With the multitude of value-added services that firms tout to their clients, how come so many agents and brokers are viewed as mere peddlers? At worst they are derided as vendors. At best they are seen as competent solvers of technical problems. 

Why are so few seen as first-rate business advisors?

My experience helping nearly 30 regional brokerages and hundreds of their producers to upgrade their selling practices has revealed a pattern of similar problems. Your firm’s value is only as good as it is perceived. If your customer’s decision maker doesn’t recognize your firm’s value, it doesn’t have any.

And wherever prospects and clients place you in the pecking order of consultants, you’ve probably earned exactly where you stand. You earned it by whom you call on, by your level of preparation, your focus and your willingness to listen.

To raise your position, you must be seen as better than other brokers, and you must get more credit for the value you deliver. New capabilities, products and services are great, but they seldom remain an advantage for very long. Making a handful of changes in how you think and act is a more cost-effective and sustainable way for your firm to get noticed.

Being treated like a commodity is among the most pervasive and troubling selling challenges brokers face today. When this mindset prevails, every buying decision boils down to price—Who will sell for less? Too many producers accept this perception as reality and join the race to the bottom. You can create more visible separation between your agency and the rest of the pack by changing the way you sell. 

Take It Personally. It’s safe and non-threatening to be an order-taker. Whatever happens has nothing to do with you. Can’t get a meeting? It’s because the prospect has been with the incumbent forever. Being viewed as more than a commodity requires acting like more than a commodity. Take responsibility for your results. Salespeople create opportunity. They don’t just service a need.

Emphasize Business Impact. When contacting prospects to secure initial meetings, keep what you say about your products and services to a minimum—or avoid the topic entirely. It’s human nature that product-focused approaches elicit knee-jerk reactions. I need it/I don’t. I’m interested/I’m not.

Remember why customers are in business. None opened their doors so they could buy insurance. Prospects are more open to meet when you highlight the results you can help them achieve. You’ll never get every prospect to meet with you, but few can honestly say they don’t need what you’re offering.

Engage Non-Decision Makers. Many selling systems encourage making your first contact in each organization with the decision maker. If you only get one chance to make a good first impression, why would you call the most important person in the buying process at a time when you know the least about that person’s business? What if you could ask a few advance questions of a safety manager or operations director? By the time you interact at the executive level, you’ll be better equipped to understand the enterprise and its current priorities. Conversations with employees deeper in the organization often help to identify problems that get filtered out further up the chain of command. This enables you to provide a more valuable perspective when you meet with senior management.

Change Your Ask/Tell Ratio. Building credibility is essential to forging value-oriented relationships. Producers tend to rely too much on talking to accomplish this. You develop credibility faster by showing your interest in the customer. Whoever gets the most information early in the sales process holds all the cards. When you reveal more about your agency and the solutions it provides, the prospect might decide simply to keep your information on file until a need arises. Spend too much time talking to the customer, and you won’t learn about the customer’s priorities, making it difficult to create any urgency for a next meeting.

The 95/5 Rule—the customer talks 95% of the time, you talk 5% of the time—reverses this dynamic. This rule will help you gain greater insight into the prospect’s needs and help you secure the next meeting. Because you’ve disclosed little about your solutions, the prospect is more likely to be intrigued and curious to learn how you can help.

Get familiar with the customer’s business first. Defer insurance, risk management or employee benefits topics until you have a sound understanding of the enterprise. People like to talk about what they do. As prospects talk about their business, they become more relaxed, open and engaged. You get better information, which provides critical context for your proposed solutions. Your strategy for insurance, risk management or employee benefits must align with the organization’s business strategy. This way you can position your value in terms that resonate with the customer and show how working with your firm will advance the customer’s broader agenda.

The more you act like a trusted advisor, the less you’ll find prospects and customers treating you like a commodity.