How will you avoid the political pitfalls in 2020 and remembering “a client is always a client”

“2020 vision: Avoiding political pitfalls in the year to come”

With the 2020 election year just around the corner, brokers shared their insights into managing political discussions.

By Alan Goforth | November 04, 2019 at 10:35 AM

Public speaking can be a valuable way for brokers to build their reputation and recognition as thought leaders in the community. It also can be a potential landmine in these politically charged times, as Ken Stevenson is well aware.

“I was asked to speak to a civic organization about the Affordable Care Act shortly after it passed,” says Stevenson, vice president, employee benefits, for the Earl Bacon Agency in Tallahassee, Florida. “The president of the organization pulled me aside beforehand and said, ‘I want you to know we have a lot of Democrats here, so please be sensitive to that.’

“I laughed and told him, ‘At the end of my presentation, I challenge you to tell me which party I’m registered with.’ I received more compliments out of that engagement than most I’ve done. All I did was lay out the facts.”

Related: How to talk politics and policy with clients 

Not everyone, however, handles these situations with this much diplomacy. Recent elections have shown that the country is divided nearly 50/50 over many political figures and hot-button issues. Every broker at some point must deal with clients who not only disagree with them politically, but often do so belligerently.

With the 2020 election year just around the corner, several brokers from across the nation shared their insights into managing political discussions and how to keep politics from interfering with sound recommendations:

Here is what they have to say about politics and business.

Are you seeing increased political polarization and rhetoric in your client relationships? Has it ever created problems or is it something you have been able to manage?

Suzy Alberts: “The political polarization of our country definitely flows into the workplace and into our client relationships. It is important to watch for signals of a client’s political leanings before taking a position. I am always respectful, even when my opinions are different. But I also think it is OK to have a respectful conversation about how and why my opinion may differ. Most people have a very narrow view, which informs their opinions. My goal is to broaden their perspective with information and facts. If I sense someone is digging in, I look for ways to redirect the conversation.”

Emily Bremer: “That is certainly true. Whether you are connecting with friends on Facebook or talking to clients in a business setting, you cannot avoid the highly charged and polarized political climate in which we currently find ourselves. I think having both awareness of this issue and respect for the views of others is key in managing the political minefield. Our clients run the full spectrum from far left to far right and everything in between. But at the end of the day, they aren’t coming to us for our political views. They are coming to us for help with one of the biggest costs they bear as a business. When we address that need first, solutions drive the politics and not the other way around.”

Eric Kohlsdorf: “In most cases, political views are not something I talk about with clients. If they bring something up that is politically motivated, I usually steer clear unless it has something to do with health care financing; and I’ve never lost a client over a political divide. Saying that, I bring a perspective to the table as a diabetic, a utilizer of the system and as a business owner trying to manage budgets. So I think my clients appreciate what I bring, regardless of our political viewpoints.”

Ken Stevenson: “When working with business owners, you are dealing with strong-minded individuals, because that’s what it takes to own a business. And many have very strong political opinions. It’s never been a problem for me. Politics tend to be very emotional. I stick to the facts and stay clear of emotions. When the ACA passed, I made it my mission to educate business owners on the ACA and how it could affect them. I simply laid out the facts, told them their responsibilities and let them make their own conclusions.”

Debbie Stocks: “I see this sometimes with clients, though not as frequently as we see it in the media. I typically manage political polarization by keeping my focus on my purpose: to help employers attract and retain quality employees by offering a competitive benefits package. When I see that a client is very passionate (for or against) health care law, health care reform, or other political issues, I remain objective and seek to educate the client regarding the law, rules and regulations. I often say, `It’s my job to let you know what is required and where the opportunities lie. It’s your job to decide how you will utilize this information. We may not like any or all of the law; but, we should work to provide the benefits package that is best for you and your employees.’”

Scott Wham: “While I agree that the intensity of the rhetoric around health policy has intensified nationally in recent years, I’ve experienced an inverse phenomenon at the client level. When I entered the industry seven years ago, the ACA fast-tracked consultations into a discussion ripe for political opinion. I think this was likely due to the fact that the ACA had a direct impact on the bottom line for all businesses.

“Whether in agreement with the provisions or not, there was a shared acknowledgment that the ACA changed budgets, revenue and outlays. My consultations benefited from a shared agreement on this fact, and at times, clients would share their direct opinions. Today, there’s more of an awareness in the room that political polarization exists—that the possibility of disagreement is likely. Most people seem to know that the wrong presumption can have significant consequences on a professional relationship. I sense a heightened awareness that the topic should be avoided.”

What are some practical ways for brokers to steer conversations away from hot-button political issues? Or if they do engage in conversation, how can they do so gracefully?

Bremer: “In 2014, I had the opportunity to attend the launch of the SHOP exchange at the White House. An old friend of mine who had been to the White House several times for work in the past gave me two great pieces of advice that I have adhered to ever since. He said, `Stick to logistics and only talk about what you really know.’ I find that when politics comes up, clients more often than not want to vent and be heard more than they are looking to hear what I have to say. I try to listen and understand their point of view, and keep my input squarely in the frame of what is logistically possible within the current laws and regulations, and only comment on what I can speak to with confidence.”

Kohlsdorf: “Certainly political polarization is prevalent in health care, and our industry has been thrust into the political forefront with the passing of the ACA. If and when my clients bring these political issues up, I address them with the facts of the law and stay away from political leanings. For example, Medicare for All or the public option is a big topic now. Regardless of the side of the aisle on which you sit, it affects your opinion. I address how these options will affect the private system that nearly 70 percent of Americans use today. The answer emphasizes the cost, which is obviously the biggest issue in health care. Our conversations usually end with my clients asking, `What is the answer, then?’ which always circles back to the cost of care and the layering of more and more regulations, both state and national, that impact only a portion of the population but increase the costs for everyone.”

Stevenson: “Don’t steer away. The owner has concerns, and they need to be heard. If he or she doesn’t talk them through with you, they will with someone else. Trust me, I have gotten plenty of new clients because a competitor told them, ‘Don’t worry, the ACA will get repealed.’ My strategy was to educate and prepare clients for either outcome. Business owners want to be prepared, not ignored.”

Stocks: “Remain objective. Discuss the rules, regulations and opportunities for the clients. There is almost always something positive he or she can use to help the business. Sometimes, but rarely, a potential client is passionate on an issue and wants my total agreement with his or her opinions. Some can be very argumentative. I can think of a case or two where I’ve had to excuse myself as a potential broker. I just did not want to engage in political debates and arguments.”

Wham: “First and foremost, I start with an agenda. It’s basic, but it does a great deal in the way of directing the conversation away from hot-button topics. I never aim to engage, but I would point out that there are times when polarized topics might assist in understanding the client view. As an example, in 2017, you couldn’t discuss benefits without addressing the likelihood of success of the ACA repeal efforts. Most industry experts knew the probability of repealing the ACA was very low, but some media coverage pushed a different view. As a consultant, I had to acknowledge the client view while ensuring that I did not provide a false sense of security that the measures would pass. It brought me close to the flame, but sticking to dispassionate facts tended to serve me well. Plus, there’s always, `Let’s get back to the agenda.’”

Alberts: “Because of my membership in NAHU, I can bring facts and details into the conversation, which are helpful to broaden their perspective. Many people don’t understand the `why’ behind many issues. My goal is to give them details that broaden their understanding. Sometimes, however, you have to agree to disagree. I am married to a Canadian and lived in Ontario for the first 12 years of our marriage, but still worked in Michigan. During those years, I observed a lot of issues with universal health care. People `fall through the cracks’ in Canada for different reasons. I try to bring those experiences into conversations to help people understand that there is no perfect system. There are limitations in the Ontario Health Insurance Plan that most Americans don’t know exist. And clearly, health care is not free in either country.”

Can personal political views cloud good judgment on client recommendations? How can brokers avoid allowing personal biases to interfere with sound business practices?

Kohlsdorf: “Everyone, even those who suggest otherwise, has political views. I would absolutely say personal views, political or not, can cloud good judgment. However, in business, successful people can separate the two. In our industry, successful agents, brokers and consultants spend time understanding their clients’ concerns and need, not assuming what they need. When you understand a client’s concerns, you can work together on solutions and address them from a business perspective rather than a personal political bias. If you can’t separate the two, my guess would be that client will soon become a prospect again.”

Stevenson: “Yes it can! I missed a speaking engagement due to illness and had another broker fill in. Afterwards, I heard from several people who attended and said they felt they were listening to Fox News. My substitute gave her opinions and trashed the ACA. It turned everyone off!”

Stocks: “Yes. I saw this happen many times just after ACA passed. Unfortunately, many brokers expected the law to fail and did not educate themselves regarding the implementation of the law. By standing with complete obstinance against the law, many lost clients. Our clients needed us in the early days to guide them through the rules and regulations of the ACA. Most clients were fearful and confused. I was able to grow my business exponentially from 2011 through 2015 by walking new clients through the ACA rules and regulations. Once we completed that understanding, they were open to working with my agency for their benefits package.”

Wham: “I don’t typically encounter this in the field. The market is far too competitive to ignore the client’s best interests in pursuit of fulfilling one’s own political manifesto. The best consultants are self-aware and focused on client needs. Furthermore, the best consultants tend to have extensive training, supportive management and seek to continually learn about health care advances, which helps reduce the likelihood of irrational passions infiltrating client recommendations. I sincerely believe that the more one learns about their industry, the more dispassionate they become when providing advice.”

Alberts: “It is always important to step away and assess what is best for the client. A truly independent broker will always look for the solution that is best for the client, rather than for themselves.

“In the early days of the ACA, I suggested to several small businesses that they should give up their group plan and allow their employees to go to the marketplace. I am not certified to sell on the marketplace, so I brought in another broker to assist them. There was nothing in it for me, but it was definitely right for the business. In the process, I lost a client but helped uninsured employees get the coverage they needed, some with major subsidies. Ethical agents will always help clients find what’s best for the client and their employees.”

Bremer: “If a broker is putting the needs of the client first, personal bias shouldn’t get in the way. Whenever I make a recommendation to a client, I always take into account the big picture. For example, a very healthy young group may seem like the perfect candidate for self-funding on paper, but not if they pay their bills late and refuse to adhere to basic compliance requirements. Politics are no different. It is important to challenge your clients and help them see the benefits of something that may be outside of their comfort zone so they don’t miss out on an opportunity, but if they ultimately decide they don’t want a particular type of plan for personal or philosophical reasons, that’s OK, too. Right or wrong, people rarely depend solely on cost and logic for health plan decisions.”

What advice would you give to other brokers for the upcoming election year?

Stevenson: “We get so much misinformation close to election time. I sometimes joke about it with clients. I even had a top-10 list of ridiculous claims. I’ve received emails that were recycled from eight years ago and they all have the same theme: fear. It’s no different from any other scam. If it starts with `You’re not going to believe this, but….’ then don’t! It’s amazing the amount of trust you can build with a client who knows you don’t fall for everything. They appreciate a skeptic.”

Stocks: “The most important point, I believe, is to remain focused on the job that I, as a broker and consultant, have been hired to do for my client. My opinions regarding health care reform and any other law are my issue. My client needs me to compile an excellent, affordable benefits package to attract and retain employees so the business can grow. “ Alberts: “I always respect the client’s opinion and try to understand what is driving it. As Simon Sinek says: `Find their why!’ Only when I understand where they are coming from can I provide insight and facts that may sway their opinion. But sometimes, you have to respectfully agree to disagree.”

Bremer: “I think the real issue around brokers and politics is that not enough of them are stepping up to educate their legislators about what the real issues are and what will and won’t work in reality. NAHU does a tremendous job on the federal level advocating for employers and individuals to make sure that legislation is drafted in the best way possible so it will ultimately function in reality. The state chapters do the same thing on their level. However, not enough brokers and agents feel the need to get involved and support their industry’s professional association with this important work. We have too few doing the work for so many. Our clients and our peers have too much at stake to let legislators who don’t have the depth of knowledge and experience that we do get it wrong. It is imperative that everyone who can engage does. It is time to get off the sidelines and get to work. Our clients and our country are depending on us.”

Kohlsdorf: “I spend a lot of time at the state capitol talking to legislators on both sides of the aisle about health care issues. Understanding how each comes at an issue is extremely important to understand. This translates outside of the capitol as well. Our industry is a highly regulated and politicized environment. The more we can understand opposing views, the more we can work together on a resolution. The more we understand our clients’ views, the more we can work together on the solution. This starts by listening.”

The bottom line

No one—whether client or broker—can fully separate their political opinions from their professional relationships. Perhaps the best advice is to keep in mind the old adage:

The client may not always be right, but the client is always the client.

“As brokers, we can educate and inform them, and as partners try to guide them to solutions that meet as many of their goals as possible,” Bremer says. “I don’t always agree with their decisions, but ultimately, they are the ones who have to live with them.”