you’re looking for great advice, the best path is to go straight to the source. 

We’ve decided to expand the concept of Sonders’ Selling Tips to include interviews with top-performing producers in order to provide you with a window into the world of the industry’s top performers.

These interviews will cover a wide range of topics, on everything from morning routines, to sales tips, to war stories.

This first interview is a Q&A with Mike Barrett, Owner of Barrett Insurance Agency in St. Johnsbury, VT. Our conversation focuses on the journey that led him to the insurance industry as well as the steps he took to find success, even as he and his wife struggled to find their way.  

Enjoy our conversation with Mike Barrett and feel free to reach out him on Facebook here.

Mike and Jenn Barrett

Vertafore: Diving right in, how did you end up in the insurance industry?

Mike: My Dad purchased the agency in 1989, shortly after my mother became an agent and they ran the agency as a husband and wife team with one employee until her passing until 2007. It was at that time my wife Jenn and I moved back to the area to help my father out. Just shy of a year later, we went from helping my dad operate the agency to running it on our own, as he was involved in a bad motorcycle accident and was out of work for 7 months. We went from helping him, to running his entire office. That was when we knew that we were here to stay, so naturally, when he decided he wanted to retire, we were the choice to keep the business going.

Vertafore: So was that always your plan? Have you always thought that you would take over his business?

Mike: No. Never. Never in a million years did I think I would be doing this, but I can honestly say my wife and I love it.

Vertafore: What do you love about it?

Mike: The job is really all about dealing with people and every day presents different challenges and conversations. It certainly has its challenges – we didn’t go into it with the mindset that we’re selling insurance, but rather, we’re helping people. And I think that’s the proper angle for us because we really feel like we’re contributing to the community and helping people that in many cases we’ve known for years; people that might not have made the right decisions with their insurance in the past.

Vertafore: So how did you actually onboard and learn the business? Did you dive in and learn how to swim? Or was there a lot of onboarding and training involved?

Mike: It was trial by fire, really. My mom and Dad were in the business through my years of high school, so I certainly had a little bit of knowledge just from listening to their conversations, but no formal training. When my wife and I came on board, it really became a “don't screw this up” situation. There was a lot of training to get our licensing and there is still studying to continue our education. But honestly, getting your license just means you passed a test, I found out that the real work and knowledge growth starts as soon as you get your license.

We went and got our licenses in April of 2008 for property/casualty and my father was airlifted to Dartmouth Medical Center for his motorcycle accident that July. So we had only had 3 months of licensed experience under our belts before he was unable to come to work and we had to run the business without him. So there were a lot of phone calls to people that knew more than us and a lot of nice people helping us along the way. It feels like a lifetime ago. 

Vertafore: What was the best industry advice you received during that time?

Mike: Run! Run far, far away. Haha, I’m just kidding. Honestly, it was "do not ever stop learning and do not think you know it all." I mean that's really it. The second you stop learning, you stop growing, and I feel like it's like that with every industry; we've been doing this for 8 years and we're still learning something new every day. You have to be open to change and realize that you’re going to have to continue your education in order to stay competitive.

Vertafore: Great point, it’s definitely important to keep an open mind and realize that learning is a life-long pursuit because the world, and especially business is always changing. Just as a follow up, what's the best advice you’d give to someone who’s just getting into the insurance industry?

Mike: Don't be afraid of technology. 

Vertafore: Was that a mindset shift you and your wife implemented once you took over the agency? Or something your Dad promoted?

Mike: That's one of the best things - Dad knew that we knew technology and we knew that Dad knew insurance, so we melded the two schools of thought together and a lot of technology decisions were placed upon my wife and me.

He basically said, "this is going to be your business to run, so you should make the decisions when it comes to investing in technology.” I like to tell people that PLRating was the gateway drug for Vertafore because we started with PLRating and CRQ; I just loved the product and I was really happy with it. I especially liked how I didn't have to spend 45 minutes to shop carriers - that was amazing.

That positive experience caused my wife and I to start looking at new agency management systems. We looked at 3 or 4 all in the same day on webinars with different companies. At the end of the day I sat down with my Dad and we went over the options. I asked my Dad "alright, what do you think?" and he said "I couldn't look stand looking at any of those three on a computer screen all day…but I loved the second one" and it was Vertafore. We've been on AMS 360 ever since. 

Mike Barrett quote

Vertafore: Do you feel like the switch helped your office and your producers become more efficient?  

Mike: Yeah – specifically the importing and exporting, we've really tried to bridge everything. Plus, we continue to add new Vertafore features such as the e-signature integration with DocuSign, a “game changer” as we no longer chase signatures! We're just blown away with how efficient we are. There's been many a time that we have said out loud - if we didn't switch to AMS we couldn't sustain this volume of clients. 

Vertafore: In addition to what you have with us, is there any other technology or tools that you use specifically when you're selling insurance that is helpful? 

Mike: One other thing I can mention is I do have a Microsoft Surface Pro that I purchased because I knew it was AMS certified. I can literally sit at somebody's kitchen counter and write their insurance for them if I wanted to. My Dad started where you would actually have carbon paper and would write somebody's policy at their kitchen table and sell it to them. Everything has come full circle, and technology is making that possible. I’m able to have them electronically sign and process a payment and they have coverage before I have even walked out of their house. It's pretty cool.

Switching to a higher end phone system has been a tremendous benefit as well. Since switching to the new system in 2015 we continue to become more efficient with the ability to use smart phone apps to make/take calls, update our status, voicemail messages, emergency contact for after hours, etc

Vertafore: One of the biggest topics in the insurance industry centers around the change in customer expectations, so as you see people wanting access 24/7, how do you guys address that and tackle that? 

Mike: Right. We live in an on-demand world now. My wife and I, as management, are available 24 hours a day for emergencies; and it's quite shocking what some of our clients believe an emergency is haha. But what we do best is we actually educate clients on the necessities of the business. It's all about educating them and letting them understand expectations from us so that we can meet their expectations and not fail them. 

Vertafore: That's a great point. So as you guys are looking through, ahead, towards the rest of the year - what are your major goals? This year? 3 years from now? 5 Years from now?

Mike: We're looking to grow our commercial lines. Which is one of the reasons why we've added Platform so that we can have Reference Connect at our fingertips. We were probably at a 95%/5% personal vs commercial with my wife and I started. We're really working to grow - I think we're about 80%/20% now. That's really where our focus is for the next five years just to bring more commercial.

Vertafore: When you first took over the agency it was just you and your wife, now you have a team of employees that work under you. What do you look for when you're recruiting?

Mike: Technology. Proof is in our latest hire - we had multiple people who were licensed and previous insurance background but lacked computer skills that we find to be invaluable, so we went with the person who was computer savvy. We need people who can function and troubleshoot through the system because that's our life. We can teach them insurance, and while we could teach them how to use a computer, we felt that having the knowledge would be an easier transition. So far it has worked!

Vertafore: You listed a few marketing tactics that you felt were important to the success of your business: Making sure your yelp ratings were good, that you had a good digital presence… it sounds like you’re not too concerned about whether or not Google decides to dip their toes back in the insurance water or anything similar?

Mike: You know, we're able to be visible on so many levels. Everything from our brick-and-mortar to our online presence. We're consistently visible and active within the community so if somebody is new to our area and looking for insurance they're going to find us one way or the other. I also think that CRQ has made us tremendously competitive because people can get a rate directly from us. Don't get me wrong, if Amazon ever decides to get in the game or Google gets back into it, I'm shaking in my boots a little bit there. There's brand loyalty and brand recognition there that I can't compete with. But there's a level of customer service that we can provide that nobody else can. 

Vertafore: Thank so much for you time Mike!

The one thing that Amazon and Google don't have...

In closing, Mike makes a critical last point about the importance of the insurance agent in the insurance ecosystem. No matter how much things change, there will always be an advisory role that hinges on the ability to provide high quality service and expertise to paying customers. Product offerings are going to change as the technology we create evolves and changes the world around us. There are new risks every day. We talk about this idea of change in product offerings at length in our post on autonomous cars and their potential to personal liability to product liability, but even then, the role of trusted adviser is still necessary to navigate this uncharted territory. It is this exact cycle of change and uncertainty that validates the need for insurance and insurance agents. 

Learn more about The Barrett Agency at their website. You can also find them on Facebook, Google+, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

Interested in being interviewed? What us to cover a specific topic in a future interview? Send an email to

Mark Sonders

Mr. Sonders is the Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing at Vertafore. With over 25 years of sales, marketing, and financial experience at companies like Thomson Reuters and Kaplan Financial, Mark’s career has focused on delivering long-term success for his clients in order to help them get the maximum value out of his organizations products and services.




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