Product complexity. Consumer fear. Industry confusion. No matter what products you sell, all agents face similar challenges when it comes to earning and keeping client trust.

While studies teach us that ethical behavior does matter to consumers and is part of their purchasing decision criteria, many agents are not sure how to make the move from saying they are ethical to proving it.

Because today’s customer is more educated and cautious than ever before, agents must embrace the challenge of walking the ethical walk and being proactive in their approach. But with what can feel like an onslaught of negative consumer preconceptions, what’s an ethical agent to do?

#1: The best defense is a great offense
Many agents make the mistake of avoiding any conversation involving negative media reports or unethical industry stereotypes, so as not to even introduce a pessimistic thought into their prospects’ heads. The strategic agent, however, understands that the suspicious thought already exists, so doing nothing to identify the issue allows the negative preconception to sit there and flourish, all the while potentially guiding your client’s purchasing decision.

Talking openly about a product concern or industry incident creates the opportunity to discuss what makes you and your products different. It also demonstrates your knowledge of the industry and your respect for what your clients deserve.

#2: Combat the ‘fast-talking agent’ stereotype
Remember that, by design, you have two ears and just one mouth. An ethical agent strives to meet the customer’s needs rather than just selling a product. In order to meet those needs with an appropriate sale, however, you have to listen to and understand the individual circumstances of each unique prospect.

Before you launch into a full presentation about what makes your product the best solution available, begin by asking questions and really listening to the answers. Ask your customer about how they perceive insurance products or what their parents raised them to believe about insurance in general. What fears do they have about the types of insurance you offer, and what would be their optimal customer experience involving these products?

Then, as you present the ways in which you believe the insurance product would be helpful, reference the prospect’s experiences shared in the previous conversation and link your product benefits with eradicating those individual misperceptions or concerns.

#3: Create ethical policies and procedures for your practice
Agent ethics are unfortunately not a consumer assumption, and in the absence of an ethical policy, prospects may assume that it doesn’t exist for a reason. Ninety-four percent of respondents to a Harris Survey believe that a life insurance company’s commitment to ethical business practices is important, so demonstrate your commitment to ethics upfront.

Many of the companies you represent or associations you belong to likely have ethical codes of conduct that you can mirror in establishing your own. If not, you can visit www.imsaethics.org to view the Principles of Ethical Market Conduct set by the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association (IMSA). Be sure to go beyond flowery language and really drive home the benefit of your agency’s ethics principles and how they protect your customers.

#4: Maintain a sound approach with seniors
Senior protection has emerged as a significant issue in insurance sales, which presents ethical agents with a solid opportunity to differentiate themselves in this arena.

Seminar selling and senior designations in particular have come under great scrutiny, and while you may have employed similar tactics with the utmost integrity in the past, the reality is that these are prominent areas of concern in the insurance marketplace and have put all agents in an uncomfortable spotlight. Shine a positive light on things by stressing your agency’s ethical approach to senior sales.

One approach might be to invite the prospect to bring along an adult child or other trusted friend to ask questions and observe the transaction. Not only can you win the senior’s consumer trust, but you also have an opportunity to earn the business of the trusted friend or the adult boomer child (and subsequent generations) when they see how well you served the senior customer.

#5: Shout it out
Many agents implement model ethical policies in their practices but then don’t bother to tell anybody about it. Be sure to create marketing materials around your ethical approach, and don’t forget about visibility; prominently display these informational pieces on agency desks and include them in mailed communications.

Try to obtain some third-party credibility, as well. Whether that’s representing the products of an ethically qualified company or gaining testimonials from senior (and other) clientele about how they were treated by your agency, someone else saying how ethical your agency is goes much further than your say-so.

#6: Lastly, remember that every good house starts with a solid foundation
The solid foundation of any ethical practice is one of compliance. Make compliance a priority by keeping up with changing laws, required certifications, licensing, and continuing education requirements.

While compliance is certainly a less exciting part of your practice, it is critical to your success as an ethical agent. Look into industry compliance solutions to ease the administrative burden, and stay in the loop on issues that affect your business, so that any regulatory or legal changes don’t catch you by surprise.

In today’s insurance climate, ethics do matter. Rather than a warm and fuzzy public relations concept, ethical practices have emerged as a market differentiator in a competitive marketplace. Let consumers know that ethics matter to you, and your agency will matter to them.

Brian Atchinson is president and CEO of the Insurance Marketplace Standards Association. He can be reached at brianatchinson@imsaethics.org or at 240-744-3030.