Screening Agent New Hires by Tony Hinrichs

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Anthony (Tony) H. Hinrichs attended Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, and Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio. While in college he created and ran a number of successful businesses, including a county TV guide (cir. 10,000), an ice cream truck business run by college students, and a welcome/concession booth for visitors to the training camp of the Cincinnati Bengals that generated jobs for students and a sizable income for the college. The college quickly recruited him to be the Assistant Director of Development, organizing their fund raising activities. In that capacity he met Bernard Rapoport, the CEO of American Income Life, where he started as an agent, then quickly became a general agent, and then Regional Director for the company. In 1980 he became the State General Agent for Indiana, personally recruiting and training all of the agents for the state for the next 18 years. After a stint in consulting, he joined Southwestern Life Insurance Company as Chief Marketing Officer,
responsible for development of distribution system based upon the American Income system. He has also worked with Profiles, the assessment company.

Q. I know it is hard to argue against using some sort of assessment system in the agent hiring process. If all you do is screen out those that have a high probability of failure, you save a lot of time and money. But in most situations the hiring is done by general agents in the field, and they all have their own way of going about it. Most will not use anything that takes a lot of effort. Does it make sense for the company to try to get the agencies to use any one system?

A. That is the most important deterrent to the use of assessments. Most general agents have their own way of recruiting and hiring and the idea of changing that is not taken lightly. After all, they feel they are successful because of their own process. There is very little effort involved in using assessments. This is especially true if you only use it to screen out those who are likely to fail.
An assessment is any tool that measures attributes of a person against an established standard. Standards for the agency must be created by current agents that are successful and work well with the general agent. Once the general agent realizes that the assessment is actually patterned to the success he has already created within the agency he usually begins to take ownership of the assessment process.
The benefits to the general agent and the company are immense. When used correctly assessments fulfill compliance and EEOC requirements. Most importantly they establish a consistent and successful recruiting and training procedure that is individualized to the recruit or agent.

Q. You were a successful general agent, responsible for recruiting and training agents for all of Indiana. What did you use to assess the potential agent and the chances of his success? During that period American Income had sponsored a number of tools, from the LIMRA personal inventory, about 10 questions correlating status such as age and financial status to prospects for success, to a checklist of a bunch of adjectives “people say you are” and “you really are”, to the program you are working with now, an early version of Profiles. Did you adopt any of these programs?

A. We used the LIMRA personal inventory as well as the AVA. Although the company provided an early version of the Profiles product it was actually patterned in the Los Angles general agency, which did not fit our pattern of agents or demographics. The AVA a very simple test was able to weed out those with certain conflict patterns and low energy levels. Along with the AVA we developed a series of questions about unionism. We found that this helped find individuals who were too biased against unions to create a good selling environment.
The introduction of the Profiles product to AIL is a good example of how not to introduce an assessment product to general agencies. Although we were able to test our best agents and enjoyed the results, they were always patterned against the pattern from Los Angles. Thus, the verbiage of the result of our assessment was a description of how to be a good agent in Los Angles. We didn't know why that didn't work, but now looking back it is obvious. Los Angles is centralized, much more diverse, liberal and affluent than Indiana was in the 80's. This may sound like an excuse, but to motivate our agents we needed a different personalization of the assessment.

Q. I had the impression that establishing a standard or pattern against which to measure test results was a long and laborious process, and involved analysis by the Profiles professionals, at some expense. Your point about adjusting the standard to the particular area, or market, makes a lot of sense, but is it practical?

A. That is the common view of establishing a pattern and until the advent of the Internet was somewhat true. As almost all Distributors of Profiles are consultants so there are fees that some add. The reality is that anyone can create a pattern from three top producers. The key to creating the pattern is to have measurable quantities that allow you to be objective in choosing top producers. Whatever the criteria for example; return on leads, total production, total premium collected, persistency, it should be the same for all three top agents. Profiles is so advanced now that it allows the general agent to create as many patterns as are needed. Why not hire to your need? Each of the criteria I mentioned above could be a different pattern. Best of all when someone comes into the organization and does exceptionally well, that individual becomes one of the three in the new pattern. The agency is continually growing and getting better at what it does. There are several reports with the new Profiles product.

Q. Now you have me bursting with questions, like how does Profiles compare with some of the obvious competition, like LIMRA'S ExSelToolkit and the others you have examined. But first, just how does the GA create a pattern? Does he have his agents take the assessment and then put the results in the computer, or is there more to it? Can you give an idea how that works that will convince me that the general agents I know will be able to do it? Some of them are still struggling with the PC on button.

A. This is where it gets fun. How does a GA create a pattern? Profiles is completely web based. Each GA has there own testing site. The GA has three top agents take the Profile XT. Then the GA goes to their web site and with two clicks the pattern is created. From there on all who take the test are testing against this pattern. Any time the GA wants to change the pattern they choose the three for the pattern and it is two clicks and the GA has a new pattern. It is also possible to modify the pattern manually if need be. Again the best part of the XT is all the different reports.
As for the competition, really there is none, because the difference is a comparison of static tests verses active. The company you mention is the best example of this. A number of life companies love LIMRA. They are exclusive to the life insurance industry. But their assessments are static, created by LIMRA and not individualized at all. The odds of a GA taking ownership of the LIMRA's are not great. The orders to use LIMRA from the home office may be accepted, but the GA knows that success in the agency is because of their individual outlook on life, and that is not accounted for with LIMRA's assessments. With Profiles not only is this all taken into account but individual discrepancies in management styles are pointed out.

Q. Let me approach this first from the standpoint of the "market", by which I mean the mechanism for getting to prospects. I can see that an agent suitable for one market, like developing contacts with professionals, might be quite different from one good on a debit, or one good when provided leads. An agent perfect for group presentations in the workplace market may well be different in other ways. Part of that may be personality, initiative, or even just preferences. I am not sure what all these different attributes might be, so how can I be sure that these are the things that are being measured by my screening mechanism?

A. I think everybody in the agency business instinctively realizes that an agent who is successful in one market, as you defined it, may not be successful in a different one. Prospecting is a lot harder than selling, and requires a pretty outgoing personality. If the agency eliminates prospecting, with leads, a more methodical individual might do very well. A good manager would informally consider such things when recruiting, but it is vastly superior to use a assessment tool which rigorously measures a number of traits that appear to be relevant. Profiles, for example, measures five thinking styles, nine behavioral traits and six occupational interests. Each is represented on a graph scaled one to ten. So what is the best way to single out the styles and traits that will succeed in a particular market? I would say by comparing to the styles and traits of agents who are already successful there. This avoids prejudices or value judgments on the part of the recruiter that may have no real basis.

Q. I was planning to ask about the personal management style of the agency manager, and how it might affect the type of agent that will be successful there, but I bet you have really already answered that.

A. For me, this is the most important part of the Profiles assessment. When the manager realizes that they choose, using measurable objective criteria, the best under their management then their personal management style is a major part of the process. Because the individual who is successful has proven their success under the manager's style. If then the agency manager takes ownership of the process the war is won. This is a good reason for the manager NOT to use his own assessment in choosing good agents. The manager needs agents who work well under their management, not replicas of themselves no matter how good they are.

Q. Let's back up to the basic question, whether using ANY selection test is better than the instinct and experience of the general agent alone. What about when you were using the AVA. Was it helpful? Did it help you ask the right questions? And did the most successful agents have the most impressive AVA scores? How about the failures?

I used the AVA (Activity Vector Analysis) primarily to tell if the individual had the energy level to be successful and whether an individual was being honest about themselves. Thus, you could watch to make sure the individual followed through with what they said. It was not any help with questions or coaching the agents. It did however help me focus my attention on those individuals that might write bad business. So I was careful to watch these individuals. I should caution you that I was using the version of AVA adopted by the company in the mid 80s. You can see from the web that it has continued to evolve, and I can't speak to the current version. There is no question in my mind that anything a GA or field manager uses can only help. Any part of the is better than flying by the seat of your pants. Whatever the GA uses he needs to use the product consistently and understand the information it provides. Ownership comes when they realize that the assessment helps them do, what they already do, better.

Q. You say test the top 3 agents for a profile. But there are lots of factors and ways to succeed. Wouldn't it be better to profile your failures? So you could see what not to hire?

That is a very interesting question. The answer goes back to defining success and failure. I believe in insurance sales there are many more ways to fail than to succeed. If this is true, then it would be easier to define success rather than failure. Unlike some home office personnel, I really enjoy general agents and agents. They like to be positive and move forward. Sometimes they do tend to enjoy too much fluff, but they are an energetic bunch. I am not sure I would like them testing failures to keep away from as it is a split for their personalities. If you can get the general agents to buy into continually refining success with the new successful agents in their agencies you have done a tremendous job of getting beyond 'success in this agency is due to my genius.' I do believe that it is important for the home office personnel to look at results of agents assessments and help interpret them for the General Agent. Perhaps that is the point where screening for probable failure would come in. Discussion and communication on assessments is a wonderful way to build home office and agency rapport.

Q. I may not like my own question back there. I suppose that if an applicant is way off of the profile you have as a successful agent, by definition the odds for their success would be far worse than they are for someone on profile. You could say they have failed to meet the attributes common for success. So that leads to the crucial question. Do you hire that person, or send him on his way? I have a friend who is president of a rapidly growing life company who has abandoned the Profiles because the agents “were using it as an excuse not to hire”. So how do you advocate using the test?

An assessment does not dictate the decision of whether to hire. The manager makes that decision, based upon the interview, checking references, the gut feel of the general agent, and the apparent enthusiasm and desire of the applicant. It is better to say that the assessment will influence the manager, and should be weighed with all of the other factors. This influence is expressed several ways, and the comparison to the "ideal" profile may actually be a minor part of that influence. The assessment written report suggests areas to explore and watch for in the interview, and how the applicant handles these questions can far outweigh the degree of profile match. And don't forget, the guidance given by the assessment isn't just for the hiring decision. It will be of immeasurable value in knowing what to work on with the trainee, and how to react to various aspects as things progress.

The idea that the assessment could be used "as an excuse not to hire", viewed in light of this, really means that neither the general agents nor the company management was properly introduced to the concepts behind the assessment process and its proper use. Sure, it would be nice to have a magic bullet to make all the hiring decisions, but life just doesn't work that way.