Sales and Sales Management Blog

January 17, 2008

De-Commoditizing The Financial Services Sale

If you sell financial services, from property and casualty insurance, to life and health insurance to securities to financial planning, your industry is rapidly changing.  You must either change with it or find a way to combat the change.  Either way, you will have to change the way you do business if you want to survive.

It wasn’t that many years ago when consumers who were in the market for financial services of any kind wanted and expected the advice and guidance of a financial advisor.  Whether dealing with an insurance decision, investing their hard-earned money, or trying to layout a complete financial plan, people understood the need to consult an expert.

Consequently, most people selling financial services, whether working for an insurance company, a wirehouse, or a financial planning firm, spent hundreds, some thousands of hours each year studying the intricacies of their products and services.  Each sought to become a product expert, a trusted source who could not only properly fill out the paperwork and calculate the cost (and the commission), but could also give professional advice—advice designed to help the customer or client reach their ultimate goal and to make well informed decisions about complex issues.

Certainly, there have always been a percentage of financial services providers concerned about making a quick buck, but most who entered the industry were seeking a career where they could not only make a solid income, but also be recognized an expert, a true professional.

There are still hundreds of thousands seeking the same goals.  They still spend hundreds or thousands of hours each year diligently studying their craft.  They still seek to find creative—yet legal—ways to help solve client problems.  They still try to help their clients meet their ultimate goals, whatever those goals are.

Nevertheless, your industry is changing before your eyes.  What was once considered complex transactions needing expert advice and guidance is quickly becoming nothing but a commodity to be bought at the lowest possible price.

Insurance companies are looking for ways to turn agents into order takers, selling based on price or the ability to at least appear to be the lowest price; investment firms are looking to turn registered reps into order takers, transacting trades at the cheapest possible price; and some companies are offering cheap fill-in-the-blank “financial plans” that are nothing but boilerplate documents, with recommendations taken from a pre-determined list of options.

Of course, there are still customers who recognize a need for expertise and guidance.  However, that group is shrinking all the time.  More and more people are prescribing their own financial medicine.  Just as the proliferation of drug ads on TV and in print is subtly encouraging people to determine their own medication, needing only the sign-off of their doctor, the proliferation of financial information, from books to TV shows is encouraging more and more people to financially self-medicate, needing only the signature of a licensed agent or registered rep.

This isn’t to say that the tsunami of financial information available isn’t good.  It is simply to say that the natural culmination of this proliferation of information is a large–and growing–number of people who believe they no longer need to pay more for financial advice than the price of a book. 

And the result of all of this self-medication?  Traditional insurance, securities, and financial planning firms are finding it more difficult to find new sources of business.  Traditional agents, registered reps and financial planners are fighting for an ever-shrinking number of potential clients.  Competition is getting more and more cut throat.  The reaction of the companies is to hire more agents, reps, and financial planners, hoping to bring in more business. 

The washout rate within each industry is increasing—with no end in sight.

Yet, within each segment of the financial services industry, there are agents, reps, and financial planners, both long-time professionals and new up and comers, who are making more money than ever before.  This small group of professionals has found a way to combat the commoditization of their industry.  Not only have they found a way to combat the growing commoditization, they have found a way to make it work in their favor.

How?  Not by giving in to the pressure of selling price.  Not by retreating from offering expert advice and guidance.  Not by throwing in the towel.

Their answer is to decommoditize their products and services by developing a public reputation and image as the local expert in their field.  They have forsaken traditional marketing and opted for a more radical marketing model.  Rather than simply becoming product or service experts and then seeking to market themselves as in the past, these professionals have sought to become publicly recognized experts and mini-celebrities within their local areas. 

They no longer hope for simple name recognition through advertising or direct mail.  They no longer rely on the attraction of their company’s household name.  They certainly don’t spend hundreds of hours cold calling looking for those few individuals willing to talk with them.

Instead, they actively work to generate a public name and image for themselves that sets them apart from their competition, whether that competition comes from traditional marketing or from discounting price.  They have learned how to use strategies historically reserved by corporate PR departments and high visibility “experts” to position themselves within their marketplace as a recognized expert.

They realize people are willing to pay top dollar to work with someone who has the public status of an expert—and visibility and publicity dictates status.  You may be the best agent, registered rep or financial planner from a technical standpoint, but if prospects don’t recognize you as an expert by reputation, image, and publicity, you are just another of the crowd. 

If you want to stand above the crowd in a crowded and shrinking marketplace, you will have to shift your thinking from traditional marketing to using methods that are more sophisticated.  Being a great technician just isn’t good enough any more—unless you’re satisfied selling a commodity.


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