Dawn Sly-Terpstra, Grinnell Mutual
Dawn Sly-Terpstra, Grinnell Mutual

Like many executives who have distinguished themselves in the sector, Dawn Sly-Terpstra’s path to the insurance industry was winding. Early in her career, she worked in political campaigns – including the successful re-election effort of former Iowa senator Tom Harkin – and in other media and consulting jobs.

“I really did enjoy my time working in the media,” she says, “especially in politics – that’s where I learned a lot about communications. It was rapid response, strategic. It’s easy in some of our businesses to get complacent. But there’s so much competition right now [in insurance] that there is a sense of urgency.”

Eventually, Grinnell Mutual identified Sly-Terpstra’s skill set as valuable for the company’s marketing goals. It was early in the digital era when she was brought on board, and over the course of her time with the company – today, she holds the position of AVP of marketing and customer experience – she has been a key component of Grinnell’s reinvention as a digitally savvy company.

“At first, I was brought in to do more print-oriented work,” Sly-Terpstra says. “We were only beginning to talk about how we used our website more effectively with our b-to-b customers, and we made a lot of changes in the first few years.”

These changes included a new b-to-b website, Grinnell’s first social media pages and the company’s mobile site. Sly-Terpstra says that the company has made lots of advances since then, including a a complete rebrand throughout the organization earlier this year -- the first in decades -- focused around the trust that customers put in the carrier and insurance professionals who service them. Brand development decisions were guided by insights gained through employee, mutual, agent, and consumer research conducted in the months before the rollout, spearheaded by Sly-Terpstra.

“What worked well was leveraging metrics around engagement and setting goals constantly – we discussed how to include all stakeholders and develop a brand that Grinnell Mutual would really be known by,” she explains. “We looked at what the findings showed us, and hit on something that has resonated. It resonated because it reflects how our customers already know us. It was a timely move for us in a year when we didn’t issue new products, it helped drive some additional growth.”

Research entails a number of different avenues at Grinnell. Sly-Terpstra works with agency and other customer focus groups to ensure the voice of the customer is reflected in end-user design and messaging as new digital and tech initiatives are in development. It’s a way to include the different people invested in Grinnell Mutual’s success – agents and mutuals included along with other employees – working toward a similar goal.

“About seven years ago, we started our very first user-experience focus group,“ Sly-Terpstra explains. “They come from a variety of practices and different agency contexts. They work with, on average, about 15 different carriers, which really drives our need to have an intuitive tool for them to use.”

For Grinnell Mutual’s business on the commercial side, Sly-Terpstra explains, “We find that it does involve an agent. All customers do research online, but it’s a long journey.” That meant it’s important to provide them with the next-generation tools that will preserve their ability to work with new customers, she adds.

“We talk about how insurance is an industry that is slow to change, but the fact is that tech like mobile and digital delivery has increased so rapidly,” she says. “There’s a need for our agents, policyholders and mutual members to evolve based on demand and need.”

She works as a mentor with two Des Moines-based accelerators – the Global Insurance Accelerator as well as AgriTech. She has worked with several start-up projects during that time.

“What the startups see is possibility. Their focus is speed to value, how close can we get to the customer as quickly as possible,” she says.

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