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Denis Clifford

Denis Clifford is senior vice president and chief distribution officer at SBLI (The Savings Bank Mutual Life Insurance Company of Massachusetts). In this role, he is responsible for the company’s Independent Distribution channel which operates in both traditional brokerage and alternative distribution markets. He oversees the development of key business relationships, the growth and expansion of insurance sales, and the delivery of a market-leading customer experience. Clifford joined SBLI in 2000 and held a variety of distribution-related management positions within Sales and Marketing. In 2007, he was named SBLI’s vice president and director of Brokerage and Independent Distribution. As the architect of the Independent channel, he was instrumental in the company’s nationwide expansion and rapid growth in the brokerage general agency and direct marketing agency marketplace. In 2010, Clifford joined Ash Brokerage Corporation in Fort Wayne, IN, as executive vice president. In this key innovative role he was responsible for managing institutional accounts, brand marketing, and strategic projects. He returned to SBLI in 2013 as senior vice president and chief distribution officer. Clifford is a member of industry trade associations NAILBA and NAIFA, and is a member of the board of directors of LIDMA. Clifford can be reached by telephone at 781-994-4266. Email:

SBLI of Massachusetts 2023 Carrier Forecast

Looking Back While Moving Forward

SBLI has always been a process innovator. Back in 2016 we were one of the first adopters of accelerated underwriting, and our avant-garde approach was a little different from our competitors. Indeed, our guaranteed AU process, within defined parameters, successfully fit into a distinct market niche and was a powerful market influence prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, more recently the industry at large has evolved rapidly with the utilization of new data sources, the reconfiguration of insurance processing fundamentals, and improvements in processing efficiencies. Consequently, we are looking to adjust our accelerated underwriting program to align more closely with today’s competition and be a partner of choice to a broader market.

As we looked to the future, we paused and reflected on the past—evaluating lessons learned, market changes, and the successes we’ve had with developing channel-specific digital products. In this context we observed:

  • InsurTechs have been influential. This term encompasses technological innovations that are created and implemented to improve the efficiency of the insurance industry. And an outcome of the missteps of some and the good or bad timing of others is that the more robust and market-sensitive InsurTechs gained sure footing and are now part of the marketplace fabric for any progressive process, platform, or digital product design. Consequently, a variety of great partners, resources and vendors have emerged.
  • Digitalization and InsurTechs were seen as the next frontier for insurance sales. Initially there was a belief that targeting customers directly and giving them the ability to do things independently would blow the doors off the market and make agents redundant. Our experience indicates that there is a significant reduction in the level of conversions to a product sale when agents are not an integral part of the process. While there is a place for a D2C strategy in specific environments, agents are still the key ingredient in most sales situations.
  • Pre-screening is important. The product fit for the customer depends largely on good pre-screening, which—in many instances—is taking the place of field underwriting. However, it has been made so easy to apply for life insurance that careful upfront screening is often not taking place, creating a potentially negative experience for the customer and a missed opportunity for agents to pivot to an alternative product that is a better fit.
  • Digital tools supporting needs such as pre-screening are part of the future. Tools of this nature, designed to assess the viability of the applicant and the product offering quickly and conveniently, are vital.

With that, we are kicking off 2023 with a new focus on the markets we want to participate in and the platforms, processes, and products we want to develop to gain broader market share and relevance, while being seen as a change agent in the years ahead. Realigning our traditional term product and unveiling a reimagined accelerated underwriting program supporting the agency model will be a major initiative this year.

As always, our objective is to make life insurance easy! Our focus is on providing ease of access, customer-centric processes, and convenience to agents to enable them to deliver coverage as quickly and efficiently as possible while also reestablishing our price competitiveness.

The Future of the Marketplace
In recent years Insurtechs have been the leaders in bringing innovative products to the market. With startups potentially recasting their model, we are going to see more carriers come to this space with their own state-of-the-art digital products.

As that happens, the delta between what was fully underwritten or accelerated underwritten—and now digital simplified issue—will continue to close, with better pricing, better flexibility and process flow, and better economics.

In the term insurance space, premium rates have declined over time because of the quest of insurance carriers for market share and volume. As a result, payouts have been driven downwards and the economics for placing these products have tightened. In many instances, general agents lose money on term business below $1,000 of premium.

While accelerated underwriting and in-session decisions have reduced case management, they have not eliminated it, so the margins for general agents have tightened. This has been countered by the introduction of the digital ecosystem where an agent or an agency can do such things as work with an applicant to do their own fulfillment online and have instant-issue capabilities. This eliminates the majority of the general agency’s overhead, so it becomes a much more beneficial economic model for everyone.

Conclusion: The Need for Diversification
As we position ourselves to move further into the digital space with realigned products and processes, the bottom line is this: We continue to recognize the value of the agent and their customer relationship and the absolute need for agents to have the right products, tools, and processes to diversify their business and take advantage of new opportunities.

To deliver on these needs, we have been working closely with a number of technology providers such as Afficiency and MRS (Management Research Services, Inc.) to support broader market coverage and distribution, develop and deploy products and digital tools that help agents interact more easily and cost-effectively, and help our partners diversify and grow their business.

We are excited about the initiatives being implemented at SBLI in response to slimming term sales margins and the market’s recognition that streamlining agency and agent involvement in the process is imperative. We look forward to making it happen together.

Understanding The Role Of Whole Life Insurance As A Hedge


One of the biggest threats to financial security in retirement is market volatility. This is true for individuals and businesses alike. Even if your clients—retail or institutional—have saved and invested diligently, a poorly timed downturn in the market can have a tremendous impact on their retirement plans. It’s a risk that became evident for people who retired following the recession of 2008 and 2009, when retirement accounts plummeted in value.

While we cannot control the ups and downs of the market, we can reduce the overall impact of market volatility by recommending other sources of income or growth be available during a downturn. The cash value of life insurance is an example of this. As a component of a financial plan, a non-correlated asset such as whole life insurance can be a strong hedge against other insurance products and market assets that are linked to stock and bond market volatility—and for that matter, global events of all shapes and sizes that impact financial markets every day.

The Whole Life Retirement Solution for the Individual Market
From an individual market perspective, the risk due to the sequence of returns against a portfolio can be the difference between leaving a legacy and running out of money in retirement. If, during retirement, clients are drawing down their investment portfolio through a market downturn, they are leaving fewer dollars to work when markets rebound. Recommending a stable account from which to draw during market downturns—life insurance being an excellent example—can be of tremendous value. The same holds true during years of high run-ups in the market, quite often the year following a downturn. Withdrawal from the portfolio stunts growth.

If you are looking for a solution to mitigate potential rate hikes, political issues or global conflicts that may impact your client’s portfolios today or in the future, a whole life insurance hedging strategy can help reduce risk and allow your clients to rest easier during stock market adjustments, large or small. Just as important, it can provide an attractive and steady stream of income regardless of market activity.

This is where whole life insurance comes into play. Whole life insurance is widely considered as a safe and effective hedging approach for any investor. It’s a cash accumulation/investment strategy characterized by a non-traditional risk profile, and it is one that acts differently from products directly linked to the performance of stocks and bonds. By virtue of this, leveraging whole life insurance as a hedging strategy allows an investor to spread their risk and realize portfolio appreciation while avoiding the invariable speed bumps that stock market investing presents. This is a prudent strategy for investors of any age.

The Benefits
In addition to providing death benefit protection, participating whole life insurance policies build cash value over time—a combination of guaranteed cash value growth and potential annual dividend payments—which grows tax deferred and becomes a source of funding that can be accessed at any time and for any reason. And with whole life insurance, guaranteed cash value is not subject to the ups and downs of the market; it is guaranteed to never decrease. Policy owners commonly use cash value to fund the down payment on a home, launch a business or pay for a child’s college. But it can also be used to supplement retirement income, particularly during a down market. Whole life insurance is perhaps one of the most tax-advantageous vehicles around. Some of its notable tax advantages include:

  • Tax-free policy loans
  • Guaranteed income tax-free death benefit
  • Tax-deferred cash value growth
  • Tax-free withdrawals of basis

Other benefits of whole life insurance as a cash accumulation hedge strategy include:
It can be protected from creditors

  • The risk due to the sequence of returns of a portfolio can be mitigated with whole life insurance. Empirical evidence has shown the power of not withdrawing income from equity-based assets in down markets, but rather withdrawing from non-correlated ones.
  • It can be structured in a trust for minors and distributed later
  • It serves as a dual-purpose asset for children (i.e., cash accumulation and death benefit)
  • It can be pledged as collateral

Why do Banks Use Whole Life as a Hedge?
Bank-Owned Life Insurance (BOLI) is a stable, dependable source of financing which provides attractive tax-equivalent yields. It is often an institutional life insurance arrangement which allows banks to generate greater cash value growth than retail permanent insurance policies. The bank purchases life insurance on a group of key employees, such as executive officers, and pays the premiums. The bank is the owner and beneficiary of the policy, which in turn becomes a bank asset.

To finance a non-qualified executive benefit plan, or to offset employee benefit liabilities, banks typically choose between two types of permanent life insurance—traditional whole life or universal life—and two choices for the investment of assets backing the policy’s cash value—general or separate account.

BOLI is another example where whole life can be leveraged as a non-correlated asset to hedge against universal life linked to stock and bond market volatility. Most often, traditional whole life BOLI provides greater value than universal life BOLI and it will always provide a guaranteed cash value. For example, SBLI offers traditional whole life, general account BOLI which currently provides a guaranteed cash value, assuming a 4.0 percent interest rate. The cash value increases each year, ultimately equaling the death benefit if the insured survives to the end of the mortality table. For investors looking for a prudent packaged solution to offset market volatility and provide consistent guaranteed returns, consideration should be given to a whole life BOLI product.

Whole life insurance is largely immune to sequence of returns risk in either the accumulation or spend down phase, as it’s uniquely designed to deal with market risk in a fashion that no other singular asset is. This is due to its ability to remain unchanged in terms of return potential and risk profile throughout its entire existence, which by design makes it particularly efficient as time progresses, and an excellent hedging instrument providing both protection and consistent growth.

This article is designed to provide general information on the subjects covered. Pursuant to IRS Circular 230, it is not intended to provide specific legal or tax advice and cannot be used to avoid tax penalties or to promote, market or recommend any tax plan or arrangement. Clients should be encouraged to consult their personal tax advisor or attorney.

SBLI of Massachusetts 2020 Carrier Forecast

Eyeing 2020 Through An Innovative Lens

On behalf of everyone at SBLI, I wish you all a very Happy New Year. It’s hard to believe we’ve started our third decade of the millennium and, as quickly as time is going by in our everyday lives, the life insurance industry is moving just as fast.

I’ve been in this industry for the better part of three decades, and sometimes I catch myself marveling at the impact that technology is having on our business—particularly in the last five years. The need to be innovative with how we interact with and service our partners and the clients they help us protect is no longer a nice differentiator for a company—it is a business imperative.

There was a time when the industry looked at distribution through the lens of its field agents, almost exclusively. That has evolved into much more of a 360° approach encompassing sales, product, and in today’s market a much more concentrated focus on the end consumer.

Let’s take a minute and look at the factors and changing consumer behaviors that are shaping our view of life insurance in 2020.

Brizfeel, a consumer advocacy and research organization, conducted a survey of over 30,000 people ages 18-65 in September of 2018.1 The survey revealed that 57 percent of consumers prefer to shop online and spend about five hours a week doing so, while an additional 12 percent are as open to online shopping as they are to brick-and-mortar shopping. About a third of consumers cite the “24/7” availability of online shopping as the biggest reason to shop that way, followed by the ability to find a lower price quickly, convenience, and the ability to save time.

Additionally, LIMRA continues to report an insurance gap of $12 trillion nationally, including a $6 trillion gap among Generations X and Y.2 In fact, 41 percent of Gen Xers don’t have any life insurance, while nearly half of Gen Y doesn’t.3 Combined, these two generations represent 61 percent of the adult population in America.4

SBLI’s focus has always been to offer simple, competitive, and convenient products and services, and that won’t ever change. However, we’re now also focused on looking for new and creative ways to deliver on our mission in the most progressive ways possible.

As a start, we introduced an innovative, award-winning accelerated underwriting program for both our term and whole life policies, guaranteed for all applicants between ages 18-60 on all of our risk classes for plans of $500,000 or less. We’ve been offering a paperless, streamlined drop ticket and e-policy delivery to help reduce agency costs and maximize efficiency. We launched a fully-automated upsell program that helps agents sell term policies with higher face amounts with no extra effort, and we provided access to free legacy planning and electronic document storage tools. We also expanded the availability of our drop ticket program last summer.

Our experience in 2019 with a customer-facing drop ticket was extremely successful, and it validated our intention to introduce a full online application to the brokerage market in the second half of 2020.

We believe that all of the innovative steps we’ve taken and will continue to take will allow our partners to more effectively reach an underserved market in Generations X and Y. To help, we recently introduced a turnkey sales program, Protect Gen X and Gen Y with SBLI, complete with a robust set of tools, tips, and tactics.

While the shift toward e-commerce will continue, we understand that it’s not a fit for every situation. The Brizfeel survey revealed that many people still prefer to talk to a person before making a purchase. Not surprisingly, concerns about online scams and fraud were also mentioned as drawbacks to online shopping. There’s no question that for many, the value of sitting with or speaking to a financial professional is perhaps best appreciated when it comes to making a deeply personal decision like buying life insurance.

While succeeding during the “digital revolution” presents its own challenges, we can’t be myopic and ignore other factors that could impact our growth. We continue to operate in a low-interest rate environment, and the term marketplace is arguably more competitive than ever with the addition of insurtech competitors to an already impressive lineup of highly-rated carriers. However, if we can collectively identify underserved groups of people and approach them at the right time in the right manner with the right products, we’ll all look back on 2020 as a year of significant progress in our industry. We look forward to making it happen together.

2. Turn Up The Volume, 2016 LIMRA Report.
3. 2018 Insurance Barometer Report, LIMRA.
4. US Census Bureau Population Division 2018.

SBLI of Massachusetts


Is it possible for an agency to make term insurance a profit center? We think–Yes!

It’s not news to anyone in our market segment that we are going through a major distribution re-alignment. Today’s environment is evolving more quickly than we imagined and, in response, both carriers and distributors are re-examining how to “tool–up” based on the imperative to deliver value, convenience, and speed to agencies, agents and consumers alike. Agencies are re-examining their term sales platforms as they recognize that price-driven models, particularly for lower premium business, are not profitable and the search for new, more efficient approaches is paramount.

Technology is the key and it is upending workflow and processes in the financial services industry. Many tasks once handled with bulky computers and human interaction are now being completed entirely on digital interfaces. To this point in particular, we are seeing increasing amounts of “dot-com” style start-ups, activity and funding.

This dynamic environment has required a rapid response to ensure companies like SBLI remain relevant to its independent distribution customer base by offering real world business practices and helping them sell term insurance profitably. As a result we have re-energized our core mission, “to provide an exceptional customer experience that drives enhanced sales profitability to our partners,” with the goal of making us a progressive partner of choice in the term space.

To deliver on the SBLI Brokerage mission, we have instigated a range of initiatives to enhance the agency customer experience and help maximize their business efficiencies. The initial phase was to move away from a regionalized wholesaler model to a centralized sales support team with the purpose of aligning specific account groups with dedicated specialists. Building on this foundation we have been introducing a range of new tools, platforms, and additional resources to help minimize agency costs and maximize their efficiencies. These include:


Innovative Accelerated Underwriting Process

  • This underwriting process, available with our level term product, replaced the need for an invasive paramedical exam with a simple telephone call. Our approach, in this emerging space, is unique and we continue to monitor the market closely to ensure we align with the market’s needs. It is offered currently for all term cases, whatever the risk class, ages 18-60 for face amounts $500,000 or less. It provides a guaranteed experience via which no case gets redirected to a traditional underwriting path.

No-Cost Drop Ticket Platform 

  • ZipApp™, our drop ticket program supported by ApplicInt, a new innovator in this space, was introduced providing agencies with a no-cost option. It handles both our accelerated underwriting and our traditional underwriting business and streamlines the administration process for agents. This platform has proven very successful with an ever increasing number of tickets being dropped reflecting the first-class experience agents have with the process.

Enhanced Upsell Program

  • As part of our continued strategy to enhance our value, we have, thanks to our Operations teams’ progressive operational stance, introduced a fully automated Upsell Program that helps agents sell term policies with larger face amounts. We now offer increased coverage options for all eligible customers with no additional underwriting requirements and a requisite increase in commissions for agents.

In addition, we have a number of significant innovations planned for this year. These include LegacyShield, a digital legacy planning platform, which we believe to be a significant product differentiator and one which will provide distinctive value to our partners. SBLI has teamed up with LegacyShield to offer SBLI customers access to a secure digital vault, enabling them to safeguard their legacy assets at no additional cost. It is planned that from Q2, 2017, onwards, SBLI policyholders will be provided with “Shield”, a digital platform that provides secure digital storage for a customer’s key documents, financial information, photos, videos, stories, and final wishes in one location. The platform will also benefit agents by helping them to engage and communicate multilaterally with their customers and provide the opportunity to upsell LegacyShield, providing additional revenue opportunities.

We also plan to introduce in 2017 other cutting-edge technology solutions. These include an updated e-delivery process to complement our Upsell Program and enable consumers to make the increased coverage decision directly; and an agent quote engine, CustomerConnect, providing agents with the opportunity to generate qualified leads on their own webpage. In addition to these sales-orientated tools we plan to introduce various term product and underwriting process enhancements to keep our competitive advantage in play. 

We are very excited about the initiatives we are implementing at SBLI in response to the reality that term sales margins are getting increasingly slim, and the market’s recognition that streamlining agency and agent involvement in the administrative processes is imperative. Our number one goal in 2017 is to partner with our target relationships and demonstrate that profitable term is not an oxymoron. We look forward to making it happen together. [DC]