The Real Story Behind Landing the Big Case

April 23, 1912

By Linda Koco
InsuranceNewsNet Magazine, April 2012

Go to any advisor meeting and you’ll hear experts recounting how they went “elephant hunting” and landed a big case. We’re talking about $1 million single premium deals, $100,000 monthly commission accounts, multi-carrier jumbo annuity contracts and multi-million-dollar estate plans with all the bells and whistles.

Advisors yearning to get into this market often clamor for details. The blow-by-blow specifics are like food. They feed the imagination and show what’s possible. 

But those in the know say that breaking into the ultra-wealthy market requires more than lapping up stories of past deals. It requires expertise and experience—plus connections, collaboration, business management, patience and finesse. It also requires adeptness at avoiding landmines, managing tradeoffs and rebounding from setbacks. Despite the “elephant hunting” lingo that gets tossed around, big cases are not quarry, the experts point out. They are people and entities with high-level insurance and financial needs that require trusted advisors capable of meeting those needs.

How advisors get there is the real story behind big case hunting.

Don’t quit your day job.

The biggest mistake a lot of agents make is to ignore the more routine, lower-end sales—the equivalent of quitting their day job—just so they can concentrate only on the big cases.

The desire to do that is understandable, says Gerald J. Herbison, assistant professor-management at The American College. Those big cases have a “certain allure” that daily selling and servicing of customers does not have, he explains.

But single-minded focus on big cases can be a risky business. “I‘ve seen agents who, six months after starting out, start thinking of themselves as corporate vice presidents,” says Rich Paulsen, an agent with New York Life. The way they dress and act, leave the office early and otherwise disregard doing what it takes to build up a steady flow of business are often signs they won’t make it.

That sometimes happens after an advisor accidentally stumbles upon a big case, or learns of a colleague who has done that. Since that first big sale came so easily and perhaps brought the agent one year’s worth of commission, the agent comes down with “big-case-itis.”

Only later does the agent learn that big cases aren’t that easy to land—but by then, it may be too late. “I’ve watched a lot of people starve while they are out elephant hunting,” says Tom Hegna, president of “You need to shoot a lot of squirrels and rabbits along the way in order to make it.”

As a former top agent who now provides sales training to other agents and financial advisors, Hegna advises a less glamorous but more long-lived approach: “Keep on building up your regular business, and add the elephant-hunting on to that.”

D. Scott Brennan, principal of the Brennan Group and second vice president of the Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT), suggests treating the big cases as a bonus—something you want but don’t need. After all, he says, the client’s CPA and tax advisors might tell the client not to go ahead with the proposed plan. Or the other advisors might recommend doing less than proposed, or doing it in a temporary way. So the big case might fizzle or shrink to small.

Brennan is first to admit that he loses more big cases than he gets. That’s a not-uncommon comment among top producers. His word to the wise: “Keep track of the business that got you where you are, and keep your business on schedule.” 

Paulsen points out that he still “absolutely” writes small cases. That is even though his income is more than $1 million a year. “If I make $500 for a half hour’s work on one of those cases, that’s fine with me,” he says. That way, he is meeting a client need and he may get a referral out of it, too. “I always ask if the client has a father or grandfather or knows of someone else who may need my services,” he says. That referral could lead him to an older person who has much greater insurance needs, a prospect for a big case.

Be prepared to make sacrifices.

An equally practical consideration is sacrifice. To work on big cases, advisors might have to give up time with the family and devote more weekends to work, Hegna says. They might need to get up earlier in the mornings. They may need to ask the spouse to help with the business, too. Spousal assistance can be a “huge help,” Hegna adds, but it also means the spouse is sacrificing time.

In his own selling years, Hegna worked 10 to 15 hours a day,” investing in his future,” as he puts it. But he says he didn’t think of it as sacrifice.

“I’m military,” Hegna explains, “and what civilians call sacrifice, the military would laugh at. In the army, you work 24/7, 365 a year.” So the time investment he made in developing his career—and his big case sales—did not seem like too huge a sacrifice to make.

But the time commitment can seem extraordinary when measured against a little talked about big case fact—that big cases can take many years to develop and to close. Herbison says big individual cases could take six months to a year to close, and big corporate cases could take several years. Even some individual cases take five years or more.

The cases may not be more complicated in terms of products and processes involved, but such cases often take more steps because the clients have more options than other people. These options include investments, information access, attorney services, accounting services and more—things that other clients can’t typically afford. The time and effort involved—and the fact that some of the cases just fall apart—are big-case realities that advisors sometimes overlook.

“You have to weigh the possible long-term gain versus the sacrifice,”

Hegna says.

Get educated and stay connected.

One sacrifice that remains valuable whether big cases go north or south is an investment in professional education.

Janet Barr believes advisors absolutely need to have professional designations if they want to be in the large case market. “Designations show that you are not only a student of the business, but also that you are a planner and will work hard,” says the independent financial advisor at Collaborative Financial Solutions. “They separate you from the pack.”

Advanced academic degrees, such as a master’s in financial services, are “very helpful,” says Herbison of American College. For one thing, the degrees can help advisors talk at a higher level with clients, he says. They can also help with financial due diligence, making an advisor more qualified to offer the right solution at the right time.

Those credentials are important not only to clients but also to the other advisors who work with big-case clients, says Barr, who has eight sets of letters after her name. When they see the designations and degrees, “those other professionals know that you have had to study, take exams and keep up with your field,” she explains. “Other professionals may not have the same designation as you, but they know your designation is premier and that you have been vetted.”

Designations also help advisors tap into professional groups, Barr says. That’s important, because those memberships can be a source of valuable large case connections.

Barr recounts how she had wanted to become a member of the top estate-planning organization in her town. The members include trust officers, estate planning attorneys and people with certain designations, including the CLU. It’s an exclusive group, with limits on the number of members in each category. Finally, an opening became available in her category, and Barr decided to apply. She had to fill out an application, get someone to sponsor her in her “category” and go through a background check. The fact that she had just earned her CLU definitely helped her qualify, she says.

This was “a game-changer,” she recalls. “When you are breaking bread together at the members’ dinners, you find people you like, you talk some shop and you learn. I get some of my best learning there.” She also gets connections that lead to large case opportunities. Currently, for instance, she is working on an irrevocable life insurance trust case (ILIT) with an attorney who is a member of that group.

“It was expensive, taking all those classes,” Barr allows. For instance, one of her designations set her back roughly $5,000 when it was all done and she lost out on outdoors-time when the weather was balmy. “But the trade-off was worth it,” she says.

Be an educator, too.

In the big case market, education has an expansive effect that strengthens the advisor’s prowess. As Herbison puts it, “you need designations and degrees not only so you can work with the people who will write the big checks, but also so you are qualified to help educate the other advisors who work with the client.”

The other advisors could include the accountants, attorneys and others who have specialized knowledge in their own fields but who may not be proficient in insurance and financial services. Sometimes, they do want the insurance and financial advisor to help them understand, Herbison says.

Hegna suggests that advisors conduct seminars for CPAs and attorneys on cutting-edge ideas in annuities, life and long-term care insurance. In his own seminars, he educates on longevity risks and how mortality credits in products can take this risk off the table.

Later on, those same advisors “will call you with questions and come to you for help,” Hegna says.

Experience and reputation count.

Much of the time, the big case market is a closed-loop system, with all the experts knowing all the other experts in the community. That means “the advisor can’t afford to fail in that system, because everyone will find out,” says Herbison.

So, a key point for advisors is to be sure to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. That is, get the designations and degrees, build experience and expertise, develop relationships and cultivate a good reputation as a trusted advisor.

Along the way, be sure not to sidestep the attorneys and accountants who work with the client, says Hegna, the consultant. “Instead, find out their names, meet with them first and get them onboard, so you can all go to the client as a team. When you do that, it builds confidence in you among the other advisors, and you get contacts and referrals.

“If you don’t do that, the other advisors will try to sharp-shoot whatever you do.”

Building a good reputation also has to do with branding. Barr recalls that when she was starting out, she would go out on bigger cases but she would always lose out. After two or three years, she found out why. “The people in this market want their advisors to be branded, with the right look, image, education, experience and connections.” The people she was contacting also wanted to use advisors who shop several insurance companies and “get the best underwriting,” she says.

That awareness spurred her to leave her captive insurance arrangement, join an independent financial firm and get the education detailed earlier. “And yes, I do get big life cases now, north of $5 million,” she says.

Brennan says he makes a point of staying active in his community. “When you offer to do things for local organizations and then follow through, people get to know who you are.” One person tells another and a good reputation grows. That counts in the big case market, he says.

But if an agent doesn’t deliver, he cautions, a dozen people will tell others and that agent’s reputation will fall.

Run the agency as a business.

Operating the agency like a smooth-running business is critical. “It’s important to treat what you do as a career and a business. People take that as a sign that you will be around for that person and that family,” says Paulsen.  

To that end, “you have to be organized and prepared,” he says.

In his own practice, Paulsen says he has things to do every day, week and month. He also “out-prepares” for the people he meets by learning all about them, their business, family, partners, activities, hobbies and more. He is active in his community too, in ways that demonstrate that he is organized and that he delivers.

To do all this, Paulsen relies on the support of his team, including four staffers, the experts and resources of his carriers, and the members of his study group.

“There is no magic wand,” he says. “On Jan. 1 of every year, we all start out batting zero. We don’t know what March and April will bring, but I know that I will have a great quarter.” He says he knows that because he continually plants seeds, tends them as they germinate, stays organized and makes sure that everything is in place.

Many caution that building the practice up as a business won’t happen overnight. The average producer might start off with a part-time assistant, and only later on add staffers (such as a marketing assistant, administrative assistant and para-planner) and institute office procedures that keep the business running smoothly.

There’s a landmine here, however. Many advisors are good at sales and relationship-building but not at business development and management, Herbison warns. So the advisor needs to hire staffers who can do what the advisor doesn’t like to do and is not good at doing. Failure to do that runs the risk that the practice will not run smoothly and that potential big case clients and advisors will look elsewhere.

Bounce back from rejection.

No advisor is immune from rejection, whether it’s a small or a big case. But in the big case market, the rejection can be an especially disappointing blow, especially if the advisor has put countless hours into the case. Most professionals don’t dwell on the loss, though.

Brennan tells of a big case on which he spent one and a half years, working in depth with the client’s six advisors. Right at the end, five of the advisors signed off—but the sixth did not—and the case fell through. “It wasn’t my greatest day,” he laughs, “it stung a little bit.” But as he reviewed everything that happened, he says he bounced back.

He saw that he had not swerved from his conviction to do right by the client, he says. He saw that he had learned quite a few things that he would be able to apply elsewhere. He remembered that “you don’t lose until you quit calling.” And he remembered the importance of staying active and upbeat, including “trying to brighten someone else’s door with lighthearted conversation.”

Brennan’s rebound suggestions: “Go to professional and community groups, attend meetings and become exposed to different levels of thinking and ideas. And don’t forget that abundance is a state of mind.”

That optimism—even in the face of rejection—is perhaps the backbone of the untold story behind big case hunting.

Linda Koco, MBA, is a contributing editor to InsuranceNewsNet, specializing in life insurance, annuities and income planning. Linda can be reached at [email protected]

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