I was two weeks into my first job as an insurance agent in 1983 when my sales manager asked me to complete a very important task: Would I be so kind as to deliver a $125,000 life insurance benefit check to a client? 

I was headed out the door for the day, but swallowed hard and promised that I would.

What happened next, changed my life forever.

I drove to a modest Cincinnati neighborhood, found the correct address and knocked on the door. A woman answered the door, nursing her six-month-old son. Two other elementary-aged children, were playing around inside. She stared at me, not knowing what to expect. 

Suddenly, what seemed like such an easy ask from my manager, was that much harder. My stomach dropped a thousand feet as I stumbled over my words to explain why I was there, and why I had a $125,000 check in my hand: her husband had died in a tragic car accident, so I was delivering a life insurance payout to help support her family as they processed the loss and rebuilt their lives.

She was moved to tears, and suddenly I found that I was too. 

Our Midwestern manners took over, and we began talking about her husband. What she remembered, what she would hold on to, and what made him so great.

I didn’t know this man, but I respected him. And, more tears flowed. 

When I departed an hour later, I was a mix of emotions. One thought stuck with me, though. I realized the significance of the benefit check in representing the relief and understanding that in the hardest of times, this woman would not have to worry about any financial burdens. By easing her mind, it allowed her to focus on grieving. 

And, it made me realize the extent of the difference I could make as an insurance agent.

Insurance agents can have a less-than-positive connotation with society, but I strived to break that stereotype. Making a positive impact on someone’s life – in the present, and future, became my own personal North Star. What really made the difference for all my clients, was that I created a personal connection with each and every one of them. Whether it was getting to know their story or helping to understand who the policy was protecting (usually a member of the immediate family), I made it a point to listen, and recommend the coverage that made the most sense based upon each policyholder’s unique needs.

Now, almost 3 unbelievable decades later, life as an insurance agent is quite different. 

Tech tools like social media help streamline communication with prospects as well as existing clients. Advanced data analytics can help to drive customer-centered business models and AI-focused targeting to identify those who are most likely to consider insurance. Online customer relationship management (CRM) platforms allow agents to better and more urgently assess a customer’s coverage, process claims and more.  

In fact, digital innovation, critical as it has been to the life insurance sector during the coronavirus pandemic, was already becoming a fact of life in the industry well before that. The rise in 2010 of insurtech, a spinoff of fintech, proved to be disruptive to the legacy industry, and the latter continues to adapt and evolve.

Nowadays predictive analytics foretell customer behavior, identify fraud risks and forecast trends. Artificial intelligence makes data more accessible and accurate for insurers, enables them to personalize clients’ experiences and makes it possible to improve claim settlement ratios. Examining social media data also improves the risk-assessment process, while chatbots improve the application process.

With all the innovation in the past decade or so, one may wonder, if there even a need for life insurance agents? Translation: in a time when consumers can look up their rates and do their research online, do I even have a job anymore? 

Is that young woman from ’83 delivering her first life insurance check, now obsolete? Nope.

I would argue that creating a personal connection with a client today, is actually easier with modern technology than ever before. It may be not face-to-face, and I am often hundreds of miles away from some of my clients, but am I able to just as easily get to know a person’s story over FaceTime or Facebook Messenger? You bet.

Paul G. Krasnow, author of “The Success Code: A Guide for Achieving Your Personal Best in Business and Life,” noted to Insurance Journal that tech is just “one tool in (an agent’s) toolbox,” and relationships will continue to matter as much as ever. So it is, he added, something of a balancing act between the personal and technological: 

“Too little tech and you’ll seem out of touch, too much and you’ll lose the personal touch that keeps customers loyal and engaged. As you’re trying to find the right balance, just remember this: Your client relationships are built on emotions and trust, so use technology only in a way that maintains, enhances, and propels those relationships to the next level.”

The metrics bear that out. While two of every three insurers want to collaborate with Insurtechs, and 83 percent of Insurtechs wish to establish working relationships of that sort, customers still yearn for a personal touch that only an agent can provide. Fully 71 percent of those responding to a 2019 survey preferred that over a fully online give-and-take experience with no agent involvement.

As mentioned, COVID-19 has accelerated the technological shift, but that doesn’t mean that the role of the agent has taken on less of a need. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that agents will remain in demand, after the crisis. In fact, it’s predicted that the employment rate among agents will show a five percent increase by 2029, a rate superior to the average of all other occupations.

And while the BLS report acknowledges that clients are more apt to purchase policies online, agents will still be needed to guide clients through their life insurance quest to better understand their options. I’ve experienced this firsthand. Support may not always be face-to-face, but Zoom meetings, live chat, and other SMS interactions help me to fill in the knowledge gaps to make the personal connection with a customer. The fact is, agents now have “a compelling opportunity to serve as a knowledgeable resource for current and prospective customers.”

I’ve personally come to see that the most successful agents today, are the ones that have taken the initiative to expand their skill sets, as technology continues to impact the sector. Things like getting better acquainted with understanding social media advertising to acquire leads, or setting up personal blog sites to establish themselves as thought leaders in the category. Others have become more versed in data analytics, which can provide real-time information about prospects and help personalize customer service. 

For the agent of 2021 to support their clients effectively, they simply cannot continue to utilize the same support and communication channels that may have worked well in past decades. Instead, they have to react quickly to a new breed of consumer that’s technologically savvy and independent. 

The need for a life insurance agent is still present – and just as crucial towards the insurance buying process today as it was decades ago when I was just starting out in my career.

That’s because personal relationships will always matter, no matter whether it’s 1983 or 2003. 

I inherently realized this when I visited that woman in Cincinnati all those years ago. The various technological advances we as agents have today, can certainly be a barrier to the traditional insurance selling process. But for those who adapt and use these tools to enhance their effectiveness and improve the customer experience? 

Those are the agents that 2021 so desperately needs.