Keith Mercier and Patrick Wright are insurance salesmen, but they spend a part of every day like method actors, going deep into a role.
It's part of a preparation-heavy sales approach at Bouchard Insurance, where agents constantly role-play what a sales visit will look and sound like. They create scenarios, from simple to tricky, where agents need an answer at the ready. They remind themselves of a good salesperson's creed: Talk less, listen more. “After you ask a question,” says Mercier, who runs the Sarasota office for Clearwater-based Bouchard, “you need to shut your mouth and let people talk.”
The more unusual the questions in the role-play, the better prepared the team is to win business. “We spend a lot of time on strategy,” says Mercier. “Sales for us is a chess game.”
Wright adds that the role-playing, especially the detail, is a significant part of the firm's success. “It's one thing to go into a call with a plan,” says Wright, “but it's something else to go in and know all the things that could happen.”
Mercier and his team of four sales agents, including Wright, in addition to 20 more people in support and underwriting, have led a resurgence for Bouchard in the Sarasota-Manatee market. The firm also has offices in Fort Myers and central Florida, in addition to Clearwater.
The Sarasota office was the company's worst performing region when Bouchard executives reached out to Mercier, then 31, in 2004 about taking it over. It had a book of business worth around $2 million, with a focus on handling health and property/casualty insurance for middle and large market firms, mostly in construction and related fields.
Through last year Mercier and his team had grown that book of business to $6 million. While some growth came in the boom, the unit also had to navigate the economic downturn. Mercier says outside of economy swings, he attributes the growth to the firm's ability to set and execute a sales strategy.
Role-playing is only one portion of the approach. Another key: Mercier is near obsessive with gathering information. That goes for potential clients and competing insurance agencies.
On targeted clients, the team wants to fully comprehend the company's niche, and where it might have gaps in coverage. On competitors, Mercier and his team want to know everything about another firm, and if something it does or doesn't do can become an advantage.
The next part of the strategy is the ultimate sales cliche, albeit an important element: building relationships. And sometimes that pays off, says Mercier, in ways not seen early on.
Mercier and his team, for example, courted a construction firm in the region for business for eight years. They got flat-out rejected for each of the first seven years, but never gave up the relationship. “We just kept at it, kept sticking with it,” says Mercier. “Then the number one (insurance firm that had the account) stubbed its toe, and suddenly being number two wasn't so bad.”
After persistence comes preparation, which also helps ease the sting of rejection. All the sales agents, for instance, carry around a top 20 list of hard-target prospects in the works in some form. “Rejection,” Mercier says, “is harder when there's no pipeline.”
The son of former Sarasota County Commissioner Paul Mercier, Keith Mercier got into insurance right after he graduated from Florida State in 1995. Other stops in his career include Riscorp and Brown & Brown. He has an easygoing and engaging nature, but he constantly remembers one of his biggest sales lessons: Preparation trumps personality.
“You can only exist on personality so far for so long,” Mercier says. “I see sales as a real art form. You have to constantly work at it.”
Learn more. In a field like insurance, where decisions have real financial consequences, education about products can be a differentiator. New salespeople at Bouchard go on two-week sales seminars soon after the first day. “The faster you can learn the product,” says Keith Mercier, who runs the Sarasota office for Bouchard, “the better off you will be.”
Be bold. Mercier says you need to constantly have a “fire in your belly” and a competitive spirit when you are asking someone for business. “You can't be afraid,” Mercier says. “You can't have any fear or apprehension.”
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