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At Annuity University, Agents Learn How to Pitch to Seniors

 

By: Ellen E. Schultz and Jeff D. Opdyke
Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002

 

DENVER -- At a training session on how to sell investments, Tyrone Clark offers a key piece of advice on how to sell to senior citizens: "Treat them like they're blind 12-year-olds," he says.

The 40 or so trainees attending this class in a hotel conference room scribble notes and occasionally laugh or applaud Mr. Clark. If they missed any of his selling tips, the points also are summarized in the course manual.

"You'll waste time if you think you can impress them with charts, graphs, printouts or use sophisticated words," the manual, written by Mr. Clark, says regarding seniors. "They buy based upon emotions! Emotions of fear, anger and greed."

Welcome to Annuity University, the name of a two-day seminar where budding sales people pay $375 to learn the ins and outs of getting seniors to buy annuities. Annuities are insurance contracts in which the earnings are tax-deferred. "Fixed" annuities have returns that are guaranteed for a year or so, while "variable" annuities are essentially a collection of mutual funds in a tax-sheltered wrapper.

At Annuity U., the explanation of an annuity is even simpler. "There's the technical answer," says Mr. Clark, 43, and "there's the senior answer. Tell them it's like a CD -- it's safe, it's guaranteed."

While that sounds pretty appealing, annuities are actually a lot more complex and have downsides that salesmen may not mention. The higher fees of most annuities can often cancel out their tax advantages; most annuities lock in investors for years; and annuities saddle heirs with higher taxes, unlike mutual funds or most other investments. For these reasons, many investment experts say annuities are usually unsuitable for most older investors. "Annuities are almost never appropriate for seniors," says J. J. MacNab, an independent insurance analyst in Bethesda, Md.

Mr. Clark disagrees. He says in an interview that he "wholeheartedly believes annuities are the best investment for seniors," while saying that his seminar also explains the negatives of annuities and when they aren't appropriate.

Mr. Clark maintains that his teachings at Annuity U. aren't designed to belittle seniors or to help sales agents persuade older customers to make investments that they shouldn't. "It's just that agents can come across as too technical [when pitching an annuity] and people don't understand them," says Mr. Clark, who is president of Brokers' Choice of America Inc., the Glendale, Colo., company that runs Annuity U. as well as other classes on selling financial products. "I use metaphors to show them they have to oversimplify the information."

Seniors increasingly are the most likely to hear pitches for annuities because they are sitting on a growing sea of retirement money. A salesman who persuades a retiree to move $50,000 from bank certificates of deposit or an individual retirement account into an annuity will generate a commission of $3,000 to $4,000. Because annuity sales are so lucrative, regulators including the National Association of Securities Dealers have expressed concern that many of the sales are transacted merely to generate commissions.

Mr. Clark says he makes agents sign a code of ethics pledging that they won't misrepresent information when pitching to seniors. He adds, though, that "the problem is agents take the classes and abuse the information everyday. And I have no control over that. These [agents] are independent and want to pitch high-commission products, and we can't stop them."

Mr. Clark notes that many students rave about Annuity U., and provided comments that some wrote after they completed his course recently. "I see my DREAMS coming true in the next 10 years," wrote Randal Cade, a Lake Jackson, Texas, life-insurance agent who took the course last month. "My DESIRE is $1 million per year in income." John Rolfe, a tax lawyer and life-insurance agent near Philadelphia, wrote, "AU gave me the education I needed to start selling lots of annuities." He concluded: "Annuities -- great vehicle, especially for seniors."

In later interviews, Messrs. Cade and Rolfe confirmed their comments. Mr. Rolfe adds that the language Annuity U. instructors use "is just a colorful way of saying things. I never take it seriously; they're just trying to be the big guy in the room. It's all an exaggeration."

Annuity U., which a Wall Street Journal reporter attended last year with Mr. Clark's permission, runs sessions once a month in a Denver-area hotel ballroom. It has trained some 7,000 agents during the last 13 years, according to Mr. Clark.

'They Like Freebies'

The first step to wooing seniors is to get them to attend introductory seminars, and the best way to attract them, the trainees are told, is a free meal. "They like freebies," the Annuity U. training manual notes, and they "like to eat one major meal a day."

Trainees learn that the educational seminars can be used to generate fear among the attendees. "Toss hand grenades into the advice to disturb the seniors," Mr. Clark tells the trainees. He adds, "You're there to solve their problems, but you have to create those problems first. No problem, no sale. So at the seminars, you're creating problems, and you tease them with the solutions" to encourage a follow-up meeting with a salesman.

"They thrive on fear, anger and greed," Mr. Clark continues. "Show them their finances are all screwed up so that they think, 'Oh, no, I've done it all wrong.' This will make you money." The Annuity U. class learns that whatever the retiree's particular concern -- whether it's taxes, investment returns or asset protection -- the solution is almost always the same: an annuity.

Another Annuity U. lecturer, Mel Brandon of Memphis, Tenn., tells the class that educational seminars offer a good way to find out which seniors are well off and worth concentrating sales pitches on. When people arrive at his seminars, he says, he has "spotters" in the parking lot "checking out what kind of car each person drives. That way we'll know who has the money." The class chuckles.

Mr. Brandon also uses seminars to gather information on the chief financial concerns of prospective customers. The retirees find a piece of paper waiting at their seat with a variety of topics represented -- taxes, Social Security , protection of assets -- and he encourages them to circle the subjects they're concerned about. Mr. Brandon says he uses the information when he calls potential customers to set up an appointment. "It's the hot button they're going to respond to," he says.

In a later interview, Mr. Brandon says these are just techniques to reach clients. "None of this is predatory," he says. "I don't consider any of what I talk about to be manipulative. This is the way to ID the clients, and strike a particular pose with a segment of the market. And [seniors are] our target market."

Selling techniques, starting with the moment that sales people drive up to the retiree's home, also receive careful attention at Annuity U. The first step is to leave the briefcase in the car because, according to the manual, "It might intimidate them and let them know you're a salesman."

There are more tips. "Don't walk on their grass." After you knock, have "one leg up on their step prepared to walk in ...Wipe your feet showing you respect their cleanliness. Now, look around: look for pictures of grandkids, children or the items of their pastimes and/or hobbies," the manual advises. Next, compliment the prospects on something or tell jokes. "Begin to get them to like and trust you," says the manual.

Another instructor, Roger Sierens, tells the class that such techniques have helped him sell millions of dollars worth of annuities a year. Pulling a man and woman from the audience for a bit of role-playing, Mr. Sierens launches into a typical presentation. He offers compliments such as "you have such a beautiful house."

Mr. Sierens gets prospective clients to go around the house to gather various financial documents. In his day planner, he records the date when bank certificates of deposit come due -- planning to call the seniors just before that date to get them to transfer the money into an annuity.

"You have to show them that you love them and care about them," he says. "Use words like protect, safety and guarantee of principal." Echoing that theme, the manual notes: "Make them feel they are the most important persons in your life."

In a later interview, Mr. Sierens says his techniques "are my method and manner of finding [a prospective client's] overall financial picture. This is information I need to know before making recommendations." Mr. Sierens adds: "I'm sure annuities are not sold properly all the time, but that's just like any other financial product. I have a lot of respect for seniors and treat them like I'd treat my parents."

Locking Up the Sale

During a coffee break, Annuity U. attendees can shop for sales aids, some spending hundreds of dollars a pop. If the retirees' concern is taxes, tell them that changes in the tax law could leave them penniless, the trainees are advised.

If the seniors are worried about lawsuits for damages against them, Mr. Clark suggests telling them, "Would it bother you to learn that your life savings are not insured against someone suing you because perhaps you hit a child while driving to the grocery store?"

Mr. Clark adds another tip: "Tell them you can protect their life savings from nursing-home and Medicaid seizure of assets. They don't know what that is, but it sounds scary," he says. "It's about putting a pitchfork in their chest."

Mr. Clark, in a later interview, says such comments are taken out of context. "The position I'm coming from is as a teacher," Mr. Clark says. "I teach [salesmen] that you have to show people they have problems associated with their planning."


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