When a waterskiing accident in July 1993 left up-and-coming insurance adviser John Nichols as a quadriplegic, he was in a state of shock and denial.

He writes in his recent book, Income Protection, that the Monday morning after his accident he was mentally ready for work while still constrained to his hospital bed. When his parents arrived they helped him reschedule his appointments for a mere two weeks later.

Little did he know how much time recovery would actually take. In the end, Nichols spent six years in rehabilitation to restore his motor skills to "get back to the place of being proactive," he says in an interview with EBA, though he says the mental hurdles that accompany a disability are still a challenge to this day.

Luckily, he had been introduced to an individual disability insurance product a year prior to his accident, so he had the care necessary to cover his rehab expenses, which far surpassed what his health insurance and group disability insurance would have provided for alone. "If I didn't have the coverage, I sit here and I wonder, what would my existence be?" he says. "Would my dreams and goals have been able to be realized? And so, if I didn't have the coverage and I wasn't able to get the rehab I wanted, you have the double-edged sword of physical and mental aspects of disability. ... The existence is horrible."

But Nichols did have the coverage, and was able to make an almost full recovery after rigorous therapy. By October 1999 he was ready to move on to a new professional venture. He started a Chicago-based business — Disability Resource Group — inspired by his personal experience. Selling the product that he owes his life to would now be his life's mission.

Nichols says that disability insurance, whether group or individual, should be at the forefront of employee benefit advisers' minds because it's a "natural fit" next to health insurance. "My rehab expenses under health insurance only went so far," he says. "It was really my disability insurance that helped me get to the place of recovery that I've gotten. So really, disability insurance is a form of health insurance."

At the time, his parents wanted him to move back home so they could readily help with his care. But as a 32-year-old man, the last thing he wanted to do was leave his new condo, independence and the city of Chicago that he loved behind. Because of the financial freedom granted by his supplemental policy, his mother instead moved in with him to help begin the healing process. "I got control because of that policy," he explains.

Without disability insurance, Nichols says he would have been granted one rehabilitation session a week for 50 minutes under his health insurance's restrictions. "I was a young man, I wanted to work hard, I didn't want to work one day a week," he reflects. Instead, he was able to work on his motor skills as a full-time job and return to a life where today, years later, someone passing him on the street would not see any evidence of a disability. In contrast, Nichols says he has a neighbor, now in his 70s, who had an accident at a similar age of 40 and didn't have the financial means for a full recovery. Nichols says the neighbor revealed to him that he's wishing for death at this point in his wheelchair-bound existence. "Every day that goes by that you're unable to perform the way you want to perform, it chips away at your personality and hope," Nichols says. "You're messing with people's dreams and hope for a better life."

If that isn't inspiration enough, Nichols says he understands that many health and life producers are looking for ancillary products to sell in the era of health reform, and supplemental individual policies can be sold to small and large businesses alike.

 

Where to start

An employee benefit producer already has the best leverage for selling disability insurance to clients - an open dialogue about health. Nichols says that when you have a conversation with a business owner, chief financial officer or HR, ask first, "Do you feel any sense of responsibility to empower employees to make better financial choices?"

He gives the following advice for how producers can get into selling the product:

* Get together: "If the adviser has not been exposed to multi-life disability insurance programs, I'd encourage them to connect with a wholesaler in the area or producer to learn it," he says. "This is where joint work or team work really pays off."

* Problem-solve: "When talking with HR or the president of the company, help them recognize the problem," he says. Perhaps they are trimming back expensive group long-term disability and need to fill in the gap with supplemental individual, or need to find more coverage for their high-earning executives, or maybe they have never looked at group disability before. These are all angles, Nichols says, to try to anticipate and use in your conversation.

* Learn: "There is a vast amount of information out there from carriers, expert producers, wholesalers," he says. "Connect with your method of learning and dig in to research. Be thinking, 'How can I learn how to show the employer the problem so that I can then provide the solution?'"

Since 1999, Nichols' Disability Resource Group has grown to 17 employees, 10 producers and boasts a book of business greater than $25 million. He's sold supplemental individual insurance policies to businesses as big as 60,000 and as small as two, but he says his "sweet spot" in the group market is companies around 100 employees. "Advisers could create a division of their business that focuses on voluntary, executive benefits and the high-limit arena for high-wage earners that exceed the traditional caps of traditional disability. There's so much room and so much white space for this," he advises.

 

Group disability

According to the Council for Disability Awareness, 100 million American workers are not on private disability insurance plans - that's 69% of the American workforce. So while Nichols' mission to provide supplemental insurance on top of group disability is a valid tactic, there's still a case to be made to employers to provide it altogether. "Disability insurance is one of the most under-sold products," said Larry Hazzard of Guardian Life Insurance Company at the Workplace Benefits Summit, hosted by EBA's parent company SourceMedia in September. Hazzard provided three reasons for selling disability insurance in today's benefits climate:

1) Consumer focus: "More benefit decisions are being pushed to the employees, which requires more options and better education," he said at the New Orleans-based event.

2) Value: "Adding voluntary disability adds value and makes a limited benefits budget work harder," he said.

3) Easier: "Improved technology has lowered barriers to entry for brokers and made it easier to enter the market," he said, adding that advisers have historically been deterred from selling disability because of the work, and also because employers were deterred from buying it. But now, with the consumer increasingly in charge, they're more likely to have a feeling of "something really bad is going to happen to me."

Allan Checkoway is a principal at Disability Services Group in Newton, Mass., and also had some advice for those attending the disability session at the Summit: "I've wasted time with HR people. The CFO is a better prospect because he or she is the decision maker."

The disability sales veteran continued: "Tell [the CFO] that 31 cents of every dollar is going toward benefits. I say, 'It's my job to get you credit for the money you're already spending.'" He adds: "Advisers who don't discuss disability are not doing the full job, and are creating liability for themselves."

Another powerful selling strategy is to use feedback from people who have become disabled and used long-term disability benefits. A September report issued by the Consumer Federation of America not surprisingly showed an overwhelming majority - 95% - of respondents would "encourage other people to get disability insurance through their employers." Sixty-percent said their disability benefits made them feel "favorable" toward their employer, and 85% believe employers should auto-enroll employees in a group plan. The poll solicited feedback from more than 400 beneficiaries of disability income.

 

Know more

The idea of auto-enrollment points to the important necessity of education in this space. According to CDA's President Barry Lundquist, "A lot of people think they have disability insurance, but they don't ... employees who better understand their group disability coverage make better benefit decisions."

Disability insurance education is important for all Americans because many wage earners will realize they are not adequately covered or not covered at all, according to the disability panel at the Summit. Nichols, who speaks regularly in public about his accident, also emphasizes this point. "I've spoken all over this country and maybe two people in all my years raised their hands and thoroughly knew about their disability plans," he says. Most people have no idea, and they're forced to deal with their financial situation after a disability rather than before one, he adds.

Nichols says there must be a reason people don't know about the potential catastrophic implications of a disability. He says this is why he's chosen to speak, write a book, and talk to people. The title of his book is his motto: Income Protection. Instead of saying disability, he uses this phrase to get people thinking of potential consequences, not a state that they don't believe they'll ever be in. And the facts are there. CDA's Lundquist said that "64% of workers say their chance of long-term disability during their career is one or two out of 100," or 1% and 2%. In reality, he says, "Just over one in four - 25% - of today's 20 year olds will become disabled before they retire."

Nichols writes that his strategy to change the terminology turns "a negative picture into a positive mental picture, resulting in more favorable outcomes." And he calls on the industry to follow. "It's not disability at all, it's about giving people the ability to have choices and to be in control of their financial lives," he says.

 

MAKING DREAMS POSSIBLE

Before his accident, John Nichols had grand ambitions to make a name for himself in the insurance world. Just last month, he was instated as the president of the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors for 2013-2014. This is in addition to the achievement of building his own company - rooted in his passion for helping others with disability insurance.

In 2009, in a quest to accomplish something that he never thought possible at the height of his injury, Nichols decided he was going to run the Chicago Marathon. Despite a knee injury sustained during training that should have limited him to walking the course, he decided to run until he couldn't any longer. "My cause was too important, my desire was burning, the opportunity was present, right here, right now," he writes in his book, Income Protection. "My commitment was hanging heavy over my head and heart. ... I wanted my personal victory." And he got it. While he had to start walking around mile 19, as his knee had almost completely given out, he walked and dragged his right leg the rest of the way, finishing with a time of 6 hours, 9 minutes and 59 seconds. This was within the official finish timeframe, so he received a medal and the proud accomplishment of fulfilling a commitment. "You have to agree, that's not bad for a recovering C-5, C-6 incomplete quadriplegic," he writes.

He continues to train for marathons, enjoys golf and loves to travel. He spends most of his time in Chicago, Lyons, Colo., and Bonita Springs, Fla.

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