From the September 2009 issue of American Agent & Broker • Subscribe!

Strictly Sales- Good questions give agents a leg up

In the insurance sales process we often talk about the need to gather information before providing solutions to a problem. Otherwise, there is a chance our solutions and the prospect's problems are a mismatch. In the global world of commercial insurance, the close ratio is typically 25 percent. This month we will explore preparation, a vital component of our sales process.

Preparation sets us apart from our competitors. Unfortunately, many producers focus on activity and expend little preparation effort, which affects every other part of their sales processes. To ensure the highest level of success, prepare for the qualifying interview with the prospect. Understand the buyer's value system, identify his or her problems and determine the relationship with the current agency to put together an insurance program that exhibits an overwhelming reason for the buyer to join your agency. To build this specific program, gather some important details.

Our sales process begins by asking a number of questions. To best put us into a position of power, we need to keep our ears open and our mouths closed for Step 1--the "diagnostic appointment"--which begins with questions. You must develop a series of questions that address the following issues.

Question development

Let's begin by developing 10 questions in each of these areas:

o What is our agency's exceptional strength? Maybe it's local business, or it could be long-term relationships. Maybe the agency has specific expertise in an area or industry. Perhaps you have a specialist on board or you are accessible 24/7. You could have your own emergency response team for helping in the event of a loss. You should have a list of 10 items that you and your agency consider exceptional to ask the prospect if any of these areas are important to them.

o Identify your competition and do enough homework to be able to identify its weaknesses. It could be a captive agent with only one market or an order taker that sits behind a desk and has little interaction with people. Maybe they are from out of town. If this prospect is important to you, it is essential to know enough to ask some pointed questions about the competition's weaknesses. Remember, you need a better relationship than the incumbent if you are going to motivate the buyer to change. Keep a running list of all your local competitors and their faults and weaknesses.

o Develop questions on the specific pains most common in the prospect's industry. Each industry has a specific list of things that typically go wrong with its insurance program and service needs. If you are a professional, you have done the advanced research to know what those issues are. If you haven't performed this, you aren't ready to compete. The one item that will differentiate you most from all other competitors is your in-depth knowledge of the prospect's business or industry. Validate your knowledge by asking well-prepared and thought-provoking questions. What you shouldn't do is talk about all you know. Your questions exhibit your knowledge. Keep a running list for each industry you work in.

Primary questions

Develop a list of 10 questions in the four primary focus areas of the industry. In Dynamics of Selling, these are referred to as the "four cards:" cost, coverage, service and relationship.

1 Cost: Everyone has a point at which the price matters. Many producers focus purely on the premium and do not identify pains and problems and establish their values. If we "tie pain to dollars," we help the prospect create an overall value continuum which goes beyond pure premium dollars. Value is what we receive versus the total cost, not the premium. By considering only price, you're losing half of the opportunity and exhibiting that you have few actual sales skills.

2 Coverage: Questions should be policy specific based on the buyer's values and acceptance to risk. Because everyone's values are different, it is important to develop a program specific to the prospect's risk appetite. These questions determine the level of acceptable risk and take us away from the "one size fits all" mentality.

3 Service: This is the combination of the carrier's specific offering and your agency's services. One of three ways to differentiate yourself from the competition is to have a list of optional services in addition to those offered by the carrier. If you can't name these, it becomes difficult to convince the buyer to do business with you. There's no reason to pay you commission if you don't add anything to the service card.

4 Relationship: This is another way to differentiate yourself from the competitor. If you aren't evaluating the prospect's relationship with his or her current broker, then you'll spend much of your career working for free. Almost 99 percent of your prospects already have a broker or agent, so you need to determine very early in the game if they are willing to leave and join you, and under what specific conditions. Frankly, this should be determined within the first few minutes of the interview. Individuals differ and some take longer to create trust and rapport than others. Work to build the relationship and don't "practice quote" hoping that for some insane reason that will build trust.

Now that you have your list of questions, you're prepared for any opportunity that may come your way. You can make a decision regarding if this prospect qualifies for your time and effort. Unless you get positive answers, you're wasting your time.

We constantly hear insurance agents say they want to be viewed in the same professional light as doctors, attorneys and accountants. None of these other professions ever present a solution to a problem until they first and foremost understand what the problem is. Presentation without diagnosis is a deadly mixture for absolute failure.

About the Author
Tom Barrett,CIC, AIA

Tom Barrett,CIC, AIA

Tom Barrett is president of the Midwest and Southeast regions of SIAA, Inc. SIAA nationally added 432 new agencies and produced more than $680 million in new property-casualty premium in 2012. He serves on the national faculty for Dynamics of Selling, Dynamics of Sales Management and Dynamics of Company Agency Relations. For more information on the Dynamics programs, go to Contact him at


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