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How to Sell Insurance to Different Cultures

How do you define “culture”? Is it just a way of life, or is it more complicated, defining the beliefs and attitudes of a specific group of people? The United States is still a melting pot, and selling insurance sometimes requires some insight into a prospective client’s customs.  

Americans often assume everyone shares our practices for addressing an uncertain future, namely, insurance. However, explaining “our” views of insurance to “others” often proves problematic. Despite what may well be a “global culture,” “we” often lose sight of the fact that we must interact with people from many cultures. Selling insurance is difficult enough when dealing with people well known to an agent. Take a few steps out of your comfort zone and there are many things, often very innocent, that could potentially cause insult or even a lost sale or customer.

How to Sell Insurance Globally

Many use the “when in Rome” argument for dealing with someone from another country who has come to the United States. This attitude doubtless makes some individuals feel very pleased with themselves, but for business success, respecting another’s cultural background goes a long way towards making a sale.

Prior to meeting a prospective client, take some time to find out which of our typical social and business practices will or will not make them feel more comfortable.

The hearty handshake and direct eye contact so prized in the American culture is not always met with enthusiasm in other cultures. Even within a specific culture, there are always variations on how much certain people adhere to customs. Never make gross generalizations about any group of people. Nonetheless, you owe it to yourself and your business, not to mention your potential clients, to have a little sensitivity. The delicate dance of cultural respect requires consideration of things such as:

  • Certain cultures frown upon women having contact with men other than their husband or male relatives.
  • Americans value making strong eye contact during business dealings, viewing someone who fails to make eye contact as shifty and possibly dishonest. Conversely, some cultures feel that staring directly at someone is disrespectful.
  • The amount of expected personal space varies from culture to culture. Most think Americans prefer to stand further apart than many other cultures, yet in Japan, business formality requires that people shake hands and perhaps bow, then take a few steps back from the person they just greeted.
  • Properly addressing clients counts for a lot. Assume you are NOT on a first name basis with a prospective client until they invite you to address them that way. If possible, determine the proper title or honorific for a client.[1]

Speaking with Clients About Touchy Subjects

Many insurance agents have a hard enough time discussing death, illness, and potential financial loss with members of their own family. Add in the nuances of acceptable behavior and phrasing of another culture, and there results a real land mine of potentially detrimental, though unintended, missteps.

What topics are vital to any insurance transaction? The big ones are death, sickness, accidents, and risky behavior. All of these subjects also relate back to money and potential financial loss. All are sticky subjects most avoid discussing in any situation.

Overcoming the Language Barrier

American English, our “brand” of English, uses tons of idioms and slang terms, making understanding what we say even more difficult. If a potential client speaks NO English, protect your interests as well as theirs by engaging a competent interpreter familiar with insurance terms.

Potential clients may have varying degrees of English language skills. Showing impatience or frustration with someone who speaks English as a second language will quickly kill a deal. Furthermore, while speaking slowly is generally helpful, speaking too loudly or in a condescending tone is not. Although many American slang terms are used globally, never assume a potential client understands our slang. Use more formal and straightforward language instead.

Make the meeting a true conversation. Get to know the person, perhaps by commenting on some item in their home. Make a connection by putting the item into the context of a similar or contrasting American item. Starting a conversation displays your interest in them, their culture, and their well-being while, in turn, providing information about yourself.

Leading a Discussion about Insurance Protection

The feeling of “it could never happen to me” is universal. Before meeting with a client, consider learning about their approach to discussions about personal finance and risk. Some cultures frown on talking about finances unless there is an established personal relationship. Still others may be uncomfortable about divulging true financial figures at all.  

Addressing the Stigma of Illness and Death

Scholarly papers on selling insurance despite cultural differences pinpoint exact situations where a one size fits all approach fails. Agents offering insurance in the People’s Republic of China employed references to love and family responsibility in the same manner they would when approaching North American clients.  According to a Yale University study, the approach backfired, to the point of “contempt, suspicion, and even hostility.” As it turned out, Chinese culture shunned discussion of premature death. For some, discussing death interferes with their sense of inner harmony, something very important in their philosophy for living.

Clearing Cultural Hurdles

For most, seeing someone make the effort of acknowledging cultural practices makes up for any unintentional glaring gaffes. Showing genuine respect is worth a lot. Being sincere and respectful garners a great deal of good will. Attempt to understand a potential client’s needs by addressing their concerns. No matter how difficult the language barrier makes conversation, do not just talk at them – communicate with them.

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