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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries

Communication: Essential skills for winning business

It is natural for actuaries to put their faith in the power of hard metrics rather than ’soft skills’. The received wisdom is that ’soft skills’ lack substance and don’t impact on the bottom line. As a result, the essential development area that is often overlooked is communication. But loss of focus here can have a negative effect on members of the actuarial profession when they need to put their ideas across to others, or pitch for business.

Of course, it is essential that the content remains the primary focus in meetings and pitches, but if it is not communicated effectively, the hard graft invested in developing robust metrics and models will be wasted. Even the best ammunition will be redundant if its delivery system fails to land it on the target.

No actuarial advisors can afford to have a communication misfire at a time when uncertainty on everything from investment strategy to mortality rates is eating into client confidence. This is a period when uneasy clients are crying out for clearly communicated guidance, thought-leadership, responsiveness and reassurance within a working relationship they can trust.

Such great communication is about being yourself, but more, with skill. Many actuaries are struggling to achieve this. They are unwittingly hiding themselves behind brochure-speak and complexity, instinctively believing that this makes them appear more professional and trustworthy. It may be counter-intuitive, but in fact this has the opposite effect. Such an approach undermines clear and authentic communication and diminishes impact and effectiveness.

The solutions are straightforward. Be yourself. Be authentic. Be clear and simple. This should be easy. It certainly isn’t rocket science, but it can still prove surprisingly difficult for people to achieve. The support of an experienced coach is often needed to bring an objective perspective and help the individuals concerned to have the necessary confidence in themselves to be real.

Of course, great communication isn’t just about transmitting. It is a two-way thing. Professional advisors need to listen as well as putting messages across. The discomfort actuaries can feel when facing pitches and difficult meetings often leads to an inability to hear messages coming the other way. If we fail to hear the concerns of the client, we cannot respond to them, and an unresponsive advisory organisation is unlikely to retain clients, let alone win pitches.

As an example of this, my company was asked to support a highly regarded firm prepare for a re-pitch to retain a major client. It was quickly realised that the re-pitch team felt their client was already as good as lost. This team’s response was typical - PowerPoint presentations focusing on the concrete and pitching price cuts, enhanced IT portal functions, and lots of statistical modelling.

To a communications expert however, it was obvious that something less tangible than price or technical support had gone wrong with the client relationship. Working with the team, it emerged that a simple lack of communication between team members and clients had led to a loss of confidence in the working relationship.

Reluctantly, the team was persuaded to abandon their detail-driven PowerPoint approach. Instead, they pitched purely on the basis of their individual working relationships with key client figures, the premium importance and value of that client within their portfolios and working lives, and the decades of great work and accumulated experience they had put in on a uniquely complex scheme. All this was communicated simply and honestly without any slides or paperwork. It worked. The client relationship was saved and a disastrous loss turned into a triumphant win, all as a result of authentic communication and client responsiveness.

Now is the time for actuaries to embrace great communication, building strong, responsive relationships with their clients and colleagues as a result. That way they will reap the benefits in performance, client retention, and enhanced, effective pitching.

Sarah Chard is a communication coach and associate of Personal Presentation