In fast-changing benefits field, "not losing" won't be good enough

How are you playing the game? Are you playing to win or are you playing to not lose? As hard as it may be to believe at first, a strategy of playing to not lose has produced pretty good results, at least up to this point. However, benefits producers whose continued goal is to avoid losing will find they are facing certain defeat.

Let's start out by discussing what it means to play not to lose, as opposed to playing to win. Don't get me wrong, playing not to lose doesn't mean that the players aren't good. However, it does mean that they play defensively and most likely don't go out with an exceptional performance.

Playing not to lose

Playing not to lose is actually the result of having successfully played to win at one point. Producers build up a nice book of business, generate a nice income, enjoy a great lifestyle, and achieve an enviable work/life balance. When they realize they have more than they ever really expected to have, a switch is flipped and a level of complacency sets in. Instead of continuing to do the hard things that resulted in all of their wins, they start focusing on protecting what they have. And, up to a certain point, that actually works pretty well.

Instead of continuing to be aggressive, they become defensive. Instead of looking to give reasons for new clients to say "yes" to them, they become much more concerned about not giving their current clients a reason to say "no" with the hopes that no one else comes along and gives that same client a reason to say "yes" to them.

The primary reasons that the same strategy has worked reasonably well for so long is two-fold.

First, at the risk of offending a few, I believe that the financial reward for mediocrity in this industry has been ridiculously high and has perpetuated a game that has too many players playing to not lose. Why play harder than you have to when a fairly simple game has generated such unbelievable financial rewards?

Second, the rules of the game have remained fairly static. Yes, the game has been threatened at times. Hillary brought the threat of nationalized health care, Spitzer threatened their contingency income, the Internet and direct writers even threatened to take them out of the game. However, those threats largely passed with glancing blows and no real damage.

So, there producers sat, going into the sales equivalent of the "prevent defense." They wrapped their arms around what they had accumulated and even fooled themselves into thinking they were playing to win as their revenue and income continued to grow, but only because premiums on what they already had continued to rise. Well, the circumstances that have allowed that to be a successful strategy have changed. The old saying, "What got you here will keep you here," is a saying whose time has come and gone. What got you here in the world of benefits will now take you back to where you once were. For many, a place they haven't visited in a long time.

Before it's too late, benefits producers would be wise to take a lesson from our friends on the P-C side of the fence. They have been in a soft market for years. If they successfully retain every account they have but don't go out and generate new business, they are slipping backwards 15%-20% every year. While the words "soft market" don't even exist in the benefits dictionary, the changes to compensation coming from health care reform are starting to drive the same results. It is for that reason that playing to not lose on the benefits side of the field is a game plan that assures the players' defeat.

So, let's look at some critical areas and the difference between playing to win and playing to not lose.

Delivering the right solution

For quite some time, competing for benefits business has largely been focused on a list of value-added services that benefits brokers' attempts to use in order to differentiate themselves. The reality is that the services brokers have acquired in an attempt to be seen as innovative have quickly become commodities themselves.

Brokers who are playing to not lose will focus on the needs of the clients that happen to fit the solutions they have available. Those playing to not lose will open conversations that could lead only to solutions they already have.

That may seem pretty reasonable, until you contrast that to a producer who is playing to win. When you play to win, the focus is on filling the most urgent needs of a prospect, even if it's a solution you don't currently possess. Those playing to win are willing to create a solution if that's what it takes to win the game. A perfect example is an agency that went into the game competing for the benefits of a very large company. One of the greatest needs of this particular company was some help with sales training. Determined to win, this agency took its internal sales process, turned it into a solution for the prospect who not only turned into a new benefits client, but who also engaged the agency for help with a sales training program. Not a bad win, huh?

Lesson: Don't manipulate the client's problem to fit your solution; adjust (or create) a solution to fit their need.

Question your results

It is true that producers playing to not lose understand the need to learn from their failure. When they lose out on an opportunity, they debrief with their team and review the "game film" to learn what went wrong. Sometimes, they even get brave enough to go and ask the former prospect why they didn't win.

Producers playing to win go one step further. They aren't just satisfied with learning why they lost or even satisfied with getting a win. No, the exceptional producers want to learn why they won. They will go through the same team debriefing, the same reviewing of game film and will always ask their new client why it was that they were chosen.

Lesson: Having complete clarity about what led to a win is the only way that you can ensure a repeat performance.

First impressions count more than ever

In case you haven't noticed, we work in a fairly conservative industry. We don't necessarily embrace change easily. Not many accuse our industry of being on the cutting edge. However, that doesn't mean that your clients aren't on the cutting edge and have similar expectations of those with whom they work, or at least favor those they happen to find who are on the cutting edge. Social media is a glaring example of what I mean.

We all know the need to make a strong first impression. Those who are determined to not lose will do their research, put on their best suit, look the prospect in the eyes, give a firm handshake and be confident that they haven't done anything to hurt themselves as they make this critical first impression.

Now, contrast that to the producers who are determined to win. These producers have created an online presence through their blog, LinkedIn, their Twitter content, and Google ranking. They have used that presence to communicate their expertise. Knowing that their new prospects will be doing their own research on them as well as their competition, they have used that presence to create an advantage and ensure their victory.

Lesson: The first impression is no longer made face to face. It is now made by what the prospect learns, or doesn't learn, about you online.

Never make a statement when you could be asking a question

Those producers who are determined to not lose make sure they are able to make a strong presentation. They make sure they tell their prospect and client absolutely everything about themselves. They want to ensure that they can never be accused of not having told the prospect absolutely everything about them and their agency.

Now contrast that to the producers determined to win. Sure, they communicate the critical information about themselves, but they spend much more time learning about their prospects. They ask probing questions and then, not yet satisfied, they follow up with more questions. Then when they start to get a sense that their prospect/client may have a need, they drill down into the detail with even more questions.

Lesson: Leaving your prospect/client exhausted from answering your questions about them is a much more aggressive strategy than leaving them bored to tears from listening to stories about you.

This is a time in the evolution of the benefits industry that the professional players will be separated from the weekend warriors. This is no longer a game for the casual player. The spoils of victory are about to become greater than they have ever been before. However, if you don't create an aggressive game plan, sharpen your skills and take the field with a fierce determination to win, you'll be much better off on the sidelines.

The game is about to get bloody.


Originally published in Rough Notes magazine June 2011.

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Photo by scarlett0700