Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Before you start thinking of what policy to buy, get a good agent first.

YOU always know you’re dealing with a veteran insurance agent when he responds promptly and politely to your phone message. On top of that, he’s incredibly punctual when it comes to appointments.
Wong, 48, who has been a financial services consultant for 24 years, says: “Insurance is, unfortunately, a career that people look at last. It is something they think about only when times are bad or if they’re opting for a career change.”

Insurance is also a subject people used to broach reluctantly, equating it with accidents, illness and death.

But things have changed a lot in the industry and while agents today continue to sell policies related to the above, they also offer advice on wealth planning, and recommend financial products that best meet a customer’s needs.

Which means that not everyone is qualified to just approach a potential client and start talking about insurance.

An agent must possess at least SPM/MCE qualifications or its equivalent, not be an un-discharged bankrupt, and register with the Life Insurance Association of Malaysia (LIAM).

Raymond Wong says soft skills are important for an insurance agent.

He is required to pass the pre-contract examination for insurance agents (PCEIA) conducted by the Malaysian Insurance Institute (MII). To qualify as a wealth planner, he must pass the certificate examination in investment-linked life insurance (CEILI) conducted by MII and complete a certain number of hours of training.

The training does not stop after he becomes a full-fledged agent: he can obtain relevant licences and undergo programmes on specific products and professional development, to equip himself to serve his customers better.

Wong, from Johor, has an accounting background. But after crunching numbers for awhile, he decided it wasn’t his cup of tea. The pull towards sales was very strong, and he went straight into insurance at 26.

“I joined this industry because it offers personal advancement and I can continuously learn. Sales is not easy and insurance is a product you need to sell, as no one would walk up to you to buy it. Of course, the commission was important, but it came with the challenge of personal growth that I was looking for.”

How does a customer ensure that an agent is accredited to an insurance company, and that he will keep her financial information confidential? And, more importantly, that he has his client’s interests at heart .

To ascertain the legitimacy of an agent, Wong says, call up the insurer he represents to confirm that he is part of the team.

Following the code of ethics and conduct for the Malaysian life insurance industry, all agents are required to disclose the company they represent and the type of financial services they are authorised to sell.

“When looking for an agent, choose someone trustworthy – someone who will not over-promise or under-deliver. This is very important as we’re dealing with contractual agreements,” Wong advises.

“Soft skills are crucial for an agent. It is not enough to be knowledgable about your products; how you communicate with your client can make or break your relationship with her.”

During the initial appointment, a customer can expect the agent to ask how long she has been working, how much insurance coverage she has, and what financial products best suit her needs and budget. Armed with such information, he can then advise her on making informed decisions.

“The industry is moving very fast, with new products being introduced. While a professional agent can continuously keep himself updated, he may not be able to answer all your queries. What is important is that he admits it, and finds out for you,” Wong says.

Over the years he has learnt that agents “need to listen more and let the prospective client talk about what she needs.”

What if one encounters a “forceful” agent?

“You should follow your instincts and not deal with him, as the trust has already been lost.”

Alternatively, the client can ask the insurance company to assign her another agent.

Integrity and product knowledge aside, after-sales service is important, he adds.

An agent needs to keep in touch with his client, several times a year, to review her insurance and financial needs. “People get promoted or start a family and that affects coverage.”

A good agent reminds a client about premium due dates, and ensures her personal details are updated, and that she has nominated a beneficiary for her policy.

In the old days, conventional policies were life insurance and endowments, and insurers would declare dividend or bonus annually. There was also the guaranteed cash value of a policy. But after 1990, Wong says, changes came in and investment-linked insurance products were introduced.

“The risk shifts to the policy-holder. When the market is doing well, the customer will enjoy a higher yield, but when it is down, the returns are lower. The good thing is that there’s a lot of transparency with investment-linked policies.”

According to LIAM, investment-linked plans combine investment and protection, and the client has the option of choosing what suits her.

“Insurance is something you purchase when you don’t need it yet. But when you finally need it, you can’t buy it immediately. So it’s very important to have a good financial planner to advise you,” adds Wong.

Besides financial security, what he enjoys most about his job is helping people take care of tedious processes at a time when they are most vulnerable. Nothing beats the satisfaction of handing a cheque to a family when they need it most.

“When clients are satisfied with my service and say so, it makes me feel that what I’m doing is extremely worthwhile.”

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