The key to succeeding as an independent insurance agent is not mysterious. The secret, according to Joel McCandless of McCandless Insurance Group? “I answer the phone.”
McCandless knows a thing or two about how to work well with people from his previous career: College football player. On the advice of a coach, he played for a year in junior college to develop his skills before moving on to Jacksonville State University. He played linebacker for the Gamecocks from 2015 through 2017, followed by a stint with the Prague Lions in the Czech American Football League in the Czech Republic.
After retiring from pro football, he returned to his hometown of Birmingham, Alabama and was recruited into the insurance industry. A fellow Jacksonville State alumnus who owned a State Farm agency contacted him about an opportunity to own an agency. He credits that friend with teaching him how to make an agency work. “He basically gave me the reins to learn – this is how this works, this is what an underwriting call should look like. Everything you can think of that an agent has to do to run an agency, I learned it under him.”
After a couple of years at State Farm, he began working with a mentor in town to learn more about wealth management. The experience gave him a deeper understanding of life insurance, including the different policy types, how to structure them, and how to consider the tax implications. This interlude was short; a few months later, he opened his independent agency.
He started by focusing on life and health insurance, then gradually expanded to the property-casualty side. He has never hired an employee. “It’s still me doing a lot of the work,” he explains, “because I still want to master the processes and systems that I can then turn into (standard operating procedures)” for directing future employees.
The habits he developed as an athlete have carried over into his insurance career. “It’s what I learned from football,” he says. “I’m trying to not outwork my competition, but outwork myself by actually doing the work, doing the reading, doing the exercises that need to be done.” He dives into policies, trying to figure out the stories behind them and where the coverage gaps might be.
“Systems” is how he manages being the agency’s sole employee. Those documented procedures for completing everyday tasks make him efficient. Technology is a necessary component of those systems. He uses multiple computer monitors and relies heavily on social media for marketing, especially Facebook and LinkedIn. “LinkedIn has really been huge in getting people to see us and recognize us and just ask us questions.” His approach is to think of a title for a piece of content, create the post and focus it at specific markets, making sure that he presents a consistent message across the various platforms.
He doesn’t sell on price. It took time, but he learned that what people really care about is personal attention. “When I call, is someone going to pick up the phone? Are you going to care about me?” This, he maintains, is what matters most to people. “Behind every business is a person. I have yet to meet a machine running a business.”
People need help understanding insurance, he says. “There’s no college class unless you take a risk management class.” If you help people, price is not a problem. “Small businesses need someone to comb through their situations. When I comb through it, I find the gaps.”
He often finds those gaps when it comes to Workers’ Compensation, which is the P&C coverage he’s particularly focused on, especially for contractors and restaurants. Even though the coverage is mandatory in Alabama for businesses with four or more employees, many employers are unaware that they need it or believe that their general liability insurance will cover employee injuries.
“I hate to say how simple it is,” he says, “but (other) people don’t answer the phone for people. In insurance, all you have to do is answer the phone, listen, and solve the problem. It’s not that hard.” He blocks out time so he can have conversations with his customers.
McCandless faces his struggles, particularly getting appointments from carriers. Still, he enjoys the business, working with customers and learning every day. An agent who cares about people, he says, will be successful. “Customers want to know ‘are you going to love me, the person?” McCandless Insurance Group succeeds by focusing on the person.