April 10, 2012 | last updated June 4, 2012 12:01 pm
Women in Business 2012

Janice Co, VP of Strategy, Chief Marketing Officer, Small Commercial Insurance for The Hartford | Helping small businesses with a personal touch

How does a person with a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago go on to work in the insurance industry and still experience an energizing rush of creativity? Just ask Janice Co, who says she felt the world was her oyster when she was given the reigns to build the small commercial marketing arm of The Hartford insurance company from the ground up four years ago.

"We really didn't have a focus on that area at the time, so it was mine to create," she says. "It was a chance to build from scratch the type of enterprise that a small business owner could really be proud of."

Co, who also holds an MBA from the University of Chicago, worked her way up through The Hartford beginning in 2007 when she started out in the finance department. From there she moved over to Business Development, working her way up through the property casualty unit.

In designing the new small commercial marketing department, which focuses on companies comprised of 25 or fewer employees, Co says she first set out to find ways in which they could connect with small business owners on a personal level in order to understand their needs. From there, she and her team would design products to meet those clients' goals. On a larger scale, she was also charged with using that customer understanding to strategize the structure and function of her department as a whole, in order to best service their small business client base.

The challenge was right up her alley.

"I love problem solving. I love a good puzzle," she says. "I'm also very research based; I enjoy finding out what makes people tick and how we can match our services to those elements."

To keep a constant pulse on the needs of small business customers, Co implemented weekly call listening sessions, which solicit the input of customers and agents alike to identify areas for improvement. In addition, she initialized the use of focus groups to address topical hot buttons; one joint discussion might center on the coverage needs of specific business categories such as specialized contractors or outpatient healthcare providers. Another panel may be assembled to represent both small and large businesses, to enable a conversation around similarities and differences between the two.

On a more interpersonal level, Co designed her staff to include "front line" employees, who practice customer immersion as a means of understanding and respecting what their clients do. Working side by side with the business owners they service, Co says the front line group members find their role to be refreshingly rewarding.

"I get great feedback from the front line folks, who love having the permission to care," she says, adding that one of the benefits of working with small businesses is the ability to follow through with each individual business owner from policy set up to utilization when needed. "By partnering with our customers this way, we can connect the dots and see our promise in action."

Co says the client interface which has become the cornerstone of her department proves rewarding and educational for both sides of the table. Just as she and her staff are learning about the intricacies of each business the serve, they are in turn enlightening the clients as to the role of insurance in their operational planning.

"Insurance is an old industry; it's easy to lose track of why we are here," she says. "It's our responsibility to demystify the business for our customers."

That knowledge can prove incredibly valuable during some very tough times. Whereas larger companies often have back up plans in place for unexpected problems, smaller businesses tend to run leaner. Something as small as a single piece of equipment failing can mean a huge loss to a small company. When a dry cleaner loses a vital air compressor, or an ice cream vendor's freezer goes down, significant financial losses can result from the inevitable downtime.

When Mother Nature gets involved, the results can be even more devastating.

On October 29th of last year, the severe unseasonal weather and storms which hit the northeast impacted thousands of businesses in Connecticut. Power outages and blocked access roads caused high losses for companies throughout the state, many of which were the types of small enterprises serviced by Co's team.

"Small businesses often think they are covered, hope they are covered, but aren't always sure," she says. "When we hear from a small business owner who was able to get back on his feet quickly due to his coverage, as we did in October, it feels good."

Co says she often hears from customers who have seen their insurance in action and want to express their appreciation. Those are the moments, she says, when the efforts she put behind building her department four years ago, and the work she and her team do every day, really hit home.

"We regularly get thank you notes, and hear client testimonials that are truly emotionally moving," Co says. "When The Hartford is able to come through for customers at a time when they really need it, it means a lot."

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