For almost 18 years, Paul Fiore has distinguished himself as one of the reverse mortgages industry’s top sales executives. He got his start with Long Island-based Senior Lending Network/World Alliance Financial and was part of the team that devised the hugely successful commercials featuring veteran actor Robert Wagner.
In 2009, he joined American Advisors Group and helped transform the Orange County-based corporation into the largest retail originator in the industry thanks largely to AAG’s commercials featuring the late Fred Thompson and his successor Tom Selleck. Today, he oversees more than 300 staff who originate loans out in the field and in the three regional call centers.
Reverse Mortgage magazine sat down with Fiori to learn how the past year has impacted his sales approach and to learn more about what it takes to be successful at originating reverse mortgages.
Reverse Mortgage: What has the past year taught you in terms of how reverse mortgages should be presented and sold?
Paul Fiore: A consistent and repeatable sales process is key to successfully selling reverse mortgages. When you get put into a remote work environment, there’s a risk that salespeople will operate independently and do things that are not consistent with what you teach. We doubled down on sales trainers. They listened to loan originators’ phone calls. They provided one-on-one coaching. The sales process is very much a consultative approach that allows you to understand whether you’re dealing with a needs-based or wants-based consumer. That has been the number one thing that I noticed over this past year, which has led to record levels of performance. Even new people, who have come into the organization during COVID are producing levels on an individual basis like I’ve never seen. The common thread is a consistent sales process and obviously phenomenal listening skills, those are extremely important.
RM: What were the Top 5 reasons homeowners sought a reverse mortgage from AAG in 2021?
PF: This may be a COVID mindset, but we’ve seen more people establishing a line of credit as part of their retirement plan or ‘rainy day’ fund. People are still using reverse mortgages for home modifications and improvements. It has leveled off a little bit, but we had a good number of people early in the year refinancing when rates were really low and they wanted to take advantage of home appreciation. We still see people who are paying down high-interest credit card debt, or getting rid of their mortgage payment. Because COVID hit the senior demographic so hard, it made people reassess where they were financially. COVID became a real-life example of, when you’re dealing with something unexpected, how prepared are you? I think the reverse mortgage, as a tool to help people be prepared, has become more of an actual solution than prior to COVID.
RM: Like many lenders, AAG has educated financial planners, CPAs and others that home equity should be viewed more strategically in retirement plans. What impact have these efforts had on AAG’s business and client base?
PF: I’ve talked to my own friends who are financial planners and many of them don’t have the tools to analyze a reverse mortgage as part of a retirement strategy. They often refer people over to a reverse mortgage company, so we can see where it fits. On our field sales side, which Jesse Allen oversees, we are seeing more affluent consumers coming through that channel. On the call center side, I am now seeing nearly a 50/50 split of ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’ borrowers with most of the latter tending to be more affluent homeowners who want to use a reverse mortgage in a strategic way as part of a way to add to their asset pool.
RM: Has the average age of your clients dipped any?
PF: We’re still right around 71 or 72, but when I entered the business, it was more like 79. Over the last ten years, it has steadily come down. These are interesting times. FHA loan limits continue to grow. There are more proprietary products in the marketplace, many of them are featuring lower age restrictions below 62. These factors are all driving younger homeowners to seek a reverse mortgage. This is all good. A lot more people turning 62 want to be unburdened by massive financial responsibility and the more tools that are available to help them achieve those goals is a plus.
RM: If you look at AAG’s top-producing originators, what common qualities do they have?
PF: Your top producers are super consistent, they’re dedicated to what they’re doing, they can tune out outside distractions and they have a tunnel-vision mindset. Working from home amplifies it even more. Our top producers have improved, because they’re at home in front of their computer, there are no outside distractions and they are laser-focused. I would add that these people have such a passion for helping the customer. It comes through in their conversations. They’re listening intently. They treat every single customer as a unique situation. They could have funded hundreds of reverse mortgages, but that next phone call they take is treated like the most important call they’ve ever taken. When you’re that intentional and focused on the person you’re talking to and you treat them with the respect that they’ve earned and deserved, those conversations stand out for me. Yes, they work harder than most, but when you listen to their phone calls, they’re textbook. They do a ton of listening and they’re really passionate about what they do. They love their job.
RM: Some people are concerned about the high level of refinancing activity going on, that businesses should be doing more to attract new clients to improve market penetration. What are your thoughts?
PF: I think it’s a fair concern to a certain degree. As an industry, if we aren’t innovative in our marketing, if we don’t try new things and take chances in our advertising, whether it’s mailers or television or web-based, you’re not fully reaching out to the consumers who could benefit from a reverse mortgage. There’s a normal ebb and flow to refinance activity, just like on the traditional mortgage side. When rates are low consumers benefit from refinancing. At AAG, we’re constantly thinking about how we can broaden the message to break through to people who may have preconceived notions about what a reverse mortgage is and what it can be. We want to speak to those customers. All of us benefit by growing the pie, otherwise the industry stays extremely niche. We need a provocative message in trying to reach a broader audience. That’s an extremely important part of growing this industry.
RM: AAG relies heavily on its call centers to qualify and educate prospective borrowers. In today’s digital age, and increasingly tech-savvy Baby Boomer population, are phone sales becoming obsolete? Are you relying more heavily on other technologies to bring your sales force into “virtual” contact with borrowers?
PF: It is inevitable that this industry will continue to evolve and that consumers will continue to migrate towards online opportunities and technology. When I first got to AAG, 100 percent of our leads were driven through TV. Now it’s 20 to 25 percent of our overall marketing strategy, because consumers are using all different types of media. I don’t think that changes the actual contact with the consumer. Now you can supplement and enhance your ability to communicate with customers. We see it with Zoom, which allows for face-to-face interactions and is actually an enhancement we didn’t have before. Consumers are good with doing the Zoom conversation. If you look at telecommunications and companies, like Verizon, you go onto their website and a chat feature pops up immediately and they start communicating with you. With a reverse mortgage, you could have some version of a chat feature or chat function that ultimately leads to a conversation. I view technology as an enhancement opportunity and not a replacement of actual phone conversations or face-to-face conversations.
RM: Are there things you’ve learned about Zoom that you know you’re teaching your salesforce?
PF: It can be challenging. You’re trying to make eye contact. You look in the camera, you look at someone’s face on the screen. You also have to think about the appropriate time to have conversations, because it’s not every day that you can just say ‘hey, would you like to do a Zoom conversation or a Zoom meeting,’ but you’ve been on the phone for only five minutes. There’s a right time and a wrong time to introduce those opportunities. Advanced sales training goes beyond just having really great phone skills. It is definitely evolving and, by the way, that also goes with your follow-up skills and making sure the conversations are intelligent and you’re not repeating yourself. When I think about the evolution of the sales process, prior to financial assessment, we used a financial worksheet that was a great tool for helping somebody understand where their financial situation was but, more importantly, what their financial situation would look like with a reverse mortgage. Then financial assessment came into play which has been great for the industry, because it creates a much more consultative sale. But, you have to make sure that you’re not just going down line by line and qualifying somebody just for the sake of qualifying them. Utilize every aspect of that financial assessment as part of the broader conversation to understand how somebody is living and trying to visualize what that situation looks like as opposed to just doing your diligence to try to see if somebody qualifies. Whether you’re having that conversation on the phone, face-to-face or via Zoom those interactions are some of the most important parts of successful sales with a reverse mortgage these days.
RM: What are your business goals for 2022?
PF: We’ve had a pretty good run as far as what we’ve been able to build, but when we take a step back there’s still so much more than we can do. We talked about it earlier, the idea that we want to grow the pie and reach customers who maybe haven’t previously thought of reverse mortgages but would benefit from them. That’s a big part of our strategy right now is the concept of know your customer. We’re going to align very closely with the marketing team, so that we can better understand people who choose not to transact and why. What is it in our messaging that we can evolve and change? The other big piece right now for us is the digital experience. If you look at the forward mortgage side, they’ve got a lot of tools whereas reverses have tended to be a little bit behind the times. A lot of it is driven by our preconceived notions about how seniors want to interact. But seniors are getting younger, they’re more educated than they’ve ever been, and a lot of them actually appreciate a digital experience and would prefer it in a lot of ways and have maybe fewer conversations on the phone or fewer conversations face-to-face. We’re working a lot on the digital experience. The customer experience is something we should never lose sight of. I want us to provide the best possible customer experience that we can. Sometimes these loans aren’t easy. But how do we make it as easy as possible? How do we make the touch points less painful for consumers in general? How do we streamline our processes and make them as efficient as we can? You see that in a lot of financial service products that are out there in the market. I’ve got many ideas of what we can do with our industry and with our company that could make things a little bit more simplified for consumers.