You know the saying, "Everything's bigger in
From the string of professional designations after his name to the high-dollar clients he works with, Johnson's no minor leaguer. It's no wonder then that he was recently named New York Life's 84th Council President, an honor given annually to the agent with the company's highest sales and service achievements. Johnson beat out 12,250 other licensed New York Life agents for the title.
The honor wasn't completely unexpected for the owner of
Nevertheless, Johnson says the Council President title – the highest honor a New York Life agent can receive – still came as a pleasant surprise, seeing as how it was never an explicit goal of his.
"Every year, we look at being the best we can," he says. "But at the end of the day, even though the numbers are there, it's about the client. We didn't sacrifice the quality of work with our clients just to write another life insurance contract. This was just a year when everything came together."
Of course, Johnson's success, this year or any other, didn't just happen. It took decades of hard work — and a few unexpected life choices.
Building a career
Like many agents, Johnson, 57, didn't originally plan on selling insurance to make a living. He majored in music at college and, after graduation, decided to follow his father into the real estate business back in
So in 1978, he married his wife Crystal, moved to
But he soon realized he needed to know more if he wanted to grow his career. "It was important to me to become a student of the business," he says.
Johnson joined New York Life in 1981 to take advantage of its training program. He also started studying at
Why so many designations? Not only did all the training increase his knowledge, Johnson says, but all the letters often reassure prospects that he has the expertise they need.
"There's a quote, 'People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care,'" he says. "But once they know how much you care about them, they're going to want to know how much you know."
Because Johnson works with clients on the wealthy end of the spectrum, that extra measure of trust is key. Most of Johnson's clients are wealthier families with estate tax concerns or multi-generational family businesses that need help with succession issues. His clients usually have assets in the
Johnson doesn't stray far from his target market, he says. Specializing allows him to better keep up with particular products, concerns and developments in a specific market, which in turn allows him to better serve his core client group.
"It's not unlike medicine," he says. "Our country has a need for M.D.s who are general practitioners, but we also need cardiologists. If we're able to maintain our focus on a core group of clients, we're able to focus on what we're best at."
Methods for success
While Johnson's company services more than 3,500 clients, Johnson and his business partner,
His firm doesn't advertise. Instead, most new business comes from referrals. "You'll never see my name on a billboard," Johnson says. "People of wealth trust other people of wealth."
Johnson and his colleagues also watch for businesses that might be a good fit for the agency. "If we see a company growing, it's not beneath us to stop in," he says. "Ask them out for coffee, leave a business card."
Once Johnson sits down with a prospect, he moves slowly. He uses the first meeting or two to talk about the client and his or her financial goals, not products.
"We don't spend a lot of time in the first two meetings talking about wills and grants and trusts," he says. "That'll come. What we want to know is what keeps them up at night? What's in their hearts? What are their goals? It's our mantra to stay in these conversations until we understand what's in their hearts and their heads."
Johnson also lets his clients know early on that he's interested in working with their friends. "We tell them, 'The way that we grow our firm is consciously and on purpose. Obviously, we want to grow our firm with families that look like you,'" he says. He asks them to think of two to three families throughout the process and reminds them about it at every meeting.
Finally, at the deliverable, Johnson asks for the referrals. He has the client pick up the phone right then and call the referrals to tell them about Johnson, letting them know that he'll be in touch. Johnson's firm then follows up with a brochure in the mail within a week and then a phone call a week later to set the appointment.
Even given the financial crisis and the country's ongoing economic doldrums, it's a strategy that has worked for Johnson. In fact, he says, the recession has improved business. "At no time in history has it been more important than today to protect and preserve what you have," he says.
The future of the business
That need for financial advice is one reason Johnson thinks new producers can succeed in the business today.
His top advice for young professionals? Get some help. "In the early years, I was knee-deep in the school of hard knocks," Johnson says. "To new producers, I would say, seek out a mentor in the business, someone who has been in the business for at least 15 years. Ask them if you can have coffee with them for just 15 minutes every Monday."
Johnson regrets not having a mentor himself when he started out and, today, mentors Kirgan. It's a relationship that benefits both of them, he says. "She's coming to me every day with questions, and I have to stay sharp," he says. "Or she'll know."
He also advocates a daily prospecting routine, whatever the method used.
"Some people look at prospecting like they look at dieting: 'I'm going to start Monday and lose 10 pounds'," he says. "But Monday never comes and those 10 pounds never come off. I look at prospecting as a lifestyle. Prospecting is every single day. Prospecting in our business is at least 75% of our success. It doesn't matter how many letters you have after your name if you have no one to talk to."
Finally, he says, producers shouldn't be intimidated — even if they don't know something. Johnson encourages younger producers to bring in senior agents for joint work if they need help — and to never let not knowing hold them back.
"Technical knowledge is important, but it's not the only thing," he says. "It's not important to know all the answers, just to know all the right questions."
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