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'Everything Is About Engagement': Idea File

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For Mike James, COVID-19 is not a friend.

James has been president of NFP’s NFP Life Solutions unit since July 2017, and head of individual solutions at NFP since January 2006. He came into NFP as a sales executive with NFP’s Partners Financial, after spending 14 years at John Hancock.

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James now oversees the sale of huge amounts of life insurance and annuities, mainly through financial professionals who have depended heavily on face-to-face client meetings, with clients who have traditionally completed most major financial services transactions through face-to-face meetings.

Then, the pandemic came along. With the lockdowns, and the masks, and the Zoom meetings.

Here are three things James said about what it’s like to try to sell life insurance now.

1. Selling life insurance and annuity insurance this year is nothing like selling those products a year ago.

James said making any kinds of year-over-year comparisons is difficult, because the situation this year is so much different.

“I think we are performing well,” James said. But “we’re not operating the same way.”

James said he and the financial professionals he works with are moving quickly to develop new strategies, based on strategies such as connecting people with webinar tools.

“I’m trying to build conversations around engagement,” James said. “Everything is about engagement.”

But “lots of things have been lost and can never be replicated with virtual communication,” James said.

One social-distancing-related issue he’s thinking more about is retaining in-force business.

“If you can’t see clients, it’s hard to retain clients,” James said.

Another issue he sees is uncertainty about how the pandemic will be evolve. ”No one knows what the future holds,” he said. “There’s so much that could change.”

2. Getting the webinar going is the easy part.

James sees typical financial professionals and typical clients adjusting to the new web call universe.

“People are making the turn,” he said.

For most people, James said, people learning to use Zoom and its competitors is a little like people learning to use Apple mobile devices back when the mobile devices first came out.

James said the biggest tech challenge has not been people’s resistance to change, or the need for new information technology systems.

“It was security,” James said.

NFP’s main network may be stable and secure, but protecting the link between the main network and a client’s digital devices, or between the main network and a financial professional’s devices, can be tricky, James said.

“We deal with sensitive and private information,” James said. “Cyber threats are at an all-time high.”

One way NFP tries to defend itself is to be an active participant in threat-sharing groups with other financial services companies, James said.

“This is not an area in which we should be competing,” he said.

3. Getting good interns is surprisingly hard.

James himself came into the life insurance industry through an internship program in Boston, in 1991.

He now helps create internship opportunities by supporting the Center for Teen Empowerment in Boston.

It might seem as if pandemic-related disruption would increase the appeal of the kinds of well-organized, virtual internships the center can offer.

But, in the real world, the center still has to work hard to attract interns, James said. He said many would-be interns would prefer to have an internship that comes with physical interactions, not just a virtual internship.

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