In 2009, Farmers Insurance Group of Companies acquired AIG's Personal Auto Group, which included 21st Century Insurance Company. This acquisition expanded Farmers's reach into the auto insurance marketplace. Farmers customers can now choose between working directly with the company through its local agents, or as some choose, buying insurance policies directly over the phone or online.
This direct method is most popular with buyers of car insurance, but is also growing for home and life insurance buyers as well. Consumers who don't use technology to purchase insurance still use it extensively for research. "The 21st Century acquisition brought us a strategic advantage," says Annette Thompson, senior vice president and CLO. "We now have access to new customers, many of whom we would now like to transition to relationships with our agents. In turn, we must educate and prepare those agents to receive and serve these new customers."
The acquisition also brought Farmers 6,000 new employees in numerous locations, who are being trained to be integrated, assessed, and, in some cases, assisted with outplacement. The integration team, of which learning staff members were a critical part, relied on early scenario planning that allowed these steps - plus the certification of training to assure competency - to be completed in less than 60 days.
The AIG/21st Century acquisition was one of four made by the company in the past 10 years as part of its "Farmers Future 2012" strategy of broad distribution and product options. As a result, the learning organization, known as the University of Farmers, has felt pressure to facilitate cultural integration and consistency.
An additional major challenge is the impending retirement of up to 50 percent of the employees in some Farmers business units in the next five years. Fielding the necessary elements to attract and retain younger workers is a priority. Thompson and her staff support Farmers CEO Robert Woudstra in his "One Farmers" project, directed at universal branding and acculturation, while working with HR and other departments to accommodate younger workers' desires for teamwork, portable benefits, and redesigned compensation. The company has just hired its first C-level employee engagement officer, who is actively seeking new ways to create and measure these goals.
"We know that employee attrition has been suppressed during the economic downturn," says Art Dobrucki, director of learning strategy. "We also know that it's temporary and that some employees are flight risks."
To lessen that risk, the University of Farmers provides a strong training foundation, including a six-week onboarding program that focuses on the fundamentals of products, sales, and service. The organization created a coaching strategy aimed at optimal performance and behaviors developed in a collaborative partnership, and saw voluntary turnover drop by 1.6 percent.
"Coaching is front and center for us, reinforced by mobile and social support tools," says Thompson. She reports that the university's approach to learning has shifted significantly in the past five years, from 90 percent instructor-led, classroom-based training to perhaps only 50 percent today.
The remaining 50 percent is online or informal learning, including just-in-time knowledge tools, reinforcement and coaching, mobile delivery, and social networking. The learning and development staff were first in the company to interrelate using social media such as YouTube, and are currently exploring learning opportunities posed by both social media and informal learning.
"Social media has been on our radar for a while, and we began experimenting with the tools amongst ourselves," explains Dobrucki. "Right now we are trying to find the right platforms for our different audiences, along with the necessary level of security. We're still trying to land on the right combination."
Farmers launched its second mobile application for consumers in May 2010. The learning team developed 32 pieces of content. The company plans to roll out a mobile app for its independent agency force by September 2010, and for the rest of its workforce by December of this year.
Agents are already communicating with their customers via social media, according to Dobrucki, and the university pushes out learning nuggets to agents through its "Agency Insider" program. "The program allows the recipient to specify the medium: Twitter,
Facebook, email, or RSS feed. This helps us to understand their preferences and also appeals to old-school types," Dobrucki says.
The University of Farmers's mission is "to drive results in support of our corporate operational goals by developing a world-class, values-based learning organization," Dobrucki states. "The 500-plus staff members are responsible for 250 instructor-led courses, 1,500 proprietary online courses, and 108 learning initiatives. A recent operational goal involved both customer service and employee retention, and staff scored wins in both.
"We invest upwards of $106,000 to hire, train, and develop new employees," explains Thompson. "We know that acquisition costs more than retention, and that the value of employee retention is measurable." Although customer-facing employees were already achieving consistently high performance quality scores, Farmers wanted to take its claims evaluation settlement process to the next level.
"When people make an insurance claim, it's frequently due to a very significant event, such as a car accident, a death, or a house fire," Thompson says. "At that time, getting satisfaction is their overriding issue." Ironically, claims representatives' already-high performance posed a challenge itself, creating resistance to re-learning something that "we can do in our sleep."
In an innovative approach to make mandatory learning fun, the corporate university partnered with Second City Communications, part of the legendary Chicago-based comedy troupe. They collaborated to develop a highly engaging program that leverages humor in video, online, and classroom components to help employees achieve stronger customer relationships.
Humorous characters "teach" a skill in a familiar setting, comically illustrating right and wrong approaches. Staff constructed a microsite on the company intranet that showcases successful employees in short videos and offers tips, self-tests, and success stories. They then layered coaching on top in an organizationwide initiative "to help leadership understand how to work effectively with employees," says Dobrucki, who notes that the learning team provided everything from messaging all the way down to tactical coaching tools.
Since the program's deployment, customer satisfaction has increased in four key areas by more than two percentage points overall. The company has enjoyed annual growth of more than 5 percent, versus an industry average in the negative numbers, and has increased its revenue for 13 straight quarters.
Its "Future 2012" strategy, which focuses on customer experience, distribution, and product management excellence, has been extended to 2020. Yet Farmers is an organization with a rich history that is not afraid of looking back as it moves forward and relies on the knowledge and experience of its tenured professionals: Dobrucki has worked at the company for 24 years, and Thompson, for 26. t+d