In 2011, after 20 years in corporate insurance selling retirement plans and running internal sales and service teams, Manalapan native David Trapani fulfilled his dream of owning a business by purchasing AGT & Associates, an authorized Sandler training center in Monmouth Junction.

Trapani’s father, who owned an insurance agency, modeled two important benefits of business ownership for his son. First, Trapani says, is being able to run his own shop, and the other is the flexibility to “never miss kid stuff and never miss vacations.” His parents, he recalls, never missed one of his soccer games.

The training business also allows the South Brunswick resident to share what he has learned about managing teams and working with clients — some of it counterintuitive. On Friday, November 3, from 7:30 to 9:45 a.m., he will lead an interactive workshop on building strong customer service and long-term client retention for the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce at the Nassau Club of Princeton, 6 Mercer Street. Cost: $35. To register, go to www.princetonchamber.org.

Trapani shares what he has learned about interacting successfully with clients:

Understand how to respond appropriately to clients and why people often don’t. Over our lives, Trapani says, we have been conditioned to respond immediately to the requests of parents and teachers, and we respond in the same way to clients. If a client says jump, we ask, “How high?” But that might not be the right question.

When, for example, a customer asks for a particular report, the automatic response is “No problem, let me get that to you.” The result, in some cases, is having clients come back a week or two later, and say, “Remember that report you did two weeks ago; I need you to rerun it.” They realize they wanted different information—and that means extra work for the service people.

“It comes back to communication,” Trapani says. “Either the report is not what they wanted or they didn’t ask for the right thing.”

Often service people do not ask the right questions, perhaps because they are worried about seeming intrusive or as not wanting to help the customer. What they should be finding when a client requests a report is why they need it, when they need it by, and what they want to do with it.

Asking the right questions can change a relationship, Trapani says. “The customer needs somebody to guide them.” When his training clients start to ask these questions, “they start delivering exactly what the client was looking for, what the client needs, and everybody is happy,” he says. “There is not duplication; and there is not data or information that comes over that somebody can’t figure out what was in front of them.”

Build contracts up front that set guidelines on continuing interaction with customers. “Many organizations don’t have a way to stay in front of their client proactively; they wait for somebody from client side to give them a call and say, ‘I need your help,’” Trapani says.

Clients, he says, have certain reasons in mind for making a particular purchase, and it is important for the seller to check in to make sure that all those reasons have been successfully addressed. That requires building a proactive reach-out into the calendar at regular intervals.

Suppose customers have been promised on-time delivery. The first time something is late, they usually don’t call, but after it has happened three or four times they do call and they are already angry. But if you meet every 45 days, and your first question is “How is our on-time delivery?” then you are giving them a forum to tell you what you’ve done wrong during that time window, Trapani says.

Trapani graduated from William Paterson University in Wayne with a degree in finance, then spent two years selling investments for Prudential in Toms River. He then moved to Copeland in East Brunswick, where he worked primarily with healthcare institutions, helping them develop employee retirement plans.

“I loved working in the retirement business because, from a selling perspective, I was in an area where I could help people and make money at the same time,” he says, noting that his commission was a percentage of the client’s total investment. As his clients made more money and put more into retirement savings, which are not taxed until retirement, he explains, “they had a better chance to retire securely.”

Because Trapani did so well in the field — he was in the top 20 percent in sales — Copeland brought him into the home office to run internal sales teams dealing with clients over the phone, which he did for four years.

Then Trapani returned to Prudential for 11 more years to run four different process-driven teams on the retirement side of the business: one team would go on site to businesses and work with employees to help them build retirement plans and make sure they were saving money for retirement (one client was the state of New Jersey); one delivered proposals and tools to employers to help with employee communication; a third did employer fulfillment, sending out materials like enrollment kits, packages, and forms that employers used to support their employees; and a fourth supported the internal sales teams as they went out to try to win new business and dislodge competitors.

The reason Trapani switched from the corporate world to training was his realization that “what I was really good at was getting people to perform at high levels.” So buying a training business made a lot of sense as a way to share what he had learned with others. And the business has done well, doubling in its first three years, then growing last year by 41 percent, and this year he expects 10 to 20 percent growth. So far the business includes Trapani, one employee, and a couple of consultants, but he hopes to bring on at least one more salesperson.

Trapani succeeded as a manager, he suggests, by taking care of his employees. What he learned was that if you offer good compensation plans, train people well, measure their performance and meet with them to discuss their performance, they will achieve more than they expect. Most critical, he says, is setting clear expectations and physically meeting with people on a regular basis. “Meeting every week is critical to successful employees,” he says.

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