Leave your comfort zone with expert guidance

par Alain Thériault | February 12 2009 08:49PM

To excel you need to go beyond your comfort zone, but make sure you first seek good advice from experienced advisors or business coaches. This was one message from the three keynote speakers at a conference seminar called Sales Champions, which was part of the 11th Insurance and Investments Convention last November in Montreal.

Éric Gosselin takes three months of vacation a year. This hasn't stopped him from multiplying his income steadily since he launched his career.

Last summer, he took two months off in a row. He had no choice. In front of the audience, he removed his jacket followed by his shirt. It soon became clear how lucky he was to be there. A brace covered his whole upper torso. "You almost had yourselves another speaker," he joked.

Mr. Gosselin suffers from a rare congenital defect of the spinal column which required surgery. "If I was not operated on this summer, I would probably be in a wheelchair.

The operation and treatment were gruelling. "Even so," he enthuses, "during this period my company not only continued to run, but it raked in $1.2 million in new business!"
Where did he get this well-oiled machine that runs perfectly on its own? One of the strategies that took him to the top: he took his coach's advice.

Mr. Gosselin started his financial planning firm in 1993. Two years later, his sales and personal income increased fourfold. He has been part of Peak Financial Group's Excellence Club each year since 1996. Backed by a staff of seven, his firm has about 600 clients concentrated in the healthcare sector.

Our definition of success, and the way we go about attaining it, determine our success, Mr. Gosselin says. One of his first key steps was to use the services of Strategic Coach, which offers a program designed to spur entrepreneurs' success. "It cost an arm and a leg for a 24-year-old guy at the time, $4,500 per year for a three-year contract, on top of the cost of airfare and hotel to go to meetings in Toronto. But I went anyway," he explains.

He learned two key things: set objectives and reward yourself when you meet them.

"When I reached $10 million in assets, I bought a huge 59-inch plasma screen TV with a sound system. At $25 million I made a mistake: All I did was uncork a bottle of wine, and I don't even remember a thing. So when I reached $50 million, I treated myself to a course on driving Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Porsches. All in one day, you try out six or seven. It's amazing. Even when I am 75, I am sure that I will still remember it." When you have reached your objective, do something that you will always remember, he recommends.

Mr. Gosselin also listened to his peers. A colleague told him to hire an assistant. She will bring in the means to pay her salary, he said. "I just did it recently, and, what do you know, he was right!"

Mr. Gosselin insists that you have to stand out from the masses. He told the conference-goers that they were on the right track. "If you are here this morning at 7:30 a.m. listening to experts discuss their success, it's because you're brighter than the average Joe," he joked.

Standing out means knowing where you're going; few really do, he continues. "How many of us have business plans? I'll tell you the answer: 15%, and that's being generous. If you have a basketball in your hands and you'd don't have a basket or don't know where it is, good luck scoring points."

Success in life rests on three principles, Mr. Gosselin concludes. "Say please and thank you. Do what you say. Show up on time. That's all!"

Being polite isn't rocket science. Nor is arriving on time, especially with today's technology like GPS, iPhone, Google Maps and cell phones.

Doing what you say takes a bit more discipline. Have integrity and follow the rules, he recommends, bringing up compliance. "If you calculate your commissions before the client has signed, they will sense that. If you think about your client's pocket before your own, the money will flow in...much more quickly than you would think." You can lose a sale, it's not the end of the world, he explains. But there's no excuse for losing your reputation.

Also, take the time to listen to your clients. "Don't spend more than five minutes telling a client how wonderful and great you are. In a two hour meeting with your client, if you spend 45 minutes talking about yourself, the client will find the meeting long and boring." 

Listen to your clients; a message worth repeating. "They'll give you all the keys. They will tell you their needs. Sales will then take care of themselves because you take what the client says and come back with what they said," Mr. Gosselin concludes.

Leave the comfort zone

Dominique Janelle began his career the hard way. This 21-year veteran first prospected among his family and friends after having established a project 100, beginner's list of prospective clients.

Mr. Janelle worked with his father, who refused to let him touch his clients. At age 31 he bought out his father's portfolio. Thirteen years later, in 2005, Mr. Janelle was named associate of the year at the Labelle Agency, part of the SFL network, achieving an enviable client conservation rate.

What catapulted him quickly up the echelons: he dared to stray from an unsatisfactory career path. His audacity helped him double his income and the value of his firm in just a few years.

"I thought it over and realized that I was working hard but not well, so I decided to change. I redefined my idea of happiness," he explains.

Mr. Janelle looks back: "The last ten years of my career were the most important. By 1998, I had been associated with an agency for 12 years. It wasn't working. My growth was being blocked. There were a lot of headaches, many conflicts. I wasn't happy."

He then made THE decision of his life. "I decided that from that point, I would become a happy man." 

Happiness is a popular goal. But unlike most people, this advisor decided to make this objective real by defining it on paper. "For me the definition of happiness was to perform well and to make money." 

To realize his dreams, he left his comfort zone. He joined the Labelle agency as a complete unknown, and invited the top advisors to lunch to seek mentorship.

There again, after a few years he hit the wall. Even after having doubled his income, he still wasn't happy. Why? "I was working too much and my creativity had dried up."

Back to the drawing board. Mr. Janelle noticed that his happiness was still fuelled by performance and money. Now, though, he wanted to work less. Quite a conundrum.

He turned once again to his top advisor mentors. This time they recommended that he take on a coach. Mr. Janelle left his comfort zone behind, again. He hired a financial advisor coach, Alain Vézina, who frankly told him "after 18 years and 1800 clients, you might need a secretary." To boost creativity, Mr. Vézina also recommended recruiting an advisor.

Initially reticent to increase his expenses and delegate, Mr. Janelle eventually followed the advice. He hired a secretary and appointed his cousin junior associate. The result: four years later, the value of his firm and income doubled once again.

Buoyed by his success, Mr. Janelle hired a second secretary. Two other juniors that had already been doing all their businesses with him soon joined his firm, which now had three offices, in Laval, Montreal and the West Island of Montreal.

At the same time, he slashed his work hours. "I work four days a week, never on Fridays, almost never in evenings. I take two weeks of vacation in the summer, two in the winter." As a bonus, with his cousin as a partner, he boasts that at age 44 he has already found his successor.

"When I take a step back, I tell myself that what I really did in 1998 was to decide to be happy. The rest, other people did it. I just chose the right people, the right office, the right associates. That's all." Don't be afraid of change, he urges. You'll probably be forced to leave your comfort zone, which may not be a bad thing, he adds.

Empathetic approach

Another sales champion speaker, Marie Beauvais, believes that the qualities of empathy, organization and maintaining a work-life balance have brought her to the top of the sales field. She has been the Elite sales woman at Capitale Services conseils since 1991. She's also very people oriented. In her words, "Yes, I'm a humanist, but keep in mind...I'm a seller at heart!"

Empathy for others brought her to sales. As team leader at an actuarial firm after completing her marketing studies, she was assigned to handle files of disgruntled clients. "You're right to be dissatisfied," she often told them.

This unexpected answer dials down the tension. Ms. Beauvais can then easily find common ground. "I want to serve my clients as if they were me," she adds.

Her human approach to sales is simple. She explains things in layman's terms and adds emotion to the process. "Because it's emotion that drives sales, not rational decisions," she affirms.

But how can you rouse emotion with a financial product? "The perception our clients have of us, what we project, is very, very important, much more than what we say to them," she says.

Success also means always being in the heart of the action. Ms. Beauvais says she simplifies her day through rigorous organization. "When it comes down to it, I'm lazy," she admits with total seriousness. "Thanks to my magic tool, my agenda, I have eliminated the stress of soliciting or doing a ton of follow-ups. I manage my life with my agenda. The real challenge is to be disciplined, on a daily basis. I have trained myself to enjoy my weekends as much as the challenges I face each Monday."

Ms. Beauvais carves up the slots in her agenda according to an energy-output ratio. She schedules sales interviews for the beginning of the week and concentrates her soliciting and follow up appointments in the second half of the week. Each day, she returns calls between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. "Why drain my energy by tackling a heavy file at 9:00 a.m. on a Monday?"

Her work/life balance rests on basic values. "Often people work very hard. For whom? Why? Their quality of life? Their family? Their spouse? If they spend more than 60 hours a week at work, do they have a good quality of life? In my case, the best quality of life is a balance between my personal accomplishments and my family. This may seem like a cliché, but that's my vision of success."