Host: Tim Martin
Guest: Jackie Kohorst-Payne
Episode 032: Grit + Professionalism Always Wins
February 7, 2018
Welcome to Success is Voluntary, a podcast devoted to helping you become the salesperson you were always meant to be, where it’s all about helping you learn the techniques and tools that will enable you to win in the increasingly competitive world of voluntary benefits. Welcome your host, a guy who has hired and trained over 2,000 voluntary benefit salespeople in his career, Tim Martin. Success is Voluntary, selling voluntary benefits.
Tim Martin: Yes, my name is Tim Martin, and you are listening to episode number 032 of Success is Voluntary. I am very excited to introduce you to today’s guest. Have you ever met someone who you instantly knew was a true professional who you were really going to enjoy collaborating with, someone you knew was going to make you better?
I first met Jackie Kohorst in early 2016. Her story of grit, determination, and triumph inspired me then, and it continues to inspire me today. I think you’re really going to enjoy getting to know Jackie as well. Hi, Jackie! How are you today?
Jackie Kohorst-Payne: Great! How are you?
Tim: Fantastic! Are you kidding me? I live in Arizona where we never see snow, and you live in Las Vegas where you seldom see snow, so life is pretty good out here. I just want to thank you for coming on and giving us a few minutes teaching my little tribe a couple of things about grit and determination.
I said in the open you were one of those people who, when I met, I instantly knew I was going to enjoy collaborating with, and the more I’ve gotten to know you over the last couple of years that has not changed at all. I want to ask you a couple of questions about how you got started in the insurance business. Let’s start there.
Jackie: Well, thank you very much. To get started, I’ll say I really appreciate the invitation and the feeling of collaboration with you. Enjoying that is just the same for me. How I got started in the industry, I think, is perhaps a little bit unusual. After the tourism industry really took a major change on the heels of 9/11 and eliminated jobs in the marketing and advertising field in which I had been working, I decided I was going to pursue a job that purposefully was based on commissions.
When I took a look around I felt like one of the best opportunities to build a healthy career and a healthy income really could be found in the insurance industry, and that’s what got me started, the desire to honestly take control of my career and my earnings in a way I couldn’t do working for someone else.
Tim: That’s fantastic. I can’t tell you how many people back into an insurance career. They come in kicking and screaming about being on commission, but you said you actually went out and looked for a commission-only position.
Jackie: I really did, and if you’ve ever had any experience with advertising… I owned a firm in Cincinnati, Ohio. We did a lot of advertising for large business to business and consumer marketers, and one of the toughest sales you’ll ever make is convincing someone on an advertising campaign, because it appears to be very subjective.
When you can actually convince a company to use your ideas, your graphic images, and your words exactly as the strategic and advertising team has accepted them, it really is an accomplishment, and I felt if I could be successful in that type of a sale, selling something a little bit more tangible but based on commission would be the true test of my salesmanship abilities, honestly, so I felt, “If not now, then when?”
Tim: Sure! Well, you’ve seen some changes. I mean, you haven’t been in the business for 45 years or anything, but obviously there have been some changes in the marketplace since you came on. What are some of the biggest ones, maybe positive and many even a negative?
Jackie: Honestly, I would say two things really mark the last 15 years for me. The first is what I’m going to call interest in the field of voluntary benefits, and the second is technology. In the area of interest, I think 15 years ago when I got my foot in the door there was almost a feeling of voluntary benefits or supplemental benefits being on the periphery. They were very much an extra, something very few companies and brokers understood.
I think it was only thought leaders who really were focused on those benefits, and over the last 15 years, as the face of healthcare has changed and, frankly, as the complexity of the marketplace has changed, I think brokers have found their own commission structures changing dramatically, and carriers have found their own opportunities for growth changing that many eyes have turned toward the voluntary market and players we never expected to see entering the marketplace have.
Some companies, like MetLife, who has always been a very traditional carrier of group products, were very early into the addition of individual voluntary products and probably led the way and were one of the first carriers to kind of enter the market, but since then virtually every large carrier and every group voluntary benefits carrier has become much more aggressive in the deployment of voluntary benefits and the pursuit of a large revenue stream from the income voluntary benefits can provide.
In a parallel way, I really think brokers have done the same thing. They have sought out the revenue this marketplace could bring to them to replace lost revenues in more traditional markets. That’s the first major thing I think really has changed, and I think both positive and negative things you can attribute to it. It certainly makes it more competitive for traditional players, but it also encourages people to up their game. You have to be better at what you do in order to compete.
The second change I would say is absolutely technology. Again, for traditional players this has been in some ways a scary change because so many voluntary carriers have worked on the individual markets where paper applications and very basic type of enrollment systems have been used, but honestly across the board, as we have accepted technology into our lives and the ability to do the most basic things for ourselves, whether it’s banking or shopping online, brokers and clients alike have wanted to bring in more of those benefit administration services to their companies, and that has really forced a change in how we approach the marketplace.
When you find even a 50-man company wanting to have online enrollment capabilities, it really changes how you approach them and how you have to deliver services and how you have to present the benefits of what you offer.
Tim: Certainly, as somebody who has spent my whole career going after that one-on-one enrollment, this is a big change. This is something I’m not sure anybody has really figured out how to navigate with great effectiveness. Would you agree with that?
Jackie: I think that’s probably true. I do believe there is widespread interest by many, many carriers on
, but I think ultimately it is the company that has both technology and, let’s say, the people to deliver an enrollment that probably will come out on top, because as much as you would like to believe technology can solve your problems, I think the pendulum will swing a little bit back toward more personal service, and the reason I say that is because, for many people, having an opportunity to understand benefits on an individual basis is still a huge need in the marketplace.
I do think we’re going to see enrollment systems and benefit administration systems move toward what I call more of a shopping experience where employees can compare benefits and understand the virtues of different types of plans and different types of benefits, but even with that there needs to be some level of understanding that’s very difficult to deliver in a purely technological realm, so I do believe it is a combination of both people who can assist technology and the technology itself that ultimately will crack the code.
Tim: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I will get off of this specific thing (the technology) in just a second, but I just recently read a survey where the people who are our age (we’re about the same age) and older would prefer technology, and the Millennials actually want the one-on-one because they don’t understand insurance. I found that fascinating.
Jackie: I do think that’s very true. I recently did an enrollment with not a giant company (about 100 lives) where many of the employees were first-time consumers of healthcare, and I do not believe it would have been possible to deliver that enrollment solely through an electronic means without what I am going to call interpreters or guides to help them through the process.
I think older employees who have had a variety of different insurance programs over the course of their careers tend to have more understanding because they have first-hand experience with HSAs and PPOs and HMOs, and they have a clear preference. They understand the difference between things like a high deductible and a high out-of-pocket maximum, but new employees, Millennials, do not have any frame of reference for what those terms mean, and they need some guidance.
Frankly, young HR executives and whatnot themselves oftentimes have limited experience with those differences in plans on a personal basis, because what looks good on paper may not be that great when you have a serious health problem in your own family.
Tim: Yeah, I can’t agree with that more. Moving on, when we first met two years ago you had just basically rebooted your business. You had run into some serious personal adversity, and we don’t need to get into that, but you were out of the pocket for a while. Tell me how your brokers and your customers kind of treated you during that time and how they have responded to you since you came back.
Jackie: I think that is a really interesting question. You’re right. I did have some health problems, and I did not work over the course of six months as I underwent some physical rehabilitation and things like that. I think it was interesting because, when you really take yourself away from your business on a day-to-day basis and you are not able or, for whatever reason, do not check in, I think one of the things you really learn is what things are going well and what things are not able to function without your personal touch.
I think, as business owners, there is a lot of ambiguity about how much a business owner contributes when they have a staff of people. I think that’s what I really learned. Where was my personal interaction with clients and brokers most significant and where could things run without my day-to-day supervision?
It was very much an educational process. I think because I had a strong team many of our relationships were kept, let’s say, alive. That doesn’t mean they thrived, but we still maintained some of the communication that’s necessary with large clients and large brokers. I think it really helped me to understand what needed to happen in order to reboot the business, as you say.
I think when I came back it was also an educational experience for large clients and large brokers because they understood where I was a direct contributor, and I think they were glad to have me back. I do think a couple of large brokers looked at it as an opportunity to replicate the services we offer on their own, and I think it has been a struggle for some of them because we did make it look easy.
Do you know what? Certainly, I wish absolutely no misfortune to any organization, broker, or whatever who wants to find a way to deliver voluntary benefits within their own organization, but it is a tough path because there are a lot of moving parts. I think, again, it also was very educational because it taught me the services and the programs we were offering really have become extremely important to large brokers and they recognize the profit potential goes up exponentially if they can deliver it in-house, but truthfully, it’s very difficult to do in reality.
Tim: Yeah. Obviously, they almost need to go hire somebody who has an incredible amount of experience in the voluntary benefits arena first, because this is not something they can take and just drop somebody into. Like you said, there is a ton of moving parts. I get the temptation to try and take all of the premium and all of the compensation, but the last time I checked 50 percent of something is a lot better than 100 percent of nothing. Obviously, most of the carriers pay much better than 50 percent even with an agent involved, so I absolutely think you’re dead on with that assessment that it is tough. They’d like to get there…
Jackie: The thing I would say probably more than anything else is that six-month hiatus where I was recuperating really taught me it was an opportunity to start again from the beginning, because, when you’ve been in the business like I was at that time for 13 years, you learn things along the way. The first couple of years you do things differently than you do the next three years.
So it really gave me an opportunity to reboot in a way that said, “I can use the best practices I have learned now as I restart. Because there was that break, I don’t have to just continue on the way things had been.” It gave me a clear opportunity to say, “This is what works. This is what hasn’t. This is what I learned along the way, and now let me reboot it in the way that I know these last 13 or 14 years have taught me are some of the best things I can do.”
Honestly, that’s what excited me about it. Even though it was a little bit of a challenge to rebuild, it also was exciting because I knew I could do it from a position of much more of a depth of knowledge instead of a beginner learning the ropes. It has been exciting and very rewarding, really.
Tim: You bet. Sometimes it’s incredibly refreshing to be able to just hit do-over and just start to build your business again and reinvent yourself. You don’t have to give up all of the knowledge you have. It’s just nice to be able to restart again. When we first met, you recommended a book to me by Angela Duckworth called Grit. I have to tell you I love that book, by the way. We’ve talked about it a couple of different times. Did that book have anything to do with you getting restarted? I have to assume it did since you recommended it to me.
Jackie: It absolutely did, and I think the premise of the book is one that’s very counterintuitive because as you begin reading the book what it says is, all things considered, the best predictor of success is not talent on its own; it’s actually a desire to persevere and work hard…grit, if you will. That determination, that grit, is a better predictor of success than almost anything else.
I think in my life I have learned that lesson over and over again, but it didn’t gel for me in quite the same way until I read this book. When I first went to college, I had been a scholar in high school. I went to a very prestigious university in Ohio, Miami University, which is generally thought to have one of the best business programs in the country at a public institution.
At orientation for freshmen, they said, “Take a look around. Look at the person next to you. Look at the person on the other side. One of them was valedictorian of their class.” Now, that sort of makes you think there are a lot of talented people in the freshman class, so what they were really saying was, “You are nothing special. Everyone around you is as talented as you are, and how you do is going to be determined by much more than just your raw talent.”
Because in high school I had never worked at anything, I had never learned the lesson of what it meant to work hard. I had to learn that lesson in college when people who probably were less talented naturally than I was were doing far, far better than I was, and it was because I had not learned that lesson.
There were several other times in life when my natural aptitude got in the way of my success, and I really do believe the book Grit helped me to crystallize my thinking about that because, along the way, you learn things intuitively, you take in lessons, and you accommodate what you’re learning.
I really think, over my career, if there’s anything that has marked my performance, it’s, first, I almost never say, “It can’t be done.” No matter what problem it is, no matter what question a client asks me, I always say, “I think we can do it,” because I honestly believe there is a way to do almost anything.
When other professionals will say, “That’s an impossible timeline,” or “That budget can’t work,” I always think, “There’s a way.” Two things I probably say all of the time that people get sick of me saying are, “If we don’t like the traditional solution, guess what? There are a hundred ways to do something right, and just because we’ve always done it one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way there is to do it.”
The other thing I talk about oftentimes is when other people will say, “Let’s think outside the box,” I am always saying, “Why does there have to be a box? Let’s take our thinking so far afield that it doesn’t resemble what other people have ever done before.” That has enabled me… That’s sort of where my perseverance and my passion or my grit comes from: believing there is always a way to be successful if you put your heart and soul into it and, honestly, if you accept the input and thinking of the team members around you.
You can’t do it alone. You and me on our own don’t have all of the right answers, but if you accept the passion and enthusiasm and ideas of other people that come into play, you honestly can do what you previously thought was impossible. I really think this book helped me to know those things I knew intuitively were right: hard work and passion probably made more difference in my career than any kind of natural aptitude or talent I might have brought to the table in the long run.
Tim: Absolutely! Man! You fire me up when you start talking about that part.
Jackie: I honestly believe it’s the truth. I do. I believe it’s the key to most people who are truly successful. They don’t look at things traditionally, and they don’t do things alone.
Tim: You bet! Besides that book, which I know is a phenomenal book, and I will post a link to it on the show notes for this, is there another book you would highly recommend to anybody in the financial services arena whether that’s being a stockbroker or insurance agent, those kinds of things?
Jackie: Absolutely. When I was first getting started in the advertising agency world, one thing you learn is that you’re selling an intangible. You can’t always put your arms around the services that are delivered by a marketing firm, and a book that was recommended to me is called Managing the Professional Service Firm by David Maister.
It was eye-opening because, first, it talks about why clients choose the professional service firm they do, and that applies to somebody selling voluntary benefits tremendously. If a large client or a large broker is deciding among three carriers or three voluntary benefits representatives, let me tell you what. It’s very helpful to understand why they might be making the choice they do.
Secondarily, it talks about why firms keep their professional services provider. Again, it was very illuminating because understanding what mistakes you could make and still keep the business and what were deal-breakers really helped me to understand a lot about just that intangible sale.
I think, really, the other thing the book really taught me more than anything else is that there is, again, no one way to do customer service right. Every customer is different, and not taking into account how people perceive good customer service would be a mistake. I always use this example.
When I was young, I would see my dad go into the car repair shop, and he kept his eye on them the whole time. He wanted to see the damaged part that was removed from the car. He wanted to see the bids on the replacement part. He wanted to understand how many hours it would take to do the work, and he wanted that service mechanic to check in with him a couple of times during the day to let him know how it was going.
If all of those things were delivered, he said, “Wow! That is a great mechanic shop. I’ll take my car there again.” Me? If they tried to give me the old part that didn’t work from my car, I would think maybe this service guy had lost his mind. If they checked in with me three or four times during the day to let me know, I would be appalled that they couldn’t do their work without my approval. Instead, I want someone who says, “This is the problem, this is how we’re going to fix it, here’s when it will be ready, and here’s how much it will cost,” and does exactly what they say.
Now, if they had done that kind of service for my dad, he would have said, “This is a terrible auto-body shop or auto-mechanic shop,” and it all comes down to our perception of what is good customer service. You can’t just set up a list of rules and say, “This is how voluntary benefits clients want to be handled,” or “This is how brokers want to be handled.”
Yes, there are definitely common elements that constitute good customer service, but even when I bring a new broker on board or a new client on board, one of the very first things I’ll ask them is, “How do you want me to communicate with you? Do you prefer I call you? Would you rather have an email or a text? What’s your favorite way of hearing from us about questions or problems or opportunities?” When they tell you, you learn so much about their style of work, and that’s the first clue. It tells you how they want you to deliver customer service.
Tim: I love that. I think we often as salespeople kind of see… Like you said, it’s a box. We check off the boxes. “This is what we’re going to do. This is how we’re going to support you,” versus, “How do you need to be supported and what can we do to meet those needs and desires?” That’s phenomenal.
Jackie: It’s just something, I think, if you stop and think about… Even if you took your five largest customers, be they brokers or clients, and thought about how they differ and what your frustrations are with them, I think you would immediately know how to change their customer service to have a more successful relationship.
Tim: That’s fantastic. Very good. Very good. I think I like that phrase about the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule is, “Treat others as you would like them to treat you.” The Platinum Rule is, “Treat others as they would like to be treated.” I think that’s a big, big difference there. Jackie, you’ve been doing this a little while now. What keeps you motivated? What keeps you getting up in the morning and fires you up on a day-to-day basis?
Jackie: That’s a hard question, I think, for anyone, but I guess probably there are two things. First, I just genuinely like solving problems, so I like meeting new clients. I like meeting new brokers. I really enjoy understanding where the complexity of the situation is. There’s that, but also, I kind of like the fact that the competitive marketplace has become much more vigorous. I like that people bring to the table new products and services that make it more competitive because, in some ways, it makes me that much more certain I can win.
Ultimately, I think a lot of the new carriers and a lot of the new representatives believe the best products and the best rates will win the day, and that absolutely is not true. It is a much more sophisticated delivery. It’s a much more sophisticated understanding of that balance between technology, products, rates, and how the enrollment will be delivered and managed that really make up the difference.
That keeps me motivated, because I like being one step ahead of the competition, and I like the fact that so many people who are new to the field believe you can put a spreadsheet together and give it to a client or a broker and think that will win the day. It might win the day the first time, but it won’t win the battle over the long run, so it’s exciting. It’s a good time to be in voluntary benefits because, if you are even a little bit better, you will thrive.
Tim: Yeah. In the two years I’ve known you, I’ve seen that happen. Accounts and/or brokers who, for whatever reason, got wooed away by the competitors have come back kind of with their tails between their legs going, “Jackie, we didn’t realize how good we had it. Can you bail us out here?”
Jackie: Do you know what? In some ways, I think that’s very healthy over the long run if you can avoid taking it personally, because I think it’s good when your biggest clients and best customers want to experience other things and come back and say, “Do you know what? We didn’t really realize what you brought to the table and how powerful that service offering was.”
It can be, I think, a builder of a much stronger relationship over the long run. I think there are stories all over the professional services field that talk about long-time customers who leave and come back, and there is good reason for it. I think it’s healthy even though difficult in the moment.
Tim: Fantastic! Let me ask you this. I’m a brand new insurance agent or financial services person, and I want to come into this industry. How would you recommend that I develop myself? What have you done to develop as a professional over the last 15 years or so?
Jackie: I think more than anything else I have been a voracious accumulator of knowledge. I read things. I talk to other people. I’m truly interested in what other people do and how they find success. I think more than anything I ask questions. I believe that is honestly the way. Of course, you can’t get bogged down in looking for perfection. You’re only looking for maybe the main roads on the map. You’re not looking for the secondary streets and the local town roads. You’re looking for the bigger path.
I think the acquisition of knowledge, whether it’s from books like Grit or from other people in the field, is an important part of putting your game plan together, but I honestly feel even the worst plan beautifully executed will provide success. It is far better to have a half-assed plan that you work every day than no plan at all. I would honestly say, “Put a plan together and stick to it.” If a month later you want to adjust that plan, adjust it, but have that well-developed roadmap and put it on paper. Put it on a single piece of paper. Then, you know what to do every single day.
You know what you believe are the most important activities that will bring you success. If you think it’s cold-calling, make sure you cold-call everyday. If you think it is developing relationships with referral sources, then make sure you are working on that every day. Probably, the final thing I would tell anyone entering this field is, “Do not mistake for even a moment that answering emails is actually work or progress.” That has nothing to do with success.
If you are spending more than an hour in the middle of your day working on emails, then you have a problem. Emails are for resolving questions and for providing proposals, perhaps. They’re not for getting clients or managing clients or developing new business. That takes shoe leather, phone calls, and other kinds of personal interaction with people. Yes, you can certainly put together a positive email marketing campaign, but answering emails is absolutely the route to disaster.
Tim: I couldn’t agree more! I almost have created or I keep threatening to create an auto responder on my email that says, “I don’t live in my email inbox.” I can’t tell you how many times somebody will call me and say, “Did you get that email I sent you?” I’m like, “No. When did you send it?” “Ten minutes ago.” I’m like, “I check my email twice a day.”
Jackie: I do believe that actually is a brilliant idea, and I’ll tell you why. I feel like the biggest part of making a customer happy is managing their expectations, and if you had an automatic reply that said, “I will answer your email before 6:00 this evening,” then they’ll know they shouldn’t wait for you but around 6:00 they’ll have an answer from you, if nothing else.
In the same way, if on your voicemail you told people, “I’m in a meeting all day. The meeting ends at 3:00. I’ll return calls then.” When someone calls you at 9:00 in the morning and you don’t return their call till 3:00, they have questions in their mind, but if you set their expectations like you could with an automatic response on your email, I believe that fear people have of not responding to emails could be better managed. I think that’s a great idea, Tim. I really do!
Tim: Awesome! Well, Jackie, again I want to thank you so much for coming on. There’s a question I didn’t send you ahead of time. I ask everybody this question, but I never send it to them ahead of time because I don’t want them to think about it too much. That question is…How would you like to be remembered when this whole thing is all said and done?
Jackie: I guess I would want to be remembered as having done business honorably and with a degree of integrity that provided great value. I don’t know. I guess I’d say a lot of fun with the people I worked with because I enjoy what I do and I hope the other people I work with enjoy it as well. I guess that’s what I would say. If I were remembered for having a lot of fun but doing it with honor and integrity, I would be very happy.
Tim: I really don’t think you’re going to have a problem with that. Everybody who I respect respects the heck out of you, and I know you do have a lot of fun. Well, Jackie, again I appreciate you coming on and sharing some incredible wisdom with the Success is Voluntary little tribe here. I wish you a great 2018.
Jackie: Thank you very much and the same to you. It has been my pleasure.
Remember, everything is voluntary, including success. Take it in your hands now. Head over to www.successisvoluntary.com, and stay up to date with all the latest tips, news, and techniques in the world of selling voluntary benefits.
Tim: If you didn’t get something out of that conversation, I’m worried about you. We’ve had some incredible guests on the Success is Voluntary podcast, but I’m not sure we have ever had anyone break down the industry and where it is headed as well as Jackie just did. Her insight helped me to grow. I sure hope it helped you, too. I think it’s clear that Jackie’s determination, passion, and dedication to doing the work are the reasons she leads one of the top offices in the country for her carrier.
Well, that’s it for this week. Please do me a favor and forward this podcast to everyone you know. If you’re really feeling generous, take a second and rate it on iTunes. Trust me. You will want to join me next week. Until then, make sure you volunteer for success.