Photo by Natalie Brasington

You know that picture you often paint for life insurance prospects? The one of the grieving spouse trying to make ends meet after an unexpected death?

You might as well be talking about Monica Jones. After her husband — who didn’t own life insurance — passed away suddenly in 2000, she found herself struggling to pay the bills and care for their pre-teen daughter on her school teacher salary.

So Jones, armed with her newfound awareness of the importance of life insurance, became a producer. A really, really good producer.

As a life insurance and annuities specialist with the Automobile Club of Southern California, Jones, who lives in Chula Vista, Calif., has amassed more than 1,000 clients and writes about 250 policies each year. She’s a regular in AAA’s top-producer Diamond Club and an 8-year MDRT member. She has also picked up loads of awards along the way, including the 2012 Woman of the Year award from the Women in Insurance & Financial Services (WIFS) last fall.

What’s her secret? Jones has superior teaching skills, a knack for paying attention to details and a work ethic to rival the Energizer Bunny. But what really drives her, she says, is her passion for this business.

“If my husband had been insured correctly, our lives would have gone on normally,” she says. “So I get to go home every night knowing that families are going to be protected. And that’s a powerful feeling.”

An unexpected career change

Jones couldn’t have imagined herself as a successful insurance agent just a few years ago. A high school teacher for 18 years, she planned to continue teaching indefinitely — until her husband of 20 years suffered a fatal heart attack. He was just 52. “It was shocking,” Jones says. “That changed my entire life.”

Not only had her husband not owned life insurance, he’d been a business consultant, which meant he charged clients part of his fee upfront and the other part once his work was completed. His clients, of course, wanted the money they’d paid for unfinished work — money that had already been spent — back from Jones and her 13-year-old daughter.

Faced with bills and single parenthood, Jones knew teaching wasn’t a realistic career option for her anymore. “It’s one of those professions where the pay … it’s ridiculous,” she says. “And if my daughter got sick or something happened, I couldn’t just leave the class, like, ‘Bye, see you.’ It was a tough situation, so I needed to make a change.”

A career in insurance offered both the high-income potential and the flexible schedule Jones needed. “In this career, when you work hard and you work smart, you make money,” she says. It also allowed her to keep educating the community, albeit in a different way. “I spend a lot of time educating clients, going over all the details,” she says. “It’s like teaching all over again.”

As an agent with AAA, Jones serves both the organization’s members and non-members, which means clients of all varieties. She says she doesn’t favor one product over any other when working with a client. “I make clients; I don’t make sales,” she says. “It’s a big difference.”

Instead, she spends a lot of time asking about clients’ everyday worries and darkest fears. “I use a lot of fact finders, ask them questions,” Jones says. “There are a lot of good products out there, but it’s all based on their needs. What are their fears? What are the problems they need solved? That’s what I figure out. More than anything, I want them to know that they can sleep at night.”

Jones likes to tell her clients that their plans, like a fancy car or an expensive suit, are custom-built. “That’s what I want them to leave my office knowing,” she says. “That, whatever we did, it was specially designed for them.”

A woman’s touch

Jones’ focus on personalization is a major part of what makes her stand out in this field. After she sets her clients up with their custom plans, she stays in touch with them by sending handwritten, snail-mailed cards — often with stickers and magnetic calendars inside — throughout the year.

With more than 1,000 clients getting about three to four cards annually, it’s a big task. But Jones, who gets the bulk of her new business via referrals from her existing clients, says it’s well worth the effort. “You open it, and people say, ‘Oh, this card’s for me!’” she says. “People like it; they call me all the time to say thank you.”

See also: Don’t underestimate ‘old school’ direct mail

It’s a big contrast to mass emails, Jones says, which is why she doesn’t use them. “When I get those, I know how much work went into them,” she says. “They just took a bunch of email addresses, pasted them into the BCC line and hit send. That’s not personalized.”

She also hand-delivers every policy and sits down with her clients to go over all the terms again, making sure there are no surprises or misunderstandings. “I tell the truth,” she says. “Not everybody tells the truth. People like that about me. Surprise, surprise, people like honesty.”

Jones works hard to build trusting relationships with all her clients in part because she’s a woman. As a female in a male-dominated business, “we have to work a little bit harder to get that trust, that respect, because people are used to doing this kind of business with men,” she says. “But once you have that trust, it’s yours forever.”

And that trust pays off — something a lot of men in the business could stand to learn, she says. “I think women are naturally more patient. We’re not pushy,” Jones says. “I see in men the urgency of doing the business. We’re interested in getting the relationship first; the business comes later.”

See also: The Gender Equation: Why Women Can Rejuvenate the Industry

Susan Combs, president of Combs & Company and a WIFS board member, says Jones’ ability to build relationships with her clients, especially with her widowed female clients, was a major reason she nominated Jones for the Woman of the Year award.

“A lot of women, especially when they’re younger, think they’re invincible, and nothing really rocks your world more than becoming one of the statistics,” Combs says. “Monica has a very good bedside manner because she’s been down that road and she’s willing to talk about it.”

A drive to succeed

Yet Jones says a lot of her success has nothing to do with her gender or her personal background.

“Some people are meant to do this, and some people are not,” she says. “Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s how much you want this. How much are you willing to do to get where you want to go? Things are not going to be given to you. You have to reach for them.”

Jones is constantly on the hunt for new clients, talking to everyone from the person next to her at the grocery store checkout to the clerk who recently helped her daughter with a car loan.

“There are clients everywhere,” she says. “In the bank, on the street. I’ve done business at a wedding. I sell myself every day, all day long.”

Time management is also key. Jones is so efficient with her time that AAA made a day-in-the-life-of video about her to show at agent trainings. That massive number of cards she sends, for example? She breaks the task down by filling out and filing away four or five cards at the end of every day.

It’s no surprise, then, that Jones has also found the time to volunteer in her community. She serves breakfast at her local temple each month. She mentors women, both in the industry and in her community. And she recently joined the WIFS board of directors.

“My big, big focus is women, because we’re the forgotten ones,” Jones says. “I want to leave a legacy, leave a mark. I want to leave something other people can remember.”

 

For more producer profiles, see:

A victor, not a victim

CPAs can sell

With a little help from his friends