Listen your way to sales

By Al Emid | October 18 2006 08:01PM

Walking the walk and talking the talk are important in the successful advisor’s skill set but, Kristan Birchard also sees effective listening as vital for building a productive client relationship.

“Listening is a tool. The goal is the relationship – being a trusted advisor,” says the 34-year veteran insurance broker and president of Ottawa-based Eagle Insurance Agency Ltd.

The cost of not listening carefully can include lost clients, lost potential clients, lack of trust, missed cues about potential future sales and the danger of presenting the wrong product (or the less relevant features of the right product).

Careful listening enables the advisor to pick up on clues about potential transactions other than the one at hand, he argues. For example, a client’s strong interest in philanthropic activities may mean that he or she is open to future presentations on insurance-based tax planning and charitable giving. “You may have an opportunity to present things to the client that they weren’t aware of (but) that are of great interest to them.”

Listening skills include learning not to jump the proverbial gun, he says. “Many of us, when we get in front of the client and start to see where it’s going, we get excited. We want to try to take it there maybe a little more quickly than we should,” he suggests. The classic example occurs when the advisor has received a well-positioned referral from a potential client’s trusted accountant and a sale seems almost assured. “If you rush into that and skip the relationship-building part and move right to the recommendation part, chances are you’re not going to get it.”

Other areas of his technique might remind one of a skilled television moderator, since he stresses open ended questions – inquiries not lending themselves to simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers, but leaving the door open for the client to reveal large amounts of information. Some examples: Can you tell me more about this business? Can you explain that again in a bit more detail?

His technique also includes staying focused by not taking notes during the relationship-building meetings, preferring instead to dictate highpoints into a dictating machine afterward.

Other listening skills, such as timing, seem unbelievably simple. “We all like to talk – you’ve got to force yourself to make sure that the person that you’re conversing with has finished what they want to say before you get in (like) counting briefly to make sure there is a long enough pause.”

One goal of the relationship-building phase is to acquire a knowledge base for both near-term and long-term presentations. “One of the ways you do that before the sale starts, and during the sale, and after the sale, is to be somebody that listens to your client.”

Before the presentation

To provide ample time for listening during the relationship-building phase before the sales presentation, Mr. Birchard limits speaking to roughly one-third of the appointment, leaving the remainder for listening and information-gathering.

With his entrepreneur clients, he listens for two different sets of cues since some plan to sell the business and move on, while others plan to pass it to the next generation.

A client who routinely grows a business, sells it and moves on to another business, presents one set of prospects. Each turnover may present opportunities such as group insurance plans and insurance-based planning strategies designed to assist in lowering the tax liability at time of sale.

By comparison, the entrepreneur leaving the business to the next generation might be interested in insurance-based strategies designed to minimize tax bills at decease or disposition of the company.

During the presentation

In order to cover his material comprehensively without losing the benefits of listening, he tries for an approximate 50-50 split between presenting and listening during the sales presentation.

During the presentation, careful listening may provide clues that the advisor has started ‘winning’, he adds, suggesting that one clue occurs when the prospective client explains his or her business in detail. “They’ve opened up…,” he says. Another example occurs when the client explains the decision-making process and steps involved in arranging a contract.

A good question during this meeting can include: “Do we understand that this is a benefit that you want?” A negative answer may mean that the broker should review the material.

Other clues include the level of questions by the client. An off-handed question may just feign polite questioning while a serious question shows interest and may demonstrate the level of the client’s grasp of the product being presented. “Is that question on target or is he asking about something I’m not talking about and that demonstrates a misunderstanding?”

After the sale

After the sale, focused listening helps nurture the relationship and reassures the client that he is ‘there’ even if no immediate sale is under discussion.

Clues he listens for include:

• whether the client’s business is improving: new employees may mean new benefits plans;
• whether the client’s life situation has changed;
• whether the client’s understanding of insurance and what it can do has matured;
• whether the client’s investment philosophy has changed. As the client becomes older and possibly more conservative this may have implications for investment products or the investment account in universal life polices;
• conversely, a client whose business has become successful may have more financial underpinning and be more prepared to assume some risk;
• ways to assist a client outside of insurance – perhaps a teenager needs a summer job and can be introduced to one of your contacts.

“If you are always seen as the kind of person that takes the time listen and to care and be interested, then I think you are seen more as somebody who is there to be an advisor and a friend,” he concludes.