Producer Development: Learning to Sell

By | July 18, 2005

New Program Teaches a Consultative Approach to Insurance Sales

Beginning this week, 15 insurance agents are returning to Normal, Ill., to do an unusual thing in the world of insurance training: talk with each other about what’s worked and what hasn’t. It’s the third and final leg of the Professional Insurance Sales Associate program, a new certification being offered by Illinois State University’s Katie School of Insurance and Financial Services in conjunction with the university’s Professional Sales Institute.

This diverse group of relatively new insurance producers first gathered in May to learn how to sell more insurance. Unlike programs available from insurance carriers or other education providers such as the Austin, Texas-based National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research, PISA forgoes technical insurance training and focuses almost exclusively on teaching the consultative sales method.

“Most training offered in the insurance industry is product-oriented and very technical,” said Mike Williams, director of ISU’s Professional Sales Institute and PISA’s lead trainer. “There’s a difference between how to sell and how to write. We’re teaching basic mastery of relationship-building, relationship management and helping the customer over time. How do you become the customer’s risk management consultant instead of just his insurance agent? You have to quit selling a policy and start providing value and expertise for your clients.”

According to Williams, research demonstrates that while a segment of the insurance marketplace is price-driven, the majority of buyers want value-added services. “People want value, but all too often the agent is pushing price. In both commercial and personal lines, a competitive price is an expectation, but not necessarily the lowest price.”

Teaching new producers how to build relationships with their clients and thus sell more in the long run is what will help them thrive in a business where so many newcomers fail, Williams said. With the baby boom edging ever closer to retirement age, breeding the next generation of successful producers (and potential agency principals) is crucial to both agencies and their carrier partners.

“One of the top two or three items on our agenda has been how to help agencies develop their producers,” said Ed Bowman. He is chairman of the Professional Independent Insurance Agents of Illinois’ Education Committee and president of the Stewart-Keator-Kessberger-Ledderer agency in Burr Ridge, Ill. “The vast majority of our members aren’t of the size where they can designate someone within the agency to provide the hands-on sales training that’s needed.”

Existing programs didn’t fit the bill, however, in the group’s search for a training program to partner with. “It’s three weeks for the National Alliance program,” Bowman said. “For a small percentage of people that’s great, but for most that’s too much time out of the office. There were a couple other ones that were strictly online, but we felt it was important to have some real serious hands-on coaching and mentoring.”

That’s when the Katie School, already a highly ranked university insurance program, entered the picture. The program consists of one week of in-person training at ISU’s executive education facilities in Normal, eight weeks back in the office with ongoing access to faculty, online interaction and a personal coach, and another four days spent together reviewing students’ progress in meeting their goals. The program costs $4,000, but is $3,300 for PIIAI member agencies. The National Alliance’s three-week producer school includes coverage training and costs $3,800.

While the inaugural PISA class of 15 hailed from only two states–Illinois and Iowa–the program will be eligible to students in four additional Midwestern states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana Missouri) in late 2005, according to Williams. Helen Kasper, vice president of regional distribution with the Hanover Insurance Group, was immediately enthusiastic about the program and offered the company’s help in sponsoring scholarships.

“The overall curriculum really nails it,” she said. “It covers everything from understanding the insurance buyer to how you build a sales plan.” She judged the program’s top-gun sales competition, a role-playing exercise that concludes the initial week’s training in which the students went through an initial meeting with a prospective client.

“These producers were just fried,” Kasper said. “They had just gone through an exhaustive program, and they showed incredible self-confidence. I’ve been in the industry for 18 years, and I remember when I started out I don’t think I could have walked in room and delivered a presentation with such confidence.”

Two students referred to IJ by program director Williams agreed the days were long, and a malfunctioning heater made it tough to concentrate on the first day’s lectures, but both looked forward to returning this week.

“I think that everyone could get something out of this,” said Tammy Kolschowsky, a producer for Itasca, Ill.-based Premier Risk Services. “It’s not just a classroom. It’s everybody sharing those ideas that’s so helpful.”

Kolschowsky–a former customer service representative and the winner of the final day’s sales competition–said she has not yet been in touch with the personal coach and has had trouble adjusting her friendly approach to the harsh realities of cold-calling. Kolschowsky, who describes herself as a “fly by the seat of my pants type of girl,” said the program’s structure has helped her in relating to the “analytical type” so often found among commercial insurance buyers.

Another student, Albert Wonn of Williams-Manny Inc. in Rockford, Ill., said his previous background as a company underwriter and Katie School grad left him strong on the technical side but short on selling skills.

“I think I picked up on the insurance side so well,” Wonn said. “The sales process that we’re learning seems to be the hardest. It’s just not second nature for me yet.” Wonn admitted he also struggled with time management and closing the deal, but said he looks forward to meeting again with his fellow students to see how they’re facing up to these common problems.

“Without a program like this,” Williams said, “producers are basically on their own. They might shadow an existing salesperson or go out on calls with the agency manager–‘Do as I do.’ … The turnover rate in first two or three years in the insurance industry for new producers coming on board is well over 70 percent. Across industries that just stands out.”

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