Monday, July 31, 2000

Northwestern Mutual takes top sales honor

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Northwestern Mutual Financial Network sales agents must be doing something right.

        According to Sales & Marketing Management, the sales staff at the national insurance and financial products company is apparently doing most things right.

        Northwestern Mutual tied with heavyweight Cisco Systems Inc. for having the top sales force in the nation in a survey by the sales trade publication.

        The magazine found that last year, Northwestern Mutual's sales force had its lowest turnover since 1988 — and it came at a time when managers in virtually every economic sector struggle to keep talent.

        One key insight about employee retention emerged from the study: Northwestern wants its agents' compensation to be competitive.

        The company last year commissioned a research firm to compare its compensation plan with 10 competitors.

        Executives learned the results this spring while sitting in a room full of sales agents.

        The company is going to boost compensation because of the survey.

        Other findings:

        • Agents annually attend one of four regional meet ings to hear about new corporate policies and to attend sales and management training sessions.

        • Before developing new product names and a new name for the company, the firm surveyed 2,000 consumers, 200 home office employees and 250 sales agents. It also consulted a brand indentity firm.

        • The Internet is seen as a tool — not a panacea. The company believes its educat ed and affluent customers want a relationship with an agent, not their desktop PC mouse.

        “Been at this for 30-plus years, and in one way, nothing has changed,” said Ron Beshear, managing director of the Beshear Financial Group of the Northwestern Mutual Financial Network in downtown Cincinnati.

        “From the beginning, it is all about finding out what is important to the client, and it has always been that.”

        Listening to clients is critical, he said, and the way it's done is decidely low-tech. The agent on the first visit arrives with a pen and yellow legal pad and nothing else. The trick, Mr. Beshear said, is to listen and only talk when a new question is needed.

        “We have the technology in the back room, but when we come to see a client, we leave the laptop behind,” he said.


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