Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Insurance in Transformation

The fundamentals of the insurance business are built on century-old principles, but forward-looking firms with an eye to innovation still have plenty of scope to shake things up and bring positive change.

“We had a unique opportunity to do things a little differently,” says Zhuang Li Hao, group head of agency distribution for FWD Group, which was established in 2013 and has since seen rapid growth in Hong Kong and other Asian markets. “We were not encumbered by legacy issues, so our aim was to put customers right at the centre of things and serve them in ways that people have not traditionally thought about.”

For that, one key priority was to offer easy-to-use insurance products supported by the latest in digital technology. Another was to create an elite agency sales team able to provide a new kind of customer experience and, where necessary, change the way people feel about the world of insurance.

“The vision was to build the most trusted, productive, professional and digitally enabled agency force in the industry,” Zhuang says. “That comes from having what we believe is the best training, a system which gives insights on how to connect with customers plus a platform to reach out on social media and provide an omni-channel experience.”

The main digital tools now available make it easier to conduct a financial needs analysis, check and compare products, keep paperwork to a minimum, and ensure customers are fully in the picture.

There is, though, no thought that such advances might gradually see machines and AI replacing employees. Rather, the company has big plans for recruitment and continues to invest in training and development programmes to open up different career paths and give the range of skills needed to move into senior management roles.

Thanks to a link-up with a US-based provider of online e-coaching courses, agents can now access up to 1,500 “micro” training sessions, which can be accessed via computer, mobile or tablet.

These cover various aspects of sales, client interaction, and managing teams, with programmes structured so a whole office, country or region can focus on the same topic each week.

If, say, the Hong Kong office wants agents to refresh their understanding of how to approach prospective clients, the online course can be supplemented by role-plays and discussions which allow colleagues to share ideas and experiences on how to handle things differently.

“Other than traditional training in sales skills, products, industry standards and compliance requirements, agents need the right mindset to engage clients and create possible referrals,” says Jeff Wong, chief agency officer for FWD Hong Kong and Macau. “They should know how to use a motivation story, perhaps about insurance helping at a time of critical illness. So we teach these skills and closely monitor activities to make sure agents can ‘survive’ in the first 90 days and [keep progressing from there].”

At present, Wong oversees a team of close to 3,000 tied agents, but is looking to add a further 2,000 within the next two years, in part through on-campus recruitment.

In Hong Kong, the company also has around 800 full-time staff in roles ranging from marketing and management to underwriting and business development. Here too numbers are expected to increase in line with overall business expansion.

“Our vision is to be among the top three in the industry,” Wong says. “And we realise that if the quality of leaders is high, that makes it easier to attract other high-quality employees.”

To that end, the company is encouraging the “elite” mentality at all levels, with a view to moving as many people as possible into the group of top producers. Traditionally, insurers tend to classify agents in a pyramid, with 50 to 60 per cent in the lowest tier. FWD, though, sees no reason to accept that norm and, in general, believes that half the battle is won by giving everyone a fair opportunity and finding agents who want to excel.

“We are really investing in every person who comes into the company,” Zhuang says. “Once you have this elite mentality, you start recruiting differently; you look for people who are taking their career seriously. Bankers, lawyers and other professionals have decided to join us and give insurance a try. To attract top talent, we have to offer them a compelling proposition, not just good financial terms because we have a fiduciary duty and take on the responsibility of grooming them [for success].”

With that in mind, the company has also introduced a special programme designed to develop 100 or more senior leaders who can raise standards for the industry. The scheme is run in partnership with INSEAD, the renowned French business school, and under a multi-year agreement 25 of FWD’s top managers are set to take the 12-month course each year.

The basic programme includes three months’ preparatory work and a one-week residential programme in France. There are visits to some of Europe’s leading fintech and insurtech companies, with a nine-month follow-through programme including personal coaching to ensure previously agreed plans — of how to grow their business five times within three years — can be successfully implemented.

“We launched this in April and the first group are now putting what they learned into practice,” Zhuang says. “These 25 can now exchange management ideas on a regional platform. But they are also ambassadors and evangelists to spread the word to the rest of the business.”

He adds that, besides generating new business, the role of more experienced managers is now part teaching, part quality control. They must realise too that the power of technology is in enabling people to perform their jobs more effectively.

“With digital tools and training, we now have a chance to change the industry and make the customer experience better,” Zhuang says. “The appetite for agency growth is enormous, but we have to recruit the right people and can’t compromise on quality.”