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The case for the hybrid advisor

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Christopher Shekell considers himself a “hybrid wholesaler.”

That’s because Shekell, marketing director and registered representative with TransAmerica in Atlanta, has created different business areas, what he calls prongs, out of which he works. It’s a mix that was borne partly of his career path, but even more of his philosophy that you should focus on the relationship first.

Seven years into his career, Shekell has transitioned from college to life insurance to his own brand of business development, which he says came from one smart sales manager who influenced him at the start of his career.

The right beginning

In 2008, Shekell found himself holding a newly earned degree in business management from Springfield College in Massachusetts. In his senior year, he acquired an internship at a small investment firm. Through that firm, Shekell earned his Series 6, Series 63 and life/health licensure.

When he returned home to Rochester, N.Y., Shekell interviewed with a number of companies, one of which was John Hancock. There, he started his career as a registered representative.

It was a rocky start, he says. “It’s funny. You go to college for four years and you get pretty book smart and you think you know everything, and then you start in the industry. It’s tough to get that ramp-up period going.”

However, he had chosen well. After interviewing at a number of places, Shekell was impressed by what he heard from the John Hancock sales manager. “He said, ‘One thing I’m not going to do is make you list a hundred of your closest friends and family members and we’re not going to try to sell them life insurance or start financial planning with them. My goal is to get you educated and comfortable enough in the first couple of years to where your friends and family will see the success you’re having, and they’ll come to you.’”

That sales manager was the reason he chose the company and the reason Shekell says he learned to put the emphasis on more positive relationship building. Still, he needed to make money. “The real question is, if you’re not calling on family or friends or close relationships, how are you going to make it in the industry?”

At John Hancock, there had been a recent turnover of agents, so there were thousands of clients needing a new contact. He and the sales manager went to the clients, introduced themselves, and reviewed policies, educating them on their options. Shekell saw it all — from 15-year term policies to old universal life contracts from the 1980s that were bought based on 12–14 percent returns.

Reinventing the wheel

It was a perfect segue into the industry, he says. And it was a strong foundation for his career, giving him skills he used to reinvent a career in a new city hundreds of miles from Rochester, and then in a new company. For, just as Shekell was developing a strong career, his girlfriend (now his wife) found a job opportunity in Atlanta in her field of occupational therapy. So they moved south in 2010.

Starting over in the industry, he says, is not ideal; he had to grow a new client base from scratch. He started with house accounts and orphaned accounts, and recreated his client base in a year, this time with clear plans in place. “My short-term goal was to at least provide some cash flow,” he says. “My long-term goal was to harvest some of these relationships with the different alliances and centers of influence.

In that year, Shekell created a network of financial advisors, wealth managers, CPA firms and independent property/casualty firms. “I built up some really good relationships where we started sharing some business back and forth.”

More on this topic

In 2014, Shekell made one more transition, this time to TransAmerica, where once again he’s reshaping his career. Over the past year, he’s focused on those prongs — the wholesale business he conducts within his wealth manager relationships, working with the executive vice chairman of his Atlanta office on handling his book of business, plus managing his own personal production.

Shekell is starting to see an area of focus that makes sense to him. He’s partnered with a brokerage agency that provides guidance and advice to wealth managers and financial advisors on estate planning and wealth transfer concepts. He provides life insurance consulting and back-office processing, as well as meeting with clients along with the brokerage advisor. One of his next transitions, he says, will be to take on more of that type of work. “Going forward, the most beneficial (direction) for me is to take advantage of some of these other advisors who are looking to expand their product lines and do right for their clients.”

Keys to success

Shekell says a strong network is an agent’s best friend. He blocks off time for prospecting and relationship building. During the week, he attends marketing events or volunteers. “A lot of times as advisors become successful they become complacent. It’s a good thing because it means you’re successful, but we’re not making money if we’re not out there talking to people, presenting cases.”

Despite being a younger agent, Shekell embraces some surprisingly traditional sales methods. Most of his networking is face-to-face. While he was at John Hancock, he’d begun to create a business around online tools, including a software product he used to increase the value he could bring to clients. But the transition to TransAmerica has put less emphasis on the virtual business model, at least for now, he says. Still, he uses the software he’s chosen to help smaller property/casualty companies add life products to their repertoire, and his long-term goals do include more of an online presence.

Facing challenges

That online presence is both a challenge and an opportunity, Shekell says. For older, more traditionally established advisors, technology has affected them adversely, he says. The shift in how younger consumers are buying — online — has made it difficult for the older advisors to offer the experience more and more of their clients want. “With the tools online, people are much more educated on life insurance these days. I think that’s a great thing, but it can also be perceived as a challenge. We’ve embraced that philosophy. We see that as more of an opportunity. Where we think this is an opportunity is with the more advanced planning cases that require a bit of specialty or expertise; you can’t really find enough of that advice online.”

See also: How technology is changing the way producers work

And the quality of the advice you can find, he thinks, is questionable. “If you Google the term ‘life insurance’ there are over 71 million results. What’s accurate? What’s not accurate? Who do you trust online?” It’s at that point Shekell says he and his colleagues can bring the value. “We do the proper financial needs analysis for people, and that’s where we bring the value.”

Advice for young agents

Young agents can get discouraged by rejection, Shekell says, but learning to accept rejection is essential to survival. “The ability to pick yourself back up from some of those bad experiences is key to making it in this industry, as well as being persistent.”

He suggests taking the time to call on those house accounts and facing clients who are upset that their advisor hasn’t contacted them in a decade or more. Just having that conversation with them, he says, can change those upset clients into the best clients. “It’s that little change in attitude: ‘I’m not here to sell you something, and I’m not going away. Let’s start fresh. Let’s do this right.’”

Shekell says young agents are in a great position to rise quickly in the industry. The secret is sticking with it. That first sales manager at John Hancock warned Shekell how tough the job was. “He said, ‘You will mentally quit your job over 40 times a year.’

But the ability to overlook the little things, he says, and commit to the job is where the long-term success is.