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Benefits Products & Services

A training opportunity for new benefits producers

Two giants in P-C & benefits education fill a training void

By Thomas A. McCoy, CLU

A property/casualty agency with a growing employee benefits practice eventually confronts the need to hire a new benefits sales person. If hiring an experienced benefits producer is not possible or practical, it might consider hiring someone, probably young, with no benefits sales experience, but with strong sales instincts.

An agency taking this approach is immediately presented with a training challenge that is different from what they are used to on the P-C side of the house. When a P-C producer is hired, forward-thinking agencies have senior sales people who can be mentors and a licensed service staff that is supportive of the new producer's needs. In the best of all worlds, they would even have a true sales manager who can work with the new producer.

This kind of infrastructure training support probably is not available on the benefits side. So, how does a P-C agency go about developing an inexperienced benefits producer into a productive performer?

Two organizations—one operating in the benefits world, the other in property/casualty—have joined forces to create a program that addresses this training challenge. The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans and The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research introduced their Employee Benefits Producer Training program last year.

The centerpiece of the training program is a two-week, on-site training event, which last year attracted 16 benefits producers. This year's training event will be held this month—from September 19 to September 30 in Fort Worth, Texas.

The National Alliance and the Foundation each provide instructors. The former organization uses intructors who teach in its Dynamics of Selling program that fits in with its CIC and other designation programs, adapting their presentations to the benefits market. The International Foundation's instructors, all of whom are actively involved in the benefits brokerage consulting business, cover the technical side of the benefits market and its products.

David A. Harvey, CEBS, sales associate at the International Foundation, says the typical student attending the training event has been designated to sell benefits full-time for their firm, but has little or no experience in that role. Many of them are recent hires.

"Usually they will have their life, accident and health license. But we've had some producers attend who graduated from college eight weeks ago, so they aren't even licensed yet.

"Sometimes a producer will attend from a family agency that already has a father and son or daughter active on the P-C side. So, son or daughter number two is coming along, and they say, 'How do we get them into the benefits side?'"

Harvey is a 40-year veteran benefits producer who has been instrumental in designing the Foundation's portion of the curriculum. He says the class focuses on the practical needs of the new producer students and the agency owners who are sending them.

"It isn't trying to turn the students into CEBS designees (Certified Employee Benefits Specialist, an advanced designation awarded by the Foundation)," says Harvey. "But they will be able to understand concepts such as a CDHP (consumer driven health plan), and what sales strategies might work or not work for it."

Products discussed include health insurance, retirement plans, wellness programs, employee assistance programs, and ancillary products including life, dental, disability, and vision. Both employer-paid and voluntary offerings are covered. "The presentations are kept current to reflect the dynamic nature of today's benefits marketplace, including health care reform," says Harvey.

Dr. William T. Hold, president of The National Alliance, says the Alliance's portion of the training stresses role-playing of sales situations as they apply to the benefits field.

"A number of large P-C firms with benefits departments have sent producers to the training program," Hold says. He notes that the Council of Insurance Agents & Brokers and Assurex Global have both endorsed the program. 

Oswald Companies, a multi-office agency based in Cleveland, sent new producer Matthew Byrnes to the training program last year when he had been with the agency for four months. He was ahead of other students in some respects because he had received benefits training during a three-and-a-half year stint with a disability carrier before coming to Oswald.

"What's different about the [Foundation/National Alliance] program," Byrnes explains in a video on the Foundation Web site, "is that it puts you into a real world situation." When meeting with clients and prospects, "I now know what to look for." That includes opportunities for cross-selling property/casualty accounts, he says.

Catherine Russo, a benefits producer at Gillis, Ellis & Baker in New Orleans, who attended last year's training program, points out (on the Foundation Web site) that the small class size helps the students gain confidence as they practice their sales presentations together. Because the students come from many areas of the country, she notes, "We're not competing with each other."

Before attending the two-week class, producers are provided with six hours of online benefits products instruction. Four hours of the online content are devoted to health care and group benefit plans, and two hours to retirement plans. "Since there are no other prerequisites to attending, these online courses put everyone at the same starting point," says Harvey.

Agency owners, sales managers or practice leaders who send producers to the Producer Training event are invited to join those producers during the first three days of the training at no additional charge. Special sessions for these managers related to goal setting, mentoring, and monitoring are scheduled during those days.

"It also gives the supervisor an opportunity to have time away from the office with the new producer," says Dr. Hold.

After the two-week training event is over, participants can take part once a month in an hour-long follow-up Webcast designed to reinforce the sales and product concepts taught in the classroom. They can also continue to share ideas about their jobs informally with the other participants.

The cost for a producer to attend is $2,750, which includes course materials and lunches. Both the training sessions and accommodations are at the American Airlines Training & Conference Center ($84 per night, including free wireless Internet access) located five minutes from the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

Continuing education credits are filed in all states, and those participants requesting the credits pay an additional administrative fee of $25.

Eight of the benefits producers who attended last year's class are featured in the videos at the Foundation's Web site, and some mention that before attending the program they were concerned that two weeks might be too long to be away from home and office. Once they attended, however, they agreed that the return—both to them personally and to the agency—was a good one.

"There are soft dollar costs and hard dollar costs," points out Marti Smith, a benefits producer at Colburn Group in Troy, Michigan, who attended last year. "But it is well worth it. It's been a good expenditure of our time and the agency's resources."

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