Winning Strategies

The top five attributes of producers who produce

Traits that go beyond traditional selling skills

By Larry Linne

Keeping up with increasing expenses while growing annual revenues always presents a challenge to agencies, but 2008 is shaping up to be a tougher year than most. A soft market, increased competition, economic challenges, comfortable producers and owners retired in place are just a few of the excuses that can be offered in the face of difficult times. In reality, these are flimsy reasons for stagnation, and they actually create more of a need to grow. The fastest way to achieve this growth is to increase the number and quality of producers.

That’s easier said than done, however. Recruiting and hiring top producers continues to be an ongoing challenge for most agencies. In recent years, the number one question that comes from Sitkins members and others in the industry is: “How and where do we find the best producers? What traits should we be looking for?”

When hiring producers, most agency owners mistakenly look only for traditional selling skills. They look for producers who are adept at listening; who ask the right questions, build pipelines and solve problems; and who possess other qualities characteristic of 1970s-style IBM sales training. While these skills are needed, they are not the most telling attribute of a great producer. A good interviewer, perhaps, but not a great producer.

That’s why, for the last year, we’ve been examining the attributes of producers with revenues of $1 million or more. Based on our observations, we’ve come up with a list of the top five qualities of high-performing producers. As you read them, be warned that your current average-to-poor producers most likely won’t possess these traits.

Top 5 attributes of a great producer

CEO peer. We deal with hundreds of producers every year, and typically the most successful ones hang out with CEOs. That’s why we consider this to be the number one quality to look for in a producer. You can’t expect a CEO to hire you as a trusted advisor—which is a high-level relationship—if you’re perceived as a subordinate.

Pipelines are built—through CEO peer relationships. Producers who attempt to operate without them will never be as successful as those who cultivate them.

Therefore, we advise agency owners to ask prospective producers about their peers outside of the office. Do these producers sit on boards of directors? Are they members of country clubs? Are they affiliated with charitable organizations? Are they friends with owners and CEOs of businesses?

Look for producers who read business periodicals and business books, and who show an interest in learning about business concepts and philosophies. CEOs will be more attracted to such producers and will consider them to be their peers.

If you already have subordinate-level producers on staff, urge them to become active participants in the community. If necessary, make a call and get them involved with a local board, a committee or an area country club.

Competitive. My college football coach used to tell us that he wanted players who were “so competitive that if they played their little sister in checkers, they would want to whip her butt.” I’m not sure this is the most appropriate phrase to express what I’m trying to say, but I do know this: In the minds of great producers, winning is not an option; it’s a given.

What’s amazing is the correlation between that competitive spirit and success. Over the years, when we talk to extremely successful producers, we see a fire in their eyes! In all activities—even on the golf course—they are focused and intense. Losing is not an option!

I’m not talking about loose cannons here. The producers I’m referring to are honest, ethical people who are well balanced, even-tempered and in control. They’ll do whatever it takes to win—within the rules.

You can see the intensity of competitive people when the possibility of losing arises. They become more focused, work harder, look for the edge and advantage, and take the game to a higher level. On the other hand, non-competitive people usually will quit or back down.

People who are okay with losing a game aren’t bad people. But I can promise you they won’t be your best producers. A great competitor will do more, expect more, plan better, practice longer, correct mistakes and do whatever it takes to win. I want that producer!

Should do’s and must do’s. This concept applies to everyone, whether they’re producers or not. In life, three different categories pretty much encompass all of our activities. They are the things we must do, the things we should do and the things we want to do.

The Must Do’s in life include non-optional activities like paying bills, going to work and taking showers. These are the things that we know instinctively must be done, no matter what.

The Should Do items are what cause all the stress in life and keep us up at night. Sometimes we do them, and other times we don’t. For example, we know that we should: eat right, work out more often, spend more time with the family, prospect more frequently, regularly call on clients, etc. However, Should Do’s have plenty of “escape” options, and people usually experience few significant negative consequences if they don’t do them.

What differentiates great producers from average ones is that great producers possess the attributes of personal discipline and accountability. They don’t need to have someone else hold them accountable. They are quite capable of moving critical sales disciplines from their Should Do list to their Have To list.

The same principle applies to anyone who is struggling to accomplish personal and/or professional goals. You’re more likely to achieve greatness when you place your critical success factors on a Must Do, rather than a Should Do, list.

Strong verbal skills. Last year Roger Sitkins and I worked with a group of producers on selling skills and presentation strategy. At one point, both of us experienced a “blinding flash of the obvious”: Great presenters almost always land at the top of the financial food chain.

It makes sense that articulate people make more money than those with poor verbal skills. Why? First and foremost, because great speakers are heard. They speak with authority. When they talk, people listen.

In addition, great speakers are extremely persuasive when making a point. They also tend to be likable and outgoing. As a result, they typically are highly effective salespeople who create many opportunities for themselves.

After we first made the connection between speaking skills and income, Roger and I continued to test and prove our theory. Now when we meet with a group of producers, we can predict with great accuracy who will develop the biggest book of business, based strictly on their ability to articulate a thought and convey it to others.

Recently one of our member agencies asked us for advice on hiring after they had pared down a list of prospective producers to a final candidate. Gregg Goodmanson, our Virtual Sales Coach, advised the agency to ask the candidate to give a presentation on a topic. The candidate bombed. She hadn’t prepared, had jotted her speech on a piece of paper (had she done it in the car?), and was a terrible presenter. They learned a lot about this candidate and saved themselves lots of money.

Attractive to others and able to maintain relationships. There have always been people whom I have found attractive and whom I have wanted to get to know from the moment I saw them. That’s not unusual. In fact, I’ve heard that most people will spend less than 30 seconds making a judgment about a person and the rest of their life (or their relationship with that person) trying to prove it. It doesn’t seem right, but attractiveness is a reality we deal with in our business world and a trait that great producers possess.

Let me clarify what I mean by “attractive.” First, I’m not referring to movie-star-type attractiveness. What I’m talking about is a quality that just seems to emanate from certain people. The French have a phrase for it: Je ne sais quoi. Literally translated, it means, “I don’t know what.” But once you’re around it, you’re irresistibly drawn to it.

These are the kinds of folks who can say “Hi!” and make everyone around them feel special. You might see them at church, in a business environment or in a social setting. Wherever they are, they attract you. And once you are introduced, you like them immediately and want to spend more time with them.

Great producers are able to engage others on a level that increases that appeal and leads to long-lasting relationships. They’ll ask questions about YOU and show a genuine interest in what YOU have to say or what you think. Expressing interest in others is a valuable skill that lesser producers rarely master. An average or below-average producer is more likely to focus a conversation on himself or herself.

Great producers shine; everything about them radiates warmth, authority, sincerity and professionalism. They look polished, up to date and pulled together. Besides looking attractive, they appear open and receptive, which enhances their magnetism. People want to be around them.

Above all, they exude confidence, which is possibly their most attractive and important trait. After all, selling is really just the transfer of confidence. That’s why sales tend to increase when you’re feeling confident and plummet if you’re depressed.

The bottom line

If you’re looking for a high-per-forming producer, look for someone who exhibits these five traits. Candidates don’t have to possess every trait, but they should exhibit as many of them as possible because each one translates into successful results.

Finally, if your current producers don’t possess these traits, is it possible to develop them? Yes, it is. But if they are not willing to make changes, they may not be the right people for your team. Your leadership in cultivating these attributes in your existing producers could have a very big impact on your agency. The end result will be more sales. *

The author
Larry Linne is president of The Sitkins Group, Inc., which offers the Vertical Growth Experience™ programs exclusively to a private client group known as The Sitkins 100™. These programs are delivered through training, coaching and networking experiences that literally force vertical growth in an agency. Larry’s background includes agency operations and sales management, CEO coaching, sales process consulting, performance management and leadership training.