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Master Class

Helping people secure their futures is a noble goal, but the engine behind it is still good old-fashioned sales. Learn from your leaders what it takes to stay in the business and succeed at selling.

By Maggie Leyes

It’s been a slow month. In fact, it’s been a slow year. Production is down, way down. You’re worried. The knot in your stomach tightens as you look at a near-empty appointment book. You realize that you’ve been here before; this feeling is not new. Despite your goal of helping others secure their financial future, you’re having difficulty securing your own.

Your head starts spinning, “Will my sales ever improve?” “What am I doing wrong?” “Should I quit?” “Am I really cut out for this profession?” “Who am I kidding?” Doubt begins to cast its shadow on your future in the industry.

This is a difficult profession, no doubt about that. You are in business to help people reach their financial goals, and you do that through planning, advising, and selling products and services to meet their needs. The bottom line, however, is: If you don’t sell your products or services, you won’t be in business. It’s this axiom that can wear you down, make you doubt your ability to accomplish your goal—that of helping your clients.

Think you’re alone? Well, far from it. Those flagging sales, those nagging doubts about staying in the business have plagued the best and the brightest in the business. They are here to show you how to boost your sales and stimulate your career, making it everything you had hoped for when you started.

When the student is ready … the teacher will appear
In the late 1960s, David F. Woods, CLU, ChFC, LUTCF, NAIFA CEO (and president 1986-87) and LIFE president, was a young agent in a MassMutual agency in Springfield, Mass. He had been in the business a couple of years, but, according to Woods, “It just wasn’t working. I had done all the things I was told to do, but I was getting very few sales—and they weren’t particularly good sales.” And like many young advisors starting out in the business, family obligations weighed heavily. “I was discouraged and running out of money, and we had just had another baby. I was just down and I said, ‘Well, maybe this was just a big mistake.’” recalls Woods.

That’s when a defining moment happened in his career. He attended a local NALU meeting (now NAIFA). It was not his first meeting. Indeed, he had been faithfully attending meetings since starting in the business.

It wasn’t until that day—that meeting, however, that the light bulb went on for him. The clarity with which Woods recounts that day 30-some years ago underscores the profound effect it had on him. The speaker at the meeting was Ben Jones, then-CEO of Monarch Life Insurance Company, and the title of his talk was "The More I Fail, the More Successful I Am." Woods says, “I remember thinking, ‘That’s really a stupid title. What in the world is he going to talk about?’” Despite his reservations, Woods attended, and it turned out to be a career-altering decision.

“What [Jones] said in a nutshell is that the life insurance sales business is a business of numbers—you have to get a certain number of noes in order to get a yes,” he says. “So, the more I fail to make a sale, the closer I am to making a sale.” And while that seems like something we all should know, Woods admits that it hadn’t dawned on him.


there are three important factors:

  • Discipline to maintain consistent daily activity
  • Recognition that the key ingredient of any sale is the relationship—the ability to build a relationship of trust and confidence with your client
  • Having a dream or goal, such as qualifying for the Million Dollar Round Table

“He caught me in exactly the right way at the right time with the right words. … Then it became a real game to see how many noes I could get before I got a yes,” Woods explains. “Some weeks I’d have to take 22 noes to get a yes; other weeks I’d get a yes after the second no. It was kind of like turning over cards in a deck to get an ace. You know there are four aces in the deck; you just don’t know where they are. So you got to keep turning them over until you find them. It’s a simple thing, but I can’t tell you what a huge difference it made.”

The lesson Woods walked away with that day: Never forget this is a business of activity. You’ve got to see people.

While that is his first tenet in keeping your sales and spirits up, he has a second piece of advice: “If you never give up, you will inevitably be successful.” Woods recounts the times he would come back from summer vacation only to be faced with the reality of “turning in a big year.” It is at these critical, gut-tightening times we feel that urge to just give up. Woods’ remedy? He would tell himself over and over, “Don’t go out a quitter. If you are going to lose, lose running as hard as you possibly can.”

The grass (or car) is always greener on the other side of the fence
Dick Koob, CLU, ChFC, AEP, NAIFA president 2002-03, admits that he was struggling. It was the beginning of his career, as the ‘60s rolled into the ‘70s. He and his wife, Judy, were newly married, and had just had a baby. That’s when he says, “The economics set in.” He was a commissioned salesman for Northwestern Mutual in the Chicago area. Judy had left her job to stay at home with their new daughter, so her salary was no longer in the picture.

“That put the pressure on me. I saw that I was not making progress, so I started looking around at other companies—not insurance companies. I had a knack for sales, so I thought that maybe I just needed a tangible product [to sell],” Koob says.

For Koob, it came down to borrowing a bit from this company’s rigid system; he knew he needed to establish discipline in his practice.

That search took him to the brink of taking a job with an office supply company. The offer, Koob says, started to look like salvation: salary plus commission, a company car—a pea-green station wagon, an expense account, contests with trips.

Then, at the last interview, they started getting down to the details of how Koob was to sell: He was to call on predetermined businesses along a specified street (and specified side of the street) on the indicated day. He was to make 15 cold calls a day, and at the conclusion of each, he was to dictate the results into a Dictaphone. At the end of the day, Koob was to mail the tape of the call reports to his supervisor, who would review it the next day and call him to critique the results.

“It was absolutely rigid—an absolutely inflexible system with no room for deviation,” says Koob. “I went home to think about it: salary, commission, a company car—these all meant a lot to Judy and me.

“Then I figured, while the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, the grass may be greener because [the neighbor] is tending to his lawn better,” he recalls. “I thought that if I stayed in the insurance business and made 15 phone calls—not even cold calls—a day in the comfort of my office, I could generate enough business to get by.”

And that’s what he did.

THE ONE CARD SYSTEM, which helps advisors closely monitor their activity and build a solid clientele over time, has two “trigger dates” on which to contact clients each year. Their birthday is the first, which is a trigger to call them and set up an appointment “just get together with no agenda per se—the purpose is to prospect and ask for referrals,” says DICK KOOB, CLU, ChFC, AEP, NAIFA PRESIDENT 2002-03. “The reciprocal is the age-change month—when the rates change and nudge higher. If the client is close to a decision, this is the best time for a review, before the cost of insurance goes up.”

For Koob, it came down to borrowing a bit from this company’s rigid system; he knew he needed to establish discipline in his practice—and adhere to it. What helped him get some discipline and start treating his business as a long-term proposition was O. Alfred Granum’s now-legendary One Card System. “It gave me the farsightedness to look out on the horizon and ask a client, ‘If we don’t get together [for your birthday], is it okay to call in six months?’ It gave me a horizon and psychologically gave me the attitude of looking out into a future that was beyond this week or month. It gave me a long-term perspective.

“I wish there was such a thing as magic dust,” muses Randy R. Kilgore, CLU, RHU, LUTCF, of Randy Kilgore and Co. in Colorado Springs, Colo., as he opens up about what it takes to maintain consistent sales. A wistful longing like that—from someone about to become the 114th president of NAIFA—helps put your bad sales days—and months—into perspective. We all have days we wish for magic dust.

When Kilgore began his insurance career 32 years ago with Security Mutual Life Insurance of Nebraska, he immediately joined NALU (now NAIFA). “The association was very important for me,” he says. “You meet people who have the same problems you do—you also find out that they put their shoes on the same way. You are able to fall back on association members.”

By hiring back-office personnel, Kilgore freed himself up to increase his activity—what he considers one of the most important factors of sales success.

As an extension of his association involvement, he also joined the Million Dollar Round Table, which, he says, has been “very good at helping me get out of slumps.” An MDRT meeting in Dallas some 20 years ago also helped him define the direction he took his business. Kilgore recounts how Gary Sitzmann, a main platform speaker, spoke about how he had turned his business around by focusing on selling group and term insurance. “I thought, ‘That’s maybe what I should sell—group and term,’” says Kilgore. “I had kind of been doing that—heading in that direction, so I decided to focus on that.”

Another important point Kilgore learned from MDRT was to have a support staff. “I hired staff early on—and sometimes they got paychecks when I didn’t. And I thought to myself, ‘What the heck am I doing?’” Despite his doubts, he was on the right track. By hiring back-office personnel, Kilgore freed himself up to increase his activity—what he considers one of the most important factors of sales success.

WHEN RANDY R. KILGORE, CLU, RHU, LUTCF, NAIFA PRESIDENT 2003-04, makes presentations to his fellow advisors, activity is his mantra:

A = appointments—keep your book filled
C = clients—try to improve your clientele
T = tell everyone what you do
I = involvement—be involved in your church, community,
charities, etc.
V = value—make sure clients are getting good value
I = information for your clients
T = thorough—be thorough with your clients
Y = yo-yo—your production will yo-yo unless you have consistent activity

“Activity is the key,” says Kilgore, as he thinks about his early days in the industry. “I would look at my appointment book, and if I didn’t have enough people to see, I knew I was not having enough activity. So, I would go to some old clients’ offices. I had a friend who was a pharmaceutical salesman and I would go with him on calls. I would go and have a drink after work … I would go anywhere I could to see and meet people, tell them what I did, and that I could help them with a problem.”

He adds that it is especially important for those who are new to the business to learn the concept of activity. “You quit all the time—especially during the first two or three years. In that phase, you need to know that the key is activity,” Kilgore emphasizes.

Small mistake/big mistake
Shelley Rowe, LUTCF, of the Rowe Financial Group in Westminster, Colo., may not have the title of NAIFA president on her resume, but having been in the business for 28 years, and now overseeing an agency with 22 full-time agents—with the added responsibility of being the 2003-2004 NAIFA membership chair—certainly gives her plenty of sales know-how.

But not all sales lessons are easily come by. Rowe learned a heart-wrenching one from a should-have-been client.

Early in her career, she called on a couple with three small children—two girls and a boy all under 5. It was a humble household: the husband was a truck driver, the wife a stay-at-home mom. And while they were on a tight budget, the husband, who had a small policy that his parents had gotten him when he was young, was open to learning more about how to protect his family. Rowe suggested term insurance as a start.

“This is a story-telling industry. That’s where you gain wisdom—by listening to other successful people in the business.”
—Shelley Rowe, LUTCF
The Rowe Financial Group

“The cost was about $70 a month,” recounts Rowe. “But [the wife] was really not buying into this; I could tell by her demeanor. So I pursued it further in questioning. … She turned to her husband and said, ‘You promised me you would get me a new refrigerator.’ I left without an application.”

Two weeks later, Rowe got a frantic call from the wife; her husband had been killed in a winter driving accident. Rowe immediately processed the claim on the small policy that the husband had had. “She and I sat at the kitchen table with the kids running around,” she recalls. “I cried with her, and she kept saying, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve got 3 kids.’

“I felt responsible that I didn’t do my job,” Rowe says. “This incident made me have the conviction that we all need to have: to help people understand the small mistake-big mistake issues there are if they don’t have the protection they need.”

SHELLEY ROWE, LUTCF, of the Rowe Financial Group in Westminster, Colo., has two indispensable tips for selling:

  • You need to own it before you can sell it.
  • If you are discouraged and feel alone—as if you want to quit—find a successful person at your agency, company or NAIFA, sit with him and talk “because we have all been there before.”

This incident also changed the way she sold insurance. “When material wants and needs stood in the way [of the sale],” she says, “I would help them [clients] find the extra money. If they were determined that they were not going to do what they needed to do, I had them sign a disclaimer so they would really have to think about it before I left.”

Many years have passed since then, and Rowe now passes her wisdom on to the agents in her company. “This is a story-telling industry. That’s where you gain wisdom—by listening to other successful people in the business.”

And with Woods, Koob, Kilgore and Rowe telling their stories, perhaps you, too, can walk away with a bit of their wisdom.

Making the sale is just one step toward achieving success in this business. If you want more words of wisdom from these leaders on what it takes to make it in insurance and financial advising, read Staying Power”.


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