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The Oxygen Of Confidence

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As 2009 gets underway, every financial prognosticator seems to be dominating headlines and airways with dark and dreary analyses. It is suffocating.

Do they see no hope? Is there no reason to walk with even a slight bounce in the step?

Well, some of these wags do admit, better days “could” be ahead, but most also soberly advise that “this won’t happen for quite a while.”

It’s the old bulls-and-bears conflict, refashioned for today’s recessionary economy, U.S. and global. The problem is the bears are winning–for now anyhow.

Insurance professionals who pick up on this might end up repeating the dire pronouncements to clients and each other. If so, it is doubtful they will draw (or keep) many customers, because they won’t convey the confidence customers need to see and believe better days are possible. Instead, they’ll be sucking the oxygen right out of the air, leaving little reason for customers to go on planning, saving, insuring, investing and building for the future.

Therefore, it’s smart business for insurance and financial professionals to work on confidence-building. Naturally, this should be grounded in careful examination of financial realities and possibilities, not in Pollyannaish all-will-be-wellisms with no truth or teeth.

This could include finding examples of where hope is alive or incipient, despite all the very bad news, and communicating that to others. It may include looking for kernels of opportunity amidst the rubble of daunting losses and then pursuing them.

True enough, finding such diamonds in the rough won’t eviscerate the naysayers. And, not all diamonds are gem-quality anyhow. Still, the process of redirecting attention to possibilities can be a valuable source of support and guidance to people who are starting to sink into despair.

That’s important right now. After all, without confidence, some people really do commit suicide, as occurred in the past few months when a few overwhelmed executives took their own lives. Without confidence, many consumers really do delay insuring, protecting and purchasing, as today’s advisors can attest. Without confidence, people really do hunker down (at best) or stop trying (at worst), as U.S. retailers are quick to point out.

Fortunately, emotions are contagious. The sick patient brightens when a favored doctor enters the examination room. The stone-silent meeting starts buzzing when an enthusiastic member arrives. The stressed-out manager smiles when a satisfied customer sends a thank you e-mail.

In the insurance office, the distraught client listens up when the advisor exudes genuine confidence following a careful review of the situation and options. The hesitant long term care insurance buyer pays attention when the LTC specialist points out the top ratings and staying-power of a particular carrier. The worried pre-retiree considers seriously an annuity presented by an advisor who has covered the pros and cons, company ratings and performance history. The investor warms to a variable policy after the rep discusses the long-term perspective and the optional guarantees.

Advisors are the first to point out that such responses don’t occur all the time, no matter how confident the advisor. But if the advisor emits uncertainty, those outcomes virtually never happen.

So too for professionals and staff at the insurance companies, especially those dealing with insurance products. It does no good to go into a deep freeze just because the economy is turbulent. What’s needed is a willingness to shift approaches to align with the new realities. A new Ernst & Young white paper touches on this, by urging carriers to shift their focus to guaranteed-return products, create fixed returns, and squeeze performance from general account investments.

A new Treasury Department report analyzes several Social Security reform proposals. Doomsayers who hear of the report may dwell only on the proposed benefit cutbacks, and warn that new harm is coming to taxpayers. That undermines confidence. But if others point out that some proposals also call for incentives, this will create a more balanced, and less scary, picture. That supports confidence.

Regarding the recession, many business leaders are looking for Big Government assistance and solutions, and many financial gurus are speaking about how “the new Administration” might make things better. It may be that both will occur, rekindling a new fire of optimism everywhere. But it will still take the oxygen of confidence for such a fire to take hold.

Why overlook the obvious–that insurance and other financial professionals can and should play an instrumental role in building this confidence? They are the ones in the trenches, meeting with recession-weary clients every day. If not them, who?