One of my early mentors as I began my selling career, and prior to my life in insurance, was an experienced salesman with the 3M Company. Fred and I traveled the state of Arizona, and we often coordinated our travel schedules in order to be in the same town (usually small) together. There wasn’t much happening in these places after 5:30, and it was nice to have company in the evening.

One night at dinner I was grousing about how tough it was finding new customers and the difficulty of selling in general. Fred replied, “Quit complaining, it’s a blessing in disguise. If selling and prospecting wasn’t a tough business, the company wouldn’t need you, and they would dispense the product from a slot machine.”

Years later, when I entered the life insurance business and endured the trial of “starting over” in my quest for prospects, I was reminded of Fred’s admonition, and it sustained me during my indoctrination period.

I also am reminded of him when I hear critics of our business refer to the agency system as costly and inefficient. They often point out that typically it takes 10 calls to make one sale, and buyers are paying for all the effort spent on those non-buyers. What usually is overlooked is the fact that competing systems in insurance and elsewhere are equally costly and in most cases less efficient insofar as customer satisfaction.

In the late 1970s, Blake Newton, then CEO and president of the American Council of Life Insurers, tried to sell the industry on a concept he believed had merit. His belief was there were millions of people who would “self-identify” as life insurance buyers if they received the right stimuli direct from the companies. Blake believed this fervently and felt it could lower company distribution costs significantly. A few companies bought into the idea and some even dismantled agency forces that had taken a hundred years to build. It didn’t work and, sad to say, some of those companies are no longer a factor in today’s marketplace.

At the time I argued against the concept that large numbers of people would “self-identify.” It reminded me of the wisdom of Chinese philosopher Lao Tse, who in 500 B.C. said, “The bird chooses the tree, not the tree the bird.”

More than 2,500 years later Lao Tse’s wisdom has significance to us in a contemporary way. In a sense we are truly birds, free to choose among all the trees in the forest. But consider the plight of our competitors that are more like trees waiting for a bird to fly in. All other systems of distribution are essentially passive with respect to prospecting. They’re passive in the sense that the prospect must affirmatively act in order to be identified as a potential buyer; passive also in the sense of providing little or no assistance in determining needs and ability to pay.

That is important because I use the term prospecting the way an agent does it in its broadest possible connotation. By that I do not mean simply ferreting out a list of people who may be interested in acquiring insurance. Rather, I refer the whole process of identifying, approaching and qualifying people who need and can buy life and health insurance.

True, other forms of distribution send out lures of all kinds much like the fruit and nuts offered by some trees. Advertising, direct mail, credit card solicitations, newspaper supplements or a smile from a friendly teller at the local bank all entice prospective buyers. But in almost all instances the enticement is limited to a single need rather than an integrated program tied to all of a buyer’s needs.

Studies show there are prospects who seek out these other distribution systems because they are lost in the forest and overlooked by agents or otherwise unapproachable. Other studies also indicate there is a small segment of the population that feels uncomfortable with salespeople. It is well that alternatives are available to such people.

When it comes to prospecting, no one does it better than the agents, by whatever name they are called. And yet there is evidence that we are doing it less and less. Agent-buyer contacts, which used to be a very stable statistic, have been on a steady decline since 1973. This, despite the fact that “life” studies indicate there is a huge demand for such contact by the public. Prospecting is the key to productivity and since that is our greatest advantage over other systems, then it seems to me we need to bring our biggest guns to bear on this problem. I have known many people with excellent sales ability who have failed in our business simply because they could not or would not prospect regularly and effectively.

Birds and trees have a symbiotic relationship: trees providing shelter and food, and birds helping in the distribution of seeds from their hosts. Often overlooked by outside observers of our business is the fact that the agent-policyholder relationship is also symbiotic. Environmentalists strive to protect the relationship of birds and trees, and in like manner, the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors works to enhance and protect the agent-policyholder relationship. It deserves our full support.

In the meantime, think prospecting–a giant forest cannot be sustained over time without the regular visitations of birds.