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Life Health > Life Insurance

Competency-Based Advanced Sales Training Is Needed

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Steve has been in the life insurance business for five years. In his first few years, he steadily increased premium, only to see it plateau recently. Despite studying for his CLU and making efforts to upscale his market, all he’s really done is increased expenses and decreased profits.

Interestingly enough, Steve is a clear example of both the good and bad news in the life insurance industry. The good news is that most companies do a good job of getting new representatives up to speed on basic sales skills and product knowledge. The bad news is that even the best companies do a poor job of training “reps” to advance beyond mere survival skills and limited product knowledge. The consequences are high attrition and an inability to compete for the very best candidates.

Fortunately, a competency-based “advanced” sales training program enhances recruiting and lowers attrition. If proper tools are in place, the return on investment (ROI) can be measured, and the program can be continuously monitored and improved.

The Current Situation

Most companies develop a clearly defined new-hire profile, utilize effective recruitment strategies, and offer training programs that provide inexperienced new hires with basic sales skills and knowledge.

These “basic” training programs succeed because they focus on the competencies required of successful new reps including prospecting, phoning, basic needs analysis, and presentation skills

By contrast, agents who achieve modest success after “graduating” from basic training often flounder in their attempts to achieve higher levels of production. Weve found that a key cause of their difficulties can be traced to the lack of structured advanced sales training programs that parallel the basic training programs available to novices.

In fact, reps wishing to specialize in advanced fields such as estate planning, comprehensive financial planning, business succession planning, and executive benefits are usually forced to rely on a hodge-podge of advanced marketing seminars, industry certification (CLU, ChFC, and CFP) courses, and CE classes.

One problem with this approach is that seminars and industry training generally focus on advanced knowledge, but not on how to use the knowledge. The skill component is typically ignored.

Another problem is that a hodge-podge approach to advanced sales training does not lend itself to measurement. Companies and agents basically take a “leap of faith” that this knowledge will translate into production results. But, in an era of tight budgets, every seminar, certification program, and online CE course the company subsidizes or sponsors should meet senior management’s ROI requirements.

Assessing Competencies

A better alternative is a competency-based “advanced” sales training and support program. The starting place is to assess competencies of those reps that currently meet management’s definition of sales success. In our experience with both banks and life insurers, sales success is often defined by tenure, production, and market penetration, making it relatively easy to identify sample group for study.

Several approaches may be used to assess advanced sales competencies. On one end of the spectrum are self-assessment tools. However, a more effective approach is to interview successful reps using a standardized interview template. An even more effective approach is observation of successful reps in their day-to-day practice. The most effective approach is a combination of all of these.

Once the data is in, it must be analyzed. What do reps who are successful in a particular market need to know? How do these reps organize and staff their practices? What special skills are required to succeed?

One of the most difficult challenges at this stage is distinguishing between competencies that can be passed on to others, and other factors unrelated to individual competencies, such as company culture, compensation, and organizational structure.

Building Curricula

After data analysis, a competency-based curriculum is designed. Design begins by formulating learning objectives that reflect those competencies discovered in the assessment.

Content is dictated by learning objectives. Instruction may be presented using one or more of several approaches. The most common is a linear approach in which reps learn about advanced concepts by reading a traditional or online textbook. The textbook is usually organized around technical concepts, for example, wills and trusts, determining the gross estate, calculating estate taxes, etc.

The problem with linear training programs is that they leave it to the rep to figure out how to apply the knowledge to complex situations in a non-linear world.

Training that simulates real world situations lies at the other end of the spectrum. While more challenging to design and develop, such training has proven more effective with adult learners. Essentially, reps are provided the opportunity to try and fail in a safe environment until they demonstrate mastery of the key competencies.

For example, rather than training reps on everything they need to know about estate and gift taxes, a better approach is to simulate steps in the sales process and provide the rep with access to support information at each step.

This approach recognizes that a rep does not need to learn everything about estate planning to call on a prospect, or even conduct a first face-to-face meeting. But, the rep does need to demonstrate mastery of the competencies exhibited by other successful reps at these stages of the sales process.

Selecting the Delivery Media

Once content has been developed, media for delivery is selected. While online, web-based training (WBT) is relatively inexpensive to deliver and update, is easy to track, and is accessible “just in time,” bandwidth and browser restrictions hamper the use of multimedia simulations and learner interaction.

Although streaming video, online classrooms and “gurued” chatrooms create interesting opportunities, trainers are beginning to realize that the effectiveness of WBT lies not in the technology, but in the content and the instructional design.

Similarly, in-person classroom training with role-plays and case studies can be an effective approach for competency-based sales training, provided the case studies and exercises are well designed and the facilitator is skilled. Too often, classroom training falls flat when it is reduced to lecture, when case studies are not “real world,” or when the exercises are far removed from the context of the job.

A major downside to classroom training is that the cost per training hour delivered far exceeds that of other approaches. Another downside is that the training is only available at limited times and places, a real drawback for young reps who have grown up in a 24/7 world.

Other approaches include satellite distance learning, self-study CD-ROM, video, and text. Each of these delivery media can be effective in its place. Selecting the right media often comes down to availability, familiarity, company culture, and cost considerations.


No training program is complete until tools for measuring its success are implemented. Several types of measurement are appropriate, ranging from measuring what the student learned, to how well he or she demonstrates the skill, to what impact the new skills are having on the job. Only when the outcomes of training are measured can its cost be justified and the training continuously improved.

Insurance companies should use what theyve learned about preparing new hires and focus it on advanced agents. To do so would result in a competency-based focus on rep training, and bring greater financial rewards for companies and reps alike.

Gary Powell, JD, CLU, ChFC, is principal of Gary V. Powell & Associates, Cornelius, N.C., which does instructional design and development for the financial services industry. He can be reached at [email protected].

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, November 12, 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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