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Tech Tools make Managing During a Pandemic Easier

We are joined by one of Iroquois’ member agencies, Alex Sze, of Century Max Insurance in Flushing, N.Y., this week. Alex’s agency is located at what was ground zero in the beginning months of the pandemic. He started closely watching the numbers in February. Alex then shifted how the agency operated in the following months. Century Max Insurance leaned on tech tools to help it navigate the turbulent waters of the pandemic well.  

Digital tools for an independent insurance agency

Edwin K. Morris (8s):
Welcome to the trusted advisor podcast brought to you by Iroquois group. Iroquois is your trusted advisor in all things insurance. I am Edwin Kay Morris. Alex Sze is a long time resident of New York City. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a degree in computer sciences in 2001, Alex dove into the world of web development for the financial services field. In early 2009, Alex started Century Max Insurance Agency from the ground up. Today, he manages 16 employees, serves about 12,000 clients in New York and its surrounding States, and writes over $10 million of business.

Edwin K. Morris (49s):
Welcome to the studio, Alex.

Alex Sze (52s):
Hi, how are you doing? Thanks for having me

Edwin K. Morris (55s):
COVID-19 has crept into the continental United States and changed pretty much everything. The nucleus of where that all began was New York city was the hotspot for the initial wave of everything that we have been in since. How that has affected, not just people, but just business, industry, society is the interesting piece that we’re going to bring forth with our guest today as he is in the center of New York city and has been working the insurance industry day in and day out. Can you tell us a little bit of how this all started?

Edwin K. Morris (1m 36s):
For the rest of the country, they didn’t have to deal with things like you did. What did that first month look like?

Alex Sze (1m 43s):
Well, we, I think since February and we see the numbers keep going up every single day and we have about 16 people in our office and every day we see a number going up and then we try to get prepared because we know that one day we have to all go home. So we just need to see, well, until I, when we get what number we have to go home? Like we watching the new case every single day, 10 cases or 20 cases, something like that. And then we get to like a few hundred cases per day. So that is the time of what we have to send everybody home. We actually going in phases, actually the first phrase, when we get to, I remember like maybe 30 or 40 cases, then we say about one third of people home first.

Alex Sze (2m 33s):
And then I think those numbers actually grow very quick. So the week after, a couple of weeks later, we send another one third of people home. And then finally, when we get to like 200 a day or something, then we send everybody home. That’s I think when we get to March time and we all home.

Edwin K. Morris (2m 53s):
So did that totally change your abilities or did everything change to match the new environment?

Alex Sze (3m 0s):
Once we have everybody at home, now we have to continue doing business. Not so much we need to focus on the new business. We have to focus on how to serve the current client because we have all this policy, we have the service. So our focus really just to keep the policy that we have. Not so much about, you know, try to get more business because at this time everything is shut down. It’s hard to get business and we just want to see what if the client needed us, can they reach us or can we reach to the client effectively? So that’s what we focus on.

Edwin K. Morris (3m 36s):
What was the biggest success in this transition? What, was it your personnel being adaptive or did you have some kind of new tool set come in that you weren’t using before? What started the new way?

Alex Sze (3m 51s):
From my background, I’m a engineer. I’m a computer system and computer software engineer. So I, and also I’m kind of a conservative person – I always think about stuff like just in case something happened, I need to get ready to prepare. So seeing from the database point of view, we use our Applied Epic. So it’s a cloud-based database. I’m just thinking what happen if my office burned down to the ground and what about by my database? So we actually make an initiative to move to cloud-based database. It was about five years ago, but you know, it was a smaller company. And then a couple years ago we moved, finally moved to Applied Epic.

Alex Sze (4m 32s):
So we feel that in case something happen, we always can have the data, can service the client. Right? So that is a initial thing that we did before everything happened. That’s the database. So, and the second thing that we did was the phone. So we don’t use low landline, local line phone anymore. We use voice over IP. So from that phone, basically I can bring the phone anywhere. I can plug it in as long as I have internet service. I can be pretending I’m in office. So nobody knows I’m not in office. So by these two technology that we already have in place way before everything happened, it actually give us a prepare for this to happen.

Alex Sze (5m 14s):
You know so we can continue business,

Edwin K. Morris (5m 16s):
It gave you an absolute mobility factor that you had baked into the system.

Alex Sze (5m 22s):
Correct. So we, if we had not get that ready, I think we’re going to struggle very hard because I know in our local area, some client complained to us that they could not reach the agent. They can have voicemails, ask the client to leave a message, but the message spot is full. They can’t get to the client. You know, that’s what I hear from the client and clients, Oh, I need to switch insurance to you because you’re the only one I can find right now. And everybody else is closed. So that’s why, you know, we think that that’s, we actually, I’m very glad that I make a investment, you know, even earlier. It’s cost a lot of money, but I think it pays out well.

Edwin K. Morris (6m 4s):
Yeah. I mean, you definitely got bang for the buck out of that investment because it proved itself valuable, invaluable. Tell us about how you’re utilizing zoom throughout the workday.

Alex Sze (6m 16s):
Okay. So then basically we have the database setup so we can access that data everywhere. So the first thing, second thing, the phone is set up. So we can turn for a phone, pick up phone, just like we actually in office, even though we all at home and all over the place, some people are living in Queensland, here everywhere, basically. So the database, the phone – it give us the voice and the database. Now we need to see each other because when we turn for a call, we don’t want to transfer over if that person is not at the desk or if somebody step out for lunch or something like that. So we set up the zoom meeting all day long. Before I sent everybody home, I bought all the, the camera, the video camera, and I set up for all the computer before they move home.

Alex Sze (7m 2s):
So now finally they’re home. They just bring then camera along with them. When we have, when we, every day we have a meeting, it’s automatically set up. So at eight o’clock being programmed. So Erica or Mary start so they can join. Even though I’m not there yet, they can still join and they can see each other. I have a camera facing the person, the computer and the, and the phone. So we know that that person is in a phone or is in front of computer or at the desk so we can see. So if they are busy, then we take message. And this is three things, you know, it’s like, so there’s a phone, a database and a zoom meeting. And we also have a little chat room to chat each other, to leave message.

Alex Sze (7m 42s):
We call, we use WeChat, the WeChat, but as it is helpful for us and a lot of our clients using WeChat. So we actually use that to communicate with the office and conducted a business as normal

Edwin K. Morris (7m 58s):
Using the chat function, not only for internal communication, but to the outward facing?

Alex Sze (8m 4s):
Yes, with the client, because almost every Chinese use wechat. And also a lot of Asian people outside of U.S. Use wechat. We actually conduct business in U.S. That’s very convenient way to call anybody out of country, out of somewhere. We can find them through wechat. WeChat have a phone calling feature. We can call anybody. I actually give every employee a cell phone. So that way they can connect to reach out. They can call through the phones to reach out as well.

Edwin K. Morris (8m 35s):
Wow. I just got to ask, how unusual are you across the industry? Because I, it sounds like you’re the unicorn out there that just has the tech savvy, understands how knowledge flow works, and how people need to stay connected, regardless of where they’re physically at.

Alex Sze (8m 54s):
I think from my background as a computer, you know, engineering background, to play around with these technology, you know, I don’t need to hire somebody. I can just do it on my own. Basically set up their base, set up the network, set up the phone. I actually did it by myself. So for other regular, when they think about have to spend money to hire people, I think that actually gives them a second thought, right? So for me it’s a much easier, I guess I’m not the norm, but I think most people we have WeChat. I don’t think, not a lot of people would have the central database and the voice over IP. I think this, a lot of old agency, they’re still using the, the record and local phone.

Alex Sze (9m 41s):
So that’s fine.

Edwin K. Morris (9m 44s):
About how technology moves people’s behaviors along. I understand that you created a connection for setting up ACH payments.

Alex Sze (9m 51s):
Yes. That is very helpful. So what, what that did is, it’s called, I have a very good banker that work with me. I have a Conway Chase, and then they have something called ACH payment. What that did is, you know, obviously the chase bank have to authorize us to charge people through ACH. So we apply and then they give us certain credits. I can charge a client up to maybe a hundred thousand per day or something like that. So I get quite a line to charge people. So when I need to charge me people, all I need is just a authorization for them to pay us. That’s one way, another way is to just take a picture of a check.

Alex Sze (10m 32s):
They normally write to us, just take a picture. We keep it as a record for them to authorize us, to charge them. So we keep that on file. And then we, in our bank portal, we can enter the account information in there and then we can charge them. Basically we can do something called an ACS collection so we can collect money that way.t’ It takes about a couple of days to process. So we find that is a very, very easy to, to do that transaction. And they don’t have to mail us the check anymore, and they don’t have to bring in the check anymore. So we can just charge them to take a picture of two checks on WeChat. We can do that. Yeah. So that’s one way actually. There’s another way that it even better.

Alex Sze (11m 14s):
I’m not sure a you have Zelle. They connect that way. Mobile bank, chase bank of America, and the other major banks are connected. They can pay each other easily without any fee. So Zelle payment as well with, along with ACH collection. So both way, pretty much you can take care of all the payment. We don’t really use credit card too much. We don’t charge the client quite a lot because there’s a lot of fees. We collapse, two, these two methods, ACH, and then the Zelle QuickPay that usually take care of the problem.

Edwin K. Morris (11m 49s):
Is there anything that’s been a challenge that you have yet to address?

Alex Sze (11m 57s):
The challenge is, is we need more business, but you know, that’s a challenge. But you know, we can’t complain. That’s what the, the virus is traipsing out there, but, you know, but we still have to pay all the expense as usual, the expense doesn’t go down. So that’s a challenge to stay in business. So, I mean, we’ve been doing this for 11 years, so we have to have some, renew business coming in. So that helps but my, for new agents is difficult for them to stay in the business with no income coming.

Edwin K. Morris (12m 25s):
Yeah. Well, and I hear you on the income piece, what’s stopping you from just getting rid of the physical presence and going a virtual office.

Alex Sze (12m 36s):
We cannot hundred percent get rid of the office because our customer base. We are in Flushing, New York, right? One of a, with the condensed Asian community. So we still have a lot of older clients. They are first generation immigration to the U.S. They not really familiar with the computer stuff. They still have to come in. For those months that we are at home, office closed, they have to ask their kid, that relative to help them to do the check and send picture to us. So they have to do what they have to do because we are not in office. So as I, in September, sometime we finally open and we have people in the office, basically myself and I bring another four people with me.

Alex Sze (13m 20s):
Just about one third people in the office. So we’d get the office open. These clients do need the in-person service. They would come, but we always advise the client we have a lot of options to do over the phone. You don’t have to come in and then it’s risk for you and risk for us. So if you don’t have to come in, you don’t have to come in, but if you have to come, then we provide the option to them. That’s what we tried to do. Try to help.

Edwin K. Morris (13m 51s):
So on those face-to-face in store visits, how are you handling folks coming in? Do you take a temperature or?

Alex Sze (13m 59s):
Well, first we doing two things, right? Firstly, you said, we on the phone and recommend that people not come in. We can do a lot of stuff over the phone. If they have to come in, we tell them that before you come to our office, you have to wear masks and we’re going to check a temperature before they come in. Right? And then when they sit down on every cubicle, we have plexiglass around to separate the employee and the customers. The plexiglass is taller than I have when they sit down. So they can see everybody, everybody would be separate, include our employee. They’re not sitting very close next to each other.

Alex Sze (14m 40s):
We have 16, or we have 18 seats here, but we only have five people here. So we actually separate from each other as well. And for our employee, we also have the wet mess. We take temperature every day when they come to me. And also we use a hand sanitizer every time we finished a transaction with a client, we use a hand sanitizer and also we use air-spray to spray down the air. I’m not sure how much it will help, but at least definitely make you a feel better. Right. So, and you see, when I see, you know, often I see the spray go off some day here and there.

Alex Sze (15m 22s):
So you know that people left, we have to wait until they totally walk out the door before we spray so, to, to, to not to make them feel bad. But anyway, so that’s, that’s how we do, you know, it’s, it’s the little bit extra step, but you know, if we want to keep open for longer time, I think we have to do that.

Edwin K. Morris (15m 42s):
If you had to put one nugget of wisdom that you gained this year about your industry and your capabilities, what would it be?

Alex Sze (15m 53s):
I think we, somehow we can train the client to do everything over the phone. That’s the one thing like they have to change a habit, right? So some clients get used to have everything over the phone. Now we actually train them to do a visit of the phone. I think that would be the trend in the future. Another thing is for us to learn how to overcome all these challenges when we have to, when we actually, these kinds of difficult situation and also make us to think about is any other way, any other thing that we can do that we can put in place now to prevent something happening in the future, that we can be ready for it.

Alex Sze (16m 36s):
That’s something we actually need to think about how to, how to implement this to be remote.

Edwin K. Morris (16m 40s):
Well you, I mean, you’re boiling that all down as a software engineer, you’re looking at it as contingency and innovation. How can I meet the next whatever in a way that’s viable and flexible and you bring up a good point that I think a lot of folks miss is that the customer behavior can be modified. Yep, exactly. You basically are saying that you had to train the customer how to interact with you.

Alex Sze (17m 7s):
And the other thing is, I forgot to mention, is when we do the applications, audio, I talk about how to collect the payment, right? And every insurance policy, they have to sign. So we also implement DocuSign. So I’m doing a lot of commercial. I bring out all these, all these name, right? So I use DocuSign to interact with client, client, many times our clients say I don’t know how to do this. And then we train them over the phone. You follow the instructions. It’s step by step. Now you click on it and you’re signed. So now they learn how to Docusign.

Edwin K. Morris (17m 36s):
That’s really the beauty of all that. Right. I mean, and once you show somebody once they’re like, Oh, I got this. Okay.

Alex Sze (17m 42s):
They now they feel that, you know, I don’t have to come in now, I can just DocuSign it, right. Now, the client just say, I prefer doing that DocuSign than come in.

Edwin K. Morris (17m 54s):
So have you gotten any pushback from folks that are like, ah, I’m not doing well.

Alex Sze (18m 1s):
I still have some older people like seniors be like this. Oh, I cannot do it. Then. You know what? The last resort is we mail them. Yeah. We mail all the paperwork to them and the old fashioned way, mail them. And they sign everything and mail it back to us, even though we close my, so, you know, for me personally, I still have to go to office to check the mail, feed my fish. I have often had fish, have fish. I have to water the plant, you know, I still have to go to the office every week anyways. So I’m collecting mail and then see like a, you know, for me, I always the one actually, if nobody wanted to go, I would go. So, and then if somebody, you have to go back to office than myself, actually, I’m the one, bring them back in.

Alex Sze (18m 44s):
I’m also showing up in the office. So I’m actually leading them, not just telling them I’m doing it with them. So that’s what it does.

Edwin K. Morris (18m 52s):
That’s a, that’s a signature of a fine leader as far as I’m concerned. Thank you very much, Alex. It’s been a thrill.

Alex Sze (18m 59s):
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Edwin K. Morris (19m 1s):
Thanks for listening to this edition of the trusted advisor podcast brought to you by Iroquois group. Iroquois, your trusted advisor for all things insurance, and remember get out of the office and sell. I am Edwin K. Morris, and I invite you to join me for the next edition of the trusted advisor podcast.