The next time the conversation wanes at a cocktail party, here’s a topic guaranteed to jumpstart a discussion: bad service. Get people talking about their customer service horror stories and it quickly becomes clear that most of us are starved for good service. Automated voice mail, teleconferencing, podcasts, streaming media and the Internet may have added convenience to our lives, but often the technology comes with a price: impersonal service, vague information, confusing options and a lack of clear direction.

Dwindling service presents a huge opportunity for advisors. Consistency is an old-fashioned attribute that is quickly vanishing in today’s fast-moving, increasingly impersonal marketplace. The professional who can deliver consistent, personal sales and service efforts will have a huge advantage.

The word “consistency” may sound a bit dull compared to the latest whiz-bang prospecting system, but it’s an important key to success that can steadily compound long-term sales and profits. Consistency is a centuries-old tenet; in the first century A.D., the architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (whose services were no doubt booked years in advance) said, “Consistency is found in that work whose whole and detail are suitable to the occasion. It arises from circumstance, custom and nature.”

Apply the power of consistency to your business and reap the rewards. Three advisors who have enjoyed long, successful careers tell you how.

Prepare for success
“Discipline and concentration are key in being successful in the insurance business,” says Bob Long, LTCP, CSA, of Charlotte, N.C., who has been in the business for more than 25 years. “Each client deserves the most suitable approach to his or her unique profile. The time I invest in preparation for a client is at least three times more than I do in actually meeting with the client. In order for me to earn the client’s trust – and to obtain an ongoing commitment from that client – I must assure myself that I have made the best initial recommendations, and I must never fail to continue to monitor each client’s situation throughout the years ahead.

When I feel that I have done the best for my client, and commit to continue to do so, I can communicate that confidence. All this requires unwavering discipline and specific, client-by-client concentration.”

Make and keep realistic promises
“I have found that if you do what you say you are going to do, you have already exceeded the expectations of most people,” says Kevin O’Brien, president of Creative Financial Strategies Inc. of Littleton, N.H.

Involved in estate and financial planning since 1975, O’Brien adds, “Then, if you go above and beyond, they are thrilled. In my practice we offer to do anything and everything the client may need done because we recognize that they have better things to do with their time. Their standard response is, ‘You will do that, too?’ Service is the key to keeping the relationship strong.”

Listen well
“In sales, we have heard that listening is the key,” Long says, “and so it is. You can only learn your client’s profile by carefully listening and observing. A successful insurance salesperson is an artist/counselor who develops the skill of accurately interpreting the prospect or client’s position and connecting the dots placed on the canvas by him.”

Follow through
“After a quarter century of serving my clients, I have learned that clients and prospects, as well as ‘suspects,’ truly appreciate following up on their problems and questions,” says Richard Rubenstein, MBA, CFP, CSA, and principal of Rubenstein Financial Group in Cincinnati.

“If I get a phone call and can’t take the call at the moment, I ask if I can call them back and I always tell them how long it will be before I return the call,” Rubenstein says. “If I say it’s only going to be five minutes, I make sure that I return the call within five minutes; seniors will actually sit by the phone and wait for your call. If I need to work on getting the problem solved, I will call by the end of the day to let my customers know what I have found out to solve their problem. Even if they don’t answer the phone, I go the extra step and attempt to reach them on their other lines, such as work or cellular phones. I leave messages everywhere. I feel that it takes very little effort to just leave a voice mail message to let a person know you are getting back with them. I know that I expect that of people who owe me a status call that was promised.”

Use consistency
Successful advisors usually commit to meeting consistent, regular sales goals to achieve results. “Our format is structured as follows: Monday and Friday are in-office, non-appointment days,” O’Brien says. “During our Monday morning meeting, we review client needs, and on Friday afternoons we discuss office needs. Tuesday through Thursday is reserved for appointments.”

“I try to have two appointments set per day and 10 appointments per week,” says Rubenstein. “Sometimes my weeks get altered and I miss my goal. I try to remedy that by doing extra prospecting and asking for more referrals from anyone I speak with.”

After three decades in the industry, O’Brien speaks of the payoff for such dedicated efforts: “For the past year, Fridays in the summer are spent playing golf with clients … a short work week for me after 30 years.”

Find the time
Smart advisors discover the time of day when they can best focus on writing, planning, and paperwork and stick to it. “Rarely does any day go by in which I do not work,” Long says. “For me, the best time for quiet, uninterrupted, creative work is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., just about every day. If you stay in this business long enough and you carry through with all your promises, the true commitment your client base requires is more than a 40-hour work week.”

Specialize for success
The most successful advisors usually don’t try to be all things to all people; having a specific focus allows them to develop market consistency. “I would suggest a new agent select only two target markets to specialize in,” Rubenstein says. “Find a mentor that you can be reported to on a weekly basis. Or partner with another new agent in another town to share your successes and failures.”

“Pick a niche and stick with it,” O’Brien advises. “And read, read, read.”

The age-old golden rule
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is a maxim that has survived for centuries for one simple reason: The process of checking an action against our own attitudes, desires and expectations creates a healthy perspective.

“I always picture myself as the prospect or client in every communication I prepare,” Long says. “How would I expect to be treated? How would I react? What would I expect in each perceived scenario?”

Personal touch beats technology
While high-tech applications can streamline some processes, savvy advisors know that personal service is unbeatable. “Current technology certainly has earned its spot in today’s marketplace,” Long says. “However, in addition to leaps and bounds in speed, convenience and automated communications, quality service is irreplaceable. When unusual situations arise, as is often the case, reliability, trust and commitment create the common denominator in fostering the most important element in achieving success – lasting relationships.

“Obviously, the individual sales agent is not as important now as in the past. An advisor is no longer the primary means to market insurance products. With today’s high-tech capabilities, the agent competes with the Internet, banks, television, billboards, magazines, etc. Quality service has been lost in the shuffle, on the part of too many major insurance companies. I feel that many insurance companies are losing significant market share because of the impersonal and insensitive environment projected by the respective home offices – not only to agents but to customers, as well. This creates an even greater opportunity – and responsibility – for the agent to be the reliable, trusted source for consumers.”

Look to exceed expectations
“Having been in financial services for a quarter century, I have always heard the line ‘People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ To that end, I try to help my clients with any other problems they might have,” Rubenstein says.

“For example, I have a customer who delivers new cars to dealer lots. He has been employed with the same trucking company for over a dozen years, and mentioned that he hadn’t been happy in his work lately. Then, I assisted another couple who own a small regional trucking company. When I helped them with their life insurance and old IRAs, they mentioned that they were looking for an additional driver to expand their business. I introduced them to my other client, and we [met] for a dinner so everyone gets to know each other in a social atmosphere.”

All about relationships
Most successful advisors agree that the relational aspect of the business is the most important and rewarding part of their work. “I have a married couple who have been clients of mine for over 25 years,” Long says. “As their friend, counselor and advisor, I have shared with them in their children’s graduations, marriages, childbirths and, unfortunately, the death of their oldest son and a sister. I have helped with countless decisions all along the way, including his retirement, his heart attack, her loss of employment, and the settling of their parents’ and her sister’s estates.

Fortunately, their long-term financial plan has worked out the way we hoped it would from the beginning of our relationship. If I had not committed my time, dedicated service and abilities to them, including many outside the financial world, I would not have earned any of the considerable commissions generated by the many changes and additions we have had to make over the years.”

Listen to your elders
“If I were new to this business today, I would listen to my mentors, who have traveled the roads that I hope to follow,” Long advises. “I would develop good work habits involved in prospecting, knowing regulations, developing product knowledge and insisting on the power of concentration in doing the job in the right way.”