Hello, Mr President, have you ever considered death cover?

The Independent, 26/4/1993

Who’d be a life insurance salesman? It’s all cold calling to strangers and the cold shoulder from friends. But Peter Rosengard thinks his time has come.

I must admit, talking about heart attacks, cancer and death all day long can get a little depressing, but that’s what I’ve been doing every day since I became a life insurance salesman in the late Sixties.

The job didn’t feature in my top 1,000 career choices at school. I studied dentistry for a year at university, but resigned because I didn’t like teeth; I thought of gynaecology, but it seemed like one extreme to the other.

In 1969, when I was broke and sleeping on the floor of a Stockholm squat (I had gone there in pursuit of a woman), my grandfather kept writing me letters every week imploring me to come back to London and ‘be an accountant’, or ‘be a solicitor.’ One week he wrote: ‘Come home and be a life insurance salesman.’

It’s funny but over the years I’ve noticed you don’t get many retired millionaires becoming life insurance salesmen. ‘Hell! I’ve made a few million, I think I’ll do something really exciting…sell life insurance a few afternoons a week, for the glamour, the groupies.’

The industry has got an image problem, no question about it. Although you will have received dozens of calls from ‘investment consultants’, ‘financial planners’, ‘estate planners’, ‘debt-rescheduling specialists’ and even people who explain that they ‘sell money’, you will never have actually met one of these people. This is because life insurance salesmen tend not to admit their profession at parties.

I must be a masochist because I’ve always admitted what I do. I love to see the look on people’s faces as they struggle to control their facial muscles. Life insurance salesmen have to learn to live with rejection, just like actors; if you take it personally you’re in big trouble. Over the years I have seen many people come into the industry only to quit within a year because they thought people were rejecting them.

Insurance salesmen spend a lot of their lives worrying. They worry about how to get past the secretary on the phone in order to speak to her boss. “Will he know what it’s about, Mr Rosengard?”

“Not unless he’s psychic,” I say. “Tell him it’s Peter Rosengard. It’s a surprise.”

“Where are you from, please?”

“Well, my grandparents came from Lithuania, but sailing for America they were blown off course and ended up in Glasgow. I was born in Shepherd’s Bush. But enough about me – is Mr Smith there?”

One of the biggest subconscious fears insurance salesmen have is that somebody will be abusive to them on the phone. I must have made hundreds of thousands of calls and this has only happened once. It was a girl I had been at university with 20 years earlier. She hadn’t liked me then, either.

Another problem a salesmen will face in his career is a devastating case of ‘call reluctance’. This is a baffling, insidious disease that defies the best efforts of sales psychologists. The symptoms are as follows: the salesman has a book full of red-hot prospects to call, but he can’t pick up the phone. The receiver weighs a ton and his fingers appear to be paralysed. Even if he finally manages to dial the number, he prays that nobody will answer, After all, he might make a sale.

One of the little stumbling blocks to convincing somebody to buy life insurance and protect his loved ones is the fact that you have to die in order to make a claim (or , as I like to put it, ‘You have to complete your life first”).

Actually, I am usually not a great one for euphemisms. I’ve always been one of the realist, ‘if you’re splattered across the M25’ school. Unquestioningly the greatest marketing genius of all time was the unknown insurance warrior who 200 years ago thought of calling death insurance life insurance. New salesmen are told: ‘If you think it’s tough selling life insurance, try calling up someone and saying “Hello, it’s Joe Shmo for the Acme Death Insurance Company’.

In a single day I can cross the entire social spectrum. In the morning I might be with a stockbroker client over breakfast, then in east London with a Bangladeshi dress manufacturer, on to a GP in King’s Cross, then to a recording studio to see a record producer. In the afternoon a meeting with a taxi driver client might be followed by a visit to Hatton Garden to meet a jeweller, ending up with a drink after work with a painter in his studio. Every day I make sure there’s always at least one appointment in my diary with someone I’m really looking forward to seeing again.

Sometimes I still make cold calls just to get the adrenaline flowing again. A year or two ago I was at a sales convention in the Seychelles. I got bored lying in the pool. All around the hotel were huge photographs of the president, Albert Rene, and I thought to myself this man’s an egomaniac (well it takes one to recognise one). I thought I would sell the president a policy.

I looked his number up in the Seychelles Yellow Pages – it was between plumbers and pretzels. Still in my swimming shorts, I got him on the line. “Mr president,” I began, “recently I’ve been showing a very exciting new idea to many other successful presidents like yourself….”- my usual line. Luckily he didn’t ask “Who?” (Papa Doc? Marcos? Play it safe, stick to the dead ones, I thought). He was a very charming president but I didn’t manage to close the sale because there isn’t a question on the application form that asks: “Has anybody ever tried to assassinate you?”

But at least I tried; he sent me a signed picture of himself. I sent him one of me.

The biggest single change in my trade occurred a few years ago with a new concept – the life policy you don’t have to die to collect on (‘Now you only have to die a little bit’, I tell my clients). Catchily called Dread Diseases Insurance, it not only pays out on your death, but uniquely, you also get the cash if you have a heart attack, cancer, stoke and a few other little things that might stop you running for the bus on the way to work in the morning.

This new type of policy is the answer to a salesman’s dreams. Now when people say to me, “No thanks, I’ve got all the life insurance I need”, or that old favourite, “I’m worth ore dead than alive!”, all I have to say is this: “Let me ask you one question,. If you’d had a heart attack yesterday and survived, how much would your life insurance pay you today?”

The answer is always the same – ‘nothing’ – and a sale is virtually made. So suddenly the unthinkable has happened: for the first time in my career people are actually calling me.

I suppose it’s just something I’m going to have to live with.

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