Farmers Insures Success

Farmers claims the No. 2 spot on the Training Top 125 with a forward-thinking training strategy linked to its primary mission: FarmersFuture 2020.

By Lorri Freifeld

It’s not surprising an insurance company would have an insurance policy for the future. But Farmers Insurance takes that strategy one step further, setting its sights on 2020 with a far-reaching plan to foster growth, productivity, and leadership development through intensive training.

“Strategic goals in our organization ultimately are tied to our primary mission called FarmersFuture2020, aspiring us to significantly grow the company’s size in the next eight years,”
explains University of Farmers Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer Annette Thompson. Three primary focus areas drive toward this aspiration.

The first is expanding into new markets, as 51 percent of the country’s property and casualty business is in markets virtually untapped by Farmers, Thompson says. “We are extending customer reach as we develop thousands more of the ‘best trained’ exclusive agents. We’ve taken a proven blended curricula for agents in their first two years and modified it to intensify coaching within the program.”

Farmers’ AgencyPoint model, which leverages the University of Farmers’ intensive training, is critical to the firm’s expansion into five new states through 2012. “In our AgencyPoint states, new agents reside with local trainers and undergo a more immersive experience than we’ve ever offered previously,” Thompson says. “The new model is designed to deliver similar learning; but with a more intensive and personalized training support model, we anticipate business results from this effort to be even stronger.” Blended instructor-led and online training, with coaching modules, anchor Farmers’ legacy agency training—these components are driving a 75 percent conversion rate to full-time status and monthly sales that exceed goal by 13.5 percent, Thompson says.

The second focus area is to increase productivity, as Farmers seeks to balance revenue growth with a profitable business model. New in 2011 was Farmers’ brand strategy, which positioned learning, through University of Farmers-themed advertisements, as developing the industry’s best people. In-house, numerous learning programs supported productivity enhancements. “Our Breakthrough systems training drove a 50 percent reduction in call volume and 60 percent faster transaction processing time for an approximate $19 million annual cost avoidance,” Thompson notes. “Our ‘Leading the ServicePoint Way’ program improved transaction time by three minutes per call in call centers. And we continue to benefit from recent revisions made to our agent onboarding program, which reduced training time by three months per agent, saving the organization nearly 1 million instructor-led training hours annually.

Lastly, Farmers aims to develop leaders to excel today and in the future. “We need to ensure a stable leadership pipeline, integrating our leadership competency model, in the midst of a challenging market, recent acquisitions, and the need for continued growth,” Thompson says. “Our leadership competency framework targets 14 universal competencies with varying mastery levels by role to every employee in our organization. Several core leadership programs keep a focus on ongoing development for tomorrow’s leaders, including differentiated leadership learning within our call centers, claims department, and field management.”

The new Presidential Leadership Program (PLP), developed in conjunction with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, is a catalyst to grow future leaders at Farmers and in the broader business community. The program focuses on emotional intelligence, health, and wellness as cornerstone components in the development of highly effective, inspirational leaders, according to Vice President, University of Farmers Claims Mike Cuffe. Built by an in-house team of leadership development, instructional design, writing, graphics, video, Web, and new media professionals, PLP hosted more than 400 executives, directors, and managers in 16 three-and-a-half-day sessions at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA. “Focusing on the leadership traits and emotional intelligence demonstrated by American presidents, PLP teaches participants to analyze those behaviors and use them in creating a personalized leadership development plan,” Cuffe says. “The curriculum incorporates reading, self-study, classroom activities and discussions, and sessions on health, wellness, and nutrition. Participants then partner with two or three fellow graduates to continue their journey to inspirational leadership by sharing ideas, seeking feedback, and celebrating successes together with one another and on the PLP micro site.”

Adds Thompson, “We use numerous additional approaches in our leadership development pursuits, including classroom events, mentoring programs, coffee chats pairing senior leaders with emerging talent, and other experiential offerings. From a leadership readiness perspective, turnover in leadership pools runs less than 5 percent—better than our company-wide attrition rate.”

Privileged to Serve

Besides leadership development, two of Farmers’ greatest training needs in 2011 were driving a different level of sales performance and increasing customer experience skill sets, according to Vice President, University of Farmers Jim Harwood. “While we have robust sales learning paths and resources, we wanted to take it to another level, embedding the ‘Farmers Way of Selling’ into our culture. To deliver on this goal, we stepped back from a pure learning approach, creating a series of three ‘Consultative Sales System’ (CSS) professional designations as a focus for recognition, which also included incentives for achieving each designation.”

The next step was creating the infrastructure needed to both sustain and scale the designation program for 15,000 agents. This involved engaging more than 500 agency support employees and managers in both achieving their own designations, a specialized “evaluator” curriculum, and hierarchy to assess and ultimately award CSS Designations using video-based assessments. Supporting each audience was a robust blended learning platform incorporating multiple online and six two-and-a-half-day instructor-led sessions, which supported a three-tier designation. “With the infrastructure put in place throughout 2011, we’re generating excellent agent excitement and uptake, which will be key to expanding the 15 percent lift in new business we historically have achieved for participants in our sales programs,” Harwood says.

From a customer experience perspective, University of Farmers proposed and led a cross-functional team in creating a robust performance improvement solution, “Privileged To Serve” (PTS). In addition to non-learning solutions such as harmonizing Coaching, Quality Assurance, Recognition Programs, and Customer Experience (CE) surveying approaches across the organization, PTS re-engineered Farmers’ Customer Service curricula. PTS targets more than 2,900 call center representatives and their leadership teams. “PTS enhances customer service skills by developing and supporting new behavior sets around understanding and empathizing with the customer, getting to issue resolution quickly and correctly, and dealing with emotionally charged situations,” Harwood says. “Results include a 3.4-basis-points improvement in CE scores overall and exceeding a key customer satisfaction metric after more than two years of effort.”

Delivery Advances

When it comes to training delivery, additional significant infrastructure advances occurred with the facilitation of distance learning, virtual classrooms, and the creation and deployment of an updated learning portal that more strongly aligned corporate leadership competencies with the best offerings in Farmers’ broad learning library, says Director of Employee Development Steve Mulder. “We are working to create an employee-driven, competency-based learning environment that is housed on a learning portal and combines e-learning, distance learning, social learning, text, and video elements. The initial step is to create the structure and seed it with L&D-created and or/selected content. Eventually, as much content will be created and provided by the user community as the L&D team.”

“We’re all aware of the rapid rise of smart mobile technology and the recent emergence of tablets as a game changer,” adds Director of Learning Strategy & Performance Art Dobrucki. “We’ve incorporated both in our delivery. In the intermediate term, we see the promise of mobile technology for learning not so much for course delivery, but rather as a vehicle for performance support. Recent efforts with mobile for our sales force have included integrating dozens of performance support assets in our internal mobile sales application.”

Farmers has been quick to jump into the tablet world, beginning with a modest investment to acclimate its learning team to this technology, Dobrucki says. “We moved quickly from experimentation to a number of pilots where we had our own learning moments, and recently invested in a significant number of tablets for classrooms.”

Executive Director of IA Operations Mark T. Cusack notes Farmers implemented iPads to disseminate instructions and handouts for skill practices during New-to-Role training and also used iPads as recording devices for video replay of and immediate feedback on skill practice sessions. “iPads also are being used for audience response capabilities, quick access to Internet assets during class, and moving away from paper for content delivery and cost control.”

The construction of Farmers’ newest 58,000-square-foot campus in Grand Rapids, MI, also “allowed us a great opportunity to build on our dreams and, more realistically, our needs,” says Cusack. “The classrooms allow a 360-degree view of the materials being presented, fostering more interaction and positive participation by the learner. There are three projection surfaces, effectively moving the ‘front of the room’ to the center middle of the facilitation space. The classrooms also contain Polyvision Eno WhiteBoards, which are essentially whiteboards that interact with the Internet. Trainers can manipulate visions on the screen and pull up Websites as needed during training sessions.”

Farmers also is continuing growth in the use of video for learning, communications, and collaboration across the enterprise. The firm has a dedicated broadcast studio in its West Coast corporate university. And the new Michigan campus has a multimedia creation and editing studio, as well as 10 dedicated Webinar broadcast booths.

Social media is being used within the learning community as an additive to the learning process, including more than 1,500 communities and 300 active blogs. “Materials are delivered via our platform prior to training—class members are introduced to one another prior to the training event, as well as the instructor (whether virtual or on site),” Cuffe says. “Post-training, learners move to a community of practice, where a virtual conversation continues, and many of the outcomes are recorded.” The coaching curriculum features some of the heaviest social media usage. “We now have a community of coaches and master coaches who continue to learn from each other despite the diverse audiences they support and the broad geographic distribution,” Cuffe says.

Given the heavily regulated nature of the insurance industry, Farmers was quick to place the platform within its firewall and create a robust social media policy backed up by strong governance. “We also were committed to annual training in areas such as anti-trust and best practices of social media as keys to success,” Cuffe notes. With that foundation in place, Farmers then executed on a 14-month communication strategy, including five-minute weekly training modules available on the company’s employee portal targeting the topic to the top 175 senior leaders in the company.

Wish Lists

While Farmers is far along the learning delivery continuum, L&D executives would never say, “No,” to additional funding. “Our wish list for the future would include the expansion of our leadership programs to include new curriculum on employee engagement that would increase the capabilities of our workforce,” Thompson says. “Health and wellness is the new frontier of employee engagement, as organizations come under pressure to improve because of regulatory financial implications, and also to compete as an employer of choice. This war for talent also will create more accelerated learning, more coaching, strong career pathing options, and in-the-moment technologies so as to recruit and retain tomorrow’s talent in a growing competitive environment.”

In addition, Thompson says, “new mobile phone technologies present a whole new way of learning how to learn and will change our paradigm of learning. In the past, ‘know-how’ was a critical competency for one to be successful. However, with access to the Internet and applications, a more critical competency will be that of ‘learning how.’”

Dobrucki notes an unlimited budget for training would “allow us to invest money in acquiring or sourcing even higher-quality learning assets. Having rich auditory and visual elements, as well as learner-driven interactions through simulations, can make a big impact.” Additional funding could be used for professional narrators and broader incorporation of streaming video, breakout rooms, whiteboards, and advanced annotations,” Dobrucki says.

Finally, Thompson points out, knowledge management and succession planning will become increasingly more important as Baby Boomers move into retirement. “Currently, in many parts of our organization, more than 40 percent of our key knowledge workers will retire in the next five to seven years. The knowledge they have will be lost unless we take aggressive steps to capture and manage that knowledge for the future.”

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.