Buying an insurance agency is about buying expertise in certain kinds of sales and strengthening the bottom line. But what do you do with it after you close the deal?

Plan your insurance program with a strategic focus toward specific results. You have to think about how to sell to different groups before you create one shred of marketing material or make a single phone call.

And you have to decide - long before you own an agency - how you will transfer information legally from the banking side to the insurance side so that you can mine your customer base.

First you must decide where and how different products will be marketed. Maybe you'll create a special commercial insurance group, or you'll decide that new personal policies (homeowners, auto, personal liability, and the like) will be sold by in-branch agents, and the renewals will be handled by the agency's customer service representatives.

Think about the physical location of each function well ahead of time. Can economies be achieved by consolidating some of the bank and agency functions? Such savings often will cover the cost of upgrading technology systems and personnel.

The agents for commercial lines can start selling right away. Like bankers, commercial agents sell on relationships, so let them know which of your customers they need to target, and send them out to make friends. But don't forget to set up a program to introduce the agency's commercial customers to your banking services.

Make sure you understand how insurance products are priced. There's no wiggle room with personal lines. Once a company files a rate with the state insurance commissioner, that's it. But commercial line pricing can be customized for certain types and sizes of risks.

Find out what the underwriters take into account in pricing a commercial policy. If your customer base includes a group of commercial accounts with similar risk characteristics, negotiate with insurance carriers to tailor a policy and pricing for the group.

Personal insurance requires a very different approach, because they are sold on the coattails of insurance companies that bask in the glow of their consumer advertising. My recommendation is that you ease into personal lines. Take small, simple steps first, and build a model system that can be adapted to other insurance products.

What's the simplest plan of all? Start with first-time homebuyers. Unless their agent is an in-law, their allegiance is likely to be thin. It's true they probably already have auto insurance, but that's a commodity today.

The ideal time to start the homeowners insurance sale is during the approval process, before a home loan is made. That's when the need is greatest, and the competition is lightest. Build a system to sell and process property insurance to first-time homebuyers, and the result will be a model for all the other lines. Auto insurance for people getting car loans is a logical next step.

When customers are ready to buy, your referral procedures must facilitate a quick response. For example, say a new mortgage customer is ready to buy life insurance along with a homeowners policy. How and who gets it done should be spelled out clearly in your referral procedures.

Agency growth is derived from sales to two target groups - your customer base and the general public. How you move on to the general public also has to be taken into account. You may already have a complex marketing plan in place to bring in new bank customers. Can insurance promotion be simply tucked into it?

All insurance marketing and sales should be supported by a promotion program that reinforces your brand identity as a seller of a broad range of financial services, and as a company that can be counted on to provide the best possible package for a given customer.

Mr. Pottridge is president and cheif executive officer of Pottridge & Associates, a banking and insurance consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

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