There’s a word I’ll bet you’ve never heard used to describe the fate of independent life insurance distribution. Neither had I, until recently.
Last April, innovation experts at Maddock Douglas sent a brief survey to a sample of people who work in the independent space and asked them a few questions about their take on the future of their business. Specifically, they were asked about the channel’s prospects for future growth or decline, its challenges and opportunities, and possible causes of future obsolescence.
While most of the respondents were optimistic about the future, quite a few had interesting takes on the challenges facing the independent space and the possible reasons why it could decline. The majority of responses fell into the category called “we’ve heard that before.” However, the word infertile, stuck out as the most powerful and intriguing descriptor, offering the richest solution set of all.
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Word choice is a powerful tool to understand what people are really thinking and feeling. I find it valuable to look at the roots and origins of words, particularly when they are either often or seldom used in a certain context.
When I looked up “infertile” and “infertility” in various online dictionaries, most of the definitions involved people who cannot have babies. That is not surprising — but I will say that my online search, in combination with my being childless by choice, newly married and over 45 has led to an uncomfortable barrage of marketing spam I was not prepared for.
However, I knew there had to be deeper meaning than just that. So I kept looking for synonyms. Barren, arid, fruitless? Ok, we needed something more actionable. So I decided to look up the word with the opposite meaning.
Aha! Fertile, the opposite of infertile, means the ability to bear fruit in great quantities (to be productive) and is characterized by great resourcefulness of thought or imagination (to be inventive).
Now we are talking.
A significant bunch of people said words that related to the inability to attract new blood into the system. A nearly equal number described a basic lack of fertility as defined above, using words like lazy, old, stuck, paradigm, change, shortsightedness and oblivious. The person who used the word infertile spoke for many others, who were describing symptoms versus a problem.
Symptoms or problems?
The top 3 answers most often given to challenges/unmet opportunities in the industry were:
- The shrinking sources of new producers
- Commoditization and profit margin issues
- The vast underserved market
This comes as no surprise, perhaps. The industry has been talking about these three “problems” for at least two decades. Maybe these are not the problems. The industry is missing the big problem. The life insurance industry is becoming irrelevant to young people.
Yikes. That sounds hurtful to some, particularly those who are most passionate and proud of the profession. How could something so important be considered irrelevant?
When I ask people in the industry why life insurance may be less relevant than it was in the past, I often get answers like, “It is an intangible benefit,” or, “You have to think about death, so it’s too negative,” or, “It is not something that has any immediate gratification.” While those things are very true, they are not new. Those are characteristics of the product, not trends.
Let’s look at insurance from an innovator’s perspective and consider three trends that are contributing to less relevance.
Death is not what it used to be. Back when insurance was an innovation, dying was an everyday, top-of-mind risk. Life expectancy was much shorter because of diseases that had no vaccines, like tuberculosis and influenza. There were no workplace safety standards. Medical technology was nowhere near what it is today. And the consequences of the death of the breadwinner were much more extreme because there was usually only one in any family. Death is no longer a top-of-mind risk because the generations before us worked hard to make it so. Life got better, and we should not want to change that.
So, what else is in the way of relevance that we should want to influence?
The way we communicate is outdated. The language and communication style we use today has not changed much over decades. But the consumer has. Words and phrases used in the industry are hard enough to understand. What makes it even worse is that the connotations of words change over time. While those born in the 1930s and ’40s know “agent” to describe someone who sells insurance, those born in the 1980s and ’90s think FBI or talent agent. While, in context, they might understand the term, the minute we say something that sounds like it is not meant for them, they register it as irrelevant.
In addition, our tone and attitude are often seen as condescending or inauthentic. The industry can make a big difference if it changes the manner in which it communicates with young people. (For more information, refer to the 2010 study of insurance language by Maddock Douglas at http://language.soldnotboughtcom.)