Sharfman identifies the path to success for himself and the producers working for him.
Photo credit: Dean Laprairie
For those who sell life insurance, this should be a great year. “People always need life insurance, for income replacement, family fairness, blended families, and for families who have children with special needs,” said Howard E. Sharfman. “At the end of the day, we always have tax-free death benefits, tax-deferred cash value growth, income replacement and estate creation through an amazing product called life insurance. All of those are why 2018 should be someone’s best year ever.”
Sharfman should know. He’s been selling life insurance since 1987. Early in his career, Sharfman left the large agency he worked for because he wanted to be able to offer all products to his clients. He landed at a smaller general insurance agency, which he eventually purchased with two partners.
The company’s exponential growth forced Sharfman to assess his path forward. “The business was a $4 million revenue business. Now, after being merged into NFP Insurance Solutions, it’s a billion-dollar business,” said Sharfman, a 23-year MDRT member from Chicago, Illinois. “We had 30 employees when we bought it; we have 4,400 employees at NFP today.”
When you have a small business, you know most of the clients and all of the employees, but as you grow, that’s no longer the case. You have to think very carefully about what your ability is and make sure you work within that, Sharfman said.
“I learned that my strengths were in dealing with my clients, my team in the life insurance business and in providing insurance solutions for special clients. All of this leads to generating revenue for the firm,” he said. “My unique ability was not being a senior executive at a large business; that’s a very different skill set, and our management team has stronger skills in that area than I could ever dream of having.
“Stepping back from the day-to-day corporate management let me focus on my team of 23 life insurance professionals,” said Sharfman, who oversees the life insurance segment of the business. “That’s where I can add the largest amount of value.”
Growing a strong team
Sharfman is also thoughtful and deliberate in cultivating the unique skill sets of the members on his team, while also ensuring they have the overall knowledge to be successful selling life insurance. His training process can take up to two years before a producer hits the streets on their own to work with clients.
“Our young people start in service or case design and then do a rotation in a different area,” he said. “They might go to underwriting next, then become a shadow to one of our producers, take over some smaller engagements and then eventually we let them loose in the marketplace, but they will always have a great team behind them.”
If you’re not able to morph into the next generation of yourself, you’re going to miss the boat.
Sharfman had one young man who started in customer service. “It wasn’t his skill set, but he had to learn it. Next he was in case design. Also not his best skill set, but he had to understand what we offer.” The next step was to introduce him to some smaller clients, with a mentor to help him.
“Finally we let him loose to develop his own book of business. When he went to see clients, he was armed and dangerous. He had the knowledge needed to work with a sophisticated client. He had an unfair advantage because of the two years of experience understanding life insurance and planning,” Sharfman said.
“He’s a people person and he has a strong level of grit, so once we got him to a point where we let him go, he had the right skill set at the right time. If we had put him right into sales, he could have flamed out instead of building a fantastic career in this business.”
3 critical skills to sell life insurance
By Howard Sharfman
After working with many new insurance agents, I have found those who are successful have the following:
- Great producers have grit. They push on through difficult times, especially when they’re getting “no” from clients. It’s hard for it not to be personal. Without grit and perseverance, you can’t move on from that. Many young professionals grew up getting a participation trophy. In business, we do give participation trophies because participating in our team is important. But in sales, it’s binary: Either a client reacts and I get paid, or they say no and I don’t.
- Great producers gather knowledge. They want the advantage that comes with knowing more than their competition. Great producers don’t present and recommend until they know enough to have an unfair advantage. It’s important for new producers to surround themselves with high-achieving people who are always striving to be better. That doesn’t mean they have to make the most money. The idea here is having the knowledge to help the client.
- Great producers go where people buy. Without changing, your markets change around you and you find yourself without clients. The greatest quote I’ve heard was “If the rate of change on the outside is greater than the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” For instance, there were hundreds of machine shop operators in Chicago that I worked with when I started, but now they’re gone. Today we work with hedge fund managers, accountants, lawyers and equity managers. If you’re not able to morph into the next generation of yourself, you’re going to miss the boat.