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Chris Karram, co-founder and co-CEO of Safebridge Financial Group, poses for a photo in Toronto (MICHELLE SIU FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Chris Karram, co-founder and co-CEO of Safebridge Financial Group, poses for a photo in Toronto (MICHELLE SIU FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

THE CHALLENGE

'A fine line to walk' when working with self-employed agents Add to ...

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue .

Two years ago, Chris Karram decided that it was time to try to really step up growth of the small mortgage brokerage and financial planning firm that he co-founded in 2005.

So last year, the co-chief executive officer of Toronto-based Safebridge Financial Group signed on a dozen mortgage agents, increasing the number working with the company to 26. He’d like to add 18 more over the next 10 months.

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Part of the plan was also to create a set of tighter rules and procedures for the agents to follow, so that customers would receive a more consistent level of service, similar to a franchised operation.

The wrinkle: All of the agents are self-employed.

By operating under the Safebridge brand, they get access to every lender across the country, and the tools and programs needed to run a mortgage business. In return, Safebridge gets a cut of their revenues.

However, because the agents work for themselves, Mr. Karram says he’s so far only “recommended” the measures he’s developed over the last few months, and is concerned about trying to “force” them to adopt his rules and procedures.

For instance, he would like agents to use a specific customer-relationship management system. But that runs them $99 a month, a fee he’s decided to pass on because “it’s their business. They’re self-employed, and they’re responsible for the own incomes and expenses.”

Sixty per cent of the agents have agreed, but he doesn’t believe all the rest of the remaining ones will come on board because they already use their own software and don’t want to adopt Mr. Karram’s offering. He’s reluctant to make it mandatory for the next round of agents, who he fears may balk if all current agents don’t have to pay for the software, he says.

Among other processes that don’t cost anything, he wants agents to send clients a four-line summary after initial meetings, but just 20 per cent are crafting the paragraph. “It sounds silly and simple, but it makes a massive impact on a client. But not many people are doing it.”

As he tries to build the team, which also includes eight full-time administrative employees, he’s concerned that trying to force agents to comply with things they don’t want to or haven’t had to do in the past could turn them off, and he risks losing them to another brokerage firm.

“We don’t want to alienate ourselves from our team,” he says. “It’s a fine line to walk because they’re self-employed for a reason. We have to respect their freedom.”

The Challenge: How can Safebridge create consistent rules and procedures without alienating self-employed agents?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Rich Skippon, Toronto-based leader, people and organizational change practice, Ernst & Young

He needs to better articulate what’s in it for them, really drive at their specific business needs. Take the CRM example. Say [that], if you use it, we’ll analyze the data and give you better insight into how to target sales so you can generate more revenue. Make it clear why they need to use it and how it can help them land more clients.

Also provide an additional bonus or incentive. If he can’t convince them it’s important, incent them to do what he wants. If they use the CRM software, they get a bonus of X. If it’s done for every client in a certain time frame, they get a bonus of Y. It’s a monetary way of doing things and that can help.

He can charge them or he can cover the cost, but it all comes back to the same principle: The agents need to understand how paying into the program will help them sell more. If they can understand the value it generates, then that makes sense. But if they don't see that kind of direct value, then they may not feel they have a compelling enough reason to buy into the program.

Hubert Kelly, president of Toronto-based Murphy Business Canada

Measure the impact of these rules. Look at who is sending out that paragraph or using the CRM software and show how it’s making them more successful. You want to get people to feel like it’s vital to their role, so show the value in it.

Talk to the people who aren’t using the program. Find out their concerns and their reasons for not using it. It usually comes back to how comfortable they are or a lack of understanding around the value of it. You need to manage on a one-to-one basis.

Gary Mauris, president of Dominion Lending Centres, Port Coquitlam, B.C.

He has to just make it mandatory. Sometimes the ones who buck the system are the ones who are most difficult down the road. He needs to have complete conviction in his model and be prepared to break a few eggs to make an omelette. Be ready to lose the odd person who doesn’t buy into the system.

The other key is having loyalty within your team. Everyone needs to be on the same page. …. People want leadership. He can’t be afraid of his shadow.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW

Show agents what’s in it for them

Demonstrate to the agents exactly how they’ll personally benefit from signing on to the rules and processes with increased business.

Offer incentives

Offer bonuses or other monetary incentives to those who sign on.

Make it mandatory

Show leadership and conviction in the model. Be ready to lose agents who won’t buy into the system as part of building the right team.

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