Angela Sweeney was going to be a youth minister. However, a move back home after ministry school and a temp job later, Sweeney had stumbled onto her career.
Sweeney, an account executive with NFP Corp. in Rockford, Illinois, had spent two years in Austin, Texas, at a small ministry training school. “I moved back north to be closer to family.”
That’s when she took a temporary job at NFP, filling in at the reception desk for an employee who was on vacation.
That was 2007 when Sweeney was just 21. Today, Sweeney is a licensed agent (since 2010) and handles a large book of business in the company’s employee benefits operations. Sweeney, now 30, has found a career that, oddly enough, comes with some of the same job duties as she was seeking in the ministry. “It’s still in the vein of helping people, which is one part of the job I find really satisfying,” she says. “Seeing that also motivated me and was a passion being met — to help people and be meaningful to people.”
Quite a shift in direction, but one Sweeney is happy to have made. “I was lucky enough to have a company that wanted to take a chance on me, someone with no prior experience. They gave me the opportunity to learn, and I took it.”
Learning on the fly
Yet Sweeney’s timing turned out to be one of her toughest challenges. As she was earning her licensure, the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was being enacted. Just as she thought she had a handle on the job and its intricacies, the ACA was passed. “That turned everything on its head,” she says. “I remember when it first came down, I think all of our heads were spinning.”
In fact, from then to now, Sweeney says most of her challenges have centered around ACA. Not only was she “wrapping my mind around that legislation and all the rules and regs” but also she was realizing that clients needed additional help. “We were going to have to explain to clients and help them implement” an entirely new set of rules.
That meant finding creative solutions, she says, and creative ways to address clients’ needs, all while relearning the job. “Truly a lot of what we did was changed. The challenge was being able to help our clients apply it and comply with certain things.”
When asked how the industry itself has changed, Sweeney laughs. “It’s almost easier to say how it hasn’t,” she says. “There’s been a profound change in what it means to be an agent or a producer.”
For example, when she started, Sweeney says “it was about the benefits, about the producers and how they were going to help their clients.” There’s been a shift more recently, however. “Our titles almost went from being a producer t being a consultant.”
In fact, the consultant word is being thrown around more often, Sweeney says. “That word carries more meaning. It indicates that we wear a lot more hats now. We need to be subject matter experts on quite a few things — complex legislation, guidelines, compliance, the sky’s the limit. That’s what is now required of us — what is expected of us from a client level.”
The challenge for agents
That’s upped the ante for agents, and outside forces are also putting pressure on agents, particularly on the sales side, Sweeney says. She says the internet marketplace for insurance has appealed to many tech-savvy consumers, who are accessing vast amounts of insurance information online. That, Sweeney says, leads to an increased level of confidence in the consumer, one that makes them believe they can easily go it alone in the insurance buying process.
That concerns her. “They’ll look for an individual insurance plan and say ‘here’s a plan, this looks great’ and it has a $3,500 deductible for $300. Yet they don’t know that maybe it’s a more narrow network” or contains other nuances that consumers aren’t aware of or used to navigating.
Plus, on both the employee benefits side and the individual markets, Sweeney says there’s quite a bit of change presenting additional challenges. On the benefits side, Sweeney says, “we’re seeing shrinking product options, more consolidation, the narrowing of networks and more limited network options.”
While there are still plenty of options, Sweeney says they’ve been trimmed back. “For us to be able to bring options, and have flexibility and more creativity about what we can do, that’s been hampered a bit.”
On the individual side, Sweeney says commissions are being drastically reduced. In the state of Illinois, she says, commissions have been removed altogether. That’s impacting agent success significantly, she says.
Small accomplishments, big payoff
To stay ahead of critical changes, Sweeney says she’s been able to streamline her internal processes so that she can manage a large book of business, an accomplishment she’s proud of. Plus, she says being able to build strong client relationships is also something she’s proud to have done. “At the end of the day, it’s people, and it’s the clients and the relationships that matter. It matters to me how they feel they’re being serviced and the value I offer and NFP brings to the table.”
Probably Sweeney’s largest accomplishment to date is maintaining a “very high client retention rate. I view that as a success. It’s what you build your business on.”
All her success didn’t happen by accident. Sweeney says she had a few mentors who shared their knowledge with her and showed her the ropes. “That’s an indispensable thing if you’re going into an industry like ours.”
It’s also her advice to new agents. “Be teachable. Be ready to learn and if you can, find a mentor.”
Also, enjoy what you do, Sweeney says. “With your job and your work, you should have fun.”
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 email@example.com.