THE SIGNALS WE SEND
Body language speaks volumes
By Paul Martin, CPCU
When insurance producers are developing their skills and knowledge early in their career, they invest heavily in understanding the products they are selling. They learn about each policy and how to explain what it does in a way that customers can appreciate. They use examples they heard from others or perhaps from claims they had experienced up close.
Producers also hone their skills in talking to customers—making introductions, asking probing questions, and overcoming objections. All of these are critical to their long-term success. The best producers build discipline in managing their use of time. They spend the best times to sell selling, and they do paperwork outside of the heart of the workday. They think ahead.
That said, there is one skill set that too many producers don’t consider—how their body language may be impacting their sales success.
Each person’s body is constantly sending messages to others. Most of the time in casual settings these signals mean little or are simply idiosyncrasies of personality; but in a business setting, when a producer wants to minimize negatives and maximize positives, making the most of opportunities is key.
Let’s consider three aspects of body language and what they may be communicating with people important to the insurance sale.
- The greeting. When meeting a prospect, a producer should always keep in mind the old adage: “You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.” So, consider the basics.
Some years ago, a very successful producer was recruited to lead a new middle market group at a very large national agency office. He led a team of young men and women who would focus their efforts on accounts whose premiums were in the low six figures. This targeted group would include many types of contractors and other blue-collar types of businesses that tended to be very profitable for the agency in the long run, with reasonable service needs and high retention rates.
He shared that, early on, he had to frequently ask the young producers, “You aren’t going to wear that are you?” He realized that these polished, very bright young people were still dressing as though their clients were lawyers or bankers. He quickly addressed the problem with the group, reminding them that their wardrobe and even the auto they drove to meet clients left impressions that may not be the best for building a trusting relationship. Dress to fit the clientele. Work to make them comfortable.
When it comes to first impressions, one of the most overlooked is the handshake. The way people shake hands is mostly a habit, learned from those they were around most when entering adulthood. A handshake technique can be like some verbal expressions used around those most comfortable to us, harmless, but like those expressions that we don’t use away from home, producers should develop a solid, neutral handshake that doesn’t send negative signals, or seem odd.
A handshake should be firm, but not crushing. Too soft a handshake sends signals of timidness, a lack of confidence, or indifference to connecting with the other person. While avoiding a weak handshake is smart, it shouldn’t be a competition either. Many young men grew up testing themselves against other men and built habits when greeting others that were aggressive, even if friendly. While some men may be too firm, some women may have never felt the value of a strong handshake. Work to find a comfortable middle ground.
Some other handshake tips:
Avoid pointing the index finger upon the wrist of the other person. This can send a signal of a desire to dominate. Keep all four fingers together.
Don’t cup your palm as you shake hands. Meet palms fully, as best you can.
Let the web between the thumb and index finger fully meet that part of the hand of the other person. Go all the way in.
Be close enough, if possible, for your arm to make a 90-degree angle.
Give your handshake a chance to connect. Three good pumps usually does it.
- Communicating with the arms and legs. What people do with their arms and legs sends signals, and some of those signals aren’t helping a producer connect with a customer or make a sale. The most important signals to avoid sending are “crossing” gestures. Crossing of the arms (or legs) is a naturally defensive or barrier gesture. It can send a message of nervousness, distrust, or a negative attitude about the interaction.
Crossing behaviors not only can send a signal but they can impact the thinking and attitude of the one doing the crossing. A professional golfer once commented that at the beginning of his career, he received coaching on his body language on the golf course and how it could impact his play. If he reacted to a poor shot with the body language of frustration and anger, it impacted the next shot. His mind wasn’t focused on preparing for a good shot; it was still focused on the last shot.
[T]here is one skill set that
too many producers don’t consider—
how their body language may be impacting
their sales success.
Research studies have shown a similar impact. Volunteers who listened to the same lecture were divided into groups of arm-crossed and not crossed listeners. The persons who listened with crossed arms retained 40% less than those who were seated naturally without crossed arms. This impact on listening should not be lost on good producers who understand the importance of their listening habits. Avoiding crossing behaviors is like any other habit someone is trying to break. At first, it is very intentional. Later, it becomes a good habit.
- Hand-to-face signals. What people do with their hands, particularly when speaking, sends subconscious signals that most producers would not want to send to prospects and clients. Generally, touching the face, ear, eyes, or hair is an indication of anxiety. It may be an indication of frustration or insecurity. When the left hand is used in a general pattern of touching, it can be an indication of deceit or lack of transparency.
These kinds of signals are examined by jury consultants to interpret the behavior of individuals in the jury pools of high-profile trials, or individuals being interviewed or interrogated.
Then what should a producer do with their hands? Answer: not much. Open palms are better than down-facing palms. Hands placed comfortably on the lap would work. Simple open-handed gestures during a discussion can help. The best advice is to relax, remain alert, and listen.
The point, of course, is to not send any body language signals that would hurt the purpose of the visit. The goal is to build trust and confidence in the producer’s ability to serve the client.
Author’s note: Many years ago, I had the privilege of meeting an incredibly talented expert on this subject. Jan Hargrave had served as a consultant on body language in a wide variety of settings. She wrote a book that I consider to be the best treatment of the subject out there, Strictly Business–Body Language. I have recommended it to hundreds of producers as a must-have on their bookshelf.
Paul Martin, CPCU, is director of academic content at The National Alliance for Insurance Education & Research headquartered in Austin, Texas. Paul works to develop, maintain, and deliver quality educational programs for the organization. Paul has over three decades in the insurance and risk management industry.