By Linda Koco

If only Katrina and Rita did not happen. If only the recession did not cut so deep. If only cancer did not exist.

Everyone says, or at least thinks, “if only” at one time or another–regarding issues big and small.

Insurance product pros are no exception. They have a long “if only” list, covering design, pricing, regulation and more. We’ll examine some of those here. But first, it’s worth noting that sooner or later most people accept the identified problem and move on to “what if”–i.e., exploring how they can respond effectively.

Those who don’t make this transition get mired in negativity and lost productivity.

So then, in the products domain, what are the “if onlys” of the day? And what are the “what ifs” the insurance industry has used to move to more productive territory?

If only customers would take the time to understand their insurance coverage.

What if developers take steps to strengthen understanding? On simpler coverage, try one-size-fits-all policy structure, so owners don’t have to hunt around for all the applicable parts. On more complex products, offer educational materials for point of sale, forms for customers to sign indicating they understand the key elements and certification-level training for advisors who will distribute the products. And, show the product and supporting materials to customer focus groups to find out which areas need greater attention.

If only agents would focus more on meeting customer needs and less on commission levels and making transactions.

What if companies take actions to support this objective? These would include trailer compensation for ongoing service, performance rewards paid with education programs having CE credits and product materials that focus on how the products meet various client needs. And what if insurers support bodies that enhance professionalism among financial advisors?

If only the public and media knew more about how insurance works.

What if industry groups–of advisors as well as companies–formed media and public relations outreach entities that do just that? Even individual firms can do their part, when customers call with questions. And what if the industry were to coordinate with, if not directly partner with, government efforts in this area?

If only New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, the National Association of Securities Dealers, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and other regulators and government officials would quit targeting insurance products and distribution.

What if the industry maintains an open-door policy to informational requests and inquiries from these authorities? Further, what if the industry’s government relations offices focus on providing factual information to these bodies, seeking accomplishment of common goals and even potential alliances, as suited.

If only we could keep our prices competitive, without risking profitability.

What if the company takes a business process improvement strategy to all aspects of product design and production? This probably will entail adroit use of new technologies. What savings will result from this that can help on the pricing side? Process improvement is key in underwriting and claims, too. Explore if margins need to be revised in view of current conditions. If taking a mid-point on pricing, what if the firm can use value-addeds to differentiate its offers?

If only the industry had a new product design direction in which to move.

What if the new direction is right before the eyes? The double whammy of aging baby boomers and increased longevity is creating a whole new set of insurance and financial needs that will be here for many years to come. What if the industry can meet those needs with existing products or tweaks to those products? And, what if the industry can sweep other, related products into its offerings, as suggested by MIT’s Joseph Coughlin in this week’s lead article on cutting edge products?

In reviewing the above list, it’s easy to plug in examples of companies, groups and associations that have taken one or more of the “what if” steps. That should be a relief to people who fret about industry weakness in one sector or another, or legal/regulatory upsets of one stripe or another. Some industry leaders are not sitting still with the “if onlys.”

Time was when this industry was not so nimble. It would dig in its heels and say no to many changes–no to universal life, no to long term care, no to variable annuities, etc. But in the past decade, “what if” thinking began taking hold, with the above results. Nirvana is not around the corner. But neither is desolation.

“The double whammy of aging baby boomers and increased longevity is creating a whole new set of insurance and financial needs that will be here for many years to come. What if the industry can meet those needs with existing products or tweaks to those products? And, what if the industry can sweep other, related products into its offerings?”