Life insurance is widely available to American workers, either through employer-paid plans or voluntary coverage offered as part of an employee benefit package. Yet millions of Americans have no life insurance coverage–and even those people who do have coverage usually don’t have enough.

Why aren’t workers buying life insurance at work?

According to a recent study by LIMRA International, Windsor, Conn., some of the reasons are financial: consumer debt load is up, health care costs are rising and contribution limits to retirement plans have changed. That means workers are devoting more of their financial resources toward paying off credit cards and mortgages, shouldering a larger share of their basic health care coverage through higher deductibles and premiums, and building retirement nest eggs in 401(k)s and IRAs.

Other reasons revolve around education and communication. Many employees simply don’t know why they need life insurance, how much coverage they need, the different types of life insurance available, and whom to trust when making this important decision. The good news is these are the very concerns an experienced benefits professional can help employees deal with.

The bad news–and perhaps the biggest factor at work here–is many insurance professionals just don’t know how to sell this very important and basic type of protection. Successful life insurance sales are built on a long-term relationship of trust, and that takes a commitment on the part of the producer and a dedication to serving customers’ needs rather than our own. Here are some things I’ve learned in more than two decades of successful life insurance sales.

1. Lead with income protection.

With a payroll deduction approach at the worksite, almost all of my life insurance sales follow disability sales. Both products are designed to protect an income and secure a family’s way of life.

One product will eventually lead to the other, so every time I sell disability coverage I know I am setting up a future life sale. At the same time, I’m establishing that all-important relationship of trust with the customer for the long term.

2. Meet customers where they are.

A customer with a permanent need for protection may want a policy where the premiums won’t increase with age, like a universal life policy. But when I’m talking with a firefighter making $25,000 and raising three children, he’s better served right now with a term life policy. Each year at enrollment time, that firefighter and I talk about his long-term needs and where we need to go. The next year we might look at increasing the amount of coverage and three or four years down the road converting to a universal life policy. The key is matching sales to needs.

3. Factor in underwriting.

It’s vital for producers to know their products inside out: the features, the conversion privileges and especially the underwriting requirements. Only then are you truly prepared to match a product with a customer’s needs. Premiums for larger face amounts of coverage can be much less than they are for lower face amounts–provided the applicant is willing to undergo a medical exam. And in worksite sales, that can be a deterrent for many would-be buyers, especially in blue-collar industries. Recommend an amount of coverage where the medical exam isn’t required so you know the policy will be issued. Some protection is better than none, and you always can look at increasing the amount later.

4. Involve the family.

New types of products come and go, but there are always opportunities for life insurance sales in any group: spouses change jobs, new children are born, and grandchildren arrive. Because you’re talking about protecting the family’s income, buying insurance is a family decision. Rather than pushing for a signature on the spot during an enrollment meeting, I suggest the employee take the application home and talk to his or her spouse. When the individual comes back to see me, he or she feels good about the decision, and that leads to better persistency and a stronger long-term relationship.

Helping employees understand their life insurance needs and the affordable options they have to protect themselves and their families is one of the most important things I do every day. Matching needs to products and setting up future sales with every sale has helped me develop the kind of long-term relationships to be successful along the way.

Common Misperceptions

In decades of meeting one on one with employees at every level to discuss their benefits needs, I often hear the same objections to buying life insurance.

Here are some of the most common misperceptions–and the real truth your customers should know:

–My employer pays for my life insurance so I don’t have to worry about it.

Employer-paid life insurance is almost always a group policy that only covers employees while they’re employed at that company. In fact, according to LIMRA, only 41% of adult Americans have individual life insurance. That means employees could be vulnerable if they lose their jobs or have a break in employment. Individual voluntary life insurance bought at work is a good solution for many people because it’s portable, so they can keep the coverage if they change jobs or retire.

–I already have enough life insurance.

The U.S. Justice Department calculated compensation needed to meet the needs of families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and recommended 12 times income for couples without children and 20 times income for households with children, according to LIMRA. The average family is underinsured by more than $300,000.

–I can’t afford life insurance.

There are many types of life insurance available to meet different needs and budgets. Term life plans are often available for a few dollars a pay period. Even a little life insurance is better than none at all. Plus, a voluntary plan bought at work offers the convenience of payroll deduction.

–I’m single so I don’t need life insurance.

Even if no one else is depending on a worker’s income, he or she is still likely to leave behind bills, credit card balances and final expenses such as funeral costs. These expenses could be an unnecessary burden on parents or siblings at a difficult time.

–My spouse has a good income, so even if I don’t have coverage, it wouldn’t have a major impact on my family.

Widows and widowers say it takes four to five years before their financial circumstances returned to what they were at the time of their spouse’s death. Between one and two years after the death, half the widows and a third of the widowers were just getting by financially.

–My spouse doesn’t work outside the home so we don’t need life insurance for him or her.

Spouses usually depend on each other for many things they might have to pay someone else to do: child care, laundry, cooking, shopping, cleaning, home maintenance, transportation, errands, etc. Adequate life insurance for a nonworking spouse can provide the income needed to protect a family’s way of life.

–There’s no need to buy life insurance for my children.

Children who die prematurely will still leave behind final expenses such as medical bills and funeral costs. In addition, buying and keeping coverage for children while they’re young protects their insurability if they should develop a health condition later in life that could make it expensive or impossible to get coverage.

–I’m healthy–I can worry about life insurance when I get older.

It’s usually more cost-effective to buy life insurance at a younger age, since the cost of buying it tends to increase as workers age. And buying a policy when young and healthy means workers will already have the coverage if they develop a health condition later that could make them uninsurable.

–David Reid