Why advisors are still relevant in a digital world

Fighting obsolescence is one of this advisor's goals

One young agent is fighting the notion that advisors are becoming obsolete in an environment where clients have access to endless information. One young agent is fighting the notion that advisors are becoming obsolete in an environment where clients have access to endless information.

Zachary Meissner had plans. He was going to team with a buddy and, fresh out of college, they were going to open a bar. A student at the University of Washington, where he was studying business administration with an entrepreneurship sub-major, Meissner thought he was doing exactly what he was destined to do. “I always knew I wanted to start a business. That was my eventual goal, but as a college student, that’s a very lofty idea.”

Still, Meissner committed to the process. In fact, Meissner says he and his friend were three months into the planning and preparation stage when Meissner decided to attend a career fair. “I decided to go to at least one career fair while I was at college.”

It was a last-minute decision, too. “I was the type of student career counselors hate,” he says with a laugh. “I hadn’t studied up on any companies beforehand. I was just there for something to do.”

He struck up a conversation with one company — Pacific Capital — and he hit it off with the recruiter. He went through the interview process, insisting all along that he was trying to start the bar business, but willing to explore the option in front of him.

Eight years later, Meissner is a vice president managing the Seattle office for Pacific Capital Resource Group/Penn Mutual. The thirty-year-old is entering his ninth year as an agent, and his current business lines include life, disability and long-term care insurance, as well as the whole investment spectrum. “The more I got into the process, the more I realized this was the opportunity I was looking for. It’s the opportunity to be entrepreneurial and to start a business, but to have structure and instructions tied around it. It wasn’t just guesswork — this had been tried and done before.”

Settling in

What also wasn’t guesswork was Meissner’s plan for building a solid business foundation. A big believer in continuing education throughout one’s career, Meissner practices what he teaches. He’s continued his education, earning his ChFC, CLU, and CFP designations. Currently, he’s working toward a master’s degree in financial services.

He’s also garnered plenty of recognition. During his first two years in the business, Meissner was the company’s second-place career builder winner. Plus he’s won the 5-star Wealth Management award three years in a row, won the Advisor of the Year Award of Excellence “for a few years” and was named a life sales leader and a brokerage sales leader.

These awards still grace his office though he’s moved into a management role. They serve as a reminder to the agents he trains that he’s been where they are, he says. These agents ask him frequently what the promotional and growth opportunities are in the industry. “The growth opportunities in this career is growing your practice. You can make all the money you want to and have all the success you need simply by staying in the role and running a personal financial planning practice.”

Fighting obsolescence

That advice comes from an agent who himself had to struggle to find clients. Meissner says it wasn’t easy building a business when he first started: He’d entered the business just as the market was crashing. At that time, the conversation was about how to move into more conservative vehicles in order to stanch the financial bleeding.

Now, he says, the conversation is about how to handle a significant gain and prepare for what may be coming in the future. “We were dealing with fear-motivated decisions — now we’re dealing with greed-motivated decisions, both of which can be positive or negative depending on how you incorporate those into the discussion. People have short-term memories — we’ll always have to have that kind of conversation.”

Yet getting a conversation going has become a challenge. Since Meissner began in the business, buyers have seen the onset of information overload, he says, with plenty of insurance and investment advice littering the internet. That, he says, makes customers feel empowered and gives them the false impression that they can make their own investment decisions, a confidence he says poses issues. “I think it’s good that people feel empowered. But I think the challenge as an advisor is impressing upon people that there’s a lot more to it than they realize.”

Yet too often, he adds, people aren’t preparing for unexpected things, such as loss of a family member and the potential impact of that on investments. Nor do they think of the tax ramifications of their decisions, Meissner says. He says agents fight the impression of the industry that agents and brokers are the expendable commodity.

With the advent of the robo-advisor, Meissner says the agent and broker role is more critical than ever — and a tougher sell at the same time, he says. “The age of saying ‘I’m going to deliver you excess return’ as a selling point is a very weak argument.”

However, being the person who says ‘I’m going to be your quarterback’ is where the real value is for today’s broker, he says. “It’s becoming more oriented around financial planning as a process rather than as a products or performance-related discussion.”

Market challenges

If you can get in front of the client, that is. Meissner says the ideal market — the millennial market — is earning, but their dollars aren’t heading into investments but rather toward paying down debt. “Our millennial generation came in to this nasty job market and they’re primarily concerned with safety, and short-term liquidity. It makes it challenging when you’re trying to drag them into thinking longer term.”

Couple that dilemma with another challenge Meissner thinks agents are fighting against — the structural argument surrounding term life versus whole life.” When you combo that with people going to the internet first for their information, the arguments against permanent insurance are resounding and plentiful.”

Still, Meissner says within these challenges are opportunities for agents willing to put the time into the job. His advice for new agents: “This is an activity-based career. Having a very high level of activity, whether in the current moment you’re winning or losing, is highly important.”

“Also, find an organization you can affiliate yourself with that has great training, teaming, and mentorship.” That, he says, gives new agents the skills and confidence to know how to approach clients and do so in an accurate, proven manner.

Know a great young advisor who is making a difference in the industry? Nominate them to be featured in The Succession Initative or LifeHealthPro's 30 under 30 feature by emailing kbeckman@alm.com.

Related: 30 under 30: Meet the millennials who are transforming the insurance industry

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