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The Secrets of Top Producers

What does it take to get to the top of your profession? Three advisors who have reached MDRT’s prestigious Top of the Table share their tips for success.

By Maggie Leyes

Never Quit
Imagine if your first day in sales had begun like this: It’s 8 a.m. and you’re cold-calling a prospect, which in this case means knocking on the door of a suburban home in Memphis. You have a sample Bible tucked under your arm and are eager to talk about the benefits of its study guide and close your first sale. A woman answers the door—in her nightgown, puts her hand on her hip and promptly gives you a lesson on the right—and wrong—time to be knockin’ on someone’s door.

“It doesn’t matter how good or how smart you are; if you don’t work the hours, you’re not going to succeed.”
—K.C. Lam, CLU, ChFC, CFP

As a college student, doing well at this summer job in door-to-door Bible sales means being able to pay next year’s tuition. And right now, as you stare at a door that’s been shut in your face, that goal seems a long way off. Would you keep going? Or, would you desperately search for another job?

K.C. Lam—who had a day just like this—stayed with it. In fact, this native of Hong Kong, who knew little about Christianity, closed his first Bible sale the next day: to a church deacon—who already had more than a dozen Bibles lining his bookshelf. Lam ended the summer with his tuition covered: He bought a car and still had $8,200 left for the rest of the year—in 1977. That’s a lot of Bibles, and a lot of determination.

The catch phrase he learned that summer: Winners never quit, and quitters never win, has stayed with him all these years. But translating that into the insurance business was harder than he thought, says Lam, CLU, ChFC, CFP. Presently, he runs a successful business, Financial Planning Group, in Memphis, Tenn., but it wasn’t always that way, in large part, he admits, because he wasn’t fully vested in his career.

Make the commitment
Once he made the commitment to stay in the business, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work. And if you are looking for Lam to give you an esoteric secret to his success, you won’t get it. Hard work is key. “It doesn’t matter how good or how smart you are; if you don’t work the hours, you’re not going to succeed,” he says. “For the first 10 years of your practice, you need to be putting in 60 hours a week.”

Tips From the Top
  • Don’t be afraid of hard work and long hours, especially in the early years.

  • Control your business expenses.

  • Present a plan that covers all the prospect’s needs, and let him prioritize what parts to implement and when.

  • Have your appointments in your office.

—K.C. Lam, CLU, ChFC, CFP

And a good portion of those hours should be focused on prospecting. “I don’t like to make cold calls,” says Lam, a member of Memphis AIFA. “but I don’t mind calling on people I do business with. Every one of them is a prospect because you already know them. So, it’s not ‘cold’ anymore.” That means his book of business now reads like a local Yellow Pages. His clients include the owners of the repair shop where he takes his car, the restaurants where he eats, the dry cleaners he frequents. “I figure, I do business with them. So, why can’t they do business with me?” he says.

Referrals play a big part in his business’ growth, and Lam is very specific when asking for them. When prospects come to him for the first factfinding interview—even if they are unsure if they are going to do business with Lam—he says to them, “Even if you are not ready to do anything yet, at least you have an idea of where to start. But, some people may not be as lucky as you are or have not spent the time to think about this. Do you know some of those people like you that …” Then he tailors the question to the prospect in front of him: “are expecting a child?” “own their own business?” “still owe money on their house?”

Continue doing what works
Even now, with 23 years as an MDRT member, and five Court of the Table and five Top of the Table qualifications, he is adamant about maintaining a minimum of eight appointments a week. He used to meet with prospects in their homes, to make it convenient for them, but 10 years into the business he moved all his appointments to his office. And the numbers bear him out on this wisdom: He has a 67 percent closing rate at his office, and only a 51 percent closing rate at a prospect’s home or workplace.

And perhaps one of Lam’s most important secrets to success has been his insistence on not “prejudging” when he prepares a prospect’s plan. He never scales a plan back assuming a client won’t implement the whole proposal; instead, he presents a complete plan and lets the prospect decide how he wants to prioritize the needs the plan addresses. “You need to listen,” Lam advises, “because there is no way to develop a sound financial plan if you don’t understand the prospect first.”

Dreams Delayed—and Realized
As a young man, current MDRT President Philip E. Harriman, CLU, ChFC, had a dream: to be the third generation to run his family’s chain of supermarkets, which stretched from Maine to New Hampshire. But just a few months after his college graduation, his father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the business was sold. “At age 24, my lifelong dreams were swept out from underneath me,” says Harriman. With his degree in business administration and a major in insurance, he turned to his family’s attorney for guidance. The attorney referred him to MDRT Past President James Longley, CLU, who was the governor of Maine at that time. Longley had an insurance agency, which was run by another MDRT past president, Paul Buckley Sr., CLU, ChFC. Harriman signed on.

“One of my secrets is that I stopped playing the numbers game in the business.”
—Philip E. Harriman, CLU, ChFC

With that kind of MDRT royalty to help Harriman on his path, it seemed as if he was destined to ascend in the industry and in MDRT. But it almost didn’t happen. “I went into [the industry] with the ideal vision of a profession based on my education,” says Harriman, “and promptly I was on the verge of bankruptcy for the next three years because what I didn’t learn in college was that the financial-services business is a business of pursuit.” Fear of rejection kept him from doing what needed to be done: asking friends and family to sit down with him and, of course, cold-calling or “smiling and dialing” as Harriman calls it.

Turning the corner
What began to turn his career around “was being surrounded by people who convinced me that I did have the skills and the ability to succeed,” he says. But it’s one thing to understand how to be successful on an intellectual level and quite another to change habits and put the groundwork in place to make that happen. Harriman admits that it was “an insult” that finally changed his behavior.

He was facing an evening appointment with a couple, 40 minutes in the opposite direction of his home, and it was snowing heavily. He called and confirmed the appointment with the wife, and left with time to spare. As he was pulling into the driveway, he noticed the porch light go out. “Ah, what a coincidence,” he said to himself. “The porch light just burned out.” He walked to the porch and knocked, and knocked and knocked. He turned around and left, knowing that, in fact, the light had gone out on his appointment; he was not wanted at that kitchen table. “I was so upset,” he admits. He then said to himself, “I am never going to do this again.”

Tips From the Top
  • Keep in mind that this is a business of pursuit.

  • Choose and develop an expertise.

  • Ask the “soft” fact questions such as “What do you feel?” and “What’s your opinion?”

  • Stop being a salesperson and start being an advisor.

—Philip E. Harriman, CLU, ChFC

But, he didn’t quit the business. He had made a commitment to the people in the agency that he was going to give it one more year. So, he decided to set two goals for himself, which ended up being the key to his success. The first was to develop an expertise. He chose to focus on family businesses, a perfect fit given his background. It also meant no more evening appointments at the kitchen table. The second was to commit to the challenge of making MDRT.

He accomplished all that he set out to do: He and his partner, Michael Lebel, run the successful practice Lebel & Harriman, LLP, in Falmouth, Maine, which focuses on “serving the retirement, business and estate-planning needs” of their clients, including business succession to preserve family businesses as they are passed down through the generations. Harriman, a member of NAIFA-Southern Maine, aced his second goal as well. In addition to leading MDRT this year, he has four Court of the Table and seven Top of the Table qualifications.

The breakthroughs
“One of my secrets is that I stopped playing the numbers game in the business, and when I did that, things changed for the better almost overnight,” he says. He decided he was no longer going to buy into the myth that says you need to make 10 phone calls, to get three people to talk to you, to get one person who will see you. While that helps advisors deal with the rejection of the business, says Harriman, the focus—on statistics, on closing sales, on commissions—is all wrong. “Clients have a sixth sense,” he says. “They can tell if you’re in it for you, or if you’re in it for [them].” The bottom line for Harriman was that he “stopped being a salesperson and started becoming an advisor.”

His next breakthrough happened when he started asking clients the right types of questions and truly listening to their answers. “Our business is dependent on us demonstrating to our clients that we really care about them and we are listening to the ‘soft’ facts,” says Harriman. He gets to those answers by asking soft-fact questions, such as: “What do you think?” “What do you feel?” “What’s your opinion?” “What matters?” With those simple questions, his practice was propelled to Top of the Table territory.

Partnering for Success
Neenah is a small city of just under 25,000 that is nestled on the banks of Lake Winnebago in East-Central Wisconsin. With a median household income of $45,773, it doesn’t seem like the kind of place to build a Top of the Table practice, but Debra Hackel-Gostas, CLU, ChFC, of Retained Earnings Co. has done just that.

“I realized that I was never meant to work alone. It’s a tough business, and I knew I needed a partner.”
—Debra Hackel-Gostas, CLU, ChFC

While she has been in this business for 15 years, it wasn’t until she found a partner and began splitting all her cases that she made MDRT’s Top of the Table. It seems counterintuitive, but sharing cases made her—and her partner’s—business grow. As is often the case, Hackel-Gostas came upon the industry circuitously. It was through her husband’s boss that she met Tim, who was a partner at Retained Earnings. He suggested she take a look at the industry—that it might be for her. She did, and it was.

However, success eluded her during those initial years in the business. It wasn’t until she did some soul searching that the answer came into view. “I was trying to decide if I liked [the industry] or not,” says Hackel-Gostas. “and I realized that I was never meant to work alone. It’s a tough business, and I knew I needed a partner.”

Making it work
She found that partner in Craig Smith, who had founded Retained Earnings. With almost two decades more experience than she had, he had long ago realized that he was at his best in partnership with another advisor. When Smith’s long-time partner decided to go it alone, the scene was set for the two to explore working as partners. So, they joined forces and together worked happily ever after …

Real life is never that neat, is it? While the partnership was functioning, it wasn’t thriving. They definitely were focusing on a lucrative niche: They work with local and national corporations, many of them family-owned businesses, and help them with their corporate-planning needs. That planning often extends to their clients’ personal estate planning, an area Smith has a lot of experience in. But it wasn’t until they stopped stepping on each other’s toes that they saw their business reach Top of the Table numbers in 2006. “We had some tough years,” says Hackel-Gostas, a member of NAIFA-Fox River Valley. “We are both very competitive people, and we found out that we were competing against ourselves. When we finally stopped that and learned to respect each other’s strengths … that’s when we got really good.”

Tips From the Top
  • Be a good listener.

  • Do a thorough factfinder, and ask the tough questions that need to be asked.

  • Focus on good product design, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Give impeccable service—attention to detail is key.

—Debra Hackel-Gostas, CLU, ChFC

Their strengths are complementary: He likes the prospecting part, and brings to the table his many years of experience in the industry, particularly in estate planning. It also doesn’t hurt, Hackel-Gostas says, that he is a peer to many of the business owners they meet with—most of whom are men. She, on the other hand, excels at conducting the factfinder, which requires excellent listening skills and the ability “to ask tough questions and make clients feel comfortable answering them.” Managing the ongoing service is also something she says she does well.

She jokes that when they are working with a client they are a bit like an old married couple—finishing each other’s sentences, for example. “But we have none of the headaches,” she says, “because we come to work, and then we get to go home.” Smith agrees that in some respects their partnership mirrors a marriage. “With my wife, I know we are better as a team than we are individually, and I think in our practice Deb and I are better as a team than either of us could be individually,” he says. “So we’ve never had a huge issue over one person getting more or less because we know that alone we’d get less.”

Impeccable service
The growth of their business now flows in large part from the service they have always provided to their clients. Early on in their partnership they got “pieces” of business from their corporate clients. “We serviced those pieces and serviced them so well and built such strong relationships that they have evolved into many opportunities we have been able to work with,” says Hackel-Gostas. Clients stay because the partners have created a comfort level that allows them the freedom to talk openly about what they need. “What got us here was not walking through the door and selling something immediately,” she says. “What got us here were the cases that we have cared for over the years and have watched them grow.”

The level of trust that they have developed with their clients is also a type of business insurance. Hackel-Gostas says that they no longer worry much about the competition, because their clients know that she and Smith are always looking out for their best interest.
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