From an employment perspective, the anemic economic recovery has been a double-edged sword: bad for the millions of U.S. workers who, nearly three years after the 2007-2009 recession, still find themselves without a job; a boon for employers who can now skim more of the cream from the proverbial crop.
The expanded labor pool, sources tell National Underwriter, has been especially welcomed by major life insurers that recruit producers to work in their career agency systems. The greater availability of quality candidates is helping carriers in their efforts to diversify their sales forces, expand into new markets, boost productivity and increase low agent retention rates—for decades the industry’s Achilles Heel.
Recruiting to the Plan
MetLife offers a window into the changes the carriers are implementing to better support customers and producers, and to hire more strategically. MetLife changed its recruiting strategy 18 months ago. In contrast to prior years and recruiting models used by many carriers, the New York-based company now ties recruiting goals to agency sales growth objectives, as measured by premium dollars. If the insurer aims to achieve, say, a 10% gain in sales over the next 12 months, then the company will recruit to a benchmark number based on an expected amount in sales per agent.
“We don’t want to be in the recruitment treadmill business,” says Mike Vietri, executive vice president of individual distribution, at MetLife. “We back into a recruitment objective based on our business goals. This method forces our agencies to focus their efforts on recruiting and retaining higher-quality agents.”
Because the individual MetLife agencies determine their growth objectives, recruitment efforts, and funds available to invest in new hires, results vary widely nationwide. Mature markets may receive funding for fewer agents, whereas markets that offer greater growth potential may benefit from considerably more in funding for agent selection.
This year, says Vietri, MetLife is on target to recruit 1,700 new agents (including 500 for MetLife’s New England Financial channel), about 15% fewer agents, Vietri estimates, than the carrier would have hired under its’ pre-2010 recruitment strategy. Yet MetLife remains on target to achieve sales goals because the company has enjoyed a 30% rise in productivity per advisor over the past two years.
Vietri attributes the gain to not only MetLife’s heightened focus on top-quality candidates, but also beefed up resources for new agent training and development. The company avails producers, for example, of business coaches, training directors, advanced marketing, public relations and product specialists to help hone their sales skills, expertise and go-to-market strategies.
The training isn’t just academic. New MetLife producers, says Vietri, can secure sales leads and do joint field work with veteran producers via the company’s team-selling initiative.
Casting a Wider Net
While enhancing the caliber of its career agents, MetLife is also seeking a more diverse workforce. The company targets promising candidates who are culturally attuned to America’s varied ethnic groups: African-Americans, Asian-Americans and a fast growing Latino population, the last of which the 2010 U.S. Census pegged at 50.5 million or 16% of the total population.
(Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population grew by 43%, rising from 35.3 million in 2000, when this group made up 13% of the population. By contrast, the non-Hispanic population grew by about 5%, according to the U.S. Census.)
To reach the various ethnic groups, MetLife employs advisory councils composed of elite producers who can offer, among other things, guidance on culturally attuned sales practices and recruiting methods. The company also supports agents serving these markets with resources the agents depend on to close the sale, including product literature, underwriters and call center support people who speak the languages of client prospects.
“We can recruit agents to work in the Latino market, says Vietri. “But unless we have the culturally sensitive infrastructure in place to support them, they won’t stay long.”
Chris Mendoza couldn’t agree more. An assistant vice president of multicultural market development of the Life Company Marketing Division at MassMutual, Springfield, Mass., Mendoza is spearheading an effort to diversify the insurer’s sales force: and the initiative is showing marked results: since 2007, says Mendoza, MassMutual has doubled the number of ethnic producers who are career agents. In all, MassMutual boasts 5,000-plus producers across more than 80 general agencies nationwide.
Aiding MassMutual in its multicultural recruitment drive are “affinity groups” via which the company connects with candidates in the African-American, Hispanic/Latino, Chinese, Korean, and Asian-Indian communities. Among the groups: the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, the National Society of Hispanic MBAs, the National Black MBA Association and the National Association of Korean CPAs.
To be sure, MassMutual isn’t only targeting people with backgrounds in finance, business or sales. Many of the company’s new hires—and most successful producers and managers—hail from a range of other fields, including (notably within the Chinese community) the medical profession.
As one example, Mendoza cites Emily Dong, a cancer pathologist who received her medical training first in China, then at the University of Illinois/Urbana Medical Center. Dong then transitioned to a career in financial services and is now a leading sales manager who oversees MassMutual’s Chinese-American market in Chicago.
Dong’s background has served her extremely well, exposing her to thousands of people in the Chinese and medical communities in Chicago, says Mendoza.
“What attracted her to the insurance and financial services field is her passion for helping others,” Mendoza adds. “This is a story we often hear from people who come to us from other professions.”