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Women: On how to be successful and improve client relationships

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We all know women are underrepresented in the financial industry. In fact, only 22 percent of independent insurance agents are female, according to the LIMRA and National Underwriter Life & Health study, “The Independent Financial Professional: Fitting into an Ever-changing Environment.” That’s why the women we do have in the industry are important in shaping the future of this business.

To better understand the women dynamic, we invited three of the industry’s leading ladies to speak on a “Women and Insurance” panel at our Advisor Network Summit in August.

Susan Combs is president of New York-based Combs & Company and Women in Insurance and Financial Services (WIFS).

Jillian Nel is a financial planner and divorce financial analyst at the Houston-based Legacy Asset Management.

Juli McNeely is president of Spencer, Wisconsin-based McNeely Financial Services and president of NAIFA.

The following are excerpts taken from the panel discussion, in which they discuss the power of teamwork, no-pressure referral programs and the role industry organizations play in their success.

Their journey into the industry

COMBS: Usually your father owns the firm or you run into it on accident. Nobody ever says when they are young, “I want to be an insurance broker.”  I was the accidental person. I’m from small-town Missouri and live in New York City now. I got into insurance because I was working as an event coordinator for the University of Missouri and then I took a job to be a banquet manager at the World Trade Center in 2001.

A week before my job started, I got a call from the higher ups saying, “We’re doing a budget revamping and we’re going to do two banquet managers instead of three. You get to pick from Detroit or New Orleans.” At the time, that was not in the cards for me.

So I started networking around, and they kept pushing me towards sales. I ended up going to work for Paychex, a payroll company. While I worked there, they came up with a new workers comp product that nobody knew how to sell, so I learned. They had me train other reps, and when I was brought in, I would get asked questions on other insurances I referred out. Eventually the lightbulb came on saying those guys were making a lot more money than I was and so I got into insurance. A couple years later, I started my own firm.

MCNEELY: Well, I’m the opposite. I had a daddy in the business. He had been after me to come work with him since I was talking. I like to say insurance was in my blood, I just didn’t know it until after college. I sort of shocked my father because I think he thought it was sort of a hopeless cause. He actually about fell off his chair when I told him I was going to move back and start working with him.

The first three years of the business I thought I had made a huge mistake. My style was very different from my father’s. I was much more of an educator, and he was much more of a hard-sell kind of guy. I always say once this business got into my heart, I knew it was the right thing for me. My father is now retired and I own the company completely. 

That was also an interesting transition because he had a really hard time letting go and allowing me to run the firm like I think we needed to run it. I will say one thing: change is inevitable in this business and it’s happening at a more rapid pace. The quicker all of us as advisors can adapt to change the more success we’ll find in the future.

NEL: I’m with Susan; I fell into this. I had no plans ever to be in personal finance or finance anything. Growing up, my mother was a general manager for a mid-size accounting firm in Houston, and I used to watch her work her tail off. I remember telling her that I would never be like that when I grow up.

So I got a marketing degree. I was going to plan events, but you have to work Saturdays to plan events so that didn’t work out well.

I’m a relatively new advisor compared to Juli and Susan. I’ve been in financial services for 10 years, and I just started my practice just under four years ago. I’ve grown it tremendously over that time.

I’ve also been teaching for Rice University. I attribute my success to what they said is constantly growing and being able to adapt and change. Maybe, you know, being a new advisor that might be a little bit easier for me. But I focus solely on connection and building relationships all the time. That’s what I really like to do and what I’m good at and how I believe I’ve been able to really be successful.

Preparing clients for the future

MCNEELY: We have a process that we’re slowly starting to get out to all our clients for that very reason. More and more people are doing things online, so we now have a “bill paid” schedule for when they’re paid and when they’re not paid and what the password is to pay. Because if you’re not the person who does that, you have absolutely no idea where to start. People are not getting paper bills anymore. Some of them are set up to get automatically paid but many of them have to be triggered online by the actual client.

The other thing is an estate directory which we put on a flash drive with our firm logo. They can put everything on that, and, if something happens, they have that. It includes passwords for Facebook, LinkedIn. I don’t know if you know people who have passed away but they still have a Facebook. We prefill as much as we know about the client when we give it to them and then they can plug it into their computer and continue to fill it out and their family has all of their data if they need it. So we just tell them to keep it in a safe place and update a couple times a year.

NEL: We take that a step further and provide a cloud account with one username and password and just make sure that momma or daddy knows, or whomever is in charge knows, this username and password and that’s connected to my firm so you can call us or log in. That’s really resourceful too, so if something were to happen then we’re able to access that information at the same time. Then, we’re part of the process as well.

Collaboration is key

NEL: Each advisor at our firm has their own focus. We have a value manager, portfolio manager, mutual fund expert, 401(k) and retirement plan design expert, and I am in charge of the planning and the insurance. I’m also the only female.

It’s really nice to be able to focus on what you like to do the most. When you’re a lone wolf, it’s just too much and you can’t do everything well. So that teamwork aspect we have is one of the reasons why I am effective at what I do.

MCNEELY: Well my team is a critical piece for me. As NAIFA president, I travel a lot. If I didn’t have a team back in the office to keep things going each day, I wouldn’t be able to do that.

Our firm was built with a focus on teamwork. We do joint appointments, which helps build up the number of clients I have. I have a support staff along with four advisors. We also have a college intern.

There is one man in our office. (McNeely jokes.) Poor man, I know.

Our clients know there are other advisors they can go to if their primary advisor is out of the office. Joint work is absolutely critical for us.

NEL: Yeah, it’s especially important for your client that you are able to collaborate the most suitable solution for them. Having two advisors or four, having men and women, young and old creates the best benefit for your clients.

MCNEELY: Now that we have our intern, he’s helping with the strategies that we are going to try and target that Gen Y generation.

COMBS: I want to take this a little bit different because teams are important, but I think it’s also important to have the processes in place. You know, Juli and I are also national presidents of organizations, so I definitely have segmented teams. I have my business team, my organization team and then I have my home team.

Some of the things that we have set up for our office is a file share. It’s tremendously helpful when you are on the road or when you don’t have access to different things.

Calendar management is also crucial. I’m not allowed to touch my calendar. You can ask me to have coffee and I’ll tell you I’m not allowed to say yes to you. You have to ask Jenn, from my office, permission if I can have coffee with you.

Another thing we all do is we go through emails backwards. Yes, I understand if you emailed me two minutes ago you’re going to get a faster response than someone who emailed two hours ago. But I found that when you are out of the office frequently, if you go forward and start responding, you might end up doing double work.

I’ve also empowered my staff tremendously. Juli touched on that as well. We’ve both been gone a lot this year so having your staff know they can make those decisions and that you will back them up is powerful.

In terms of organization, we have a “Sleep on it” folder, and that’s also good for a business thing. There’s a lot of times that you get into the thick of it and you get reactionary.

We also have “tone checkers.” If you read an email and you have that word that pops in your head like “really!?” or “I can’t believe they just said that,” you’re going to respond to that email or client and give your emotions off and you don’t mean to. So I found having someone who’s going to read those emails is vital.

On the home side, being a woman, you are not a failure as a woman if you get a cleaning lady.

NEL: I have one twice a week!

COMBS: But things like that… especially for young women advisors… I think young women advisors think: “Oh, I have to do everything.” You have to manage expectations with your family too because when you do get into a leadership role it is going to be a lot of extra hours, it’s going to be a lot of weekend things.

One of the most important things is having that “me time.” It’s ok to unplug and it’s ok to not respond to a client at 9 p.m. You have to train your clients to separate yourself so you can recharge your batteries. I don’t work on the weekends. Unless I really like you, I’ll respond to you on a Saturday, but I typically don’t work on the weekends.

Who their ideal clients are

COMBS: One unwritten motto in our office is, not that we friend our clients on Facebook, but we say if you wouldn’t friend us on Facebook if we requested, we wouldn’t want you as a client. We only take people we like. If you’re going to be a pain in the rear, then it’s more headache and we don’t need that.

In term of strategies, there’s three niche markets I work in: entertainment, food products and international companies. We have developed spheres of influence in those markets. So I have an entertainment lawyer that I’m going to go to for helping with feature film production, but I’m not going to go to him when somebody wants to open a food based company. Having those segmented where we can do those kind of professional courtesies and ask each other ideas has been helpful.

MCNEELY: Well, when I first started in the business, my ideal client was anyone who was breathing. Luckily, that has now shifted. I spend most of my time working with small business owners.

The reason that I like it, is usually these small business owners are very good at their practice or trade but not so good at all of the stuff that it takes to run a business. So we become, I think, a great asset to those small business owners. We sit by their sides and help them grow and expand their business.

Marketing to those clients

COMBS: We use Newsle. This is an aggregator of all your contacts for when they’re in the news. It provides an easy way to give a touch by pulling in all your social media and email contacts. It gives you an email with all these buttons to Tweet, post to LinkedIn or email the person to recognize something great they’ve done. It’s a free service, and you get emails two to three times a day.

You can build your own profile. So if you’re mentioned in articles, you can upload those articles and then it gets pushed out to your contacts as well.

I’ve found that it’s led to more business for me because it’s showing that you’re recognizing them. Somebody told me a long time ago that you can look at social media and segment it as a third, a third, and a third… so a third where you’re educating the public, a third where you’re showing your personality and a third where you’re recognizing somebody else for something that they’ve done.

MCNEELY: As far as marketing to them, we do what I call “social prospecting.” We have ladies nights and men’s nights at our office. We decided to segment it because I think there really is a difference in the social mingling time when it comes to men and women.

We invite our clients and ask them to bring a friend. We pick fun topics and have a speaker come in for about 20 minutes. Again, it’s purely just a time for your clients to bring in people they know. I really do believe that your clients want to refer you to someone, but sometimes it’s just not a comfortable thing to do. We found this is pretty helpful.

We had a lot of people bringing friends they always wanted to introduce us to and so it’s been a great marketing tool. We primarily invite only our A and B clients only because we want to duplicate those clients.

We have also switched to very targeted email campaigns. We purchased an advisor software called Advisor Briefcase. It allows us to have a specific email campaign to a client or group of clients. So we have an on-going, twice a month email going out based on age demographic. But I can also come back from an appointment after meeting them for the first time and go, “all right, that client needs this direct marketing plan.”

I think we’ve got to start thinking about our clients and communicating to our clients in a very personalized way. I think clients expect it to be all about them, and they don’t want to know that you sent the same letter to 300 clients.

But sometimes a simpler strategy works

NEL: I don’t have as highly skilled and technical marketing strategies as these two. I’ve just had a constant stream of referrals. I have such good relationships with my clients, which is where the referrals come from.

One of the reasons I decided that this should be my career was that education aspect. I figured out pretty quickly I was a teacher, and that I could take information and turn it around to make it understandable and meaningful, which immediately created trust.

If you’re able to do that and connect to somebody, they tell you all their details. You go from being Jillian, my financial advisor, to Jillian my friend. And they want to tell the world about you.

I also always approach any networking situation with, “let me find somebody in this room that I can help.” It’s never: “here’s my card, send me your clients,” it’s what can I do to help you. When those things happen, you’ve created a friend, and you get referrals from your friends. You don’t get them from somebody you met a luncheon two weeks ago.

You create these connections and these people are going to be more willing and open to thinking about you when it comes to, “Hey, do you know anybody who does this?”

The no-pressure referral method

NEL: I really don’t have to ask the clients for referrals at this point. There may be a point in the future where I do need to ask, but the planning that we do and the level of detail connection I make, it just kind of comes.

COMBS: I think that’s a testament of how Jillian has things set up. If she’s been doing her own thing for four years and if you lay the groundwork early, then that’s when your phone starts ringing. Apparently, she did it right.

MCNEELY: I agree, if you’re doing your job well, I think referrals get less necessary the longer you’re in the business.  

Two strong organization leaders

COMBS: When I got involved with Women in Insurance and Financial Services, there wasn’t a chapter in NYC so I was approached as part of a steering committee to launch a chapter eight years ago. A couple of national board members came knocking on my door and wanted to talk about being on the national board.

At first, I said: “No, I don’t think this is going to be the right fit.” I was concerned about my age, about just starting a business and how much time it was going to take away. But I can honestly say, I’ve gotten much more out of it than I have given. We give a lot of time, and these are volunteer positions.

But I will tell you that WIFS is about advancing, developing and attracting women into our industry. The organization has worked very hard with a bunch of insurance carriers to be, in essence, their women’s initiatives.

I’ve been on the national board now for five years, and it’s given me confidence, speaking opportunities and also peer-to-peer relationships. Juli and I are very good friends. We would have never met if it wasn’t for these organizations.

Also the mentorship aspect has been great. I’ve mentored a lot of women in this organization and I’ve been mentored as well. So I think these are all opportunities I wouldn’t have had if I wasn’t with this organization.

MCNEELY: I would say that our industry can be a lonely place especially if you’re an independent advisor. That was really what it was all about when I first started (with the organization).

I knew if I were to be around people who were very successful, it was bond to rub off on me at some point. I started to connect and network with other individuals within our local NAIFA organization. Truly it just snowballed from there. If you ask me how I got here, I wouldn’t be able to tell you that … it just happened.

But it was because this industry was close to my heart, and I feel we need to protect this industry. NAIFA’s mission is to protect the business, help you grow your business and to promote ethical conduct. I could get behind that mission and obviously I have. I was the first female to ever hold this position in 125 years.

I will also tell you that it is really important to protect what we do. I don’t get up and travel every day for the fun of it.  I’ll be testifying under the Department of Labor. I’m taking one of my female business owner clients with me. The two of us are going to try to do what we can to protect this business and how we currently run our businesses.

I have a passion for this industry. I will never regret the time that I have dedicated to NAIFA because it has obviously benefitted me and my firm.

Connecting with both men and women

COMBS: Women don’t appreciate it when you don’t look at us when you’re presenting. Guys don’t because they’ve never really felt minimized that your opinion didn’t matter on things.

What we do is called the 80/20 rule. We look at the woman 80 percent of the time and the guy 20 percent of the time. The man and woman will both feel like they’re being looked at 50 percent of the time when you do this.

Also, don’t use a hard sale on women. Women know when they walk through the door if they’re going to buy from you. Your point is to get that woman to like you. If we don’t like you, we will never buy.

Women, what do we do when we call an 800 number and we don’t like the person’s voice? We hang up and call right back and do the exact same thing we needed to do with the person that sounds nicer on the phone. Don’t waste your time with that hard sale technique because it doesn’t work.

We also close the file with women. Our P&C quotes are only good for 30 days so we’ll do a friendly check-in when the quote is getting ready to expire. We say: “Hey Janice, just wanted to check in with you. I know life gets in the way sometimes, I’m just letting you know that the underwriter contacted me and this quote is going to expire. Do you need me to do you a favor and ask them to hold it open for a couple more weeks so you can have some more time so you can make the decision? Or if you’ve gone another way we’ll let the underwriter know to close out the file.”

I would say we get 99 percent response rate from that because it makes it looks like you’re doing them a favor.

MCNEELY: What Susan said is so accurate. When you’re in front of a woman, there’s a different way that you need to handle yourself. I don’t know about any of the other women in this room, but I am not motivated by a fishing competition. If you said I can go to the spa or a shopping day, I’m all over it. So if you have producers in your office that are female, they will have a much more motivated tone if you actually give them something they want to do.

NEL: When a man and a woman sit down in front of you, ask them what their agenda is before you run off into the things that you need to get done. It’s likely that they’re sitting there wanting you to fix a certain problem that’s not on your agenda.

They want to talk about themselves and they want to feel related to and connected to. Ask open ended questions. It’s super important.

Men will come into a meeting wanting you to fix a problem. But women will come in with a problem and want to talk about it. We want to talk about the emotional side of what that problem is and then all the steps of what we’re going to do to get there. We don’t want it to get fixed, we want to talk about it.

Ask the women in your life what they want from these relationships. They will help you discover what is important to a vast majority of women.

Women and their industry strengths

NEL: There’s a misconception that women have that this field is highly technical or very mathematical. It’s all about relationships and giving advice, which is what women do all day long. We talk. It’s the perfect career.

This is a major strength and an advantage over men in the industry. The topics of most planning situations are sensitive or serious subjects like mortality, death, spending habits, income needs, etc., which are often easier to discuss with women due to our ability to empathize.   

Women have more money and economic independence than ever before – they are also the primary inheritors of wealth as they statistically live longer.  Who best to know what these women are looking for and to serve them accordingly? Another woman who wants the same things. 

COMBS: It is said, on average, women physically tell 32 people if something good or bad happens to them. So just keep that in mind. When you do right by your women clients they’re going to tell 32 people.  If you do wrong, then it’s like hell hath no fury.

MCNEELY: I think women have an incredible skill set to do this business. We’re good listeners and multi-taskers. If you don’t have a female on your team, I would highly recommend it.

More and more women are making financial decisions in this country. Eighty-five percent of all financial decisions are made by the woman in the relationship. To me, you have to have some female influence in your office.

I often consider my clients, my friends. I’ve cried with many of them. I have become part of their “family.” Deep connections have allowed me to serve my clients in a very broad way. They reach out to check in and bounce ideas off of me even on non-financial topics. When any relationship becomes personal, it is hard to break or even consider going forward without it. 

See also:

Best insurance companies for working mothers in 2015

Women with ambition: Here are your top 10 tips for getting ahead

20 women in insurance you need to know


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