Raising its game (Part 2)

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When Sun Life Financial president and CEO Dean Connor pushed for Asia to be the cornerstone of its portfolio, its investors were sceptical. But he proved the naysayers wrong when Sun Life Malaysia made a net income of C$32 million last year. In the second of a three-part series, Connor shares about broadening the company’s distribution channels.

 

SUN LIFE MALAYSIA’s products are mainly marketed through CIMB Bank’s 320 branches and to the bank’s 7.8 million customers across the country. The products are packaged and sold according to the needs of its customers with the help of about 170 insurance specialists.

The insurer actively promotes 40 products under its conventional and takaful licences across multiple distribution channels, including bancassurance, direct marketing and telemarketing, as well as corporate and governmental bodies. It also sells takaful policies through Bank Rakyat. 

Sun Life personal consultants are tasked with helping create suitable financial plans for their customers. These plans usually involve investment-linked products and helping customers identify the kind of products that will help them achieve their goals. 

This approach is a much better one than just saying: “Here’s our best product this week”, Connor points out, adding that the company’s unique selling proposition lies in being customer-centric rather than product-centric. “It is about knowing what is best for them [customers] and protecting what is dear to them,” he says. 

Customer needs are not very different across the globe, Connor says, stressing that health, education and retirement are universal concerns. “Everybody has these questions around the world ... and people are living longer these days. But how we approach them is different by market.”

Sun Life’s current distribution arrangement does not include an agency force. In order to increase its reach and visibility, Connor acknowledges the need for an agency force, as the industry in Malaysia is dominated by insurers with a large number of agents. But this is not part of the insurer’s immediate plans as CIMB’s customers remain its priority.

“Ultimately, our goal is to build an agency in Malaysia. We have an agency force everywhere else. We operate multi-channel distributions, such as wealth agencies and banks … and we intend to bring that here eventually. But our first duty is to do as much as we can for the bank’s customers because the bank has 7.8 million out of the 16 million bankable customers in the country, and we have just scratched the surface in meeting their needs.

“So, job one is to do more for CIMB customers. We have made great progress, sales have more than doubled in the first two years … in the medium to longer term, we will come back and look at forming an agency force,” says Connor. 

Once Sun Life Malaysia takes the lead in bancassurance, the company will consider rolling out the agency model, he adds. “But to do that five years from now, you have to start planning now. That is why we are rolling out a new initiative called the ‘Most Respected Agency’,” he says. 

The aim of the theme is to capitalise on Sun Life’s overall image as an insurance agency that takes pride in quality over quantity in the best interests of consumers. “We have identified four key values in order to be the ‘most respected agency’ in the country. First and foremost is caring and looking after the customers. We identified a bunch of initiatives with the customer in mind and a bunch of ways of measuring how good a job we are doing for the customer,” Connor says.

“We never had the largest number of agents in any of the countries, even in the Philippines or Canada … But quality is in our DNA.”

Much of this is attributed to the professionalism and values embodied by the brand, which has become stronger with the work done by Sun Life Financial Asia president Kevin Strain and Sun Life Malaysia CEO Ooi Say Teng, says Connor. 

“Our chief distribution officer [Strain] moved here and Malaysia was involved in the creation of the ‘most respected agency’ strategy. He is using that to train the 170-odd specialists we have, and someday this will be the basis to create an agency in Malaysia.” 

In the meantime, Sun Life Malaysia is widening its distribution channels by taking advantage of Khazanah’s investees, which include telecommunications giant Celcom and healthcare services, such as hospitals, where Sun Life currently offers group and individual life policies. 

Through Celcom, the insurer markets its health and accident products as well as individual life policies to the network’s customers. Through this channel alone, Sun Life Malaysia earns almost RM500,000 a month from regular premium sales.
 

This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, a section of The Edge Malaysia, on April 6 - April 12, 2015.