As a 34-year veteran of the life insurance industry, I have seen so many changes that what is presented as new today was old 25 years ago. One notion that comes to mind is that the career agency system is dead and the market will be dominated by “independent” distribution channels. Obviously, this has not come to pass but it is a fact that fewer agents are being recruited the old fashioned way. It is also true that many of the now identified “independents” had their beginning, and are still affiliated, with the career agencies and companies.

I began my career as a financed agent in the Memphis Agency of Union Central Life Insurance Company, now a UNIFI company. I was attracted to the financing program, the training program, and the educational career path laid out for me. All of this was supported 100% by Union Central’s training department, branch manager and field supervisors. They were all dedicated to growing “green pea” agents and making them successful one day. We sold Union Central’s product line up: life insurance, disability income, annuities, group major medical and pensions.

About 15 days into my career a prospect asked for something other than what Union Central had on the product shelf: individual health insurance. That was the day I became acquainted with a brokerage distribution channel in Memphis, Tennessee which was, and is still, known as Agency Services, Inc.

I was a career agent 100% financed by Union Central but was directed by my agency manager to go outside the company to solve the client’s problem. I was fortunate enough to find a brokerage firm that had the same philosophy of doing business as we did. The short version: solve the client’s problem and everything else will take care of itself. This has worked for me for 34 years and I am pleased to say that I am still aligned with this brokerage distribution channel.

In 2006, there are so many changes going on that I wonder sometimes what business I am in. What has not changed for me is that I am in the same agency in which I started in 34 years ago, only now I am the general agent. The agency today doesn’t look much like the one that I started with in 1972 because we have adapted to the demands of the markets we serve.

We have in-house specialists for all the things we do for our clients and we have customer service models with built-in redundancy to provide backup. We still have a live voice that answers the phone (it’s a throw back I know) and business casual for me is a sport coat and tie on Friday instead of the regular business suit.

We generate our revenue, and struggle with lower compensation, over many more product lines than in the beginning. This is not new, as margins have been squeezed for years. Our focus, however, has always been on solving the client problem. Despite all the changes and squeezed margins, we continue to prosper.

Today, it seems that more companies are changing their service models to reflect more competitive pricing, or to help the company meet shareholder profitability expectations. The result of this philosophical shift is more responsibility on the agencies and producers to provide customer satisfaction, and less company provided resources with which to do so. The company-sponsored training programs have been scaled back as well, shifting agent training costs to the individual agencies. Heightened customer expectations, coupled with the decreased level of support, is one of the most challenging issues facing our industry today.

It is difficult to challenge the notion that there is a customer service crisis in business today that spans all industries, and the life insurance industry is no exception. We can see from the scenario above how it is occurring. The question is, what are we to do about it? There is an old Chinese proverb that states “with every crisis comes opportunity.”

We as agents are always looking for ways to differentiate ourselves, and this particular crisis provides us the chance to do that. While it would be easy (not to mention understandable) to scale back our efforts as well, the agent who is willing to go the extra mile will now stand out more than ever.

Today’s technology, e-mail systems, marketing databases, client contact software, etc. give us the tools we need to send and receive information. However, most of this information is so impersonal that it rarely succeeds in establishing communication.

So what is the message? Simply this: In a mass-produced, one-size-fits-all business society we must strive to keep the relationships we establish with our customers on a personal level. This alone is the best method to differentiate yourself from your competition.

The reason the online, “buy direct” insurance model has not taken over our industry is because customers want to speak to us and they want to be called on. One of the primary services we provide is peace of mind. And there is a remarkable peace of mind that comes with knowing that “my agent will take care of this for my family and me.”

It is fair to say that now is the most challenging time ever to be in our business. Yet for those who meet the challenge, there is no better time to be in the financial services industry.

People need more guidance now than ever before, with ever-changing laws regarding taxation, healthcare, and retirement constantly altering the financial landscape. Our clients need a guide, and the vast majority of them do not want to search for that guide in cyberspace.

By providing our clients with professional, personal, and prompt advice, we are priming ourselves to be at the forefront of the most exciting era the insurance industry has ever seen.