Posts Tagged ‘business’

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s 2021 Examination Priorities report cover

How to Manage Cybersecurity Risks in Vendor Relationships

Extend your security bubble further than your business’s front door.

Managing cybersecurity risk is an arduous task for any organization, one that becomes even more challenging when trying to extend your security to vendor relationships. However, it has never been more important. Not only are cyber threats on the rise, but the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) made ensuring operational resiliency and information security one of its 2021 priorities.

Thankfully, last year the agency published a report on the due diligence companies should practice when dealing with vendor relationships. Covering the monitoring of vendors, contracts, customer information policies and other issues, the guidance provides much-needed advice for these complex business partnerships. Let’s explore some of its main tips, takeaways and findings for addressing security concerns with your vendors.

Why Does Information Security and Operational Resiliency Matter?

According to the SEC’s 2021 Examination Priorities report, breaches in information security can in fact “have consequences that extend well beyond [a] firm,” adversely impacting “other market participants.” The report further explains that, due to the radical increase in remote operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, cybersecurity concerns have been elevated further, requiring closer scrutiny of endpoint security, data loss, remote access, use of third-party communication systems and, of course, vendor management.

Understand Your Liability

It is a common misconception that if your vendor experiences a data leak, the onus is on them. Not true. State laws typically lay responsibility at the feet of the entity that collected the customer information in the first place. They usually limit vendor requirements to informing you that a data breach or hack has occurred. To safeguard yourself and your business, ensure that your vendor contracts explicitly detail how your customers’ data needs to be handled, what to do in the event of a breach and the expected timeline for dealing with any disruptions.

Vendor Management Programs

You likely already have some experience working with vendors, as well as an understanding of how time consuming such relationships can be. Unsurprisingly, adding cybersecurity concerns into the mix creates an additional set of concerns that need to be managed. Establishing a program that addresses security concerns and expectations at the beginning of the working relationship can help. This program should cover safeguards, how to evaluate vendors, independent audits and processes for terminating and/or replacing vendors.

Understanding and Monitoring Vendor Relationships

One positive finding from the SEC is that many advisers and their personnel already demonstrate a clear understanding of privacy and cybersecurity contract terms. Furthermore, these advisers display an awareness of the risks inherent to outsourcing work to vendors and best practices for limiting such risks. One way that companies accomplish this is through continuous monitoring of vendor relationships, making sure to stay apprised of any changes in the vendor’s services or personnel.

Ongoing Work

Despite this good news, firms cannot simply assume that their data protection policies are fully up to snuff or even rest on their laurels. Instead, they must treat vendor security as an ongoing, habitual process.

As the SEC noted, designing a vendor management program is a great place to start. Then, be sure to implement it. Build security requirements into your initial vendor contracts and make them as specific as possible. Run regular security audits, using questionnaires if necessary to rigorously evaluate your vendor’s security practices. You can also demand system and organization controls (SOC) for any vendor you choose to work with, requiring them to conduct a SOC for cybersecurity audit on an annual basis. Lastly, you and your company should be performing access and security reviews daily, always staying vigilant for unusual activity.

The hard truth is that, in our digital-first world, we all must work a bit harder to stay safe online and protect the integrity of our customers’ data. But by doing so, you will have a more resilient organization and satisfied client base. 

Cork board with 6 post-it notes. The 1st is orange and says “Set smart Goals”. The remaining are blank and colored red, pink, neon green, neon yellow and blue.

Building SMART Marketing Goals

Any marketing campaign must begin with setting goals. Here’s how to make them SMART.

Any successful marketing effort begins by setting goals. You should never put the cart before the horse, and neither should you begin a campaign without knowing what you want to accomplish. But simply discussing your goals ahead of time is not sufficient. You need to also make them SMART. What does that mean exactly? Let’s find out.

The SMART Goal Model

The SMART acronym is a model for creating effective goals. The different letters stand for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-sensitive. In the next sections, we will break these down in greater detail.

Specific (S)

The “S” in SMART stands for Specific, perhaps the most important tenant of any marketing campaign. To communicate well, you need to avoid creating goals that are too broad or vague.

One way to avoid doing this is to understand that there are generally three types of goals for marketing campaigns: awareness, acceptance, and action; then determine the appropriate category for your goal. After that, though, you should still add additional detail.

For example, let’s say you decide that you want to raise awareness for your agency. This is a decent starting point, but a more effective approach would be to say that you want to raise awareness amongst real estate agents between the ages of 35 and 60 and who live in Texas or Oklahoma. Not only does this provide more direction for creating strategies and tactics, but it can also help create other parts of the SMART model.

Measurable (M)

All goals must have a measurement metric attached to them. There is no other way to determine if your campaign has been successful. And you will have little data to review or use in improving future campaigns.

For instance, if you have a goal to drive traffic to your website, you need to know first what your current traffic is and then by how much you want to increase it. Otherwise, when you look at your analytics at the end of your campaign, the numbers you see will be meaningless. They will remain decontextualized, and you will not have insight as to whether the traffic funnels you created to drive people to your website (including emails, social media, digital ads, etc.) were successful in helping you meet or exceed your goal.

Achievable (A)

There is no point in setting goals that you will never meet, which is why the “A” within SMART is so important, as it stands for “achievable.” Creating achievable goals requires you to take an honest assessment of your company’s strengths and weaknesses, resources, and roadblocks.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you are trying to build your agency’s presence on social media. Unless you have a seasoned social media expert on staff or a massive advertising budget, you should not create a goal of building a follower base of 10,000 Facebook users. Instead, a much more realistic goal would be to grow your followers by something like 10 percent – a far more modest and achievable endeavor.

Relevant (R)

It might seem like common sense, but any goal needs to be relevant to the purview of your organization. To put it another way: Your marketing goals should always be connected to specific business goals. And be sure you can see the connections. Otherwise, reconsider your approach and adjust as needed.

Time-Sensitive (T)

Finally, your goals need to be placed on a clearly defined timetable. A pre-established timeline is enormously beneficial in structuring a campaign and allocating resources and staff time. Of course, it’s important to set a timetable that is achievable. Establishing reasonable timelines can limit frustration down the road.  

SMART Equals Success

Building out a marketing plan can be challenging but establishing SMART goals can help you avoid frustration by orienting your plan to create tangible results you can see and measure. SMART goals can take some getting used to, but by creating great goals, you will be positioned to build out a fantastic marketing plan and knock its execution out of the park.

Cindy Koebele, CEO TitleSmart

Making Everyone Feel Valued is Paramount

Alliant National Agent finds work-arounds amid COVID-19

It feels almost impossible to stay connected right now. Though we’re starting to see stay-at-home orders lift across the country, social distancing protocols remain. As we continue to be separated from each other, title agents are finding innovative ways to make sure their clients and employees are safe and feel valued. Cindy Koebele, owner of Minnesota-based TitleSmart Inc., recently joined us on a webinar about doing just that.

When her home state started to close in response to COVID-19, Cindy’s first focus was to see who could work from home and make sure those team members had the tools to do so. Cindy and company also started scheduling smaller appointments to ensure client safety.

Cindy’s team also faced the same roadblocks everyone has experienced over the past several months – a shortage of everything. The offices needed to be stocked with essentials like disinfectant wipes and masks for staff and clientele, but there was a long period where nothing could be found. Thankfully the team at TitleSmart is just that – a team. A joint effort to equip company offices was quickly underway. Staff members would even text Cindy late at night if they managed to score a hard-to-find item.  

Nearly everything about day-to-day work had to change. The team was issued clipboards so they could hand papers to consumers who sat in their cars for “no contact” signings. Meanwhile, the “little things” Cindy’s team does to help clients feel welcome had to change a great deal. In the past, they’d bake fresh cookies and have an assortment of other goodies for clients taking the next big step in their lives. It was an important way the TitleSmart team connected with customers.

Thankfully, having to change the way you connect doesn’t mean giving it up entirely. Though the homemade touch of fresh baked cookies has to be put on pause, Cindy and team are still making yummy goodie bags for their closers. The focus of ensuring everyone feels welcome is more important than ever, and it’s something everyone at TitleSmart is taking very seriously.

Cindy notes that she refuses to lock her doors. She has no intention of making anyone do something they don’t want to do during these difficult times. Accommodations are being made both for those who want as little human interaction throughout the process as possible, and for those who still want that in-person experience.

The most critical takeaway from the discussion with Cindy is that connection isn’t impossible right now. It simply requires a little bit of innovation. Our situation may be a complicated one, but it’s one that we’re all in together. Making your team feel valued and showing your clients that you’re still willing to go the extra mile no matter what it may look like is the smartest business move that you can make right now. 

doodle style illustration of two road signs representing the new way

Inventing as We Go: Post-Pandemic Business Operations

With many states choosing to lift their stay-at-home orders, many people are left wondering how to move forward in this new and uncertain landscape. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that there is no real “going back to normal.” A new normal will be achieved, but the idea that things will return to the way they were across the board is wishful thinking.

The notion of forming a new normal can be overwhelming on both a personal and professional level, but it’s something we find ourselves obligated to do in order to keep our businesses moving forward. Adding in the fact that everything feels topsy-turvy at the moment doesn’t help, either.

As an example, March and April were two of the heaviest order months in the history of title insurance. That influx is in direct conflict to the majority of other industries, many of which are struggling to stay afloat until whatever “new normal” can be achieved. Opening large numbers of orders is always exciting, but it’s critical that we realize this isn’t an evergreen influx of business.

It’s also important that we find a way to handle the large volume of orders in a way that keeps customers satisfied. Normally, the industry response to such a deluge of business is to hire more personnel. However, several large companies have, in fact, reduced staffing levels despite record orders and near record revenue. In the current COVID-19 world, it means learning to adapt on a company-wide scale.

As we all adapt, keep in mind that there will be very real pressure to reduce or even eliminate some risk management procedures in an effort to save costs. This is a dangerous time to consider such a reaction for either independent agents or underwriters. Many of the normal processes for risk management are difficult to maintain as a large percentage of employees are now working remotely. However, staff being remote does not remove the fiduciary responsibility we have to safeguard the public trust.

Another area of concern for the future is that governors and elected officials across the country are suspending laws and regulations, which continually move the regulatory goal posts. RON, RIN, Mobile Notary statutes, and recording regulations have all been changed using “executive orders.”

What will happen when creative plaintiffs’ attorneys challenge foreclosures, loan defaults, etc.? Underwriters will be called upon to defend lenders under their loan policies. Are courts and juries more likely to side with borrowers? Will foreclosures spike with dramatically increased unemployment? These added complications make it more important than ever for title agents to remain focused on the details, no matter how small they may seem. Be sure you have an underwriter who will stand behind you as an agent, and who can keep you up-to-date on regulatory issues.

While we will gradually return to whatever is the new normal, bear in mind that the surge in orders is a temporary reaction to low interest rates and the need to access equity that is currently locked into homes. These high numbers now don’t guarantee high numbers in the future. Be mindful of the regulatory adjustments that affect your role in the title and closing process, and adjust to the new work-from-home landscape as best as you can.

We have a lot of tools in our respective tool-belts. We just have to use them wisely and correctly.

During these uncertain times, Alliant National seeks to support our independent agents, helping to chart a path forward for continued business growth. Agents can access a wide range of tools and up-to-date Covid-related information at https://alliantnational.com/coronavirus/.

Feel free to reach out directly to me at randerson@alliantnational.com or 214-293-8067.

Top view of smiley sad face on dish with donuts as eyes and chocolate syrup as mouth

Collaborate with Your Referral Sources

It is in listening that we can we detect areas in which we can offer assistance and provide tools.

The best (most effective) strategies for acquiring and maintaining new business no longer depends upon the delivery of pastries or a free lunch. Today, recruiting participants means searching for and then filling needs, recognizing gaps, appealing to goals, and ultimately providing tools for achieving those goals.

A defined process that leads to a better understanding of a prospect’s pain points, coupled with a plan of attack, enables a title agent to bring value to clients.

We’ve all been there. After weeks, perhaps months, of professionally approaching a realtor or lender prospect, the much-sought-after initial meeting gets scheduled. 

Then mental preparation turns one’s thoughts toward how best to provide value to the prospect, within compliant borders, that will sufficiently attract them to begin using our services.

Too often, our approach centers around providing a laundry list of goods and services our company offers. As we run through what can sometimes be an exhaustive list, we hope that at some point, our prospect will react favorably, and drill down into the particular offer which they find irresistible.

As we have found out, and is often the case, this never happens. What we have unwittingly done, is waste the prospect’s time by offering products or services which are not needed. These types of meetings usually lead to a polite “thank you,” and “we will let you know” response.

A better approach involves putting ourselves in the place of our potential referral source, and viewing business challenges through their eyes. It is a given that they are faced with the same type of questions we have, in trying to obtain their business. They are seeking ways to attract their own referral sources even as they spend time and money to do so.

Instead of laying our tools on the table, hoping one will be useful to our prospect, the better approach would be a consultative one. Use the first five minutes of the meeting asking questions about business strategy and goals, methods currently being employed, and history of success and failure.

It is in listening that we can we detect areas in which we can offer assistance and provide tools.

For realtor prospects, this may involve keying-in on monthly meetings put on by the broker in charge. It is their obligation to provide meetings and speakers, to bring value to their franchise, and to attract and keep top agents. 

An offer to sponsor the food, as well as line up industry speakers, will go a long way in obtaining an endorsement from the broker, while adding valuable face time with the agents with whom we are trying to connect.  Providing a short segment on title insurance itself, will show your prospects that you are a subject-matter expert, and worthy of their consideration.

For lender prospects, offer to line up a real estate office presentation, with them as the main speaker, on topics of lending particularly interesting to agents. Again, an offer to underwrite the cost of food, line up the presentation, and participate in the program will bring value to your relationship with that lender. It is possible to work collaboratively with your prospects, employing a consultative approach, and filling needs gaps, to help them in their business. This altruism places you and your agency top-of-mind when the decision is made for title work.

Let’s Connect

Discover more stories and conversations on our social media networks,
or drop us a line on our contact page.


The Independent Underwriter for
the Independent AgentSM