The framing was barely completed on Marc Silverman’s MBA when he started planning how to make it as a young advisor in Miami.
During the 1980s, Florida’s beach paradise attracted high-net-worth investors in droves. Financial services professionals shared in the wealth accumulation that swept up a generation of South Florida professionals.
Fresh off the University of Miami campus in 1983, Silverman was confident he could sell. And he was willing to put in the work to get in front of clients. What he needed was a plan to make it happen, something that stood out from all the other ambitious 20-something advisors.
“You’ve got to have a methodology for getting in front of people, some way of doing it,” said Silverman, today the face of the highly successful Silverman Financial.
“Getting in front of people” remains the obvious key to sales in 2016. The tools and best methods to make that happen have changed significantly. No longer can an advisor lock himself in an office and pound the phone keys all day.
It won’t work, sales experts say. Or rather, it is no longer the best way to maximize your sales opportunities.
The conventional wisdom that Silverman and others learned is still important, but with significant updating. For example, few people today would be using Al Granum’s one-card 10-3-1 system, but would be wise to understand the underlying theory.
Granum was a pioneering insurance agent with Northwestern Mutual who developed and tested sales theories. One of those ideas was that for every 10 prospects contacted, three appointments would result, leading to one sale.
His system and other landmark sales concepts remain relevant, but with modifications to fit today’s busy lifestyles and reliance on technology.
Silverman’s own career grew as he employed new inventive techniques that are now part of many successful agents’ playbook.
Standing Out From the Crowd
Silverman used a few memorable techniques to ensure he would stand out to his cold contacts.
“I went down to Home Depot and I got a large piece of wood and I had them cut it into the size of postcards,” he recalled. “On the reverse side of the wood I wrote ‘I have ideas that are stronger than this.’ And I mailed those to 15 businesses every week.”
Known as “surprise and delight” marketing, this technique is becoming more prevalent. Agents and advisors are finding that the investment in a surprise gift to consumers is rewarded with name recognition and brand loyalty.
Earlier this year, researchers at Emory University in Atlanta confirmed that pleasant surprises work. Measuring brain activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the researchers found that the region known as the brain’s pleasure center responded much more strongly when the event was unanticipated.
“What this means is that the part of the brain that has always been associated with pure pleasure really cares about when you get something unexpected,” said Gregory Berns, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Emory.
Marketing people have long known this.
A good surprise-and-delight campaign includes two key components. First is a “wow” factor that Silverman accomplished with the block of wood. Second is the payoff, or the contact and eventual sales conversion.
Silverman would follow up with a phone call. The uniqueness of the initial contact — would you forget receiving a block of wood in the mail? — helped him get a face-to-face introduction.
“(The wood) said nothing about what I did or who I was, but then I would go on to say ‘I’m in the insurance business and I’d like to stop by, shake your hand and introduce myself,’” Silverman said. “It was just a matter of getting my foot in the door.”
In today’s fast-paced world, getting that foot inside the door is harder than ever. A Harvard Business School survey of 1,000 professionals found that 94 percent worked at least 50 hours a week, and almost half worked more than 65 hours.
According to a survey by the Center for Creative Leadership, 60 percent of those who use smartphones are connected to work for 13.5 hours or more a day.
An agent might make cold calls for hours before even getting someone to answer.
Glenn Cooke, who owns the agency Life Insurance Canada, knows too well the struggles with phone selling.
“Some of the people these days with phones you just can’t get through to,” Cooke said.
So to do that calling and follow-up requires diligence and discipline in order to make it pay off. At Life Insurance Canada, where Cooke employs three brokers and an administrative staffer, they use special customer relationship management (CRM) software that Cooke helped design.
The CRM includes a “calendaring” component that makes sure the brokers don’t lose track of any leads. All Life Insurance Canada business is not face-to-face, so a disciplined system is a must, Cooke said.
Regular calls are scheduled, and if someone doesn’t answer, they go back into the system and a re-call is scheduled.
“People are so busy and they don’t like to answer their phones, so you’re never getting through on the first call,” Cooke said. “We pound on them and we call and we call and we call.”
Some calls do go through and meet with a receptive voice. But the potential client fails to follow through. What to do? Cooke’s CRM reschedules them for a 90-day follow-up call.
“That 90 days is key,” he said. “At 90 days they’re almost as good as fresh leads. What I find is you’ll hit so many of them, some of them will pick up the phone and say ‘You know what? I investigated this three months ago and I should have done it … and I didn’t. Now I just need to get this closed.”
Cooke remembers the insurance sales techniques when he started out in the 1980s. Agents got the local newspaper every day and turned to the birth announcements. They would then send an approach letter to the new parents, “soft-pedaling” the idea of buying a life policy.
“This warmed them up a little, took them from a completely cold lead to a little bit warm,” Cooke explained. “You sent 100 pre-approach letters, you got your 10 phone calls, your three appointments and your one sale.”
Thirty-five years later, times have changed. Agents working the phones in 2016 have barriers to deal with that didn’t exist when Al Granum was a sales master.
For one, Do Not Call lists. The Federal Trade Commission initiated the first Do Not Call registry in 2003. As of the close of fiscal year 2015, the registry contained 223 million active phone numbers, up from 218 million one year earlier.
Likewise, the nearly complete societal transformation to two-parent working families means daytime calls are likely futile. Half of all homes do not even have a landline any longer. Ten years ago, 90 percent of homes still did.
As a result of these and other trends, Cooke has abandoned the cold-calling route.
“It doesn’t work,” Cooke said. “Technology has moved on. It’s not a method of communication that’s commonly used. Cold-calling is really objectionable to the consumer.
“So you need to find some sort of machine or methodology that will generate leads that are not cold anymore. You want at least mildly warm leads.”
TXT Me L8er
An old sales axiom refers to being where the customers are. Some agents have figured it out and are treading into social media in search of sales. Still, compliance departments don’t necessarily like it.
But Cooke said the return on investment cannot be ignored. Gen Xers and younger will not answer the phone, he said.
“You can call them 10 times and they won’t answer,” Cooke said. “But they will respond to a text. We’ve seen numbers where we’ve taken like 10 numbers that we cannot communicate with, who won’t pick up a phone, and we’ve sent them texts. Two of them have responded.”
As a result, Cooke is modifying his CRM system to automatically send a text to warm leads who do not respond after multiple phone calls. The phone remains “our first line of defense,” he said, but texting drastically increases the odds of getting a response.
“Of the 10-3-1, it increases the 10,” Cooke added. “If they’re under 40, there’s a good chance they will respond to your text.”
In annual surveys, LIMRA reports that more than 90 percent of life insurance companies had social media programs in place last year. That’s up 55 percent from the number of companies managing social media in 2010.
However, some agents still perceive social media as a risky new channel fraught with regulatory and compliance land mines. Many insurance agencies prefer to dabble in it, perhaps sending a conservative tweet a day but not maintaining a Facebook page.
Raise the Expectations
Even among agents schooled in working the phones, Cooke sees a reticence to make repeated calls.
“They call once, they call twice and then that’s it,” Cooke said. “I’ll call somebody five, six, seven, eight times. They’re busy. I’ve been thanked by people for continuing to call because they’re so busy.”
The discipline to work the phones needs to come from the top down, some industry veterans say.
John Del Pozzo said he didn’t know anything when he started out as a young insurance agent, but knew he had to make 15 appointments a week. No excuses.
If not, he had to work the phones on Saturday. And if he still didn't get to 15, he made calls Sunday night, Del Pozzo explained during a LIMRA conference earlier this year.
“When you came in on Monday, that was the expectation,” said Del Pozzo, senior vice president of producer general agent distribution for Ohio National Financial Services. “You were expected to have two to three sales a week. A hundred cases a year.”
It seems as though that is no longer the expectation in a business where the pool of potential customers continues to increase as life insurance sales keep falling.
“If you don’t have a case count requirement, you’re making a case to your field agents that case counts don’t matter,” Del Pozzo said.
Client Base Gold
Another neglected source of potential sales exists in the filing cabinets … um, the hard drives of many agents. That is their existing client base.
John Terry entered the financial services industry in 1987. Now a sales coach with Vision Advisors in Hot Springs, Ark., Terry previously ran an investment advisory firm.
Industry studies show it takes $395 to turn a prospect into a client, Terry said. Sometimes simple things can provide a better return, he added.
“It’s a simple thing, but for less than a dollar a week, you can touch every client you’ve got with a postcard, to re-engage and reconnect with your existing clientele,” he said. “If you do a good job getting in front of the client, identifying what their needs are, solving their problems, those clients can and will refer you to other clientele as a result of that.”
Some agents are moving away from holding events as a way to cultivate future clients. For some, the perception exists that laborious events are a waste of time in today’s fast-paced world. That is faulty thinking, Terry said.
Seminars, dinners and other events can serve two purposes, he explained. The advisor rewards existing clients with a social event or education, and opens the door to potential new clients.
“Allow those clients to be able to invite their friends, their family, their neighbors, their co-workers,” Terry said. “Now you’ve got a warm introduction and the opportunity to tell your story.”
Frankly, Terry said, those events are just part of being a community-minded agent. Just being a part of the community and taking the initiative to meet people can be a key part of selling. After all, you can’t sell to a stranger.
The concept is known as “gratitude marketing,” or cultivating long-term, meaningful relationships with your clients. Believers say financial advisors can increase client retention, referrals and revenues. In addition, it can be a good strategy to reach out to the next generation.
“One of the things we’ve gotten away from in the industry is building relationships,” Terry said. “And one of the areas that I’ve seen that is really lacking in the sales training of many individuals today is they become transaction-focused and transaction-oriented.”
Doing things like an annual client review and sending birthday cards helps build value in the relationship. It also “cultivates and builds friendships,” which leads inevitably to word-of-mouth referrals, Terry explained.
Studies show each client has direct influence over eight people.
“People tend to stay in a group of people who are like-minded,” Terry said. “If you can do a good job as a producer in solving those problems, then you have the opportunity to be introduced to those clients to help them solve the same problems.”
‘A Lot of Yeses’
Another clever idea Silverman used to maximize his first impression involved a $2 bill. He got a copy of a bar association book and started mailing letters with $2 bills included to Miami attorneys.
Silverman sent the letter “religiously every week” to 15 attorneys, outlining his disability income protection products.
“I had a lot of noes, but I also had a lot of yeses,” he recalled.
Since his salad days, Silverman has gone on to enjoy abundant successes, both as a financial advisor and as a worldwide speaker. His diversified client base includes public corporations, individuals, trusts and estates. His motto is “promise a lot and deliver more.”
“The key I think to being successful is you’ve got to consistently do something over and over again and don’t change from what you’re doing,” Silverman said. “Even if you have great success, you never stop doing it. … Because if you stop, it all stops.”