The old football adage states that blocking and tackling is what really wins games. It seems that this applies to other sports as well: Performing the basics with a high level of proficiency is often the real difference between winning and losing games. From that standpoint, our industry is really no different. We can get focused on new problems (i.e., new industry regulations) or get caught chasing the hot new technology or platform, but performing the basics with a high level of proficiency is often what really makes the difference between long-term sustainable success and failure.
Take a key statistic as a case in point for Columbus Life. Over the past six years, we have enjoyed a highly successful run. During this period, our new life target premium has grown at an annual compounded rate of over 22 percent per year; this is in contrast to industry growth of approximately two percent per year over the same time period. Our policy growth has exceeded 13 percent per year, which also stands in stark contrast to industry trends of just over one percent annual growth. What’s interesting is that this policy growth rate is nearly identical to our growth in the number of productive producers, which has grown at 14 percent per year during the same time period. The easy conclusion is that growing distribution has a direct and highly correlated connection to sales growth. It certainly doesn’t get any more basic than this statement.
The reality is that growing distribution is often simply about “blocking and tackling” effectively. It requires some basic tactics —consistently refreshing products, strong recruiting efforts, relentlessly telling the company story through marketing and wholesaling, providing top-notch service to producers and deploying add-on technologies that make doing business easier. It doesn’t require new revolutionary technologies, major strategy shifts, new direct-to-consumer web sites or unique affinity programs. These are certainly appealing opportunities, and should be explored in R&D or innovation-style labs, but for near- and mid-term growth, the tried and true tactics that our industry has been built on for decades can still be the biggest drivers of sales growth and success.
At Columbus Life we have pursued these basic tactics relentlessly. From a product perspective, we have narrowed in on our core competencies—mainly IUL and living benefit rider options —and sought to make improvements to those products every 12–18 months. In a similar fashion, we’ve expanded our marketing programs to focus exclusively on independent producers and to reach them in a variety of mediums, including social media (LinkedIn, YouTube), digital advertising, direct mail campaigns and traditional print advertising.
We’ve also dedicated significant resources to new producer recruiting. Some of them are the traditional sort—exposure at key industry conferences, direct mail campaigns and direct wholesaler efforts—but others are a little more distinctive, including LinkedIn promotion, Google advertising and a YouTube channel exclusively targeted to financial professional education. We’ve also returned to customary training programs, including in-person, home office training schools and a regular webinar program schedule.
This doesn’t mean we’ve avoided technology. Clearly, there are “add-on” technologies today that make producers lives easier. Electronic applications, electronic policy delivery platforms and mobile apps give producers easier access to information on both pending and in-force policies while allowing them to deliver a client experience in line with today’s “Amazon” mindset. As such, we’ve spent significant resources deploying these technologies to keep pace with modern requirements.
But perhaps the most significant and fundamental tactic is providing truly high-touch, personal and direct service to independent agents. Many producers miss the “good old days” where they can easily get a knowledgeable live person on the phone to help them with their needs. This might be case design from a sales desk, advanced markets support from in-house attorneys, or underwriters who can walk them through the details of a case. This support shouldn’t involve multiple phone prompts, robo-answers or call-back situations. It’s not hard to provide easy access to key support associates with just a phone number, a short phone menu and associates willing to take their call. This provides superior, distinctive service to existing producers and establishes an industry reputation that can precede future recruiting efforts.
Of course, all of these basic elements come with a cost. The balance is to provide the items mentioned above while maintaining costs and still creating scale for the business. That’s where the higher-level technologies can come in. Modern workflow systems, producer portals and mobile apps, electronic apps and delivery tools, accelerated underwriting platforms and more can help control headcount increases that might be required by business growth. It requires capital investment to put these tools in place, but the long run can be flat or minimal increasing operating expenses while sales continue to grow.
As we look to the future, we are certainly going to face myriad new challenges. Significant changes in industry regulations seem to be just beginning. Threats from better technology-driven distribution competitors are always lurking. Low interest rates will likely continue to challenge our investment spreads and returns. However, at Columbus Life our core focus will remain on driving continuous, long-term and sustainable value for our agents through the effective execution of these types of blocking and tackling efforts. By doing so, we believe we are positioned well for long-term growth and will succeed despite the curveballs the industry and economy may throw our way. [SS]