There has never been a more pressing time to take advantage of networking and fact-finding opportunities – and this year’s Biba conference offers plenty of both. We find out what this year’s event has to offer, and how you can make the most of it

The Biba conference, taking place at Manchester Central on 11 and 12 May, hopes to bring a grin to brokers’ faces this year. Its organisers have adopted a US idea to look out for ‘smiley faces’ in everyday objects – so delegates at Biba 2011 might perceive the suggestion of a smile between the pins of their mobile charger plug or in among their morning cornflakes. The message is that bright spots can be found in even the most humdrum places.

The theme of this year’s Biba conference – ‘Opportunities in Adversity’ – could hardly be more apt. Now, more than ever, brokers and intermediaries need to find a few rays of sunshine in the current gloom.

A mix of regulatory challenges – particularly the 52% hike in brokers’ levy to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) – and clients’ demands for savings as insurers desperately try to raise premiums is making this one of the toughest periods brokers have faced. In addition, the second incarnation of the Insurance Mediation Directive (IMD) lurks on the horizon and is expected to be finalised in March.

Biba chief executive Eric Galbraith says all this makes 2011 “a pivotal year for broking”.

Neither does the economic weather look set to brighten soon. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s announcement to shut down a plant in Kent employing 2,400 people provides the most recent evidence that the private sector has yet to bounce back from the downturn. This follows news that the UK’s gross domestic product contracted by 0.5% in the final quarter of 2010.

Galbraith says: “The challenges for the UK have lasted longer than we were expecting and unfortunately brokers are at the heart of this as their businesses are closely linked to the health of the economy.”

To get you in the mood for this year’s conference, we’re bringing you seven ways in which brokers can find opportunity in times of adversity. (And if you do spot a ‘smiley’, Biba urges you to send in a photo to biba@campaignpartners.co.uk, entitling the email: A SMILEY.)

1. Change the rules: part one

The FSCS levy increase is a huge blow. As Galbraith says: “The FSCS is very unfair as it is aimed at credit brokers who mis-sold payment protection insurance, but it means that professional brokers are paying for their mistakes too.”

The forthcoming review of the scheme, albeit heavily delayed, is a chance for brokers to lobby for change. “This is our chance to show that this style of regulation is disproportionate to the risk we bring to the sector,” Galbraith adds.

2. Change the rules: part two

The change of government and forthcoming restructure of the FSA – including the arrival of the Consumer Protection and Markets Authority and new chief executive Martin Wheatley – also represent opportunities for brokers.

Galbraith says: “Now is our chance to show ministers the value our industry brings to the UK Plc economy as a whole but also to individuals. In David Cameron’s ‘bigger’ society, more individuals need to be taking care of themselves and their assets.”

Contact the FSCS, FSA or Biba or your local MP to make sure your views are heard.

3. Sell your rivals’ products

One broker has come up with an innovative response to greater competition and pickier customers. AllClear Insurance, which offers medical travel insurance for people with pre-existing health conditions, has launched a specialist price comparison service that operates a call centre and website. The service offers customers the chance to input their medical details once and use that information to compare prices.

AllClear head of product development Chris Blackman says standard price comparison sites tend to work on the assumption that the customer has no health problems. For its website, AllClear takes 21% commission of the gross selling price.

Blackman says: “Effectively we are selling our own competitors’ products. We could see our conversion rate was lower in certain areas of the market, including people with lower medical risk scores. We thought about offering the unsold quotes to other companies but realised that it would be better and easier for the customer to do it this way.”

4. Start tweeting

Social media such as Twitter and Facebook should not be seen as another daunting problem, says Galbraith, but as mainstream marketing tools. “This is just another means of communication in business and you need to be aware of what’s going on in this sphere,” he says.

A seminar on social media at the Biba conference will discuss YouTube’s increasing role as a support tool for marketing activity and how you can learn more about your customers through online marketing.

Biba has published legal guidelines on its website for brokers using social media.

5. Update your website

Biba is about to redesign its own website, including the “Find a broker” section and Galbraith says now is a good time to spruce up your own homepage.

“Our service helps customers find brokers as well as offering advice. It’s important to make sure your website is correct so we can direct the right people your way,” he says.

It’s also important that each broker makes sure its website is clear and appealing too.

6. Get expert advice

Speaking to business mentors can bring huge benefits. Broker Network runs a Dragon’s Den-style consultancy service that allows its brokers to take their problems to a panel of experts.

Launched 18 months ago when the recession was setting in, the panel has included Broker Network managing director Nick Houghton alongside the firm’s chairman, Grant Ellis, and former Smart and Cook managing director Ken Popplewell.

Houghton says: “Brokers come to us with problems ranging from how to stop their business decreasing to how to make an acquisition.”

He believes the service is a lifeline for small brokers. “Being a broker can be a lonely business. Many have had no business training and don’t have colleagues to bounce ideas off, but they can come to us confidentially and get help.”

7. Keep smiling

There is an upside to adversity, says Houghton. “If competition is fierce, there is insurer attitude and consumers are making thing difficult – that situation is the same for everyone, so adversity does at least mean there is a level playing field.” And don’t think you’re at a disadvantage if you’re

a smaller broker, he adds. “As an SME, you can provide a higher level of customer service than bigger brokers.” Finally, “if you’re good at running your business in adversity, when conditions become easier you’ll be flying.” IT