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The recent spate of articles regarding what some have called “the crisis in recruiting” brought to mind an incident I experienced several years ago. A long-time friend called and asked if I would spend some time with her son who was considering a career change. She explained that he had been on our local police force for seven years and felt that there might be better opportunities elsewhere.

I agreed to talk to the young man and a few days later he came to my home. At the outset he said that his father, a lawyer, had suggested he consider the property and casualty insurance business, but his mother felt he should look at the broader picture; hence his visit with me. I asked him to tell me what he knew about the life insurance business. To make a long story short, he really knew very little about us and what he perceived was, for the most part, incorrect.

As best I could, I talked to him about the real life of life insurance agents and their relationship with their policyholders and clients. I talked to him about the lives that I had helped change and the businesses that my products had saved, using specific examples to make the point.

He then started to ask questions about what kind of training he would receive and how long it would be before he would begin to be helpful to people. I emphasized that we were not in the business of just selling policies, but rather we were engaged in the business of providing solutions to financial problems that most everyone had. The policy, I explained, was simply the funding mechanism for the solutions we suggested.

We spent two hours together, and he said I had opened his eyes to a world he did not realize existed. I also told him I had never sold property and casualty insurance so he would have to speak with someone else regarding that. He asked about companies and I gave him the names of four companies that had strong agencies in our area. In the two hours we spent together, I do not recall that he asked me how much money he could make or if a retirement plan was provided. He thanked me for my time and the insight I provided and said he would contact the companies I suggested.

Several months later in a conversation with his mother, I asked what her son had decided. She said simply, “He decided to remain a policeman.” Out of curiosity, I called him and asked why he had not pursued a career in insurance. He said he had contacted three of the companies I had suggested, then had given up on the idea. He said the people he talked with painted a somewhat different picture than I had. They stressed the amount of money he could make and the wide range of products he could sell. Solving the problems of people did not seem to be as important as helping people accumulate wealth. There was more, but basically, he said, they turned him off. I left the door open if he ever changed his mind or had second thoughts.

It may well be that the recruiters were not interested in hiring a former policeman. But I was reminded of another experience. Several years after World War II, I was not exactly sure that my first civilian job after leaving the service was what I really wanted. At the time, the Veterans Administration was offering veterans an extensive job counseling service with about three days of testing. I remember that my four highest aptitudes in order of scoring were sales manager, policeman, salesman and social worker. It would appear from that list that “helping people” has a high correlation in all of those jobs.

According to LIMRA statistics, 1975 was the golden year for recruiting. Perhaps it would be instructive to revisit that era and see what was working then and whether or not it applies to todays marketplace. I have always been a firm believer in the adage “Questions are more important than answers.” If you ask the wrong questions, even if you get the right answers, you are still on the wrong track.

For example, does expanding a companys line of products increase productivity? I remember the then-president of a major life insurance company telling me that it had expanded into the p-c business for two reasons. First, there was a chance of a national health insurance program by the government, which would force it out of the health insurance business and this would give its agents a product to replace the lost business. Secondly, it hoped the new line would increase agent productivity and help with agent retention.

Several years later, the same president admitted it had not worked as planned. What they visualized as plus business became instead substitute business.

The same question could be asked about other added lines of business. Is it plus business we are getting or substitute business? Is the substitute as profitable as the core business lost? In promoting the substitute, if that is what we are doing, do our competitors have a comparative advantage over us?

One thing seems to be in our favor at this time. Unemployment in skilled jobs is up. In the past, many high quality people have entered our business when other doors have been closed. Additionally, baby boomers are reaching the age when they need to get serious about guaranteeing their financial futures.

Perhaps it is also a time to emphasize to our recruits what we can do for people rather than what they can do for us. As Ben Feldman once said to me, “We can do what no one else can do.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, April 14, 2003. Copyright 2003 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.