Training for the Storm

The effects of global uncertainty create huge challenges for financial and insurance meetings.

First it was the U.S. debt ceiling talks. Then it was the ObamaCare rollout debacle. Then it was the nail-biting, end-of-the-year budget debates. Not to mention a government shutdown, a confusing economic outlook, and widespread global unrest.

There’s no doubt about it: The business community has seen its fair share of turbulence lately. And thanks to this prolonged political and economic instability, a cloud of uncertainty has been permeating the financial and insurance industries.

This uncertainty is expected to persist for at least the foreseeable future — and while the problem may be ambiguity, the impact is clear.

“When salespeople perceive that their industry or company is struggling, this creates a feeling of anxiety or fear, which can impact their selling behavior and how successful they are,” says Scott Campbell, executive director of New York City-based Global Industry Development Network, a business development and bid consulting firm.

It’s the responsibility of the leaders within these organizations to create a culture of stability despite an unstable environment, educating and reassuring salespeople to encourage confidence, growth, and innovation. This is especially true at meetings — and especially true of meeting owners.

“It’s important to work with upper management before the event to organize the content in a way to help the meeting attendees feel confident, and provide them with a clear understanding of where the organization is headed,” says Lydia Kamicar, senior manager in the education and learning services unit at SmithBucklin. “The way information is presented and the way communication [is carried out] is really key.”

The Havoc of Uncertainty

Before they can work to combat the effects of uncertainty, however, meeting owners first must understand the extent of its impact.

In addition to rattling finance and insurance salespeople, uncertainty affects the organization’s ability to predict and respond to challenges and opportunities in the market — and therefore makes the meeting planner’s job more difficult. Unexpected developments can throw off even the most carefully planned meeting itinerary.

“Uncertainty for our customers make it very challenging for them to plan,” says Kaaren Hamilton, vice president of global sales for the Americas at Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group. “Meetings and events are complex projects that require a timeline to fully deliver on the objectives; when this timeline is too tight or the stakeholder is fluctuating, the planning and execution become very challenging.” And it’s not just the planner — sponsors, too, balk at the unknown. According to Campbell, event sponsors and exhibitors suffer perhaps the most from an unpredictable market, since they “focus a lot more on return on investment and on justifying their attendance,” he says. “It makes sponsors, exhibitors, and delegates need to justify their decisions on what meetings they attend and why.”

Uncertainty can also be particularly challenging for finance and insurance professionals because their jobs are essentially about managing risk, which “is very different from dealing with uncertainty,” explains Jim Austin, a principal at Decision Strategies International, a consulting agency that focuses specifically on helping clients adapt to an uncertain climate. “With managing risk there are financial tools out there, there’s a sense of where the market is going, there’s a sense of the distribution of opportunities. In uncertainty, it’s hard to identify all the options available.”

Combating Ambiguity

But there are ways meeting owners and their fellow executives can create stability and reassure stakeholders within this confusing environment, the experts say. First and foremost, planners should educate themselves on issues facing the industries their companies are in, from changes in government regulation to the future economic climate. Then, they should make sure that attendees are knowledgeable about these developments, too.

“The more data that you can give to people, the better,” Kamicar says. “We’ve had economists speak [at our events].”

Campbell adds that it’s also crucial for salespeople to perceive the company as being transparent in its dealing with industry-wide concerns.

“Ensure that sales staff can see that issues or concerns within the industry are being addressed at meetings and workshops; ensure that issues are not being ignored, but rather brought out into the open,” he says. “Don’t allow rumors to spread by providing regular briefings to staff and by ensuring they can see that a plan is in place to address any issues. Staff will have the perception and feel confident that the company has things under control, and this will increase their performance.”

Further, this kind of openness also encourages salespeople to take ownership of their positions, thereby increasing their sense of control in an otherwise powerless situation.

“A meeting can be seen as a solution,” Campbell says. “When uncertainty abounds, it is important to be creative and allow sales staffs to contribute to new strategic directions. Then, when a plan is in place, ensure that all staff who supervise sales teams are engaged with the plan and feel they are a part of it.”

Al Sochor, vice president and director of marketing for Old Surety Life Insurance Co., says that he keeps his salespeople informed via personal contact before, during, and after events.

“My staff and I, we reach out to them, we call and talk to them,” he says. “I keep them up to date on what’s going on in the industry — not just corporate handouts, but personal emails. The industry’s gotten so quick, we lose that personal touch. But once we do that, we are our own worst enemy.”

Luckily, planners today have a variety of tools with which to extend engagement with attendees. For example, they can use social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to post teaser photos and content, as well as engage one-on-one with attendees by posting questions and even soliciting input prior to the event. Then they can keep that conversation going throughout the meeting and afterwards by posting follow-up content and, say, re-tweeting valuable Twitter posts from both internal and external sources. Hybrid meetings, which include a virtual component, also provide an organization with the opportunity to speak directly to its constituents — using tools like videos, blogs, webcasts, and other media — while also allowing direct input from attendees. This last point ties in to the next important consideration for planners looking to reassure attendees in the financial and insurance industries: the importance of making personal contact.

“It’s all about relationships,” Sochor says. “It’s not about the place or destination, it’s what they’re going to receive out of the trip. It’s not the bells and whistles, it’s that time together. Sales is a hard, hard job; they want to hear me talk to them on a one-on-one level.”

The increased focus on ROI during periods of ambiguity also requires planners not just align meeting agendas directly with organizational goals, but communicate this alignment to attendees.

“It is important for planners to promote themselves as ‘return-on-investment consultants,’” says Campbell, who suggests that planners consider incorporating business-matching programs (putting sellers together with potential clients) into their events as well as “field trips to large projects which are potential clients for the delegates.”

This is also critical in reassuring sponsors that meetings provide a value to attendees that they can’t get elsewhere.

Finally, looking toward the future, the best kind of preparation in an uncertain environment is to remain flexible, Austin says. Since you can’t anticipate every outcome, the most successful strategy is to be nimble.

“It’s how you change your orientation so you can build greater flexibility to respond and roll with the punches,” Austin says.

Hamilton confirms that during uncertain times, SmithBucklin aims to work closely with clients to be able to act swiftly and nimbly. “We look to stay close to the customer and be aware of any changes that may be coming,” she says.

This is an important message to spread to finance and insurance salespeople, and one of the best mechanisms to spread the word is through meetings.

“How can I help my clients, my customers, the people I want to engage?” Austin says. “[Grow] the ability to respond, the flexibility for when the fog starts to clear. Are you ready to move?”