Applying A New Approach To An Age-Old Problem One answer to getting people to move out of chronic denial

By Terry McMahon

Nobody woke up on that infamous morning of September 11 thinking that a plane was going to crash into their building. Then the unthinkable happened.

The 9/11 tragedy was a reminder that most Americans are financially unprepared for the unthinkable. To our industry, 9/11 was a challenge to take a new approach to preparing the many millions of people who need our help.

This is not an easy challenge because it’s normal for people to believe bad things won’t happen to them. They think they won’t die or become disabled in an accident or by sickness. Yet, they can’t conceive of themselves living to 99 years old.

Because of their thinking on these life and death matters, they put off making decisions. They won’t take action on their own behalf. They suffer from denial, a chronic disease of epidemic proportions, which leaves millions of Americans underinsured and underinvested.

While denial is the number one reason so many Americans are financially unprepared for the future, the number two reason, I believe, is that our industry hasn’t formulated an effective message to get more people to act. Historically, we have lacked a message and approach strong enough to end the epidemic, as evidenced by plummeting retention rates and difficult recruiting challenges.

In the last few years, however, a new approach has emerged that offers our industry hope for solving this long-term epidemic. This approach is Dr. Csaba Sziklai’s Advocacy System.

Dr. Sziklai, a clinical psychologist, created the Advocacy System several years ago to enable producers to prospect and sell as an advocate for the client and especially for the people (family members, etc.) who depend on the client. Producers can use the approach to position themselves as advocates working on behalf of the client and his/her dependents (those people who are not at the table), rather than as sales representatives working for commissions.

As managing partner of New England Financial’s Maine/New Hampshire agency, I began implementing the Advocacy System at our firm in early 2003 and am delighted with the results.

Since adopting Advocacy, our agency’s production is up more than 20% and our recruiting has improved significantly. More importantly, Advocacy has allowed us to acquire a high level of trust among clients and forge strategic alliances, even among large companies.

The language of Advocacy, which has a much different fragrance than the commission-scented words our industry has spoken for generations, challenges leaders of businesses and other organizations to consider their obligation to the people who depend on them. The reaction to this approach has been dramatically positive.

We’ve had success with large Fortune 100 organizations, large national associations, credit unions and nonfinancial professionals, such as lawyers and others. We’ve found that most business executives, as well as leaders of other organizations and heads of households, will do the right thing live up to their obligations to others when we approach them as an advocate rather than as salespeople.

Advocacy has also improved the culture in our firm. As advocates, our agents are happier because Advocacy makes helping people their mission. So far, just over half of our 50 agents have adopted Advocacy, learned the system and are using it.

All of my new recruits are now trained in the Advocacy System. Fifteen of my top 20 agents are advocates. The second-highest producer in the firm, who is only in his first full year in the business, credits Advocacy and focusing on strategic alliances for his fast start.

As an advocate, this producer speaks with confidence. That’s because he knows he is speaking for the best interests not only of the client, but for those people not at the table, the ones who depend on the client for their financial future. Example: The employees of business clients and the spouses and children of heads of households.

We’ve used Advocacy to remold our firm’s culture away from the old money-driven model to one that emphasizes service to clients. As a result, the quantity and quality of recommendations we receive has increased because now clients feel obligated to help their friends by recommending us.

I used to beat up agents to get more referrals. Now I tell them they have a moral obligation to ask for recommendations and cure others. Under the old model, clients felt they were helping us with referrals. There’s a difference. We used to talk at agency meetings about how much money we made this week. Now we talk about whom we’ve helped.

Under the Advocacy System, we use an old computer term, “formatting,” for talking about those we helped. We “format” agents to help them prepare for their important mission. Formatting can also be used in seminars, recruiting meetings and strategic alliance gatherings to prepare them for our important process.

MetLife has captured over 450 real stories, including those from the field, the enterprise, call center and home office employees.

MetLife delivers 4 new stories each week on the company intranet a powerful technique to keep our eye on the ball and focus on curing people of their disease of denial. These stories have helped our company feel better about the significant work we do.

Formatting entails sharing our success stories with other people, particularly other agents. During the year and a half we’ve been using Advocacy, I’ve seen that formatting works wonders. It inspires agents to emulate the best agents in the business.

Formatting shows agents how they can succeed by being in our business for all of the right reasons. They see that when they combine this approach with their own hard work and talent, the money will follow.

I believe that what happens in our agency impacts how our agents impress their prospects and clients in the field. I often use this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Who you are shouts so loudly in my ears that I cannot hear a word you’re saying.”

As advocates, agents help clients and prospects discover and acknowledge what their obligations are, help them make decisions and work with them to implement programs that dovetail with what they say they are responsible for.

Because so many people are underinsured and underinvested, we are targeting large companies and groups, including professional associations such as CPAs, some of whom are becoming true working partners with us in this mission.

Our work includes looking for instances where large companies have done little or nothing for their employees in the life insurance and protection product area. A situation like this was apparent in the 9/11 tragedy where one company lost 658 people in the World Trade Center, including many high-ranking banking and investment personnel.

The most life insurance that employees could buy under the firm’s benefit plan was $100,000, which would be equal to a few months’ income to the highly compensated. I am certain they were approached by someone and said, “I’m all set. I have life insurance at work.”

Leaders of companies and associations and nonfinancial advisors have a responsibility to give their employees, members and clients an opportunity to learn about planning and prepare for the future.

This approach outlined in the box on page 37 has helped us get into large organizations on a favorable basis. And we follow up with worksite seminars for the employees. Here, too, we are advocates, as we are now with all our clients and prospects.

Advocacy allows us to ask all the tough questions in the right way, because prospects know that we as agents have an obligation to do so. Prospects are therefore more likely to fulfill their obligation to themselves, and to the people who depend on them for a bright future.

With Advocacy, agents and their clients dare think and talk about the unthinkable as they work together to prepare a future made brighter by planning and the significant life that we lead.

Terry McMahon, CEP, CLTC, is managing partner of New England Financials Maine/New Hampshire firm. You can e-mail him at TMcMahon@Maine-NH.nef.com.


Reproduced from National Underwriter Edition, October 28, 2004. Copyright 2004 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.