So you boast great technical knowledge and sales skills, but your appointment book during an average week looks half-empty. What’s the problem? If you’re like a lot of agents, then you’re not logging enough quality time on the phone.

So noted Gail Goodman, CEO at ConsulTel, White Plains, N.Y, and one of the main platform speakers at this year’s Sales Mastery Forum, held here last month. The annual event, now its in third year, is sponsored by The National Underwriter Company and The Hoopis Performance Network.

“Agents fail in this business chiefly because of a lack of [phone] activity,” said Goodman. “This boils down to 2 critical things: having people to call, and getting on the phone to set up face-to-face appointments that create opportunities for a sale.”

To be effective on the phone, agents also have to be prepared. To that end, said Goodman, producers need to “psych” themselves up mentally, if necessary by acting as if they “love” dialing (or, to borrow from a sales industry maxim, ‘fake it until you make it.’). To help with the mental preparation, agents should keep “happy food” (such as chocolate) on hand; take 5 minutes before phoning to relax or unwind; and keep their desks free of post-it notes and other distractions.

Key to actually getting the appointment is knowing what to say to prospective clients–and knowing how to say it. Too many agents, said Goodman, use their selling skills when they should be using their phone skills. She attributed part of the blame to the insurers they work for, who tend to over-emphasize sales skills during training. At some firms, she said, the ratio of sales training to phone training is 100 hours to 1.

An additional problem flagged by Goodman is agents’ failure to regularly schedule phone time and to track their call activity. That can have long-term consequences, she noted, as leads pursued today may not yield an appointment, much less a sale, for several months.

“The leads you have now are hopefully going to create money that you’ll see and have around the holiday season,” said Goodman. “So why are you not scheduling as much time in your book [for phoning] as you are for fixing client appointments?”

Goodman further cautioned attendees against using antiquated phraseology that prospects now view with hostility. Among the out-out-favor words and phrases: “review” (as in, “I would like to review your portfolio”), which many clients now interpret as “replace”; and “we need to update your file,” which, said Goodman, suggests the caller is “administratively incompetent.”

Goodman further bemoaned the fact that agents too often ad-lib on the phone, rather than use a prepared script. One problem with “winging it,” she said, is that advisors are like to say something ill-considered. Or if they inadvertently say something that yields an appointment, they’re unlikely to repeat the success on the next call because the speech wasn’t scripted.

Similarly, many producers don’t prepare to handle prospects’ answers. Upshot: They become tongue-tied. Between 85% and 90% of responses, Goodman observed, are the following or variations thereof: (1) “I have an agent,” (2) “I’m busy,” (3) “I don’t have any money for this,” (4) “Send me something in the mail,” and (5) “This isn’t a good time, but I’ll be getting money later on.”

Numerous producers, Goodman added, are also guilty of being “Rottweilers,”–agents who overpower the prospect on the phone to secure an appointment, but fail to confirm the appointment at a later time.

“Nothing is more tragic than having a week’s worth of appointments penciled in when you wake up Monday morning, then finding when you go to bed on the following Sunday that you netted only 3 of 15 unconfirmed appointments,” said Goodman. “You don’t want to overpower someone on the phone; you have to learn when to back off.”

Goodman further argued against over-qualifying prospects. While not conforming to an agent’s targeted client profile, these prospects might nonetheless prove to be valuable source of referrals. She also noted that too many producers pursue “hard leads” (acquaintances who are easy to call, but are less likely to agree to an appointment) when they should be devoting time to “easy leads” (family and friends who are hard to approach in a professional capacity, but who also yield higher appointment rates).

“[Advisors] don’t call the people they love because they’re afraid of creating tension in an important relationship,” said Goodman. “These are the people you have to call. You are, after all, in the life-and-death business.”