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It's All About Sales and Prospecting

Are you struggling to make it to the top? It may be time to rethink your approach.

By Janet Bigham Bernstel

Everybody wants to make it to the top. But what’s the formula that leads one advisor to succeed while another barely scratches by? Six top producers share their secrets of success. From “cold-walking” to comical parables, each has placed a unique spin on selling and prospecting. Learn the techniques that have helped these advisors take seats at the Million Dollar Round Table’s Top of the Table.

Who: Bobb A. Meckenstock, MBA, CLU
          Principal Meckenstock Group and
          Main Street Securities
What: Financial and estate planning
Where: Hays, Kan.
Status: 22 years, MDRT Top of the Table

Bobb Meckenstock’s colleagues call him the annuities guru, asserting that he’s cornered that market. But even top producers felt the pressure when the bull market turned bearish. Over a year ago, he decided to get back to the basic sales and prospecting techniques that first took him to the top.

“We’ve started doing the things that we did five and 10 years ago, but stopped because they worked so well,” claims Meckenstock. That meant increasing the overall visibility of the firm to attract new clients and reminding existing ones that the company was still their anchor in the storm. So he upped the advertising budget for postage and TV spots. His advice: a company’s advertising budget should be the equivalent of one good employee’s salary, as this “silent employee” is always at work bringing in business.

Then he and his staff sent out florescent postcards (no bulk mail letters after Sept. 11), listing current hot product rates. Using third-party mailing lists and the company database, the prospecting trick was once again successful.

“It’s the lifeline that kept us going in this market downtime,” says Meckenstock. “We invest 24 cents in a postage stamp and people respond like crazy.” Back to basics also meant emphasizing the techniques that have kept him at the top, like relationship building and customer care. To become a trusted advisor, you have to become more than a product pusher. “We position ourselves as the person they call whenever they have money issues,” he says. “We’re very successful because we provide a lot of complimentary services.”

Some of those services are:

  • A website

  • Regular email communications

  • A quarterly newsletter

  • Frequent telephone consultations discussing investments as well as the client and community.

  • Seminars every three weeks for sharing ideas on safe investments, which double as prospecting sessions.

“Our target audience is our database, plus we ask on the invitation that they bring a friend,” he says. “That’s the price of admission.” Once the client views you as the advisor, making a sale is a simple, two-step process, Meckenstock explains: “First we help them identify the tax treatment of their investments, and then we identify whether their need is short, medium or long term.”

Who: Robert B. Plybon, CLU, CHFC
             President and CEO Plybon and Associates
             Main Street Securities
What: Small business financial and estate planning
Where: Greensboro, N.C.
Status: 12 years, MDRT Top of the Table;
             1995 MDRT President

Thirty years ago, a prospect was anyone who could fog a mirror, according to Robert B. Plybon. Today, the game is dramatically different. A better-educated consumer has forced advisors to be more discerning in targeting their potential clients.

“I do a great deal by working through centers of influence,” says Plybon, whose prospects come mainly from referrals through attorneys and CPAs who work with small businesses. His advice to those looking for prospecting shortcuts: forget the wasted energy in random “smilin’ and dialin’.”

To increase productivity, Plybon’s advice is two-fold: First, identify your ideal prospect. Map a specific profile of characteristics like the prospect’s income, net worth, occupation and marital status.

For example, Plybon identifies advisors who work with small-business owners—those he is interested in working with—and who specialize in areas that have insurance needs, such as estate and tax planning. If he already has a prospect, he’ll find out the name of his most trusted advisor. Then he’ll meet with the advisor to discuss the prospect’s current problem and possible solutions. Finally, there is a meeting with all three, which often leads to a sale. “By the time we see the client, my ideas have become the advisor’s ideas,” explains Plybon. “Everyone feels good, and I’ve developed a new relationship.”

Second, create a marketing plan to reach that group. Rather than marketing his firm to the general public, Plybon markets to their advisors. He calls people in his target group, introduces himself and invites them to lunch to share business ideas. Plybon asks how they attract new business. Then he’ll offer a sales or planning idea that he’s picked up at a recent meeting.

“Many times over that luncheon they’ll say, ‘You know I’ve got someone right now you should talk to,’ and I’ll get a referral,” claims Plybon. The shared business idea also helps boost sales among existing clients. During a lunch meeting, Plybon might tell an attorney about recent changes in split-dollar insurance. This gives the attorney an opportunity to create billable hours reviewing client plans, while Plybon has positioned himself as a consulting expert during those evaluations.

Who: Van Mueller
           Registered representative
           New England Financial
What: Financial planning
Where: Milwaukee, Wis.
Status: 11 years, MDRT Top of the Table

For well over a decade, Van Mueller hated what he did for a living—selling insurance. His career had hit rock bottom, and then a transitional moment took place. “I got fired,” he explains. “But some people in the industry thought I was worth saving and said, ‘Try it this way. Find a way to take care of your customers, and whether you make a sale or not, you’ll be a success.’”

That was the first year he made MDRT. Mueller now approaches his work with a joyous, almost missionary zeal. He says that he has information that can change a prospect’s life, and that has changed his. “I never had trouble getting in front of people, but when I got there, I’d get blown away a lot,” he explains. “Now I sit in front of them and talk about what matters; it’s great.”

He reached this level in his career through several steps:

1. Practice and listen.
Despite a constant stream of referrals, Mueller practices cold calling to “keep sharp.” He also constantly rehearses his sales presentation, which leads to confidence in front of a prospect. Mueller says that because advisors are too busy thinking of what to say next, most miss when a prospect says something important.

“Go make 150 presentations to friends, then ask if they would buy from you,” he advises. “Agents tell me they’ve improved their careers immediately by doing this, because they could spend more time listening.”

2. Use emotion.
Get prospects emotionally involved and they’ll beg you to buy, says Mueller. He does this by warning prospects about what he’s dubbed “the three paradigm shifts”: people are living longer, the government is not able to take care of the elderly, and the job market is changing due to the transition from an industrial to an information age.

“The goal is to get them to understand they won’t be able to depend on anyone else,” he says. “I use this presentation to get people to tell others about me, so I don’t have to ask for referrals, and I use it to close the sale.”

3. Create a relationship.
By the end of the presentation, often after an hour or two in a prospect’s home, a counselor/friend relationship has developed. “They no longer care about the products, they care about the relationship,” he says. “Eventually they give me control of their financial life.”

Who: E. Dennis Zahrbock, CFP, CHFC, CLU
           Business & Estate Advisers, Inc.
What: Business, estate and retirement planning
Where: Wayzata, Minn.
Status: 7 years, MDRT Top of the Table

Dennis E. Zahrbock was always successful at sales and prospecting, but he wasn’t always proud of it. “When I started selling in college, I twisted arms so badly that after five years, half of my clients were no longer my clients,” he says. “These were my friends at one time.” His motto today: “Attract, don’t prospect.”

“Prospecting has always been tough,” he admits. “But if you can position yourself to get people to inquire, you get a sale every time somebody calls.” He also works at the client’s pace; no more bent arms—but he is bold about offering advice.

“We’re not shy,” he admits. “We say, ‘This is where you should be.’ We take the risk of telling them.” Attracting prospects is a matter of style. Zahrbock discovered that the hard way. After listening to a dress-for-success speaker, he bought the recommended pin stripe suits and wingtips. “I went to work with the farmers like that and nearly went broke!” he says. He has found that wearing blue jeans works great for him.

Among the many other ways to attract clients, Zahrbock recommends the following:

Get involved in the community. Don’t just get on committees, be part of it. Zahrbock is a member of his church’s trust committee, a position that brings unsolicited business.

Make a statement. People want to do business with people they perceive as successful. Zahrbock’s office is a converted mansion with hardwood floors and a fireplace.

Offer impeccable service. This runs the gamut from being on time for an appointment or meeting to doing what you say you will. “This causes the line at our door, because our competitors never do it,” he adds.

Oh yes, and tell your story. This is one of Zahrbock’s favorite sales techniques. His parables run from saving goose eggs (for selling insurance) to baking cakes (explaining the benefits of long-term investing). These stories make clients laugh, but they also simplify the complexities of personal finance.

For the reluctant prospect, Zahrbock uses his now-famous “money dump” close. He lays thousands of dollars on a high-net-worth prospect’s desk, and sweeps piles onto the floor, representing what would be lost to taxes if she died without proper estate planning products. “I’ve never had a person buy the day I did that, but I’ve sold everybody within a year,” explains Zahrbock. “I think they get nightmares, waking up and seeing that pile of money dropping to the floor.”

Who: Jennifer A. Borislow, CLU
           Borislow Insurance Agency, Inc.
What: Employee benefit planning and life insurance
Where: Methuen, Mass.
Status: 4 years, MDRT Top of the Table

“Meet, exceed, wow!” is the motto of the Borislow Insurance Agency staff. The focus on cultivating the client relationship has led to an abundance of business activity, and a bounty of referrals. “We set the clients’ expectations, and we do everything possible to exceed them,” explains Jennifer A. Borislow. “Then we create the wow! factor.”

An example of wow! was the client who needed a new company health insurance plan within a week. Borislow pulled it off in two days: “The client said, ‘Wow! I can’t believe you’ve entered my life.’ People are tired of bad service reps saying ‘I can’t do that.’”

With only 10 employees, the firm’s small size allows it to have more contact with clients. It also spends a third of its budget on technology to keep track of important client data. The staff uses the data to help develop and build loyalty. They do so with techniques such as recognizing special events in the client’s life—from birthdays to the anniversary of a death of a loved one—and getting involved in charitable and community events.

Then there’s her special niche—a must in this competitive market. “You can’t be a generalist and make it in the business,” she emphasizes. She also points to the fact that her volume of work with insurance carriers guarantees a difference in rates and products that gets passed on to clients.

Borislow says she has no trouble selling, and client meetings are key. There are important elements that she always takes with her to these meetings: a passion for her work and keen listening skills. She emphasizes that asking questions in a client meeting is critical: “The more questions you ask, the easier it is to close, as they’ve given you the answers to what’s important to them.”

Borislow also never forgets the all-important follow-up to the meeting, including notes for her file on action items with target and completion dates. “How many times have you had a great meeting with a professional, but after that nothing happens?” she asks. “We make things happen.”

Who: W. Thomas Spencer Jr., CLU, CHFC
           Signator Financial Network
What: Nonprofit executive compensation
Where: Sudbury, Mass.
Status: 1 year, MDRT Top of the Table

Thomas Spencer hasn’t changed his style of dress, nor his quality of service in 29 years. Clients know exactly what to expect when he walks in the door: a reliable professional in a conservative dark blue suit, white shirt and striped tie.

“I get referrals from very high places because people know the product,” Spencer explains. “If you’re consistent, reliable and honest year after year, it’s absolutely remarkable the amount of business that comes in your direction.”

Providing continuous, exceptional service is his favorite prospecting technique. A good advisor, he says, shows up on time, treats a client with respect, delivers what he says he will, and never, ever embarrasses the person who referred him.

“Avoid putting them in an uncomfortable circumstance,” says Spencer. “Saying, ‘I’d like to meet you in the lobby’ as opposed to ‘I’d like to meet you in your office,’ implies a brief meeting in a nonthreatening environment.”

Consistency of effort and accurate record keeping are two more keys to a successful career. When he first started, Spencer set his own requirements for the number of new people to call each week and how many appointments to generate. Tweaking the numbers up or down has had an impact on new business.

“Agency management has forever focused on sales results,” explains Spencer. “I never thought you could control results, but you can control effort in the sales process.”

Besides cold calling, in the early years Spencer adopted a habit of “cold walking.” On Friday afternoons, he’d leave his downtown Boston office and stroll through the lobbies of other high-rise buildings in the area, gathering names of company officers from directories.

The following Monday he’d call the prospect and introduce himself, saying he wanted to meet fellow professionals within walking distance. A brief meeting—in the lobby—resulted in the sharing of business cards and, quite often, business.

Along the way, he also decided to develop a niche in the business market. Any client related to small business was “serviced to death.” Today, he’s known as an expert in the field of nonprofit executive compensation and new business comes mainly from referrals. Sales are also easier to close when you’re the expert in a narrow field.

But being his own best customer has always been Spencer’s best closing technique: “I’m my own best customer. When I recommend products, I can recommend them with confidence because I’ve already lived through them.”

Janet Bigham Bernstel is a contributor to Advisor Today.


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