Lessons from Ms. Charlotte
I used to work for the largest Life Insurance wholesaler in the country. I was recruited to be one of their directors and spent six years there working with agents and learning what happens behind the curtain in the Life Insurance business. Early in my career there, I called on Ms. Charlotte (not her real name). She was the owner of a small insurance agency in North Carolina.
The first time I met her, I was in her town for another meeting. I noticed her sign and decided to just drop in and introduce myself. When I say ‘small agency,’ I mean that it was just her and one employee in a single room of an old brick office building. On her office door, there was a fake plastic clock that you can set to show when you’ll be back from lunch and a laminated piece of paper that said late payments were subject to a $15 fee.
I knocked, hesitated for a second, and walked in. As I began telling her who I was, she stopped me to insist I sit down. She was a little white haired lady in her mid sixties. In her 20x20 office, she was surrounded by 70’s era furniture and about a dozen tall file cabinets with plants on top of them. On her faux wood desk was a computer, two old office phones, a big candy dish and a mess of paperwork.
I had intended on trying to get her guard down enough to have a ten minute conversation. This is where I would see if it was worth setting another time for a longer meeting. The end goal would have been to bring her on as a wholesale client/partner. I had done this many times before. Well, that plan didn’t work.
I barely got my name out before she started firing questions at me. She was very charming and could have been an extra in the movie “Steel Magnolias.” I didn’t have anywhere to be for a while, so I indulged her. She had a very curious mind. She asked things about where I was from, where I went to college, about my family, my career etc. Her questions were very engaging and she listened actively, like she couldn’t wait to hear my entire answer. She asked interesting follow up questions that really made me have to think. It seemed like she couldn’t wait to get to know me. While I was there, people trickled in to pay premium and ask questions. She insisted that I keep my seat, though she could tell that I felt like I was in the way in her tiny office. She knew personal things about all the people who came in. She asked specifically about their family members and businesses. It was like they were all very good friends. It went on like that for about 30 minutes before I finally got a chance to get some information from her.
I started asking her questions about her business. She was happy to tell me all about it. It turned out that she wrote mostly personal lines, medicare supplement, and life insurance. Her business wasn’t that old. She started it from scratch and had been doing it for about 15 years. She was smart too, disarmingly smart. She must have passed this down as well, because two of her three children were doctors and the other was a lawyer. About an hour in, I got into questions about her client base. Well, it turned out she had all those tall file cabinets because she had thousands of client files. Since I was now very curious and I didn’t think it would offend her, I asked how much money her business was bringing in. Whispering through a little grin, she told me a number that was well over half a million dollars. At the time, I was almost stunned given where I was sitting (a faded green naugahyde chair).
About ten years have passed since I first met her. Ms. Charlotte is spending most of her time with her grandkids now. Looking back, I know why she was so successful. In a word, curiosity. Ms. Charlotte was an insurance product genius because she wasn’t happy until she knew everything about the way her insurance products worked. She questioned the carrier reps, read the policies and rooted out important information. She was also a social genius. She genuinely wanted to know people, but she also knew where this would lead. She spent time learning about everyone she came in contact with. Then she just matched the person with the product and asked for the business. Unfortunately, I will never have her charm, but the curiosity is working out pretty well.