Vivienne Maunder, of the Ryan Insurance Group, examines how provincial brokers can enjoy thriving telesales operations and successful branch networks

The Ryan Insurance Group has its head office on the outskirts of Ipswich. It also has offices in the centre of the town, as well as in Felixstowe, Colchester and Clacton. If there is one thing that we have learned at Ryan over the past ten years, it's how to re-invent ourselves and stay ahead of the game.

We've discovered just how true it is that people do not get rich doing exactly the same as everyone else.

Only a few years ago the smart money was on the demise of the broker. The turbulent mid-nineties brought new entrants into the market and, as they say, the rest is history. People who were smarter, better trained and had greater financial resources turned our comfortable world inside-out.

Yet we and many other brokers survived because we adapted. We learnt from our mistakes – and we continue to learn from the mistakes of others.

At the start of a new millennium Ryan has metamorphosed into something that we could have never imagined existing.

As little as five years ago, we believed that the days of face-to-face service were numbered. Telesales was the thing of the future. Clearly, others were reaching the same conclusion. All around us we saw our competitors pulling out of the towns and setting up call centres in bright new offices on industrial parks. For various reasons we were slow to follow suit. We had leases to run. We had loyalty to staff.

The closure of local branches not only of insurance brokers, but of building societies, banks, and other service industries besides, was on a massive scale, and transformed our high streets.

Out went local businesses. The new invaders were national chains. Empty shop-fronts in prime areas were commonplace in all but the wealthiest areas.

So marked was the trend, that in some of our local towns the number of brokers went from seven or eight to just one or two within a couple of years. That left an awful lot of disgruntled customers.

Here in Suffolk and, I suspect, in many other areas, there was a massive public outcry. It still continues. Our local daily paper is currently running a very well-

supported campaign to save our local post offices. Within just a week 30,000 people signed up. Recently there were well-publicised protests outside a local building society that had decided to close a rural branch.

The benefits of keeping the faith
It has clearly been a public relations disaster for those companies that have ignored the strength of public feeling. For companies that were prepared to continue to commit to the town centres it has been a bonus.

The firms that deserted the smaller towns of Britain for the call centre and the national advertising campaign did companies like us a big favour. Their loss was our gain. We were able to pick up a lot of business from their disaffected customers, simply by broadcasting the fact that we were not planning on following suit, and that that people could count upon our continued support in the town.

What has happened could not be described as a backlash. There has not been a massive shift from telephone transactions back to face-to-face dealing. Technology and modern life have taken us too far for that.

But with those who were previously served by a town centre broker, there has been a shift to the broker that has kept the faith.

I cannot argue that things could have stayed the way they were. Technology is driving us far too fast for that. However, it surprises me that in the face of the many new opportunities, with the increasing impact that technology is making on our lives, we find that there are still so many people who, for whatever reason, still choose to deal face to face.

It leads me to conclude that people do not always prefer to deal direct, as some pundits would have us believe. Instead, I think that what the public wants is convenience. It wants good service at the right price and through a convenient distribution channel, wherever that may be.

Many of our new customers and 'returners' come to us because of a bad experience elsewhere. Surprisingly, that experience need not have been with an insurance broker. They may have received poor service from their electricity supplier or bank, and subsequently decided that they will take no more chances with big companies, preferring the reassurance of reputable local companies. We offer, in contrast, a handy, cheery office where the client can deal with a friendly face.

However, it would be foolish to suppose that simply by having an office open five and half days a week at a small town site we meet everybody's needs. Clients mix and match their requirements, and thanks to modern technology they can do that easily.

There are millions of people for whom the ability to buy everything from theatre tickets to home insurance online is a godsend. They want to bank online, have their groceries delivered via the internet and search the web for the hottest deal on the latest bestseller.

A broker such as ourselves can operate a good, efficient telesales service that appeals to many people, and offer a local office as an alternative for those who prefer it. There is no reason why the small or medium-sized broker cannot have it all – a successful telesales operation and a thriving network of branch offices. For us, having two entirely different distribution methods is not a problem.

We're not in any way the poor relation to national operations. We have the office in the high street and the direct sales department has the massive hoarding on the street corner. We have the technology to rival all that national operations can offer. That was unthinkable at the start of the decade.

What has happened though, is that for people in a hurry, who want their car insurance now, we are still best-placed to help. Customers can see the physical evidence of their insurance immediately, and that is still important to many people.

The human factor
In the past ten years we have learnt to compete in the arenas where we can succeed. Our branch offices are doing very nicely, thank you. But at the same time our telesales operation is in fine shape. We may not have a massive advertising budget or a huge marketing spend, but we do provide something that many other companies are failing to do – flexibility of service.

Of course, the small branch cannot stand alone. We've employed marketing people, specialist IT people, and offered training and professional coaching that are probably unrivalled. Technology has allowed us to spread benefits and workload around. By networking our telephones for instance, a team of telesales staff at head office are able to take overflow telephone calls from the branches and vice versa.

We are very committed to our branch network. We are even looking at expanding it, because we believe that there is a huge opportunity to provide a good broker service to people who – for whatever reason – choose to support their local community and its businesses.

This is not where we expected to be even a few years ago. Perhaps, as individuals, people are not evolving as fast as the technology that governs our lives. Perhaps we are not ready to deal only with machines. Perhaps we like the comfort of dealing with another human being, or perhaps we simply prefer a gentler alternative. Whatever the reason, at Ryan's we believe that we have found one answer.