Big businesses that operate staff insurance schemes as company benefits or as a statutory obligation are the most important revenue streams for the largest and most prestigious insurance institutions.
Highly motivated specialists who can assess the requirements of entire companies with workforces that may run into the thousands are needed to support the sales, requiring a particular skill set and character for anyone proposing to carve out a career in this field.
"Communications and interpersonal skills are the top priority," says Elaine Chan, Deputy General Manager, Employee Benefits & Corporate Sales Department of AXA China Region Insurance Company Ltd. "Knowing client needs is most important; what to give and what to avoid; and if alternatives need to be offered, to avoid harming the AXA brand by raising the wrong expectations. The relationship with clients is built through an ongoing process of meeting client's expectations and helping them achieve business & operational goals. With a certain degree of trust level built, I even call many clients my friends. Each lost sale is still a chance for success later, and always a chance to make friends. Professionalism, of course, is taken for granted."
The relationship with clients is built through an ongoing process of meeting client's expectations and helping them achieve business & operational goals
These priorities define the type of recruit preferred and the kind of in-house training they receive. A university education is desirable, but can easily be overridden by personal qualities or track record. Graduates are favoured as newcomers, but they should be outgoing and articulate, though this can be taught to some degree at least. "We provide basic training, sometimes outsourced, but most training is on-the-job through experience because you have to learn skills like these in real situations," declares Ms Chan. New staff are drilled and given constant feedback on their visits. There are basic courses in public speaking, presentation and interpersonal skills, but the real emphasis is placed on learning through experience.
Life insurance, health insurance and retirement are the three major categories of corporate insurance sales. Out of these, Ms Chan highlights retirement services as the area where she sees the most growth and the most opportunities. "The MPF scheme has been going a couple of years," she explains. "Clients now have had information to evaluate providers and make comparisons." AXA took steps ahead of other providers in responding by instigating a new program to meet the demand.
This new need for retirement services takes place against the background of a softening market. "Corporate clients are looking for efficiency gains and lower costs," she remarks. There is also the challenge and opportunity of client mergers and acquisitions (M&A): "Every M&A brings the risk of losing a client and the possibility to gain one." And despite the weakness in the current market, the requirements of MPF provide a steady level of demand.
AXA divides its corporate sales operations into specialised channels depending on what intermediary if any is used: the agency channel, the broker channel, and the direct channel. Each channel has its own management, with employee benefit consultants or retirement consultants at the junior level. Above the separate channels, sales directors and sales managers coordinate operations.
Compensation in this structure can be very generous. AXA operates a salary-plus-bonus structure. A sales manager may typically be earning HK$40,000 to $80,000 per month inclusive of bonus.
Ms Chan is confident that AXA will be able to build on its track record since the introduction of the MPF scheme to sustain and expand its business, in some cases at the expense of other providers which have been less well able to match demand. "Many clients are now seeking a better, more reliable supplier." AXA will be actively recruiting professionals at all levels of seniority to support this new emphasis.
Ms Chan herself decided to go into sales, because she saw that all the top managers in the company came from sales. "They have to sell the company to the world," she states. But rather than rise through the ranks on the sales side, she began in administration, chiefly in underwriting, preferring to gain a solid background and study the demands of clients before addressing clients directly. Progressively, she moved from administration into corporate sales at management level, rising from underwriter to product manager to sales manager some four or five years ago. She executes sales as often through distribution channels as directly to clients, with many intermediaries, such as insurance brokers and agencies.
Ms Chan sees the soft market continuing for some months yet, with serious consequences for some insurers; especially weaker performers are likely to drop out. Some of these operations may try to sustain their business with cut-throat pricing but will not win in the long run. With its strong global brand, corporate culture and excellent pedigree, she believes AXA can count on the strength of its brand and its people to help it ride out the dips in the cycle and maintain its high standing.