The agency force continues to be the core distribution channel for life insurance companies. To remain so, the mission is clear: Move beyond insurance expertise and become a tech-enabled adviser.
“Long gone are the days when agents could just simply sell products as they did when I started my career as an agent with Manulife 30 years ago. More and more customers nowadays look for a trusted adviser who can understand their financial needs and help them and their families throughout their different life stages by offering personalised solutions,” said Mr Patrick Cheng, Senior District Director, Manulife Agency Hong Kong.
“In the past we might only talk about product. But that has changed. Today, I can say that we are ‘life event planners’. It’s no longer a product conversation but rather a service-based approach. If we build real relationships with clients, they will even call us to talk about their happiness and sadness,” said Ms Red Wong, District Director, AIA Hong Kong.
Even as today’s customers are spoilt for choice when it comes to financial products and distribution channels, Mr Nigel Eng, Manager, Financial Services, Great Eastern Financial Advisers, said: “Some financial products in the market are relatively complex, and an experienced financial adviser can provide the much needed value-added and professional advice to customers to help make a sound decision based on their needs.”
Mr David Grant, Acting Chief Distribution Officer, Manulife Asia, shared the same point: “Financial products including insurance are often complicated to understand and there’s so much information available online making it hard to choose. Many customers will therefore opt for an expert to help them choose the best solutions that suit their circumstances. This is why developing a leading agency force and having advisers who provide solutions rather than push products is a key focus for Manulife in Asia.”
Alternative channels help boost the market
While there is increased competition from alternative channels, healthy competition should be viewed positively.
Mr A Palanisamy, President, Life Underwriters Guild of India (LUGI), said the emergence of alternative channels in the industry helps the growth of the industry as “each functions as different verticals in the industry with the respective insurers”.
Sharing the experience of India, he said that prior to the entrance of private insurers in 2001, Life Insurance Corporation of India, as a public sector company, was the only life insurer in the market. But over the last 15 years, as competition grew, so did the market. “New entrants brought into the market concepts of different channels as they seek growth. As technology grows, the market opens up new areas of business, at convenience!”
And despite the advent of multi-channel distribution, there will always be a huge demand in the insurance industry for customer-focused advisers, said Mr Patrick Cheng.
Higher quality of service demanded
While the dominance of agency force is clear, consumers are increasingly looking for agents who are more than just financial planning experts.
As Mr Grant said: “We’re seeing a big change in the insurance industry as customers are demanding more holistic financial solutions and also a higher quality of service. Traditionally the industry has been product focused and offered poor service, often requiring customers to follow complex form filling procedures. It’s therefore vital that for advisers to succeed, they need to be able to provide customised financial plans in a simple way.”
“They need to be able to build and nurture strong long-lasting customer relationships, as well as demonstrate in-depth knowledge of savings, health, protection and wealth and retirement solutions. They’ll also need strong financial planning skills and the ability to explain clearly how and why solutions are best suited to customers’ needs,” he added.
Mr Joe Cheng, CEO, Group Agency Distribution, AIA Group, said: “Consumers are changing the way they research and shop, even for insurance and financial products. We see our clients increasing in sophistication. They are better informed, and respond to quality advice rather than sales pitches.”
He highlighted increased overall financial awareness, strong emergence of middle class and rising household income in Asia as the important trends that raise the bar for providing financial advice to customers. “When people have their shelter and their wealth, they then think about protection. Nowadays they can get all the information about insurance from the internet. They have all the knowledge and sometimes they even know more than the financial advisers do.”
AIA Group’s priority is to ensure that its agency force has the skills and knowledge to provide sound, professional advice to the customers, he said. “The most important foundation is professional and high quality training.”
Technology is critical
Another critical skill that an agent needs to be successful in moving forward is to be tech-savvy. In what is clearly a key trend, all respondents highlighted the need to keep up with technology, including social media, in line with changing consumers’ demands.
Mr Lars Heibutzki, Chief Distribution Officer, Asia Pacific, Allianz, said digitalisation is a key trend that will really shape the industry. “Customers increasingly move their purchases online, or incorporate digital platforms when making buying decisions. We see this as a great opportunity to engage our customers in a more powerful way, and we embrace technology and digitalisation as an enabler of our sales force.”
Mr Ong Pin Hean, Chief Sales Officer, Allianz Life Insurance Malaysia, added: “Digitalisation is happening all around us and we increasingly see consumers using digital platforms in researching or buying policies. Our agents must be aligned with these changing buying behaviours.”
Mr Ben Tan, Chief Distribution Officer, Great Eastern Life Singapore, said: “The digital era and digital innovation have transformed the way we do business. For insurance agents to remain relevant and to succeed in this new era, they need to fully embrace technology. Trusted professional financial advice will always be valued but they need to move with the times and leverage digital tools to provide a more seamless customer experience and work more efficiently and productively.”
Mr Patrick Cheng said: “We need to be able to connect with customers on social media and through e-marketing, and we need to digitalise the whole process of buying insurance from start to finish, making it an end-to-end paperless process for the customer.”
Here are some of the insurers’ initiatives to provide the digital platform for agents to succeed.
Mr Joe Cheng said: “The development of FinTech in insurance has been a great enabler for our agents. iMO, our digital platform, helps our agents conduct comprehensive fact-finding to assess a client’s financial needs, provide the right solutions and process the policies all in one go. At the same time, the platform allows our agents to manage their entire business on iPad, and serve their customers anytime, anywhere. iMO is designed to improve the way our agency leaders and individual agents plan their businesses, manage their daily sales activities, train and recruit.”
“FinTech is not only appealing to customers but also young talent. It has helped recruit the young professional as it digitally connects talent,” he added.”
For Allianz, Mr Heibutzki said: “We are moving strategically towards a new ‘Digital Agency’ model in Asia Pacific, where we focus on empowering our sales force with the right skills and tools to advise and engage customers. Part of this new agency proposition also includes raising the bar on the professionalism and competency of our advisers, and our new regional training academy Allianz Masters does just that, with its multimedia and social learning tools.”
Mr Tan said: “We have also significantly enhanced our data analytics capabilities to draw greater insights to better understand the needs and preferences of our customers. Armed with such valuable insights, our agency force is better-placed to offer the right products to our customers at the most appropriate time, and to consistently deliver quality service.”
Associations stepping up
Associations are also enhancing their efforts in supporting the industry and agents. Singapore-based Mr Nigel Eng said: “Associations like the Life Insurance Association of Singapore (LIA) has done much to promote the importance of the need to be adequately insured to the community. It has also worked with the media and authorities to educate the community on key plans such as MediShield Life and Integrated Shield Plans. This has proved useful and such open communication should continue.”
As for the common bugbear that the insurance industry often fares poorly in consumer surveys when it comes to trust, Mr Roland Yeo, President, Insurance and Financial Practitioners Association of Singapore (IFPAS), said that while consumer surveys can help shed some light on the public perception of the insurance industry, the results “are often tainted by unmatched ethical standards of the consumers and that of financial advisers”.
“Nonetheless, IFPAS recognises the importance of helping financial advisers improve their competence level in order that they may serve as trusted financial advisers for clients, rather than the old stereotypical insurance agents. We need to help financial advisers keep abreast with current trends and leading edge knowledge to boost the confidence to a whole new level. By doing so, we would move more financial advisers to the top tier to service more niche market needs such as trusts and estate planning, like that of a specialist in the medical profession,” he said.
Mr A Palanisamy concurred. “This is not the case for all.” The best way to destroy this perception is for agents to be professional and customer-centric as they go out in the market daily representing the industry on a one-to-one basis.
In addition, with the right outreach and strategy, this low perception of the industry can be turned around. “A positive image for the insurance industry can be achieved: Show you are effective; member involvement to bring positive change; explain what others can’t; and to be knowledgeable. Such thoughts and discussions in LUGI help our members to face the situation head-on,” he said.
The demands on agents are greater than ever. But it is clear that for those who adapt to the changing environment, the help and platforms put in place by associations and companies can help agents to continue to be successful and to be the primary channel of distribution.