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Training For On-The-Go Advisors

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“At Jackson…we believe that disciplined investing consists of these 3 ingredients,” says Greg Cicotte, a national sales manager at Denver, Colo.-based Jackson National Life Distributors. “(1) It is formula-based; (2) it is consistently applied; and (3) it is low in cost. If the concept of disciplined investing appeals to you, click on the attached link featuring a client-approved multimedia presentation. Then give your wholesaler a call and learn how to use this effective tool during your next sales call.”

That little plug for JNL’s portfolio of investment solutions might not strike you as unusual until you consider the method of delivery: video e-mail. JNL-affiliated advisors are getting lots of them these days. And, says Dan Starishevsky, a senior vice president of marketing for the company, the messages are having a big impact.

“During the pilot test of our video e-mail, we added a feedback button, and we now get hundreds of messages from advisors telling us they love it,” says Starishevsky. “There’s something about a video that brings a message to life. We now rely on heavily on it.”

Video presentations, whether delivered through an e-mail, CD or web portal that users click to, is but one among a growing plethora of methods that life insurance manufacturers are using to bring educational and training content to advisors beyond the traditional classroom setting. From online universities and video conferencing to Web-Ex’s and podcasting, insurers increasingly are leveraging technology to impart technical and sales concepts, practice management techniques, regulatory guidance and other information to get advisors up-to-speed.

Some reasons: low-cost and convenient. Compared, for example, with the price of flying advisors to an all-day seminar to learn about advanced planning concepts and to secure continuing education credits–an endeavor that can run to hundreds if not thousands of dollars–delivering the content via an online webinar is far more efficient and cost-effective, sources say.

Indeed, several insurance executives interviewed by National Underwriter say their companies–AXA Equitable, Guardian Life and Transamerica–are kick-starting or beefing-up online universities, in part to streamline the efforts needed to satisfy state continuing education requirements.

Transamerica, for example, is now migrating some 26 CE courses to an out-of-the-classroom (OTC) web portal, where advisors can learn about such topics as the 2006 Pension Protection Act, tax pitfalls on life insurance planning and–the company’s most popular course–the use of estate planning techniques, such as bypass trusts and dynasty trusts.

Often, advisors first learn about these techniques through recorded webinars presentations that advisors receive as a URL link via e-mail. In addition to introducing the concept, the presentation may direct producers to a home office representative who can describe the concept at length and/or to the company’s intranet portal, where information pertaining to the technique–courses, CE credits, products and marketing materials–is posted. Later, advisors might also navigate to Impact Online, a web tool they can use to develop an estate plan or do a financial analysis based on the technique.

“All of this began with a 5-minute freshman class about the strategy,” says Michael Babikian, a 2nd vice president of strategic marketing services at Transamerica. “We’re getting very positive feedback on all of the online resources, but especially on the Impact technology, which is new and getting hundreds of users. What the tool allows us to do is work collaboratively with producers online, which is really powerful.”

AXA Equitable, too, offers an online university, which features topics on company products and regulatory requirements. Supplemented by periodic webcasts and teleconferences, the online content is integrated with AXA’s selling system. So when producers learn about, say, a new tax technique, the online instructional tool has them apply the knowledge gained using a case study.

At Guardian Life, producers can log onto a Center of Learning and Professional Development, where the company stores downloadable educational content, including training videos webinars with voice-over and “WebEx’s,” mini-Power Point presentations that last 4 or 5 minutes and are conducted in tandem with a live audio conference.

“We get between 350 and 450 people on a Web-Ex at any one time,” says Kathy Readinger, a 2nd assistant vice president at Guardian Life, New York. “It’s a great way for us to communicate with advisors and for them to view sales concepts and ask questions.”

While Guardian Life records the Web-Ex’s for online archiving and self-study, the technology is ideally suited to short or impromptu conference calls between parties where a visual component is desired.

A manager in an advanced sales department, might, for example, use the software to deliver “just-in-time” information about a technical or sales concept to an advisor who is preparing to meet with a client.

Chris White, a manager of life, education and training for the national sales support team at ING Americas-U.S. Financial Services, Hartford, Conn., says the company’s internal wholesalers use similar technology to host short (“pick-up”) meetings with advisors. JNL, too, sponsors “a ton of Web-Ex presentations” to acquaint advisors with new products or techniques before meeting in person with a manager or wholesaler representative to discuss the information in-depth. The educational value of the face-to-face meeting, says Starishevsky, is thereby enhanced.

“We’re greasing the skids,” says Starishevsky. “These are complicated products and it’s hard to make an advisor understand in one conversation all of the nuances about the content to be discussed. The Web-Ex, followed by a face-to-face visit, is a much more powerful one-two punch.”

JNL’s experience with the Web-Ex is representative of how trainers at life insurance companies view e-learning tools generally: that it is most effective when used in combination with in-person meetings, such as classroom instruction. But maximizing the value of such “blended training,” sources say, requires an understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the educational tools.

As at JNL, AXA Equitable finds that its online educational content provides an excellent “foundation” for advisors learning about new products or sales concepts. But the application of the knowledge acquired, as in the form of case simulations or role-playing, is best conducted in-class, according to Stephen Burnthall, a senior vice president at the company. He adds the online instruction, which includes quizzes, also helps to weed out advisors who are not sufficiently motivated to learn.

E-instruction need not always precede in-person meetings. David Eisenberg, an advanced marketing consultant at Transamerica’s Strategic Marketing Services unit, says the company hosts periodic “lunch-and-learn” gatherings to acquaint advisors with new technical and sales concepts. Thereafter, producers are directed to go online to see more detailed information about the topics, including coursework leading to CE credits.

For e-learning to be effective, content developers need to be mindful of certain time limitations, sources say. While online courses and other text-heavy information can go on at length, users have a reduced tolerance for extended video or multimedia presentations.

A video recording of a conference seminar for posting online should not go beyond 20 minutes, says Emily Viner, a field vice president at Guardian Life. Anything longer, she adds, is unsuitable because such recordings lack the interactive element of live presentations. As for video-email, the time constraints are still greater.

“If you’re over 3 minutes, the video is probably too long,” says Starishevsky. “Video e-mail is intended to capture your attention and inspire you to read on. It doesn’t attempt to educate you completely.”

How effective is the technology-based training? In terms of cost and efficiency, e-learning tools are largely meeting or exceeding expectations, sources say. Experts generally also express satisfaction with user adoption rates. Burnthall observes, for example, that approximately half of AXA Equitable’s advisors now elect to learn about new solutions through the company’s web portal. Guardian’s Center for Learning and Professional Development also enjoys substantial web traffic; in January alone, training videos posted at the site received 5,700 viewings, says Viner.

Whether viewers are paying close attention while they’re tuned is, however, a question mark and not only for video. As Starishevsky points out, monitoring users’ active participation in online educational content generally remains a challenge.

But such unknowns are not stopping insurers from enhancing existing e-learning offerings and kick-starting new ones. AXA Equitable, for example, is planning to launch a “refreshed platform” that, among other features, will allow advisors to do online calendaring. And Guardian Life is venturing into podcasts, digitized audio that can be downloaded to a PC or portable device, such as an iPod, and replayed at the user’s convenience.

Trainers at other insurers, however, say they’re not ready to initiate podcasting, nor online chat forums. Some attribute the go-slow approach to the fact that a still substantial segment of the producer community, particularly those advisors in their 40s and 50s, are not yet accustomed to working with these new media.

And producers’ comfort level with the medium, experts say, is no small consideration. That’s because, however cutting-edge is the presentation of educational information in technology terms, the technology counts for little if it doesn’t further advisors’ skills and expertise, their value to the clients they serve, and, ultimately, sales for the companies they represent.

“Technology-driven knowledge events can be a great equalizer,” says White. “But the technology is about more than training; it’s about getting sales through the pipeline. So when we train on a product, we also have to effectively train on the concept that facilitates the sale.”

“Technology-driven knowledge events can be a great equalizer,” says White. “But the technology is about more than training; it’s about getting sales through the pipeline.”