Just as accountants do more than fill out tax forms and attorneys have responsibilities other than contract reviews, insurance agents have a greater depth of expertise available to clients beyond selling insurance. To become a trusted advisor, many agents and brokers are shifting focus to the broader need for risk control and management, and helping clients make better informed long-term business decisions.
Agents interested in establishing a reputation as a trusted advisor should be ready to overcome a range of obstacles, but myriad opportunities—such as better visibility among centers of influence and more lucrative client relationships—await those who accept the challenge.
Another obstacle advisors face is the flip side of the price problem—when a broker is interested in crafting the right coverage but cost is the only thing the client cares about. When that’s the case, trusted advisors often must determine if the relationship should be pursued. "We’re actually pretty selective about whom we do business with," said Dan Cattaneo, CEO of Beneflex Insurance Services Inc. in Santa Barbara, Calif. His team takes prospective clients through an initial process that includes an introductory meeting and often a survey about what the client wants. During that early phase "we really don’t even talk about insurance or employee benefits."
This vetting process helps Beneflex determine if a client is a good fit for the brokerage team, which Cattaneo said is more important than simply making a sale. "We focus on a 2- to 5-year strategic plan with the client from the get-go, so they understand that we’re not here because we’re going to negotiate the best rates for them. We’re here to help them create the most engaged workforce they possibly can." Clients whose sole focus is on price may not move to the next phase in the process.
"The days of the agent selling a product are over," Cattaneo agreed. "The expectation at very low levels is that our workload had probably quintupled in the last 3 to 5 years just because of healthcare reform," he said, adding that top-tier advisors continue to move service expectations higher, and "surviving firms out there are going to be the ones that are really thinking ahead." With the constantly changing environment in healthcare and other industries, Cattaneo said, "we believe that those firms and advisers who will be in the best position to serve those folks are going to be the ones that actually have the capacity and the systems in place" to serve the needs of their clients.
Because trusted advisors deliver advice and guidance, they also must have the expertise to act as a knowledge base for clients. "You have to start out with expertise as kind of a baseline," Reiter said, "and to take that a little bit further. Today’s customers not only want experts in insurance and risk management, but they want experts inside of their industries." His team includes professionals who specialize in the nuances of construction, energy and technology, to name a few. The building and maintaining of that expertise takes time and dedication, but Reiter said, "We have found that that specialization takes it to another level of what we can do for [our clients] to help their businesses."
Opportunities: Better client retention, more referrals, increased leads