WHAT HAS VERTAFORE BEEN UP TO? CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER RESPONDS – EPISODE 059
In this episode of The Digital Broker, Ryan Deeds interviews BJ Schaknowski, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer at Vertafore. By listening to this episode, you will learn:
- How Vertafore is retooling its products to meet the challenges affecting insurance agencies, and what the company believes those challenges to be.
- How Vertafore’s customer success program delivers extraordinary results by asking different questions than usual.
- How BJ, a former Marine, brings rigor and discipline to customer service and go-to-market sales strategy.
Make no mistake about it: Vertafore has been keeping busy.
Accelerate powered by NetVU 2019 is coming up, and we hope you’ll stop by Indio’s booth #625 to say hello to Ryan and the Indio team. We will also be hosting a Digital Broker Party on Tuesday, May 21st, and you’re invited—details here.
But back to Vertafore: Yes, we read about them buying RiskMatch two years ago. More recently, the company announced a partnership with Amazon Web Services. Still, it hasn’t felt like we have heard as much out of Vertafore as we should have, with other agency management systems overshadowing them in the headlines. What’s going on?
BJ Schaknowski, Vertafore’s Chief Sales and Marketing Officer, admits that the company could be doing a better job telling its story. If the company has been quiet, however, it has not been for lack of things to brag about. Vertafore turns fifty this year, and for half a century, it has been wonderfully successful: this year alone, BJ tells us, is on track to be a record sales year.
That might be what prompted the company to hit pause, take a step back, and reassess how to continue to deliver value for the next fifty years. The past is hardly a reliable roadmap; things are changing, and they’re changing fast, disorienting many agents and brokers. Vertafore has been successful because it’s focused on what customers want, but now, its customers are confused.
“What do the next five to ten years look like? Many of our customers don’t know or aren’t sure. They see so many people coming into the market doing different things. We have serviced our customers for years, but now, our customers need us to lead them a little. We wanted to be thoughtful in developing a strategy.”
In other words, if the company hasn’t talked much, it’s because it’s been busy listening. And what has it learned after so many conversations with stakeholders? That you can’t be all things to all people.
“Here’s the reality: Every agency has its own nuances, specializations, and core competencies that it wants to leverage to differentiate itself. Because of that, no agency management system is going to solve everything that an agency needs to do. It’s just not going to happen.”
That’s a sobering conclusion for any software company that’s so customer-focused. How do you deal with it? Not by resisting it, that’s for sure. But by going the other way with it. If you can’t transform the workflow to suit your product, you transform your product to suit the workflow.
“Vertafore is staking the flag into the ground of open architecture. A closed architecture is going to be too inhibiting and expensive for our customers to maintain. We believe that open architecture and data interoperability are going to be the winning strategy moving forward. We want our customers to use our tools, but we want to think about which other tools are the right ones for a hub model that our customers might need to have, so we’re going to open up to all these other tools that our customers have told us we should integrate with.”
Vertafore software will, therefore, become more adaptable, but BJ is clear that the company still wants to lead. For one thing, Vertafore products will aim to remain the system of record of any such hub. But leadership in the 21st century will require confronting every other challenge affecting insurance agencies, chief among which is data. That’s where the partnership with Amazon Web Services comes in.
“We’ve got hands on keyboards right now trying to solve some of the industry’s problems. Think of everything we could do with our data assets on Amazon’s machine-learning labs. We could come up with some very powerful use cases for policy checking, which is expensive and tedious when people try to do it manually. Think of all of the incredible amounts of data that you cannot access because it exists in old faxes and PDFs and the like. Through this partnership with AWS, we have the ability to think realistically about taking that unstructured data, creating structured environments around it, and bringing it to market.”
That last part is important. As we’ve covered in a previous episode, even the best data in the world is useless if you don’t know what to do with it. Agencies, unfortunately, are in this situation often, being somewhat behind the curve on technological fluency. BJ knows this as well, which is why it figures into his plan to keep servicing agencies’ needs.
“There is so much that we’re doing with our whole data and analytics strategy. Our customers already rely on RiskMatch to calculate their rates and commissions relative to benchmarks, their cross-selling probabilities, etc., but we want to take it one step further and embed data into the workflow.”
“Suppose that one of your insureds is a small business that has taken on only two of eight policies you recommend. Insureds are in the habit of dismissing those recommendations when they think you’re only trying to sell them more coverage they don’t need. What if you could deploy a visualization tool that showcases the propensity of businesses in that area who have those policies? At that point, you cease to be a guy or gal trying to sell insurance and you become a risk advisor who’s delivering value based on quantitative analysis.”
“That, alone, is powerful—now, suppose you could deliver that information to their email inbox the next day, or to the dashboards of other tools that they’re using, like Salesforce. When the insured have that information, they can turn it into activity. We’re not just about providing insights, we’re about delivering them in ways that become useful to the customers and to the insured.”
Taken all together, BJ’s stated ambitions are a tall order for any company. But he might be just the man for the job. As a former Marine, BJ brings a sort of military rigor to the enterprise. The mission is to simplify the workflow, not to complicate it. Software is supposed to do four things: help agencies make money, save money, reduce time, and reduce risk—anything else is mission creep. Incoming Vertafore employees go through a kind of six-week boot camp about how agencies work and think. Longtime listeners of the Digital Broker who have become enthusiasts of operational excellence will enjoy hearing about BJ’s go-to-market sales strategy, which he begins espousing at 19:55 of this episode. BJ’s proverbs could do with a little revision (“Happy cows make good cheese?”) but on the whole, we’re very satisfied with his attitude and his ideas. Hopefully, so will his customers.
Do you want to ask BJ a question? Did you know that he hangs out in our Digital Broker LinkedIn group? Join us and let us know what you thought of this episode. Do you have an opinion on open architecture software? Would you rather hear more about it? What kind of software do you integrate with your AMS? Are you looking for recommendations? We could do with some better proverbs ourselves—let’s talk about what we know at the Digital Broker LinkedIn group.