Embracing the Serve First Philosophy


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Decades ago, legendary agent and manager Stuart Smith conceived a philosophy of serving the client first and letting the financial rewards take care of themselves. Smith’s concept became an integral part of the culture at his company, and many disciples still practice it today. The essence of the “Serve First” credo is that:
•The focus is entirely on serving the client,
•No product or solution is recommended until the advisor understands all of the client’s financial and personal objectives,
•Despite the amount of work involved on the advisor’s part, there might be no sale.

An understandable reaction to this approach might be, “Are you kidding?” However, as those advisors who believe in and practice it could tell you, the Serve First way of life can be richly rewarding, personally, professionally and financially.
Today’s advisors may not define their philosophy in these exact words, but — especially for new people coming into the business — this approach to the marketplace not only has appeal, but is kindling an eagerness to embrace Serve First as the basis upon which to build a rewarding career.

The philosophy rests on a foundation of time and service. The advisor must be willing to invest the time required to thoroughly understand the client’s financial situation and must believe that service is their differentiating factor.

To appreciate the need to invest enough time, let’s look at this episode from the Seinfeld show:
After scalding himself with their hot coffee, Kramer sues a Starbucks-type chain. En route to the settlement meeting, Kramer’s attorney advises him to say nothing until they hear the defendants’ offer (which, viewers learn, includes free lattes for one year and $50,000.00). As soon as the defendant’s lawyer leads with free lattes, Kramer yells: “I’ll take it!” By not waiting to hear the full story, Kramer gains some lattes but loses out on the more lucrative settlement.
What about an advisor’s dialogue with a prospect? Does the advisor hear and consider the person’s entire financial situation before making recommendations? Or, by jumping the gun as Kramer did, do they risk losing out on a much more substantial reward for both the client and themselves?

The Serve First philosophy also relies on the advisor’s confidence that their service is the differentiator. To illustrate this differentiation, here’s a true story:

A business-owner prospect told an advisor that he wasn’t interested in meeting him because he had just purchased a $50,000.00 policy. The advisor saw this as good news, because he had been taught that: 1) the purchase marked this prospect as a “buyer” and 2) because it was probably a product rather than a Serve First sale, the policy amount was more than likely insufficient. The advisor persisted, got the appointment, and gathered pertinent information. The advisor’s sales manager instructed the advisor to obtain some additional data from the prospect. This led to a recommendation of an additional $250,000.00 of life insurance. Upon hearing this (and confident that it would quash this ridiculous proposal), the prospect directed the advisor to meet with his accountant to discuss it. As a result of that discussion, the accountant was convinced that what the prospect actually needed was a $500,000.00 policy!

What do these examples tell us about the Serve First sales philosophy?
•Time is money (or can be). It may require multiple steps, staff support and possible meetings with the prospect’s advisors so be prepared to take time and do a lot of work.
•Go long. Go deep. Probing long enough and deep enough without any preconceived ideas as to the “proper” amount of insurance and/or products to be sold will not only uncover the facts of the situation, but even more importantly, the Why’s that will induce the prospect to buy. Instead of worrying about the sale; the advisor should concentrate on gathering all the information needed to recommend a solution that motivates the prospect to act.
•Adjust for “inflation.” In this example, the sale was 10 times the amount of the original policy. If you start with a number ($50,000.00, $100,000.00, etc.) as the “base” product sale; there’s an excellent chance that the “inflation” ratio will hold up, as it did in the example.


It always begins with recruiting. Today’s recruits seem excited about a Serve First concept. They want to be perceived as true professionals, capable of delivering total financial solutions to their clients and experiencing the financial rewards that will be generated for them. In the past, in the back of their minds, new recruits hoped “total financial planning” didn’t mean having to sell life insurance. In contrast, today’s recruits who are attracted by the Serve First concept recognize life insurance as the cornerstone of a sound financial plan, and a significant factor in the recommendations they make.

While a Serve First philosophy may motivate a recruit to join your agency, during their initial training new hires will constantly seek confirmation of whether you really “walk the talk.” It is imperative that your sales process reflects what’s required to communicate and implement this philosophy. For example:
•Does your initial interview script reinforce the Serve First tenets? This script is, in fact, the initial “face” of your Serve-First Philosophy to both the advisor and their prospects.
•Will the recruit’s initial training go beyond closing a single-need product sale, and encourage and teach them how to gather the kind of in-depth information that builds understanding and trust?
•Is there a process to analyze and design a presentation that goes beyond a single-need sale?
•During joint work, does the mentoring sales manager or advisor model the Serve First philosophy?

A client’s financials can be a complicated tangle. In-depth fact-finding can uncover issues in which an advisor lacks experience. In the past, the cost of providing this support when needed became prohibitive. Today, more and more Serve First-minded agencies are building alliances with outside professionals and/or teaming advisors with other advisors within their agencies to provide support in situations requiring specialized knowledge. This enables the agency to expand its services to their clients.

When gathering a client’s financial information, advisors might hesitate to ask questions about subjects they themselves don’t thoroughly understand. They can become immobilized by what they don’t know, as opposed to what they need to find out. Uncovering sufficient information to move the prospect to the next step is less about extensive book knowledge about a given subject asking the right questions and listening to the prospect’s answers.

Think about how doctors and lawyers do their fact-finding. Asking the right questions signifies confidence and professionalism, not lack of knowledge.

Serve First advisors needs to believe in life insurance as the foundation of what they do and embrace it as a viable solution for their clients. Given the unsettled economic climate in recent years, whole life insurance has weathered the storm so well that many advisors see it in a new light. From a secondary nice-to-have, a substantial life insurance policy is emerging as a vital must-have component in anyone’s portfolio.

While the Serve First philosophy can be both personally and financially rewarding for an advisor, the ever-present, offbeat elephant in the room is activity. An issue 70 years ago when Albert E. N. Gray penned The Common Denominator of Success, activity continued to be enough of an issue in 2010 to motivate Nick Murray to author The Game of Numbers.

As they’re learning to implement the Serve First philosophy, the need to invest more time to close a substantial case — especially when combined with low activity — can imperil the new advisor’s very survival.

The solution to this dilemma is a two-part approach:
1) Generate high activity by working on cases in which the need is evident and thus can be closed quickly.
2) At the same time, pursuing the more sophisticated but time-consuming cases.

The good news is that high activity — regardless of the source — hones skills, grows confidence and generates needed income.

The important thing for the advisor to remember is that large or small, every case must be approached with the same focus, professionalism and Serve First mindset. Only by going long and deep can they reveal someone’s true financial picture. Thus, even when working on a perceived small-case situation, instead of making a $50,000.00 product sale they might find themselves forging a $500,000.00 long-term, relationship with the client.

Frank Sarr
Frank W. Sarr (BA, Economics, Notre Dame; MAT, Oberlin College; CLU, The American College) founded Training Implementation Services, Inc. (TIS) after leaving CIGNA, where he was responsible for National Sales Organization field training and management development. Frank’s fervent “accountability pays” approach has produced extraordinary training results for his client companies in diverse industries.


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