The insurance business has drastically changed in Hong Kong. Thirty-seven years ago, when Wong Wai Hing, now executive district director of American International Assurance Company (Bermuda) Limited (AIA), tried to sell one of his very first life insurance policies to a potential customer, his client's mother used a slipper to beat a paper doll, which she pretended was Mr Wong. The Chinese traditional ritual was performed to drive away evils, commonly known as "beating little people". "You devil, you want my son die," the mother chanted, using a broom to "sweep" Mr Wong out of her premises.
No one had faith in insurance in those days, but Mr Wong strongly believed that the business offered genuine protection. Despite his initial setbacks, he continued to pursue his belief. Today, he has nearly 4,000 clients and 2,000 sales executives working under him. In 2001, he was named by Chinese government publication Zhong Yang Wen Xian as the most outstanding Chinese talent in insurance.
His secrets of success lie in two factors - sincerity and hard work. But the best sales technique, he stresses, is to possess good interpersonal skills. "When you approach a potential client, a stranger, you have to find out his needs first," he explains. "If you are able to cater to this, you have a high chance of success. Once the person has become your client, you should treat him as your valued customer and build up mutual trust. In fact, most of my new customers come as a result of good words spread by old clients."
Mr Wong recalls a trip to Hawaii during his heyday as a sales representative. While tour members were busy sightseeing, he spent the time shopping for souvenirs for clients. "I care for each and every one of them. I treat them as relatives. Through such [behaviour], I hope to express my sincerity to them."
The last 35 of Mr Wong's 37 years at AIA have been in a managerial role, training and recruiting sales executives. He notes that successful candidates are not necessarily the best-educated but certainly the most diligent, although the mentality of university graduates is generally more mature than that of non-degree-holders. However, he points out: "There are fresh graduates who believe they are superior. They don't think of what they can offer, but often ask me if a sales job is difficult. I tell them that, in this world, there is no free lunch."
Despite the high turnover in the industry, Mr Wong says wastage at 8,000-strong AIA is relatively low. Indeed, 1,800 staff have worked at the company for more than 10 years. Thanks to its sound system, good benefits and high morale, he believes they enjoy working there. In his opinion, another "weapon" that retains them is that their insurance products appeal to clients.
Sales agents enrolled by Mr Wong have to undergo "personality reform" before being sent to formal training sessions. This educates them to be punctual, trustworthy and responsible - and particularly to avoid being misleading when explaining policies to clients. They also have to take every step of a policy seriously.
Successful sales executives are normally promoted to managers and, eventually, directors, who train newcomers. Mr Wong says that managers have to be good models when developing junior salesmen - respecting seniors and caring for juniors.
He regrets that many managerial-level executives are self-centred and only work for their own benefit. "I have seen newly-promoted managers who are given their [own] office putting their feet on the desk, feeling superior," he says. "But they do not realise that it is just the beginning of another stage of their career. I am successful because I treat my staff as my children. Newcomers are like a sheet of white paper; they need guidance."
With this in mind, AIA's American International Assurance Insurance Professional Institute runs four state-of-the-art training centres in North Point, Causeway Bay, Tsim Sha Tsui and Shatin and a Career Centre for its agencies. It offers training programmes for sales agents to help them obtain working licences. Further courses provide product and fund knowledge, needs identification and analysis and selling skills and build successful habits for licensed agents. Since 2002, AIA has also initiated a new programme for financial planners.
Mr Wong says only 73.3 percent of the total population has bought life insurance, so a demand remains for the service. He points out that social progress has also produced many professionals requiring financial advisers to look after their accumulated wealth. Accordingly, more university graduates are needed to design investment and saving plans for them.
Comparing the mainland Chinese market and the local insurance market is like contrasting a big sea with a fish pond, in his opinion. "The industry's future business will focus on the mainland, which has its own market and culture. In order to enter its market, Hong Kong insurance agents should [equip] themselves to remain competitive," he advises.