Will Agents Ever Return To The Office?
Insurers are facing tough choices as the country pulls out of the COVID-19 pandemic and, hopefully, returns to some semblance of normalcy.
On the one hand, companies like Prudential and Northwestern Mutual had strong years -- despite absurdly low interest rates on top of the pandemic disruption to face-to-face sales.
So why would agents even bother going back to the office? That was a central question Tuesday for the panel at the Economic Landscape: Emerging from a Novel Year and Ready for Growth session at the virtual 2021 Distribution Conference for Financial Services.
"One of the silver linings was that we learned how agile we really could be as an organization, which obviously trickles down to our producers as well," said Kim Cummins, territory executive for Farmers Insurance.
The panel -- which included Michael Fasciotti, senior director, field real estate, Northwestern Mutual, and Anthony Fontano, chief operating officer, Prudential Advisors -- gave credit to their advisors for pivoting so quickly to virtual sales.
At Prudential, there were plenty of headwinds besides the pandemic, Fontano said. The insurer was in the midst of annuity product changes and life insurance rate changes that made sales more difficult to start with, he explained.
"So these changes were also in the midst of other strategic changes we were making at the same time that we've planned for 2019," he said. "It certainly was pretty hectic. You know, if you would have told me about all those headwinds that we in the industry were going to encounter, I would have wondered how we were going to survive as a business."
Instead, Prudential actually grew total revenue in 2019, Fontano said. Fasciotti shared a similar story at Northwestern Mutual.
"Northwestern had one of its best years ever," he said. "We set a lot of records in sales, and both our investment and our insurance products, as well as number of recruits. And so we proved that people can work virtually."
'Zoom Fatigue Is A Real Thing'
The question the panel batted around is whether the virtual sales success was merely an enthusiastic short-term push, or is a new model with staying power.
"Zoom fatigue is a real thing," Fasciotti said. "People are exhausted. In debriefing with a lot of our field leaders, while people were more productive in 2020, the efficiency is down a little bit. Some of the old historical sales ratios are starting to need to expand because you're having to work twice as hard to get the same number of sales."
The answer is probably found in a middle ground, he explained. But if agents do come back to the office, it has to be more than just a place to plug in a laptop and make phone calls, Fasciotti said, because they can do that from home and have been.
"It's really doubling down on what that value proposition is and better articulating it and understanding it," he said. "Because if you look at most of the industry surveys, most people want to come back in, not maybe for five days a week, but it's not zero, either.
"So what is that balance? And what does the office need to look like? What is the office need to feel like in order to have people want to come in?"
InsuranceNewsNet Senior Editor John Hilton has covered business and other beats in more than 20 years of daily journalism. John may be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @INNJohnH.
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