A psychology degree and a focus on compliance are helping one new agent build strong relationships with clients. (Photo: Errol Higgins)

It may seem a little early for Jason Buchanan to be talking about industry change, but this newly minted agent has seen plenty of it already. An agent for just under a year, Buchanan had followed the industry on the sidelines for years. He says thanks to the Affordable Care Act and the compliance requirements, he’s found a good way to bring value to his clients, who are both commercial and individual clients.

Buchanan, account executive with HUB International’s Santa Maria, California, office, says the changes to the way health care is delivered have made the role of the agent more important than ever. “Things are more stringent and confusing to people who aren’t in the industry.”

Compliance, he says, is a bigger conversation he’s had to have with clients. “In the past, compliance was never really a topic of conversation. But now it’s number one.”

Buchanan is one of just three agents handling individual business for the company in the state of California. That means his entry into the insurance agent realm was a baptism by fire to some extent. Not that he wasn’t already familiar with the industry — his father, an agent with HUB International, had owned a successful insurance and financial services company. Insurance was a common topic of conversation at home.

Joining the ranks

His father’s career successes were also inspiration for Buchanan. Fresh out of college in 2015, he held a degree in psychology and in business. He was also struggling with landing on a career choice. “I’d talked with my father in the past about the insurance business. It sounded like something I wanted to get into. So I went with it, and so far, it’s been the best decision ever.”

His degree, he says, has actually helped him build his client base. His psychology degree comes in handy in the insurance industry, he says, because it allows him to understand people, the sales process from an emotional standpoint, and how to interact with prospects.  “It’s a good tool to have.”

It’s also good to have a strong drive, which Buchanan has already exhibited. One of his accomplishments, he says, has been obtaining his life and health and his property/casualty licensure within six months. Also, he’s helping grow the individual market, a role he sees as a delivering a significant contribution.

It’s a little early for Buchanan to be laden with accolades, but he has his eye on internal sales awards that are driving his activities. His sales have grown significantly in the past few months, he says. “I’ve been dealing a lot with the individual and the special enrollment period, and really branching out and branding myself and getting my name out there.”

He’s doing so by helping both his commercial clients and individuals understand the changes within the health care market. For individuals, the challenge is understanding coverage options and what they may be compromising on. “These bronze plans are the new normal,” says Buchanan. “People just want something that’s affordable, especially with rates that are continuously changing. They want just a bronze plan that’s going to get them covered whereas in the past, they could look at a higher-level plan.”

The age issue

It’s helped him gain the confidence of his clients, he says, which is a challenge for a young agent under 30. “At this time in my career, my youth is a challenge. Some people look at me as being a wet-behind-the-ears 24-year-old who’s new and doesn’t know much about insurance, but it’s the opposite. My knowledge is extensive. But sometimes it’s tough to gain someone’s respect when you’re talking to someone 30 years older than you.”

He says he works harder to earn clients’ trust and get past “that initial how-old-is-this-guy barrier.” But Buchanan’s been able to overcome that with one critical tool — knowledge. “As long as you show you know what you’re talking about, people respect that.”

Agent challenges

It’s that kind of personalized service that Buchanan thinks agents of all stripes need right now. Outside forces, including commercial competitors such as Zenefits as well as competition in the individual market coming from the large insurers’ and brokers’ online presence, have pushed the small agency business into a new dynamic.

“Insurance has become so commoditized there’s really not a lot of wiggle room for agents to say ‘This is what I can do for you instead of this guy over here,’ ” he says of the new competitive arena. “It’s no longer ‘This is the price I can get you’ because the price is usually the same. Now it’s ‘Here’s how I can help you or bring this electronic piece’ — it’s really all the value adds you bring to the table now, so agents really have to focus on staying ahead of your competition.”

He finds it challenging to convince clients that the agent plays a vital role in the process. “Sometimes the need for an actual person doesn’t seem needed to some people. It’s an interesting time to be an agent. It’s posed some intriguing challenges to agents.”

Yet Buchanan thinks within those challenges are opportunities, particularly when it comes to advising clients on compliance matters. He finds opportunity during open enrollment periods, where he sees people coming off group plans who need help understanding their options. The older individuals, he says, are looking for specifics.

“They want everything laid out for them and everything explained, which totally makes sense. They want to know they’re getting the right coverage. That’s what I try to do — to reinforce to them that they’re getting the proper coverage and that they’re in good hands with us.”

He advises his fellow agents to “dive right in. Don’t be afraid to fail. Just be confident in what you know, be confident in yourself. Dedicate yourself to learning the industry. It’s not a get-rich-quick business. You’ve got to grind for a couple of years. Just be prepared and work hard.”

Buchanan himself did just that, and he loves the job. “It’s an interesting industry. There are a lot of ups and downs, but that’s what makes it enjoyable.”

Know a great young advisor who is making a difference in the industry? Nominate them to be featured in The Succession Initative or LifeHealthPro’s 30 under 30 feature by emailing kbeckman@alm.com.

Related: 30 under 30: Meet the millennials who are transforming the insurance industry