Editor’s Note: This article originally published in July 2013. Dates and ages have remained unchanged from the original piece.

David Johnson has never wanted to be anything other than an insurance agent.

His grandfather started selling insurance in 1962. His father started selling it five years later. And Johnson joined the family business, the Johnson Financial Group in Norcross, Ga., immediately after finishing college in 1996.

“I’ve never been on a job interview, never put together a resume,” Johnson says. “I watched all my friends in college trying to figure out what to do, and I didn’t give it a second thought. I knew I wanted to work with my dad.”

Unfortunately, his passion for insurance sales didn’t translate to actual insurance sales. His first year in the business, Johnson worked endlessly … and sold just a handful of policies.

“Whatever methods I was trying were not working,” he says. “I didn’t know how to build a clientele out of nothing, and that really is the job.”

Undaunted, Johnson set about learning better habits, and within a year, he was an MDRT-level producer. Today, he has 2,500 life policies on the books and sold 107 of those in 2012 alone.

This is how he did it.

A year of failure

Johnson left college single — and he’s pretty sure his love of insurance had something to do with it.

“We all knew uncool people in college,” he says. “But nobody knew anyone selling whole life door-to-door in the dorms.”

Yet, despite all that zeal, when Johnson joined the business full time after graduating, he ended up failing. Miserably.

In his first year of selling, Johnson sold just five policies, total, each with a $1,000 commission. How did he survive on so little income? Well, he didn’t. Unmarried and with no kids, he was, fortunately, living at home with his parents at the time.

“There was no way I could have even supported myself,” he says. “I was failing pretty horribly. Things were really bad.”

The trouble was, Johnson didn’t know why he wasn’t selling more. He bought long prospect lists from other companies and sat at his desk, day in and day out, cold calling and setting up appointments. In those days, the SIMPLE IRA was new, so he was focused on contacting small businesses to pitch them the product.

Johnson kept track of everything he did, and in that year, he made 1,500 phone calls. He ended up with 147 appointments. And out of those, he sold his paltry five plans.

“I thought, ‘Look at all of this that I’m doing and how little I’m getting paid for this,’” he says. “But it was all just needle-in-the-haystack kind of stuff.”

A recipe for success

Johnson went looking for help and found it in the methods of Wayne Cotton, the founder of Cotton Systems, which helps financial advisors boost their sales activity. “I listened to what he was saying, and I said, ‘Okay, I can do what that guy is describing,’” he says.

Johnson took away four key lessons from Cotton:

-          Have a client profile. Cotton believes every advisor is naturally good with a certain kind of person, so it follows that the advisor can sell more if he or she strives to only meet with that type of person. “The idea of profiling really shrunk the world down for me,” Johnson says. “Which I needed.”

See also: How (and why) to target a niche market

-          The referral-gathering interview should be its own event. Cotton teaches that referrals should be asked for on their own, not tacked on as an afterthought at policy delivery. “The thinking is that, if we don’t take it real seriously, the client doesn’t either,” Johnson says “When I started making it a separate meeting, that suddenly dramatically increased the number of names and prospects I had to work with.”

-          Use a questionnaire to open up a brand-new case. Clients can lie to you, Cotton theorizes, but it’s harder when they have to write down the lie on an official form. Johnson started using a nine-minute multiple-choice questionnaire when he met with new prospects and was better able to discover their goals and needs — and then serve them.

-          Plan to be profitable today, not five years from today. As Johnson, with his $5,000 in income knew, this lesson from Cotton was key. He had to learn to keep his eye on his short-term income, not just work to build sales that may or may not happen down the road.

To Cotton’s advice, Johnson added a nugget of wisdom from his own father, too: Never leave the office on a Friday without first having 10 appointments set up for the next week.

“It’s something I’ve told a lot of people over the years, but he is the only one that ever made that a religion,” says his dad, Dwight Johnson. “If he needed to miss something exciting on Friday night, it didn’t matter. He wasn’t leaving the office until he had those 10 lined up. And he did that for 12 years.”

Johnson devoted himself to the principles he learned and got back to work. Within one year, he qualified for the MDRT. After four more years, he had a solid client base. “Those lessons really set the course of my life for the next five years,” he says. “That’s what got me established.”

Advancing his career

Today, 38 and married, Johnson’s focus is less on building his business and more on serving his existing clients. As associate general agent at his family’s firm, he’s also helping younger agents get through their own difficult first years.

“He does all of our training now,” Dwight Johnson says. “He helps everyone, and nobody ever feels like he’s in a hurry or doesn’t want to be bothered. His door is open all day long.”

Johnson has even helped his dad become a more efficient agent. After tiring of going out on night appointments in his 20s, while all his friends were out having fun, Johnson realized his clients didn’t want to get together at night any more than he did.

“He realized that the reason people were seeing him at night was because that was the time he was asking them for the appointment,” Dwight Johnson says.

His son started asking for daytime appointments, and people were just as happy — if not more so — to see him then. The elder Johnson, who for the last 30 years had spent two nights a week working until 10 p.m., followed suit.

“I haven’t had a night appointment in 10 years,” Dwight Johnson says, chuckling.

As he grows as an agent, the younger Johnson is hoping to find similar efficiencies elsewhere. Right now, he’s looking at ways to do more of his business via Skype and the Internet.

“Instead of coordinating schedules with a client, and figuring out what restaurant to go to, and him having to leave work, I could just say, ‘Be in front of your computer at two and let’s talk,” he says.

Johnson’s also working on a sales concept that helps persuade people in their 40s to transfer from term policies to permanent ones as a way to boost retirement security. If all goes well — and so far it is — he’s hoping to spread the idea via seminars and, eventually, over the Web.

“My ultimate dream would be to have this thing perfectly harnessed online,” he says. “The Internet just changes everything.”

“The boundaries these days,” he says. “are gone.”

 

For more producer stories, see:

The salesman who doesn’t sell

Game changer: How Cleves Delp is building the agency of the future

A career change gone right