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Black Agents Can Raise Comfort Level Of Black Consumers

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Because the decision to buy a financial services product involves trust, a company should employ producers who “look and speak and think like the consumer, and who can understand whats important to the consumer,” says Rupa Ranganathan, ethnic strategist and senior vice president, Strategic Research Institute, New York.

This is certainly true when it comes to the African-American market, according to Pepper Miller.

The president of market research and consulting firm The Hunter-Miller Group, Chicago, says “black people want to save, but were not sure what to do, where to go, how to go about it.

“So, financial services companies should extend the invitation by having black faces in their communications and offices as well,” Miller says.

“Weve done research that shows when all things are equal, black people want to do business with a black financial services representative,” she adds.

The thinking by the African-American consumer, Miller says, is that a black financial services representative, “understands me and the issues we have as people. The comfort level is raised.”

In fact, this is so important that many college-educated African-Americans feel they can only admit to not understanding investments to another African-American, she says.

The African-American client thinks, “I can be myself and say I dont understand investments, and I know you, my brother or my sister, will understand me,” Miller says.

Bob Blake, an associate managing general agent in the Los Angeles office of Colonial Supplemental Insurance, Columbia, S.C., agrees that comfort level is integral in reaching a certain market.

“People dont have to worry about being politically correct when theyre the same,” he says. “There are things I can talk to an African-American client about that they probably would be embarrassed talking to someone else about, like financial prospects.”

Under these circumstances, the value of recruiting African-Americans for an insurers sales force would seem obvious. But, when Blake, who is African-American, first started in the insurance industry in 1988, he says he was hard pressed to find a company that would offer him a job. He suspects the reticence of the managers doing the hiring was born of the same anxiety minorities have when considering whether to see a financial representative.

“None of them hired me because they didnt know me or my culture,” Blake says. “I would have been successful in any company, all I needed was an opportunity.

“After I went through management training, I realized it comes down to comfort level; its very easy to hire someone you know,” Blake explains.

Colonial was a perfect fit, according to Blake, “because it dealt with a client base I understood and that understood me.”

Tariq Khan, vice president, MetLife Multicultural Marketing, New York, says that with more than 36 million African-American people in the United States, it would be “foolhardy” not to recruit from this sector.

MetLife hires managers from many cultures who will bring African-American representatives to the company, Khan says.

Recruiting at MetLife involves a combination of efforts, including diversity job fairs, advertising in local papers, initiatives with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and attendance at the annual National Black MBA Convention, he says.

Black churches also work well in helping to identify appropriate candidates, according to Khan.

When reps come from the community where they work, the community “has trust at the grass-roots level,” Khan says.

“People want to work with someone who understands their needs, who knows how important things like education planning are. If Im part of the community, I have a better understanding of that,” he adds.

But recruiting is not always enough to keep African-Americans with a company, particularly in this industry, Blake says.

“Often when African-Americans come into this business they dont have a lot of reserves, a rich uncle to help them while they are building up the business,” he says. “I help them with this because I know what theyre going through. Ive walked the walk.”

Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, September 8, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.