Justine K. Bell is an insurance agent with Cedar River Insurance Agency in Okemos where she uses her knowledge and experience to help clients understand the things that can seem incomprehensible for people outside the industry. She sat down with us to share her perspectives about her work – what challenges her about it and the meaning she finds in it.
How long have you been doing what you do and what got you interested in insurance sales?
I started working in the insurance field in January of 2016. After college, I became a professional animal-shelter employee in Richmond, Indiana, where my husband, Nate, and I lived. There wasn’t a lot to do there, so he and I spent a lot of time saving animals. When we moved to Michigan, I adjudicated grants for Capital Area Humane Society, but when our son, Harrison, was born, I like to say that I had to find my “big girl job.” Working in insurance gives me that same feeling of helping people while affording day care and the other expenses that come with adulting.
By the way, it’s interesting that you used the word “sales” in your question, because that’s something I struggle with. When I started in the insurance industry, I had a bit of an identity crisis, fearing I’d be perceived as the negative stereotype some people associate with sales. I worried that I might lose some credibility. I’m more motivated by the education part of an appointment and am happier when a client walks out of my office understanding why they did or didn’t take the policies I had to offer.
I made a promise when I started this that I would do the right thing for the client every time. I have enrolled clients in policies that I am unable to get paid on because it was the correct thing for them. It’s not my preference, of course, not to be compensated, and most of the time we have the companies and policies our clients need. But I always operate client-first, self-second. Partially because of this, I think I have the best clients because people know when you’re trying to do right by them and can become even more amazing to work with because of that.
What special niche offerings can you bring to the table?
I have all four insurance licenses – health, life, property and casualty – so I can do just about anything, which is great for my clients. While I do mostly health care now, people who like working with me and Cedar River can bring all their insurance together so they only need to call one place to get answers. But I think one of the best things about working with me is that I am both curious and persistent. If I don’t know the answer to something, it becomes a mystery and I want to know the answer. The same goes for claims; if you have something that doesn’t make sense, I need to get to the bottom of it and make sure that it makes sense.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part is that I get to help people when they are feeling the most vulnerable. Health care can be scary for people, both because it’s confusing and because it’s such a large part of their budget. Health care is, on average, the third highest cost a family has. And in a lot of cases you can only change your health insurance plan once a year, so there is a lot of pressure to get it right. In an appointment, we talk about a lot of things. First, what plans are available to you? Are there any doctors or prescriptions that need to be covered by the plan that you choose? How do you use health care throughout the year? What is your risk tolerance versus budget? Each appointment is like a puzzle, where I have to fit the pieces together to make the perfect health care situation. Then we get all the applications filled out and the client is on their way. I’m proudest when they look up, surprised, and ask, “Wait, is that all?” It’s because they expected it to be difficult and complicated but found it to be pleasant and understandable instead.
Is there a particular situation of which you’re proudest?
Almost all of my appointments make me happy because most people come to me stressed, and I love having the opportunity to calm their nerves, organize their thinking into specific needs and help them translate that into a plan. The clients who stand out the most are a family I started working with last year when they lost coverage unexpectedly. They needed help finding a new plan because the husband was on a medication costing over $5,000 per month. When you need a medication that is that expensive, you often base the insurance company plan around it, so we did a lot of research to make sure we had a full understanding of how that was going to work. We got them placed in a plan and spent months following up on appointments and medications to make sure everything got paid correctly. We talked so often that we started joking that we were becoming best friends. That connection was something I was grateful for later that year when the husband was diagnosed with a rare and serious form of cancer, and I was one of their first phone calls. Again, we spent time working with the plan to make sure treatments and hospitals were covered. Now they’re thinking about moving out of state to continue treatment there, and I’m helping them find a local agent who can be a resource to them throughout the treatment process. Even though I think this is the best decision for them, I was telling them the other day that I’m going to miss them. I have so much enjoyed feeling like a part of their team in trying to tackle this cancer.
What makes you different?
If you sit in on an insurance conference, the first thing you’ll notice is that there aren’t that many women. The second is that there aren’t a lot of younger people there. I think that my gender and age benefit me most of the time. Often, the person coming forward to get health care for a family is the wife, and since I’m the person who makes the insurance decisions for my husband and son, I know how that feels. It’s a lot of pressure. And many people consider women more empathetic, so I think it helps me connect with my clients. Talking about your health can be a very personal thing, and you want to work with someone you trust and feel comfortable sharing with. I also think that coming into the health insurance space after the Affordable Care Act is an asset for me. Everyone feels pretty strongly about it, but love or hate the ACA, it’s the law of the land at the moment. I’m very comfortable with the technology involved and how the plans work because, for me, it’s always been this way. Because I have that comfort level, I’m more relaxed and can focus more energy on helping my clients relax, too. I think some of my clients come into my office each year just so they don’t have to fill out the application at home – I’m a much faster typist!
What advice would you give someone who was stressed out about health insurance?
The long-term stress of not moving forward or asking for help is much worse than the short-term stress of doing something about it. Health care can be scary. But moving forward and finding someone to help you can make all the difference.