The future role of the Medicare Advantage agent is being questioned by many. The media and some government regulators continue to highlight the actions of a few non-compliant agents. Meanwhile, they are ignoring the thousands of agents who provide expert and compassionate assistance to help their clients navigate the confusing variety of options available to Medicare beneficiaries.

There are many in the industry who would describe the scenario as a crisis situation. Perhaps they are right. But in any crisis, there exists the opportunity to redefine your basic business strategies. Medicare Advantage agents must migrate from that of a product-focused sales agent to one of a solutions-oriented consultant.

The mission statement of any Medicare Advantage agent must include the goal of positioning themselves as a “subject matter expert” and acting in the role of a “learned intermediary” who brings clarity and understanding to their clients while creating a relationship in which the client is always the ultimate decision-maker.

Following is a simple five-step process that will enable agents selling Medicare Advantage to position themselves as a valued consultant that understands their clients’ needs and who always represents their clients’ best interests.

1. Product knowledge

This step seems fairly straightforward, but is also the great undoing of many Medicare Advantage agents. The acquisition of product knowledge is less about learning the features of a Medicare Advantage plan itself, and more about learning how the client will benefit from those plans.

Product knowledge doesn’t end with the products a producer represents. The agent acting in a consultative role must be equally knowledgeable about all products and alternatives available to their clients. These alternatives include traditional Medicare options, Medigap plans, employer plans, and government programs.

2. Creating a client relationship

This is where the rubber meets the road in developing a consultative role in the eyes of a prospective client. During this step, a Medicare Advantage agent needs to project the image of a concerned advisor as opposed to a bothersome salesperson. During the agent’s initial interaction with their prospect, the agent’s actions either cause the prospect’s guard to go up and create roadblocks, or will identify the agent as a valuable resource who cares about the prospect’s needs and concerns.

The most critical aspect of this step is the ability of the agent to create a comfortable but professional environment. This doesn’t mean making believe that you’re the prospect’s best friend. The prospect will quickly detect insincerity. Rather, the successful Medicare Advantage agent will use this step to set themselves apart from their competition.

The agent should engage the prospect in a conversation in which each party tells the other a little about themselves. During this conversation, the prospect will divulge very important information about themselves, their comfort zones, and their value systems. This is the information that enables the agent to formulate solutions that meet the needs and wishes of their client.

3. The needs assessment

This is arguably the most important step of the consultative approach. To be a highly effective consultant – that is to develop solutions that address your client’s needs – you must first understand what those needs are.

This means you must think in terms of solving a client’s problems. You can do that by asking open-ended questions. Think of it this way – does a medical practitioner prescribe remedies before conducting an exam? Asking effective questions will not only help you determine what solution set will best meet your client’s needs, but will also build confidence and trust and help the client reveal items of importance that they may not otherwise disclose.

The simplest and most effective questions begin with the words, “what,” “why,” and “what if.” A “what” question will provide the client the opportunity to tell you about their current Medicare program. The “why” question will allow them to disclose the reason they chose that plan and any current problems they are experiencing in it. The “what if” question allows you to offer potential alternatives and assess the viability of potential solutions.

There are many needs assessment documents that an agent can use. They help an agent through the data collection phase of the contact and will develop an optimal solution that addresses the client’s needs and wishes. These documents can also provide the agent a written record of the data used in making recommendations to the client.

4. The presentation

Although CMS and plan guidelines define the materials and format of a Medicare Advantage presentation, the agent is responsible for the personalization of the presentation to focus on how the proposed solution will benefit their client. Nothing is worse than a sales presentation that simply reflects the agent’s perspective. This is why the needs assessment is so critical. It enables the agent to tailor the presentation to their audience.

During a presentation, the agent should continually confirm that their recommendations are in line with the client’s needs assessment findings. Each concurrence serves as a validation of the proposed solution or allows the agent to clarify and respond to client concerns as they arise. It is also critical – for compliance purposes – to fully explain all elements associated with the proposed solutions. The Medicare Advantage agent cannot omit or downplay elements of the solution that could impact the client. Full disclosure is absolutely required.

5. The close

The close is not simply asking for enrollment. It is a multi-step, ongoing process. During all interactions with a prospect, the successful Medicare Advantage agent is at least practicing the trial close.

An effective close is a summation of all the benefits of the agent’s solution to their client’s needs. Hard, quantifiable benefits will always trump soft, feel-good benefits. That doesn’t mean the latter are unimportant. Lead with facts that meet the client’s needs and complement those facts with human values that address the client’s wants.

The close doesn’t end with the client’s enrollment decision. Good follow-up will reinforce the value of the solution to the client and will result in much higher retention rates. The initial contact with a prospect creates the client/agent relationship; follow-up is how that relationship is nurtured. All closing activities should include an agreement on follow-up activities and timeframes. To comply with CMS guidelines, these agreements should be documented on paper or by voice recording.

The steps described above are simply an overview of the process a Medicare Advantage agent should take in developing a consultative relationship with their clients. To be successful, producers should practice these methods every day, and remember that a client will trust you more if you establish a relationship than if you leave them in a one-and-done deal.

Gerard (Jerry) F. Ventolo is the marketing director of Medicare Advantage Plan Services and the CFO of Senior Health Care Options. He can be reached at jerry@maplanservices.com.