Sales people can sometimes give the impression of thinking only about what is good for them. That, though, is rarely the case in insurance sales, a profession in which expert advice and assistance are offered to clients and their families to help them deal more easily with their anticipated financial needs and also with the unexpected.
The products offered by insurance agents require a very different kind of sales approach, says Eric Wong, branch manager of The Prudential Assurance Co Ltd. "We are not 'selling' ordinary goods or services, but providing something necessary for the betterment of our clients."
The general mindset should be to think about the needs of others. "Insurance agents should always be helpful," says Mr Wong. "The most important thing is not whether you close a deal, but whether you help your client." He emphasises that any business relationship should, preferably, be built on trust and friendship.
Insurance agents should listen, focus on actual needs and make proposals that best satisfy individual clients' specific requirements. Ironically, the way to be successful is not to act like the pushy, product-oriented sales person.
Although results matter, Mr Wong thinks that insurance agents should set themselves achievable targets. They should realise they will regularly face obstacles and should not be discouraged if they are turned down by prospective clients. "It is always a matter of timing. Customers may get back to us and buy insurance later. We have to think positively and act sincerely, professionally and with persistence," he says.
As a Christian, Mr Wong believes in "HOPE". It reflects his positive outlook and is also an acronym for "Help, Opportunity, Prayer and Enthusiasm". "The mission of insurance agents is to help people," he explains. "I find opportunities everywhere, I often pray to God, and have enthusiasm for my work."
In general, the sales profession has no strict qualification requirements for entry. Successful insurance agents can start out as Form 5 graduates or with a Master's degree or doctorate. Mr Wong thinks a university degree helps, since good language and communication skills develop through study.
Nevertheless, the right attitude is essential. "You need to be hardworking and willing to learn," he says. "A supervisor acts as mentor so a new joiner can pick up the work step by step." Newcomers are expected to be disciplined, diligent and keen.
According to Mr Wong, there is no fixed formula for success. The common factors, however, are commitment, determination to progress and the ability to learn from experience
As the insurance business keeps growing, agents must continuously upgrade their skills in order to keep pace with market changes and meet industry requirements. The CFPCM (Certified Financial PlannerCM) qualification has become a standard but insurance agents should further strengthen their financial planning knowledge, says Mr Wong. They need to learn about new products and improve their skills for selling, presentation and communication, self-motivation and team-building.
There are many ways to learn. Insurance companies will offer training about new products for their agents and various courses organised by the Life Underwriters Association of Hong Kong and the General Agents and Managers Association of Hong Kong are available.
As their career progresses, insurance agents can opt either for continuing in sales or for management. The choice involves continuing to expand a productive client base or moving along another path to develop a team of agents. The latter route will be more challenging but provide greater satisfaction
"It requires more skills to look after a team of colleagues," says Mr Wong. "It is not just about training, but also support and caring. As a manager, you are responsible for the discipline and counselling of your team."
Mr Wong thinks that the end results from a team project bring far more satisfaction and can never be achieved by a single person, no matter how brilliant they are. Age is also a factor that has made him choose management. "One day you will need to move on from the front line and to pass on your experience and knowledge to the next generation," he explains.
The path of agent and manager are both rewarding. As Mr Wong notes, "Your income is in direct proportion to your efforts. As an agent, you are your own boss so the harder you work, the more you earn. As a manager, you can earn an additional bonus depending on the performance of your team."
Compared with sales people in other industries, those in insurance generally have a higher and more stable income. Mr Wong, who previously worked in the travel and container transportation sectors, personally achieved the distinction of Million Dollar Round Table (MDRT) membership in 2001, after having been in the industry for two years and by achieving the premium requirement of over HK$600,000. MDRT membership is recognised internationally as the standard of sales excellence in the life insurance and financial services business. There is a premium requirement of HK$860,200 for membership in 2004.