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In recent polls on public perceptions of trust, life insurance agents barely scored higher than advertising executives and used car salesmen as the least trusted professional group. Yes, the stereotype of the slick insurance salesman is alive and well in America today.

Gaining trust among consumers is the single biggest challenge for any professional within the financial services industry, especially if you are an independent agent with no larger company reputation to bolster your credibility.

Competition is becoming more and more complicated, and the lines between brokers, life insurance agents, and CPAs are being blurred as products and services cross over disciplines. Each group has special considerations to address, but one common thread for all financial professionals is that hardly anyone trusts you to give objective, credible advice that is in the best interest of your clients.

What, then, could be a greater competitive advantage than to establish yourself as a trustworthy financial professional?

Many people will say that financial planners cant be trusted, but that their own advisor can. That means there is hope for financial professionals to make a positive connection with their clients. In fact, that is exactly what clients are seeking in this uncertain time that has seen companies like Enron and WorldCom implode overnight, 401(k) plans cut in half by a downward spiraling stock market, and growing strains of inflated costs for everything from college tuition to doctor visits.

What follows are a few tactics you can employ to build trust with prospects and current clients:

Talk About the Money. Address compensation up front. Explain exactly how you earn your money and why that is not a conflict of interest. If you work on commissions, explain the process. Too many consumers automatically jump to the conclusion that if you work on commissions, youll stick them with the most expensive product. If you dont educate them otherwise, they will have no reason to think differently.

Highlight your Involvement. Are you a member of any industry groups that have codes of ethics to abide by? Can you prove that you are not only a member but also deeply involved? Are there other community or charity activities in which you participate? If you can provide evidence of being a good citizen and person, clients will assume such character is also evident in your professional dealings.

Serve as a Reliable Information Resource. Introduce your clients and prospects to information that comes from beyond your four walls. The more you bring in outside facts and expertise, the more objective you will seem in the minds of your clients. If you dont know the answer to a question or issue, admit you dont have the answer, and then go and find it.

Deliver Good News, and Bad News. Deliver good news quickly and bad news even more rapidly. Dont wait for your clients to call you to check on third-quarter statements. Be proactive in dealing with poor returns or other bad news. It will position you as a problem solver instead of just the problem.

Use Clients as References. As a part of the recruitment process, many academic institutions will recommend that you contact a few current students and ask their honest opinion about whats good and whats not so good about that university or college. You can do the same by offering your current client roster to serious prospects. Of course, youll need to get permission from clients to have their names and numbers/e-mail addresses shared in this manner, but if you have a good relationship, most people will agree to receive a phone call or two.

Use the Right Marketing Vehicle. Each portion of the marketing mix (personal selling, sales promotion, public relations, advertising) has its own purpose, and it is critical to ensure you are using each appropriately to achieve the expected outcomes.

Establish Measurable Objectives: Satisfaction Guaranteed. Work with your clients to determine reasonable expectations for their financial plans. Using this as a measurement device, address what will be done if these goals are not met. Will you change strategies? Will you return a portion of your fee/commission? Also establish expectations for the relationship. Will you be checking in with them every two weeks? Will you be accessible after office hours? Will you make house calls? How often should they expect to revisit their plan? Take the subjectivity out of the engagement and put it in writing. This will help you satisfy clients and give them the comfort that comes with concrete goals and objectives.

What it all boils down to is this: If you focus your marketing and communications on selling a product, such as life insurance, you might as well be hawking the prospect a 1985 Buick. They will not trust you. Instead, the real service you are providing is not a product but peace of mind.

If you havent made the shift in your communications strategy from a product-centric focus to a peace-of-mind focus, you might be missing out on a powerful sales tool: trust. Skepticism is out there, so you are left with two options as a financial professional. Face it head on by anticipating concerns, or let it fester and miss out on opportunities to build new, mutually profitable relationships.

is a senior account executive with Ketchum Public Relations in Chicago. He can be reached via e-mail at Heath.Shackleford@ketchum.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, December 8, 2002. Copyright 2002 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.