Some three years ago, en route to an exhibition in France, company secretary turned international exhibitor Michelle Lau met up with a friend in the UK. That particular meeting marked a turning point in her life, without which her latest career move would not have been possible.
"We were just catching up chatting when my friend briefed me on the financial planning industry and it struck a chord," recalls Ms Lau, now a risk & financial chief advisor of Zurich Advice at Zurich Insurance Group (Hong Kong).
Upon her return to Hong Kong Ms Lau subsequently sought advice on asset management from another friend who happened to be a Zurich advisor. "And I became a client," she says.
Joining Zurich was not by chance, Ms Lau emphasises. "I was a rookie in the knowledge that such a career shift would require a solid career platform, involving comprehensive training plus a great deal of support," she discloses. "I did my research, attended several recruitment seminars and compared Zurich with other companies. Then the choice became obvious."
A clear career path was practically laid out in front of her during the recruitment seminar. Once on board, she underwent three months of training and was assigned a dedicated mentor who guided her through her initial days with the company, helping her achieve her goals. Ms Lau says that since the establishment of the Zurich Academy in October 2006, new recruits without experience go through a "new advisor development course" while an "advanced new advisor development course" is in place for experienced ones. Field training is also designed to facilitate knowledge transfer from senior managers. "People with a few years of work experience have the advantage because they have a certain level of exposure. However, with hard work and determination, fresh graduates can do just as well," she notes.
"Honour business ethics and maintain a professional image"
An advisor works towards the company's key performance indicators, aiming primarily at building long-term relationships with clients. "Two initial appointments are made with each client," Ms Lau explains. "During the first we get to know the client and gather sufficient information including financial objectives and risk tolerance. The next appointment focuses on formulating and explaining financial planning solutions."
Ms Lau gains tremendous satisfaction in her advisory role by meeting and learning from clients from all walks of life. She notes that even today, maintaining a wide personal network remains a challenge requiring exceptional organisation and time management skills. "Scheduling after-hours meetings inevitably stretches your working hours so you must really enjoy what you do," she explains.
Moving on up
"I've always been at the forefront of our business but during the next three years I'll be focusing on staff management, in particular, ensuring advisors receive sufficient training to meet their performance needs," she states, adding that this vertical move was planned some 18 months ago, demonstrating the company's commitment to helping staff build long-term careers. "I believe I've achieved a lot on the frontline and it's now time I contributed to the future success of the company by nurturing new blood."
Building people competence gives Ms Lau a great sense of achievement. "My core duties are to help members of my team stay focused and make sure they're on the right track," she affirms.
She agrees that technical skills such as sales techniques can be built and polished but no one can fake a customer service mindset. "In our profession, integrity is key," she remarks. "We must honour business ethics and maintain a professional image, not only because we represent the company but also in respect for the stakeholders involved. No client is obliged to keep their business with you because so many alternative options currently exist. For this particular reason, we must build trust and create win-win situations," she stresses.
Team spirit is of equal significance according to Ms Lau. "You can never be good at everything. To succeed in any profession you must learn to appreciate and leverage others' strengths and experiences," she advises.
Currently studying a CFP programme, Ms Lau, winner of a merit award from the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers Best Financial Planner Award last year, believes that a flying start does not guarantee success. "To achieve career goals, you must follow your aspirations and really work on them wholeheartedly," she remarks.
"Discerning clients expect results from us. Such high expectations ultimately give you a greater sense of responsibility and achievement. Therefore, we must keep abreast of changes in the industry," Ms Lau cautions. As such, Zurich holds a monthly investment briefing for its advisors and a bi-monthly investment seminar for clients in which advisors also participate. Market news is released on a daily basis via the company's website. In Ms Lau's opinion, advisors must work towards personal and professional upgrades. "Thorough knowledge helps us exceed client expectations, making a real difference," she concludes.