Phyllis Shelton has heard every reason in the book for why long-term care insurance has struggled over the years. People are living too long. Lapse rates are too low. Investment earnings are lagging. Premiums are too expensive.
“Even back in 1994, they were complaining then about the premiums,” says Shelton, president of LTC Consultants in Nashville, Tenn.
But she doesn’t entirely buy those excuses. The big reason LTCI isn’t thriving, according to Shelton? Agents aren’t selling it to the right people.
“We have to sell LTCI to the masses to make it affordable,” she says. “We haven’t done that, and I blame our industry for that.”
Selling more worksite LTCI, to younger clients, at a greater rate, Shelton says, would help make LTCI a more affordable product — and protect more lives at the same time.
“The market has shrunk for traditional LTCI, but the need has never been greater for this product,” she says. “This is the No. 1 reason people outlive their savings.”
See also: 5 ways to sell LTCI to boomers
Could Shelton be wrong? Sure. But given her decades of experience shaping LTCI sales methods and training producers on how to use them, it’s probably not wise to bet against her.
The makings of a guru
Shelton didn’t plan on becoming an LTCI expert. In fact, she didn’t plan on a career in LTCI at all.
She started out in the home office at Blue Cross in the ’80s, working as a marketing support manager in charge of developing product presentations.
She didn’t love it.
“I wasn’t happy because I was a middle manager, and I had no control over my life,” she says. “I was working these long hours and felt like I was making no difference.”
After going through challenging long-term care experiences with both her grandpa and her mom, she felt she could have more impact in the long-term care insurance field. So in the fall of 1988, she became an LTCI agent with John Hancock, and “I’m still glad,” she says. “I’ve never looked back.”
But that doesn’t mean it was easy. The LTCI sales process at the time was “primitive,” Shelton says. Her company would send letters to everyone 65 and older in the area. If anyone responded, Shelton was in charge of calling them back and making the sale. “Easy,” her boss called it.
Shelton made just three calls on her first day of using the list. The first person was too old for LTCI. The second wasn’t interested. The third said he’d be happy to purchase her product; he’d been looking all over the place for a good lawn care provider.
Shelton marched into her boss’s office. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m gonna do dishes before I do this,’” she says.
So Shelton was sent out to run seminars at senior centers instead — a selling technique that proved just as fruitless. “They would fall asleep in front of me,” she says. “One woman complimented me on my singing.”
Taking a different approach, Shelton moved her seminars to younger venues, like community centers and churches. “I knew, actuarially, that was what we needed to do for long-term care to make sense,” she says.
She found a calling. Her seminars were so successful at producing sales that she started using the same educational approach with every client she met. Pretty soon, she was filing four to 10 applications a week.
“I started hearing from people at John Hancock, and then I started hearing from people across the country,” she says. “They wanted to know how I was doing it.”
The demand became so great that Shelton decided to put all of her tips and techniques into a marketing system designed for other agents. But when she talked it up to producers and carriers, they weren’t interested. “We just thought it would fly off the shelf,” she says. “And we didn’t sell one copy.”
One day, on a plane back from Portland, Maine, Shelton says she had a vision. Instead of a marketing package, she’d start holding one-day meetings, all around the country, to teach her method to producers.
She tested the concept in four cities that spring; 19 more cities followed in the fall. Soon, Primerica was asking her for workbooks. Bankers Life hired her to train its 3,000 agent sales force.
And a young, pre-fame Suze Orman reached out to her. “She came up to me and said, in so many words, ‘I’m going to be a really big deal,’” Shelton says, laughing. (Orman regularly touts Shelton as an LTCI resource these days, and her enthusiastic endorsement graces the cover of one of Shelton’s books.)
Eventually, Shelton landed major contracts with 10 different carriers, from State Farm to Allstate. “It was a culmination of all that work over the years, the result of this long grassroots effort,” she says.
Today, Shelton’s firm specializes in producer sales training, marketing materials and client education. She offers several different books for agents, with some meant to be distributed to clients for educational purposes and other that aim to educate agents themselves. And she still sells the occasional LTCI policy to clients herself.
“I’m very willing to share everything I’ve learned because I want families to be protected,” she says. “And if someone comes to me and doesn’t already have a knowledgeable agent to work with, you bet I’ll be there on the frontline, getting them coverage.”