EPISODE 129: USI Insurance Services’ Phil Curran Shares Three Strategies Sales Professionals Must Implement Today to Reach Trusted Advisor Nirvana
PHIL’S FINAL TIP TO EMERGING SALES LEADERS: “If you can get to where the client includes you as part of the fabric of the organization, you understand their issues and you’re delivering solutions that really impact the business, then you’re a trusted advisor. I aspire to that, all my team inspires to it and I think if you’re in professional services, attaining that role is like finding nirvana.”
Phil Curran is a Senior VP at USI Insurance Services where he runs the DC Metro practice.
Find Phil on LinkedIn!
Fred Diamond: Tell us what you sell, what your team sells and tell us what excites you about that.
Phil Curran: What we sell are employee benefit advisory services, we’re insurance brokers and consultants working primarily with middle market companies, so typically between 200 and 2,000 employees. We have some that dip below that 200 range, we have a lot that are over 2,000 but what we’re doing is advising them on the design, funding, administration, communication and compliance related to their healthcare benefits primarily and then certain other ancillary benefits.
Fred Diamond: Who typically do you sell to? Who is your person at this middle market companies that makes these decisions?
Phil Curran: Typically it’s going to be either a chief financial officer or a vice president of human resources.
Fred Diamond: I mentioned at the beginning that you started your career at PricewaterhouseCoopers, did you also sell these types of services there or what would you do there?
Phil Curran: I’ve been doing this my whole career. Right out of college I started as an insurance company underwriter and after two years I actually moved to Mercer, was my first role in consulting and I was there for 14 years. I grew into a role similar to what I have now and then I left consulting for 3 years to be the vice president of human resources for one of my clients, and that was a multinational insurance company. I came back into consulting with PricewaterhouseCoopers, so I’ve always done this.
Fred Diamond: Again, you’re responsible for the whole practice which of course includes business development and sales. Tell us about your transition into leading the sales department as well.
Phil Curran: I started as a technical consultant and about 3 years, 4 years into my stay at Mercer I approached my boss who was one of the three mentors I’ve had over the years in the sales arena. I approached him and said, “I really don’t have any opportunities to build a book of business of my own because I spend all my time supporting other consultants. He said, “Okay, let’s change that. What would we need to do?
I said, “I need to off load some of the client responsibilities I have to give me time to develop new business.” He said okay, we hired a couple of new people, we took probably 90% of the work I did and gave it to them. I went to him and I said, “We’ve moved all my work away and now I have no work.” He said, “Yeah, be careful what you ask for.” It was a sink or swim approach to getting me into business development. I swam, but it’s not a method I recommend for most people.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you did? Again, all of the sudden you’re not having to deal with the customer anymore from the practice side and you have to go find your own deals and grow them which is exactly what you pretty much told your boss you wanted to do, so what did you do? What are some of the things that you did and what are some of the lessons that you learned when you made that transition?
Phil Curran: I had a unique advantage that I think a lot of people wouldn’t have at the time, I was in my late 20’s but I had gone great prematurely so I had clients that I acquired and then later found out how young I was and they were like, “You’re kidding, we trusted you with hundreds of millions of dollars when you were in your 20’s?” I think having gone gray young was a distinct advantage, ironically. I had a technical background and what I was taught was we’re not making relationship sales.
Nobody is hiring us because they like us, nobody’s going to hire you because of your boyish good looks and winning smile, you need to rely on that technical background to deliver the best possible solution to the client and then demonstrate the return on investment to them. If you do that, you will win new business. That’s the approach I took. Fortunately, Mercer – where I was at the time – was the largest human resources consulting firm in the world so when I picked up the phone and cold called a VP of human resources or a director of benefits, they didn’t know who Phil Curran was but they knew who Mercer was and they would take my call. That was another huge advantage and it greased the skids for me because I was able to probably get a lot of appointments that I might not have otherwise. The other things really came about through trial and error and through mentorship from other colleagues.
Fred Diamond: That’s interesting. Along the lines of that, I liked what you just said there that you really do need to understand what you’re offering the customer and you really do need to have a deep understanding of that. Tell us what you’re an expert in. Phil, tell us about your specific area of brilliance.
Phil Curran: Brilliance is probably an overstatement. I’m an expert is what are commonly referred to as health and welfare benefits. The healthcare and health benefits of employees, life insurance disability and related coverages. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to do really exciting work with large Fortune 100 companies, I had the opportunity to build the first consumer directed health plan in the country, I had the opportunity to implement integrated health and absence management programs for a Fortune 100 telecommunications company where the work that we did resulted in saving them an amount that equaled 4% of payroll which on the surface of it, doesn’t sound that big except that that 4% of payroll actually changed their earnings per share by 6 cents. The CFO loved us. I’ve had the chance to do a lot of really sexy, ground breaking, bleeding edge work with large companies but I love working with the middle market because they can do most of the things that I’ve done with large employers but they’re not 800 pound gorillas and you can form great long term relationships in the middle market.
Fred Diamond: You can bring that distinction that’s going to help them grow their business with their little nuances. Phil, I have a question for you. We have Sales Game Changers around the globe listening to today’s podcast. You’re one of the first people that we’ve interviewed in the benefits insurance space, you mentioned that you were an expert on employee health and benefits and things related to that. For the Sales Game Changers listening to today’s podcast, how long did it take you before you truly became an expert? I know you mentioned a few moments ago that you had the advantage of turning gray early which meant that the customers must have seen you as an expert, obviously. It sounds like something you talked about but is it a 3, 5, 10, 15 year journey to be at the place where you have enough succinct knowledge to be able to provide that value?
Phil Curran: To be able to claim real expertise, I think you could probably do it in 2 or 3 years of really immersive experience in highly technical work, but we have a lot of producers and sales people in my practice that come to us with far less technical expertise but they’re still extraordinarily effective as salespeople and strategic consultants for their client. They leave the really day-to-day, nitty-gritty to our technical resources. I think you can achieve that level of competence and mastery within a couple or three years.
Fred Diamond: You mentioned a couple questions ago that you had three mentors who helped you. Why don’t you tell us about one or two of them or all three, if you’d like, who helped you grow your career? Tell us about the impact they had on you.
Phil Curran: One of them I think probably doesn’t even realize what kind of a mentor he was to me, his name is Mahan Khalsa. Mahan was hired by Mercer to come in and do sales training for principals at Mercer and he taught us a highly consultative method of selling professional services because most sales training that I have been able to access individually was really more product sales and overcoming objections and highlighting the advantages of my product, and that doesn’t work extraordinarily well in professional services. Mahan taught a methodology that I found to be totally congruent with professional services but also with my own value system, and it was one that stressed understanding the client, understanding their issues, their objectives and delivering exactly the right solution to them. I had the opportunity to go through training with him 4 times over about a 15 year period at a couple of different firms. His firm has since been acquired by Franklin Covey and every salesperson that I have ever had working with me, I’ve always recommended or just gone out and bought his book and given it to them. His book is called Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play.
Mahan had a huge impact on me as a salesperson. Second person would be a colleague that I worked with at Mercer when I was first getting involved in business development and we were peers but I came to the role from a technical background, he came to the role from a sales background and his name is Paul Bodkin and Paul taught me a critical lesson. I had been taking a prospect out to lunch having great conversations, giving them great input and we were doing this about every three or four weeks for probably about three or four months and I felt like it was going nowhere. Paul said, “Take me with you next time.”
I took Paul to lunch the next time we did that, we had a great lunch, we had a great conversation. The check came and as I reached for it, Paul clamped his hand down over my wrist and looked at the prospect and he said, “John, this is becoming a social thing. Is there some work we could be doing for you or should be picking up the tab once in a while?” I would never word things in quite that way, but Paul taught me a critical lesson. First of all, the guy laughed and said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, we do need some help with our international benefits” and they were a client by the next morning with a signed engagement letter.
Fred Diamond: Who paid for that lunch, by the way?
Phil Curran: I definitely paid for it.
Fred Diamond: That fits in perfectly with the book title you just said, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. It’s a very interesting comment by Paul. I remember one of our Sales Game Changers that we interviewed, “We have enough friends and we love to be friends with the people that we’re working with” and then become our customers and we’ve had some people that we’ve interviewed who’ve had 20, 25 year relationships with people. Especially those who sell to the government where the government customer is growing with them and it’s a great story, if you will but when we’re doing the work we’re here to sell you a service, provide you value. Let’s engage in those relationships. That’s a great story.
Phil Curran: Paul taught me to ask for the sale. The last really was my boss throughout most of my tenure at Mercer who is the south east region head named Larry North. Larry was one of those people that did it all well and he had his own style, but what I really learned from him was because he gave me the opportunities to develop new skills and develop my own style, what I learned from him was you can’t look at what Larry does and replicate it. He’s one of those charismatic people that could say anything and chuckle and you’d laugh with him. I don’t have that personality, so what I learned was that I had to adapt all of this to my own personal style.
Fred Diamond: Those are three great stories, there. Phil, what are the two biggest challenges you face today as a sales leader?
Phil Curran: The fact that I have salespeople at two different ends of the spectrum. In our business, when you acquire a new client they become your client and our producers are compensated based on their book of business. At one end of the spectrum, I have producers with $4 million dollar books in business, at the other end I have new producers who don’t have any clients yet and are still trying to develop them. At the one end of the spectrum with the new producers, we realized that for professional services it takes time to build a pipeline that is going to begin consistently producing revenue and it’s not unusual for a new producer to come to us and take 6, 9, 12 months before they have their first sale.
I am constantly in the role of coach, task master, confessor, therapist and I have to adapt to that on a constant basis. At the other end of the spectrum, I have very accomplished professionals with big books of business and the challenge for them – for some of them, some of them are just totally self-drive, but occasionally you get somebody with a nice, big book of business, they’re making a really good living and they’re comfortable. They’re willing to just sit on it and for them I have to get dynamite underneath their rear ends, blow it up and get them moving again. Those are probably the two biggest challenges is constantly motivating the already very successful people while comforting the ones that haven’t had that taste of success yet.
Fred Diamond: I want to ask you a slightly different question here. Again, we have a lot of Sales Game Changers listening around the world who sell tons of things, typically business to business enterprise type selling. You talked about the two ends of the spectrum. Today in 2019, what makes a good sales professional in your space? Again, in the employee benefits and insurance space. Interestingly you talked about you and Paul or Larry North and the differences in how you all were and you all have become very successful but what makes a good sales professional in this space?
Phil Curran: Balance. I teach some of this to my people, I show them a chart that basically looks at the intersection of IQ, EQ and XQ. IQ being critical thinking ability, not just pure brain power but critical thinking ability. EQ, Emotional Quotient, the ability to read other people’s emotions and tailor your approach to them. When you combine the two of them, you get the ability to have really good discussions that uncover root problems, challenges for the client and begin to develop great solutions to address those problems, then you have to couple that with execution capability. When we see somebody who has that kind of balance where they can do the critical thinking, say the hard things in a soft way and then deliver on them, then we’ve got somebody who’s going to be really successful.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you take us back to the biggest win or the most specific sale success or win from your career that you’re most proud of? I said biggest, it doesn’t have to be the biggest but what’s the one that you’re most proud of?
Phil Curran: It’s not the biggest, but it’s one that I’m really proud of from a sales perspective. Quite a number of years ago – I’m living on past glory – one of my colleagues had a client in Atlanta that was a specialty psychiatric hospital system. They had a subsidiary business that provided managed mental health care. We read about it in the Atlanta Business Chronicle that they were spinning off that business and at the same time acquired that subsidiary’s two largest competitors, so at once they were being spun off from their parent company and merged with their two largest competitors to form a company that had about 60% market share in their business.
I walked in and said, “Are we talking to them about the HR integration post-transaction of all these companies?” He said, “I didn’t even know this was happening.” It happened that he had a relationship with the CEO, we called the CEO of the hospital system. He said, “Here, talk to my senior VP of strategic development in charge of transactions.” We called him and he said, “Yes, we’ve hired consultants.” I’ll tell you how old this was, “We have Coopers and Lybrand handling all of the post-transaction integration except by the systems work, that’s going to be done by Anderson Consulting.” We said, “You should be looking specifically at human resource consolidation, are you?” and he said, “Why should I?”
My colleague looked at me and I jumped in front of the phone and I said, “There’s a conference board report that came out last year, they interviewed over a hundred CEOs who had gone through corporate transactions and what they found was that less than 20% of corporate transactions achieved the desired economic objectives. When they asked the CEOs who had not achieved their desired objectives, what were the principle reasons that you didn’t? The top 5 reasons were all people related. If you are not engaging human resource experts to make sure that the people issues around this transaction allow you to succeed, then you’re going to fail.” We were in his office the next afternoon, the day after that we delivered a proposal and we managed the post-transaction integration of human resource functions. It was an 8 month project that paid us over $1 million and a half dollars and that was about 20 years ago.
Fred Diamond: That’s great for a couple different reasons. One is you knew something that was going to be of value to the customer. I’m just curious, 20 somewhat years ago was the engagement successful from the customer perspective?
Phil Curran: Very. They had some specific – as they said – synergies that needed to be achieved as the result of the HR integrations and we exceeded them by almost 50%. More importantly, we set them up to have a fully functioning HR function in an organization that didn’t have one and was merging with two other organizations, one without one and one with an HR function that just wasn’t capable for an organization of this size. Strategically and economically, it turned out to be an excellent outcome for the client. A thing that I’m proud of is that it would have been really easy to say, “Sorry we came to the game late, good luck” but we kept at it and we were able to wedge ourselves in even after advisers had been selected.
Fred Diamond: Did you ever think to yourself along the way, “It’s too hard, it’s really not for me, I’d like to go back into the practice side”? What do you think?
Phil Curran: No, I really never have. I get a real thrill out of the hunt, very few things give me more satisfaction than going out on sales calls and acquiring new clients. Part of that is my approach is you sell the way you serve. I’m not going out selling to you, I’m going out consulting to you and this will sound bad, but I think anybody that has been in an advisory role as long as I have and been successful has a good, healthy ego. I go into every conversation with a client or a prospective client knowing – not thinking, not believing but knowing – that no one is going to give them a better result and a better outcome than I am. I’m happy to serve, I’m happy to deliver those solutions to the client and if they choose to go a different route I’m sorry for them. [Laughs]
Fred Diamond: Phil, what’s the most important thing you want to get across to junior selling professionals to help them improve their career?
Phil Curran: First and foremost, remember that selling is an honorable profession and you can sell professionally. The way I approach it, the way my team approaches is as I’ve mentioned before, sell the way you serve. We work with a prospect as we would with a client and we work to uncover the root issues that they are trying to deal with. When a prospect or a client tells us a problem in their employee benefit area, we try to understand how that is impacting the business and we dig deeper. We do a lot of questioning to get at underlying issues to understand barriers to successfully implementing a solution and then we deliver to them exactly the right solution.
The way I’ve defined, the way my team defines exactly the right solution, it’s nothing more than the client needs but nothing less than what’s possible. If we do that, if we really get at their problem, we present exactly the right solution and we help them understand the real return on the investment. Not just, “It’ll save you $2 million dollars in your medical plan and you’re only spending $100,000 to get it” but look at what does that also do to your business. Then we have the ability to really create strategic as well as financial impact for the client. I think that for most salespeople, if they will do that, they transform themselves from selling a product or selling a service to potentially becoming a trusted adviser.
Fred Diamond: What are some of the things that you do to sharpen your saw and stay fresh?
Phil Curran: I was an athlete through college, I’m not anymore. I write fiction, I have two published novels and my family is critically important to me. We spend lots of time together, I have two grown daughters, two grandchildren and I have two younger sons, one that’s a senior in high school and one that’s in eighth grade. My sons play rugby and hockey and we are incessantly at sporting events. My wife and I fortunately both love sports, I grew up a huge football fan, hockey fan, my wife is a huge hockey fan and we’ve both come to love rugby. I played rugby in college and men’s clubs after. For me, it’s all about stepping back away from and recharging, for me is family time and a little bit of introspective time where I indulge my artistic side and I write.
Fred Diamond: What’s a major initiative you’re working on today to ensure your continued success?
Phil Curran: My success is really dependent upon the success of all the producers that work in my practice, my major initiatives are helping to make sure that every time they go out on an appointment, they’re as prepared as possible. USI is terrific about having institutionalized certain processes to ensure that, but going into 2019 I’ve worked with my team to re-tool the way we do it. Our thought is that ever first appointment is gold, and we’re going to treat it that way.
We meet and all the producers on our team listen in while every producer with a first appointment presents the client, the business issues, the solutions that they’re thinking might resonate with that client and all the other producers share their collective knowledge about, “I used to have as a client a company that that vice president of human resources used to work for, I know that they’re particularly concerned about these issues”, “I used to call on that company, I know that their CFO likes to see…”
By the time we pool together out market intelligence and our collective benefits knowledge, we’re able to prepare that producer to go in and have a very successful first meeting. One of the things I’m really proud of is that for our practice, we have a metric that looks at every time one of our producers goes out on a first appointment, how frequently does that company become a client within 12 months of that first meeting. For our practice, that metric is 11%. I think that’s pretty great, it’s higher than our company average, it’s certainly much higher than industry average but my goal is to improve that by 15% so I’m looking to bump that up to 12.65%.
Fred Diamond: What is it about sales as a career that has kept you going?
Phil Curran: There aren’t many legal things you can do that give you the kind of thrill that sales does.
Fred Diamond: Being a published author, by the way, is one that would definitely give me a lot of thrill so good for you.
Phil Curran: Thank you, that was a great charge seeing the first book that comes off the line. The thrill of the hunt is part of it but also one of the things that when you’re at a leadership role at USI, you are a part owner of the firm. If you’re not growing, you’re dying so I have a significant portion of my retirement future tied up in the success of USI, and while the company provides fantastic tools and I have fantastic people working with me, it’s up to me to make sure that they’re properly trained, executing and meeting all the goals that we have set for them. I have the advantage of that incentive of being a part owner but honestly, I’d be doing this even if I weren’t. I love doing it, I am blessed to have stumbled into an industry that I love right out of college.
Fred Diamond: Why don’t you give us one final thought to inspire our listeners today?
Phil Curran: Fred, I think at least within professional services, the term “trusted adviser” is bandied about a lot and everybody says that they are a trusted adviser. I’m going to push back and say, “No, you’re not.” A gentleman named David Maister actually wrote a book called The Trusted Adviser and I think Maister is fantastic when it comes to professional service for management. What he put forward I think really transformed the way I look at the client adviser relationship – and this is what we aspire to, knowing that we’ll probably never really get there.
The relationship exists on two dimensional plane and a client can hire you either just for task completion or they can open up the kimono, share all their secrets, allow you to really see everything that’s driving their issues and collaborate with you, that’s their choice. The adviser can either just deliver technical expertise or they can make the effort to understand the client’s issues and deliver something that is a real business solution. If all you’re delivering is technical expertise, you’re a hired gun.
Unfortunately, this is where a lot of professional service firms are and I had a client point out to me one day that if you’ve ever watched any western movies, you know that hired guns are a dime a dozen, very often die and so they’re just dispensable. If you move along that spectrum, somewhere in the middle is where most professional service firms exist and most advisers exist. You’re a steady supplier, but you’re really not part of the fabric of the client organization and you’re really not delivering business solutions but if you can get to where the client includes you as part of the fabric of the organization, you understand their issues and you’re delivering solutions that really impact the business, then you’re in a trusted adviser role.
I aspire to that, all my team inspires to it and I think if you’re in professional services, attaining that role is like, “I’ve hit nirvana.”