Christopher Fong is Director and co-owner of Smile Insurance Group, a highly-respected, fast-growing Medicare agency operating in the greater Phoenix area.
With a history of serving the lower-income Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, Korean communities that are often overlooked by traditional distribution channels, Smile has built a stellar reputation and important role in its market, with more than 6,000 clients today and many multiples more who’ve received help from a Smile Insurance Group agent through the years.
In addition to running Smile Insurance Group, Chris is a dedicated agent himself, having enrolled nearly 1,000 clients personally, all while running his own law practice with a focus on the lower-income disabled population. Though he wears many hats, the common thread is his commitment to serving the underserved.
We sat down with him to discuss his business and his partnership with Spark.
You have an interesting background, as a full-time Medicare agent and agency owner with a JD and your own private law practice. How did you get into Medicare?
It was a bit of an unusual path into Medicare… I was introduced to the industry from my dad, and he first started in Medicare when he started helping family members entering retirement age make sense of their insurance options. My dad was working in other insurance products at the time, but as our family reached Medicare age, he became the family’s health insurance expert. He was great at breaking down Medicare in a way normal people could understand, and once he saw the money he could make in this field, he transitioned full-time.
My dad began doing Medicare just by himself. I was in law school at the time and presented with the very interesting choice of becoming an attorney or a Medicare agent. Seeing my dad’s success and all the people he helped along the way made me feel confident about the Medicare path. My dad warned me it’d take six years to make a six-figure Medicare income. I’m happy to say it happened much, much faster than that, and since then we’ve been able to make Smile into an agency together.
Smile Insurance Group has really taken off since then, carving out an important role in one of the country’s biggest Medicare markets starting from a seemingly niche focus on the ethnic markets. What explains your success so far?
We take a lot of pride in the service we offer to the community. Before COVID-19, we volunteered regularly at the City of Phoenix Senior Centers. We even built a dedicated medical billing support service at the senior centers, where seniors would bring in medical bills they were confused or worried about, and our team would interpret the bills and oftentimes advocate on the senior’s behalf, by coordinating with provider offices, insurance carriers, or local area nonprofits. Initiatives like these build our goodwill and reputation in the community, leading to many prospects and enrollment opportunities down the road.
Our presence is especially strong in the ethnic markets, with native speaking agents covering Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish, and Korean. Managing your health is such an intense, often overwhelming exercise, we’ve learned it’s important to work with an agent you feel completely comfortable with in a community that you call your own, and that language is often the first step to building trust. This is something we learned firsthand working with family.
This approach also means we can meet our clients in the supermarkets, churches, and other community centers where they’re most comfortable, and help them find locally relevant support, like doctors or non-profit resources, in their preferred language. We’ve even pushed carriers to contract doctors who fill missing language gaps. And through the pandemic, our agents have found awesome success in their own local language blogs. We believe technology enhances this community presence our team has built.
It’s great to see the model clicking while serving this demographic. What have been the biggest challenges as you’ve scaled?
Our focus to date has been on supporting our clients and existing agents in this model. All of our growth to date has been organic, with little focus on agent recruiting. Looking to the future, we believe this model could get much bigger in Arizona and beyond. With our growing momentum, we’ve been able to develop some partnerships that could lead to exponential growth.
My main focus is ensuring we have the systems in place to grow and support agents and clients as we grow. We provide hands-on support for each agent we work with, ensuring they feel comfortable in appointments and have ample opportunities to meet and engage prospects in the community. This has led to many highly-successful agents, but it’s hard to scale.
For myself personally and for most of our agents, a growing book of business means more time spent on client calls. In just the past few days I’ve had a handful of calls with benefits questions. Each of these calls are important, but we need to figure out how to maintain service quality, reputation, and personal feel even as we grow 2 or 3x from here.
We’re honored to partner with you on this exciting chapter of your journey. Talk us through your decision-making process on evaluating and ultimately joining Spark.
Well, my first impression is that your offering was really different from what’s out there. Realistically, most FMOs offer the same set of services, sometimes with different branding toward it. But I’ve never seen an agency put software and a client concierge model together in this way before.
It’s clear that each of your services has been really well thought-out with the agent and client experience in mind. Many agents ask for help servicing their book, but no agency has been able to make it work in an elegant way. There are so many details to consider and so many ways a small mistake could lead to a terrible agent or client experience.
But once it’s all working, the platform gives agents confidence knowing they have a concierge team supporting their clients, and it gives me the bandwidth to provide even more support to each of our agents. This creates a great opportunity for our agents and agency to grow.
The last thing I asked myself, which I consider in all my major business deals, is if I were going to make an angel investment, would I invest in this company? I looked into your history, your team’s backgrounds, your technology, and I felt good about that decision. I saw the potential coming into a market that hasn’t changed for many years with something totally new that’s a win for the agencies, carriers, agents, and the clients.
We’re delighted to have you and team Smile on board! Thanks for the time, Chris.
Get to know more about Chris here and learn more information about Smile Insurance Group on their company page.