John Graham (Photo: Graham) John Graham (Photo: Graham)

Even before John Graham started his own marketing and public relations firm specializing in insurance in, he always felt the pull of life insurance. In fact, when he graduated from Occidental College, back in 1953, he was offered a job selling life insurance policies.

He declined the offer, and spent many years working in another profession.

When he switched careers and launched his own firm, GrahamComm, in the early 1980s, he once again found himself drawn to the insurance business.

Today, the majority of his clients work in the life or property-casualty insurance sectors, either as agents or as wholesalers. “I seemed to have an affinity for insurance, particularly life insurance,” he says.

He is a prolific columnist, and powerful sources of sales and marketing tips, in his own right. He has been publishing columns on ThinkAdvisor.com and in related publications for many years.

(Related: 5 Ways to Glue Customers to Your Practice)

Although Graham characterizes himself as an outsider, he nevertheless has gained enough experience with successful producers to know what makes a great life insurance agent a success— and what many agents are doing wrong.

“It’s a vastly rewarding field financially,” he says, “but it’s a tough job today.”

In a recent interview with Think Advisor, Graham reflected on some of the biggest mistakes he sees life insurance agents making — and how those mistakes are holding back their sales.

Here’s a look at some of what Graham said, drawn from the interview.

  1. Agents may not realize many prospects are suspicious of them.

Agents know they have a great product to sell. Unfortunately, many people perceive life insurance agents as merely salespeople trying to sell them “something they don’t need, want, or understand,” Graham says. Prospects may also have been pressured into thinking about buying life insurance by a spouse or other family member. This sets up an uncomfortable situation in which the prospect comes into the meeting suspicious of the agent. In order to get the sales meeting off on a more positive note, the agent must first acknowledge the prospect’s feelings and set about overcoming those objections.

  1. Agents may assume the prospects know more about life insurance than they do.

Life insurance is an extremely complicated product. The lengthy application process entails many questions, and applicants also have to go through a physical examination. “People are easily confused by that,” Graham says. “So one of the major tasks of successful agents is taking the time to educate people about life insurance so they’re more comfortable.” By educating prospects about the intricacies of life insurance, the agent sends a message that he or she really cares about the prospect and isn’t solely interested in making a sale, Graham says.

Prospects also may believe a life insurance policy only delivers benefits when the policyholder dies, but that’s not true. A hybrid life insurance/long-term care contract funds long-term care needs as well. So it’s up to the agent to educate prospects about the living benefits of a life policy, Graham says.

  1. Agents may not ask enough questions.

Just as agents must act like teachers, they must also be students and learn about their prospects, Graham stresses: What are their concerns and fears? Their dreams and goals? Are they worried about not having enough money in retirement? Do they want to leave a legacy to their children or a charity? By listening to the prospect and asking probing questions, the agent will make the prospect understand they are not being sold something, but are buying a valuable product. “If you don’t gather information, you’re not going to get anybody on board,” Graham says.

  1. Agents may not give prospects enough choices.

Rather than being told what to buy, prospects demand choices. “People want to participate [in the buying process] and feel like they’re in control, not the salesperson,” Graham says. “That’s why it’s more fun to buy a car than life insurance.”

Yet many agents tend to work from a limited menu of products and carriers because that’s what they know and understand, Graham says. Agents may overlook the innovative products the life insurance industry now puts on the market. Graham advises agents to work with carriers and other experts to present prospects with those creative solutions and let the prospects make the choice.

  1. Agents may not identify cross-selling opportunities.

When gathering information from the client, the agent may fail to identify a concern or risk solved by another insurance solution. “Not to bring it up out of the blue, but relate it to something the prospect has told you,” Graham explains. For example, if the prospect expresses a concern over what would happen if he or she couldn’t work anymore, the agent can suggest disability insurance. Likewise, a prospect focused on having enough retirement income would be a good candidate for an annuity. Sometimes, those cross-selling opportunities were missed because the agent never asked the right question, Graham says. When they do follow up on those concerns and find an insurance product that erases a burden, agents will build trust with the prospect, Graham says.

— Related, on ThinkAdvisor:

— Connect with ThinkAdvisor Life/Health on Facebook and Twitter.