How fun boosted the bottom line at Assurance

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You’d be amazed what a soda machine can teach you about building an inspiring place to work.

Fifteen years ago, Assurance was just another insurance brokerage in a cutthroat industry. As the business stagnated, an employee survey revealed undercurrents of unhappiness.

What really got their goat, it turned out, was those $ 1.25 sodas in the lunch room, says Chief Marketing Officer Steve Handmaker. Why, the grumbling went, was the company sticking it to the employees on something so petty?

“This was clearly not an organization that was sustainable for the long term,” Handmaker says.

In the video “Build and promote your company culture to make ‘cents,'” he tells how cheaper soft drinks, a shift in corporate culture, and the “worst ever” 1980s rock song helped boost the bottom line.

Happiness matters

Pointy-haired bosses will be alarmed to learn that happiness does matter. A transformed culture brought the 320-person company a spike in revenue to $ 59.5 million in 2012 from $ 7.7 million in 1998, Handmaker says.

As staff satisfaction rose to 95 percent from under 50 percent, per-employee revenue nearly doubled in that time, to $ 239,000. With that came media attention, listings as a best place to work, and more loyal customers.

It all began with a turnover in leadership in the late 1990s, at a time when employee morale was in the pits. Surveys showed that those pricey sodas were a symbol and a cause of the general misery.

“Turns out everyone hates us because we charge $ 1.25 per soda,” Handmaker recalls leaders saying.

The company vowed to put employees front and center and make them the rock stars. When the bigwigs cut the soda price to 25 cents, the outpouring of thanks was incredible.

No more HR messaging

Oh, and it also kicked human resources out of the messaging business, handing that function over to internal marketing. The HR types, Handmaker says, “could take the most positive of messages and make it sound like pain and death.”

This video clip is taken from the Ragan Training session, “Build and promote your company culture to make ‘cents.'”

The same survey that revealed the soda sentiments prompted the company’s new leadership to seek a different way of doing business. The chief executive suggested the motto, “Let’s get back to fun,” but (fortunately) he was talked out of it.

Instead, Handmaker says, “We picked literally the worst song that we could find from the ’80s, and said this is the song that is going to be our company mantra.”

They chose “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” by Wang Chung, which bestowed upon the English language these memorable phrases:

Ev’rybody have fun tonight;

Ev’rybody Wang Chung tonight.

The song was played everywhere to remind staff in a stodgy industry to lighten up. It was just silly enough that people appreciated the humor. And guess what. “It truly became part of the company culture vernacular,” Handmaker says. Things that are cool are “very wang chung.” Bad ideas are dismissed as “un-wang chung.”

“We knew we might be onto something when Business Insurance magazine, which is our industry’s major go-to publication, did a story on us on its back page and actually put a picture of the ’80s band Wang Chung up there,” Handmaker says.

$ 5 gift cards

The company began handing out $ 5 gift cards to everyone who came up with a good idea. One year, each staffer who sent out 12 thank-you cards to clients with handwritten notes got a bump in salary.

The bet—that happy employees would ensure happy clients—turned out to be right.

[RELATED: Get advanced brand journalism tips from Mark Ragan and Jim Ylisela – choose from 5 cities.]

For all the zaniness, there was also a new transparency that led to higher performance. Assurance began publishing all the company goals and made sure every employee got copies of the financials and budget.

“Crazier than that, we published all the results of every salesperson on a monthly basis in the company,” Handmaker says.

Feel embarrassed about your ranking? Let that be your kick in the butt to do better next time, he says.

Staffers received tangible increases such as medical insurance, discount purchasing, and even birthdays off. The company began annual surveys to make sure morale stays high. Training and education are crucial in the insurance industry, so Assurance we built a department around that.

With better morale and an emphasis on wellness, employee health improved and sick days, turnover, and recruitment costs fell.

“We have next to no costs associated with recruiting,” Handmaker says. “People are banging down our door.” That meant it was able to hire from among the highest caliber of employees.

“Talent wins,” he says. “Talent always wins.”

@r_working

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