Benefit advisers urged to leverage power of personal touch

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LOS ANGELES — When it comes to selling employee benefits, insurance products and financial services, several industry leaders at a recent conference noted the power of personal touches and nuanced approaches.

“Great producers fall in love with their clients, not their products,” said Howard E. Sharfman, senior managing director of NFP. “Great producers tell great stories. Life insurance is sold through a conversation and a story — not by an illustration.”

His remarks were made at the Million Dollar Round Table’s annual meeting at the Los Angeles Convention Center, which drew more than 15,000 members from 53 countries. Founded in 1927, MDRT reaches more than 66,000 life insurance and financial services professionals from more than 500 companies in 71 nations and territories.

The key to success is developing good habits, according to Sharfman, who listed 10 common traits of top life insurance producers. They include having grit; being disciplined; knowing their product, competition and market inside and out; thriving on new activity, not old; focusing on developing opportunities; creating vs. discovering clients; being consumed by what’s not on their desk; being irreverent; and having bad moments, not bad days.

Customers want and need value in the form of expertise, according to Scott Edinger, founder of Edinger Consulting, who spoke about the importance of transforming sales tactics. His point was to transcend communication about products and services to differentiate oneself in the market. “You need to be the edge,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a time when selling in insurance and financial services have been more competitive than now.”

One such example is helping clients see issues they hadn’t considered that may be hidden from view, Edinger noted. Several attendees of the session shared their experiences, including bringing unclaimed options for Social Security benefits to the attention of a prospective customer and hand-written notes once a year to develop a personal touch that stands out.

Edinger stressed the importance of a nuanced approach to sales. A written assessment he took years ago when applying for a job suggested he’d be too timid to succeed because of his emphasis on client relations. “The notion of pressing for the close and being aggressive was utterly unappealing to me,” he said.

It didn’t take long for him to debunk that notion and prove his worth. Edinger was the No. 2 salesman for a Fortune 500 company within two years of that rejection. Therefore, he noted how critical it is to embrace value that’s created during the sales process through personality, insight and expertise.

Keynoter Josh Linkner, the son of a life insurance executive, founder of five tech companies and author of “The Road to Reinvention,” addressed the importance of adopting a mindset of “every day innovation.”

Like Edinger, he relayed a lesson from early in his career about why showing some humanity always trumps high-pressure sales tactics.

Recalling how he was seated on an airplane flight home next to a hot prospect for whom he was one of three finalists for a $30 million deal, Linkner was tempted to use this stroke of luck to close the deal. When the man was moved to first class, he also was able to relocate right next to him. But then he decided to take a breath and offer to trade seats with the prospect’s wife who was left in coach. After the plane landed, Linkner was told his company was awarded the contract. His prospect appreciated the gesture and said he needed a tie-breaker to influence his decision.

Personal touches from clients also can be used to raise the bar on sales. Sharfman, for example, polled his clientele about their reasons for buying life insurance and used some of those anecdotes to sell prospects on the concept. They included rave reviews on the tax-effective use of policies, accruing cash value at low charges and knowing how one’s family would be better off as a result of that purchase. In short, he said the focus needs to be on viewing life insurance premium as a capital contribution or investment vs. an expense that will benefit loved ones.

Sharfman urged attendees to embrace change in an evolving marketplace in terms of the way they structure and staff their life insurance practices. Other areas he cited include how they view their value proposition, sales process, product mix, prospecting methods, best practices, technology, social media and industry knowledge.

“Being able to reinvent yourself is an incredibly important skill set,” he added, relating it to his own career. Sharfman has placed more than $17 billion in life insurance, consistently producing more than $3 million of new target life insurance premium every year for the past decade. Also noting that he has delivered more than $1 billion in death claims, Sharfman said “saving families from financial hardship is cool.”

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