Looking for a career that offers a big potential financial upside, a wealth of job opportunity and the lure of self-employment? If you enjoy forging relationships and are committed to client service (and can handle plenty of rejection), insurance sales could well be for you.

The dirty little secret of capitalism is that many — if not most — white-collar jobs require little more than showing up and going through the motions. (Thousands of people in middle management just nodded their heads, aware of the irony of reading that sentence in an Investopedia article while ostensibly working.) Not so for insurance sales. It’s the ultimate commission gig, its practitioners fully dependent on their customers’ premium payments. Convert more prospects, get correspondingly richer. Repeat. At least in theory. (For related reading, see: Ways To Make Insurance Exciting.)

Slow-Going...At First

Like retail, customer service, and similar lines of work with high attrition rates, insurance sales typically doesn’t pay all that well at the onset of one’s career. However, unlike those other occupations, the longer you stick around in insurance, the easier and more remunerative it gets, thanks to referrals and residuals. (For related reading, see: How To Get Referrals.)

It’s sticking around that’s the hard part. A 2010 study by the Life Insurance and Market Research Association claimed that the median salary for second-year agents is somewhere south of $30,000. Also, the median salary for those same agents two years later is…well, technically zero, because four out of every five agents have quit by then.

But Plenty Of Opportunity

If you’re serious about selling life insurance for a living, here’s one positive. It’s a job-seeker’s market. Major insurers have watched their workforces dwindle from their late 20th century zeniths. Some agencies going from having tens of thousands of agents on the payroll to having merely a couple of thousand. (A little thing called the internet is largely responsible for this. Incredibly, there was a time not that long ago when you couldn’t buy a simple term policy at the click of a button. Today’s life insurance agents, though far fewer in number than they were a generation ago, thus have to specialize more than ever.)

There might not be any sign in the window, but trust us, the agencies are hiring, and will consider you regardless of what line of work you were in before. And why not? It costs money for an insurance firm to train an agent, but that’s still cheaper than paying a salary for what is, again, a position that relies almost exclusively on commission once the training period ends. The work is mentally grueling, not because of its complexity, but because of the sheer and unwavering persistence it demands. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics proudly announces that the median annual salary for all agents is over $48,000, it takes a little more digging to discover that the average agent is 56 years old. For the 20-something aspiring underwriter, at least you won’t be dealing with the same demographic competition you’d be facing if you were pursuing work in the digital media industry. Another advantage: within a decade your average co-worker will be retired. (For related reading, see: 8 Qualities That Make A Good Insurance Agent.)

Be Prepared For Rejection

The actual execution of the job of life insurance agent can be disheartening, at least at the start. The first lead you contact is going to say no. The second lead is going to say no. Eventually, after you’ve shadowed the established agents in the office long enough (and have learned the stark differences among whole, term and universal policies), you make your first sale. And garner the majority of the premium for yourself, maybe as much as 70%.

70% commission? The writer buried the lede! Life insurance sounds like the greatest career ever!

Not quite. The returns diminish. After the first year, the commissions trickle. Expect to earn 3-5% commission throughout each of the policy’s remaining years. Of course, by that time the idea is to have sold enough policies that such a small percentage represents a comfortable dollar figure. But the rejection a rookie agent has to deal with is overwhelming. The agents who have the wherewithal, the patience and the resources to ride out the unproductive stretches are the successful ones, without exception. (For related reading, see: What Your Life Insurance Agent Makes -- On You.)

Hitting The Books

The job can be thankless, at least until that first 70% commission check clears. The best agents are the ones with the most and most respected designations – Chartered Life Underwriter; Fellow, Life Management Institute; Certified Insurance Counselor. Dozens of hours of study and instruction, followed by an exam, separate the less committed and less ambitious life insurance agents from the ones truly devoted to the career. Combine flawless ethics with real-world education – and a healthy dose of that persistence that’s a prerequisite for the job – and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t flourish.

What NOT To Do

While there might be a code of conduct that registered agents are obligated to honor, occasionally it brushes up against the limits of common decency. Take Adriana’s Insurance, based in California’s San Bernardino County. (Aside: As a rule, insurance companies command confidence among their customers by selecting names that are bland and serious; Allstate Corp. (ALL); Aflac Inc. (AFL) (a.k.a. American Family Life Assurance Co.); Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. (MET), for example.) 76-year-old Andres Carrasco sued the company in 2012, claiming that he’d been assaulted by an employee while trying to buy insurance. Adriana’s settled the case for $21,000, which several of the company’s employees then hand-delivered in the form of coins to Carrasco’s lawyer’s office. Proving, yet again, that there indeed is such a thing as bad publicity. And that even insurance agents who’ve managed to make a career out of the business can fall victim to negativity.

The Bottom Line

If entrepreneurship is your goal, there is plenty of opportunity for someone seeking a career in insurance sales. That said, it'll be tough going, especially at first. Agents have to have a thick skin and handle rejection. After all, they're all selling the same products, for the most part. So if client service and building relationships isn't your thing, you might want to pass. (For related reading, see: Becoming An Insurance Agent.)

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