Actuaries Can Sell

Actuaries Can Sell

Selling is a skill not normally attributed to actuaries. However, for those who consult and those considering consulting, it's a must–have talent. Here's how to become a selling superstar.

By Gary Pines

Actuaries who choose consulting careers are often surprised to learn advancement is often linked to the ability to sell. Survival for the actuarial consulting firms depends on having clients and having someone bring them in. Clients like to buy from those they perceive will deliver the service, in other words, from actuaries.

But can actuaries sell? We tend to be an analytical, introverted lot who are missing the sales gene. We move ahead in our profession by knowing our science, which requires many hours of solo study.

So, let's get something cleared up right away: actuaries can sell. We have interviewed many who do and do so successfully. But to do so, actuaries must overcome FEAR, fear of Failure, Embarrassment And Rejection.

We grow up as smart people, especially in mathematics, accustomed to academic success. We associate failure of any sort with embarrassment. Our success is the foundation of our acceptance—acceptance into the right schools and into the club of actuaries. We grow up unaccustomed to rejection. We expect that to succeed we must not fail, ever.

Mark Mactas, CEO of Towers Perrin, commented that actuaries first need to be business people who also possess a high level of expertise in specific areas. There are many others who are trying to move into the actuarial arena... including accountants through the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirements, investment bankers through risk management, management consulting firms (i.e., McKinsey talking about healthcare) and the governmental agencies like the IRS. And with this business sense and competition, actuaries cannot expect to be "2 for 2" in the selling marketplace, but more appropriately "5 for 15"... using a baseball analogy.

Our experiences, then, run counter to the logic of selling. Selling is a numbers game. You have to expect to lose, often, to win every once in a while. It is an art, not a science, and in this art we do not, and should not, expect perfection.

An actuary who doesn't understand this difference will strike out a couple of times at selling and decide he is no good at it. He is likely to decide that being an introvert he isn't the selling type. This is unfortunate and untrue.

Art Wallace, an actuary with Mercer Oliver Wyman, believes that selling is diametrically opposite of what actuaries are taught... which is to bury themselves "an inch wide and a mile deep" in detail.

Our research into hundreds of professionals, including many actuaries, show that introverts do sell and sell very successfully. Thus actuaries can sell. Those that do, do four things well. They develop and maintain a vibrant contact list, build relationships with the people on that list, maintain a weekly routine of calls and meetings to make sure that relationships stay warm and utilize a questioning and listening process to surface their contacts' need for actuarial services.

The contact list is the key asset of successful business developers. It contains names of people you do business with, those you want to do business with and other valuable network contacts. Rainmakers grow their lists steadily over the years. They know that they must talk to many to sell to a few. The list allows them to manage and monitor this effort.

Building Relationships

The skill of building relationships means to have an organized way to build business friendships. Wallace believes in a "deliberate proactive process" of building relationships. The two key elements of building relationships are asking questions and listening to gain an understanding of the contact's business—her company, her responsibilities, how she does business, whom she does business with, how she differentiates herself, who are her competitors, etc. Do not assume you know. Let each contact tell you. They will enjoy telling you! But if you do not ask, they will not tell.

Beth Lieberman, healthcare actuary with Watson Wyatt, knows that building a business relationship means, "don't take anything personally." She recently was awarded a project with a client, after not getting chosen for a previous project. She and her team felt that they had the best expertise and content to win the previous project. The loss did not stop Beth from continuing to build a relationship with her contacts at the client and treating them in the same manner as having been awarded the project. That relationship continuation won her the next project.

Giving Before You Get

We build friendships by doing favors. We are always thinking of favors we can do for our friends... and think nothing of doing them. It should be the same in business. But we have learned to ask for a favor instead of doing a favor. Doing a favor differentiates one from "the pack." Favors will RAISE you to the next level with your contacts. These favors include:

  • Refer a contact to someone else on your contact list.
  • Advise (without charging fees).
  • Extend invitations to seminars, briefings, restaurants, sporting events, etc.
  • Support a contact's civic and charitable endeavors. Be sure to be there for your con– tacts when they are in need.
  • Assist them with a job search or provide time to their family members, friends and co–workers who are in the job market.

Brian Septon, an actuary with CCA Strategies, tells the story about doing a favor for someone who he was not sure would ever be of value to him and/or CCA.

Septon invited an accountant to lunch. They talked and learned about each other. Shortly thereafter one of Septon's clients said they needed a new accountant. Septon suggested the above accountant... who eventually was retained. One year later, the accountant called Septon and introduced him to his partner who needed to introduce an actuary to a client. Septon was introduced and ultimately retained.

And that is how networking works; you meet people, exchange information and think about how you can help them. If you do this enough and in the right manner, your probabilities of success will increase greatly.

Hup To It!

You must have a weekly routine, no different in concept than your weekly fitness routine. Can you exercise for two weeks straight and then take two months off and be in shape? Of course not. Exercise needs to be done on a continuous basis, three to four times per week to keep in shape. To keep your relationships "in shape," you need to have an ongoing weekly routine.

A weekly routine includes making at least a targeted number of calls per week to enhance relationships and make progress toward opportunities for sales. It also includes having a targeted number of meetings per week, sending out at least a targeted number of e–mails and letters per week and meeting a targeted number of new people each week.

You must be able to answer the following questions to know that you have a routine: When do I plan for my next week's activity? The prior Friday afternoon? Sunday night? Monday morning? Who will I call? What system do I have to produce names to call? What reasons will I have for calling? What specific time will I call? Who do I want to schedule meetings with? Who will I send e–mails or letters to? What will I do to meet new contacts? The routine needs to become part of your weekly life.

The routine produces opportunities and leads, so that you are positioned to make sales. Lieberman tells the story about making her weekly calls. She continued contacting a corporate prospect every couple months... getting the response, "We are getting your messages. We will contact you when we need to." Finally, on one of her calls, the contact engaged in conversation that led to a meeting that ultimately led to a sale. Lieberman knows that if she had not been persistent in calling, there was a very good probability that this person would have never called her.

The goal, when talking with prospective clients is to understand them and their needs. This does not occur by telling them how great your firm is, what great ideas and products you have, and how credible you are. This understanding occurs when you ask questions and then listen to the answers.

Using a questioning process, you first establish an understanding of the situation through basic questions that are easily answered.

Second, you engage the person with questions that make them think and, in fact, help them clarify their own situation and the priority of the situation. These questions typically are in the form: "What are the implications on cost and cash flow of adding a flu pandemic exclusion? What are the consequences of not taking those steps?" A series of these questions will typically uncover something not thought of by the contact.

The third type of questions determine why nothing has been done concerning this issue. And who can do something about it now, whether it is an internal or external solution.

Finally, the contacts must be asked about their ideas for moving forward. They may have a full plan or have no idea. But the question must be asked to complete the dialogue to determine how you can help them.

Wallace says, "that actuaries will find selling easier than they think, because the actuary immediately represents professional integrity."

It takes fortitude to tackle FEAR. It takes the desire to learn the discipline and skills. And, most importantly, it takes time. And, yes, actuaries can sell.

Gary Pines, FSA, is principal, Harding & Company. He can be contacted at Harding & Company provides sales coaching and training for professionals who are "doers" of the work to also help them become "sellers" of the work.

What makes up a successful Contact list?

In addition to such standard contact information as names, titles, company names, addresses, phone numbers and e–mail addresses, it should include:

  • Notes: Personal information about each contact's background and family status, as well as business information from meetings or phone calls with this person. I also will copy and paste e–mails into this section.
  • Reminders: As to when to contact each person again and what action you had promised this person (i.e., will introduce her to Mary Jones).
  • Who should be on a contact list? Clients and prospects.

  • Colleagues who work at your company who can be of value in your selling endeavors.
  • Connectors who can help you get better positioned for the sale. These may include investment managers, accountants, lawyers, academics, alumni of your alma maters, family, friends, etc.

How many people should be on your contact list? You need more contacts than you probably think. Active contacts with whom you stay in touch at least once every six months should number:

  • 20 to 50 for the novice business developer.
  • 50 to 200 for the good business developer.
  • 200 and over for the skilled business developer.

Managing this number of contacts is made easier with the appropriate software. Try using Microsoft Outlook, ACT or Goldmine or your company's own system, etc. Just be sure to use one.