Over the last 20 years, the life insurance industry has had a complete makeover. The agent has morphed into a financial advisor, while life insurance companies have evolved into both manufacturers and distributors of a broad range of financial products.

Heeding the call of their distributors and clients, companies have developed a variety of innovative and consumer-friendly products. In order to meet competitive demands, carriers have been forced to reduce their once-hefty profit margins. In the process of trimming the fat, many companies have become leaner and more efficient. This had an undesirable, though predictable, effect on the producer. Many of the costs that had once been borne by the companies, services that had previously been received for free, have been shifted to the producer.

To thrive in this new world, it is no longer enough to be a great salesperson. Todays superstar must be equal parts marketer, sales person and business person. In this article, I will address five critical success factors for todays agent.

Focus. While there will be opportunity for both generalists and specialists to thrive in the future, both must know their role and play it properly.

At first blush, it might seem that the generalist by definition lacks focus, but I believe this is not the case. A generalist with focus has a clear understanding of his or her role as a relationship manager–one who will diagnose and prescribe when problems are simple, and will refer where special services are needed.

The generalist needs to have a stable of specialists to whom clients may be referred. The generalist can remain focused by not attempting to dabble in areas that require additional study, and will develop and preserve relationships by always being the person who knows where to get answers.

The specialist will be known within the industry and, more importantly, among a clients legal and financial advisors, as an expert within a chosen niche. A truly focused specialist will also know when and to whom to make a referral.

A friend of mine who developed a well-respected estate planning practice makes a good example of a focused specialist. He hired and trained a young associate to handle the business that fell outside of his core business, while training the associate in estate planning. When my friend had the opportunity to develop a new specialty in structured settlements, the young associate was ready to handle the estate planning. This firm now has two different specialties, each with two specialists.

While this producer is quite adept at capitalizing on a business opportunity, he is constantly approached with various new ventures not in his specialty area, and he is focused enough to turn most of them down.

Do what you do best. We are blessed to be in a field where many of us simply love what we do. There are so many different ways in which to make a living in this broad industry, we can choose a discipline that suits our best skills. Some people are natural promoters, great at building relationships, and love speaking in front of groups, but they are best leaving technical details to others. These people are natural rainmakers–people who, through charisma and presence, attract business to the firm.

Others are great at identifying and solving complex problems, but are less comfortable and less poised at making a boardroom presentation.

As we mature in life and in business, one advantage is that we get to know ourselves–our strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. If we can do what we enjoy and enjoy what we do best, we can surround ourselves with associates whose natural affinities lie in different areas.

Delegate. A successful business owner once told me that if a lawyer is the best typist in the office, he still doesnt do his own typing. This is a simple reminder that the skills that make us successful are rare and valuable.

If our skills are in finding prospects, identifying and solving problems and closing sales, our time is worth hundreds of dollars an hour. With that in mind, good business sense suggests that we avoid doing work that can be bought for $20 an hour.

Basic delegation is critical. Truly ingenious delegation involves surrounding oneself with a support team in which each person uses his or her best skills to produce output that reflects your vision and values. When your staff is truly an extension of you, clients will feel that they are receiving your personal attention–even when dealing with a member of your team.

Outsource. If youre having trouble building that ideal staff, identifying the roles that need to be filled, and finding the right person to fill a role, hire a staffing consultant. If you have successfully surrounded yourself with that great staff, allow them to do what they do best.

If a task needs to be accomplished that requires a set of skills not currently represented by a staff member and isnt a permanent need, outsource it.

Many of us have learned this lesson by spending our own time or that of a staff member trying to solve a computer problem, and after hours of heartache and frustration, still having to call in a computer professional. While you and others on your staff may be very capable of learning new skills, the learning curve is expensive. Contract with experts for short-term projects, so you and your staff can continue doing what you do best.

You can be creative in your outsourcing. If cost is a consideration, go to a local university and offer a paid internship. The business schools are loaded with computer, marketing, and accounting students who could use part-time work and can bring something valuable to your organization.

?Keep your eye on the big picture, but always remember the little things. I learned many things about planning and acting for long-term success from a well-known performance coach named Dan Sullivan. Knowing where you are going makes the journey a lot more fun and it makes the inevitable potholes, roadblocks and detours more bearable. But some things that Dan taught had very little to do with strategic planning and were things my mother taught me before I was 10 years old.

“Be on time. Say please and thank you” Civility is no longer a given in our society. People are pleasantly surprised by small courtesies such as having their calls returned in a timely fashion. Develop a culture in your organization where keeping your word and behaving with courtesy is the cornerstone.

For as much as this industry has evolved in recent history, much remains the same. Consumers in all socioeconomic strata will continue to need competent professional advice to meet their objectives. As long as this is true, there will be a place for us in the world of financial services.

Steven R. Craig, CLU, ChFC, MSFS, has played the role of insurance agent, general agent, and home office executive. He is based in Woodland Hills, Calif. You can contact him via e-mail at srcraig@

email.msn.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 10, 2001. Copyright 2001 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.


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