representative, and you can order new checks, apply for a credit card, or buy term or whole life insurance. As financial institutions far larger than Dime take their first halting steps into selling life insurance, they can learn much from the $19.9 billion-asset New York City thrift. Simplicity is the key to Dime's sales program. After completing a one- page questionnaire with a platform employee, customers can make their first payment immediately. They are called later at home by the underwriters to answer medical questions. "Banks have everything you need to sell insurance, including sales knowledge, access to customer buying habits, and a working relationship with their customers," says J. Daniel Keppel, the director of insurance for Dime. "I'm trying to show that it can be done on the platform." Dime has been selling Savings Bank Life Insurance since 1939. SBLI allows savings banks in a particular state to pool funds, with assets managed by a seven-member board of trustees, appointed by the states' superintendent of banks, with consent of the governor. Until four years ago, Dime had used dedicated representatives to make SBLI sales. But the thrift eliminated those specialists, deciding instead to empower branch workers who already had experience selling credit insurance. And in October 1994, Dime branched out from savings bank life insurance, which caps coverage at $500,000, and began offering policies of up to $1 million through underwriters American Mayflower Life Insurance Company of New York and Phoenix Home Life Mutual Insurance Co. Mr. Keppel says that using platform workers - rather than investment products reps or dedicated life insurance agents - to sell insurance is a "low-cost, high-value approach" to the business. "While talking about your checking account, our customer reps can offer you life insurance. And there is just a higher level of customer trust at the platform." It's also an uncommon approach. Indeed, independent insurance agents have long maintained that the product is just too complicated to be sold by low-level bank employees. But if Dime is successful with its non-SBLI policies, this may represent a change in the way that life insurance sales are viewed. "The myth is that professional agents need all this training, but that may just be protectionism," says Kenneth Kehrer, a Princeton, N.J.-based consultant. "Selling through banks is the way that it is done in Europe and Canada, and their reps can't be any smarter than staff in the U.S." Historically, few banks have attempted to sell life insurance on the platform level. One, California Federal Savings, failed at life insurance sales, Mr. Kehrer says, because "they sold so many policies that Travelers (the underwriter) couldn't keep up with it, and customers were unhappy with the service." Dime is handling service needs with an in-house staff of 15 reps accessible by phone during business hours. Rather than straight commission, branch employees on the platform are offered what Mr. Keppel terms an "incentive," for the total amount of bank- related products that they sell, that varies depending on type and quantity of product. For example, a representative may receive about $50 in commission for $1000 in life insurance sales. That's opposed to agent-driven insurance, which often offers up to 50% of the first-year premium as commission. Traditionally, Dime and savings bank life insurance have made a good showing among customers that hold account with the bank. 15% of Dime customers hold SBLI policies. But the $500,000 limit on coverage that SBLI offers obviously isn't for everyone. "We found customers that wanted more than the limit that SBLI offers," says Mr. Keppel, explaining the move into American Mayflower and Phoenix Home. By expanding its insurance offerings, Dime may be able to reach a much larger customer base. SBLI is available currently only in New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, although there is talk of expansion to New Hampshire and Maine. As of last December, the entire New York SBLI system held $22.8 billion in force, or policies worth $22.8 billion (compared to the approximately $150 billion held by Prudential Insurance Company of America bank issuers.) "The market for fee income beyond SBLI has a lot of potential (for Dime)," says Mr. Kehrer. In January of this year, Dime merged with Hewlett, N.Y.-based Anchor Bancorp, doubling assets and increasing the number of platform reps from 150 to 215. The first three months of 1995 saw extensive training for the 65 reps new to life insurance. Training reps to sell insurance typically involves an intensive one week course, and a two month licensing process. As Dime cannot sell SBLI in New Jersey - where Anchor had a number of branches - the newly forged relationship with American Mayflower and Phoenix Home has served the thrift well. Since January 108 policies of over $100,000 have been sold in the Garden State. Formerly, Anchor had Prudential and Metropolitan Life agents stationed in New Jersey bank lobbies, and "their numbers were a quarter of what we've sold," says Mr. Keppel. Overall, from January to August the merger partners sold 148 non-SBLI policies and 2,682 SBLI policies, amounting to almost $2 million in annualized premiums. But many experts feel it's still to early to tell whether Dime will be successful. Traditionally, life insurance sales through banks is a minuscule market. "As of 1991, less than half of 1% of life insurance was sold through banks," says Dorothy Murray, member relations director for the Life Insurance Marketing Research Association, Hartford, Conn. "I'm surprised the SBLI share is not larger," she adds. "It really is a good deal." Experts cite SBLI's relatively mature market share for its lack of growth. The move into other forms of insurance represents a step in the new directions that Dime will be taking to expand its share of the market. "Life insurance has become more like retail merchandising," Mr. Keppel adds. "Either it's a specialized, boutique item, or you reduce the price, sell a lot and make it up on volume." Right now, Dime seems to be taking both approaches, combining continued dedication to in-bank platform worker training with plans for more high- volume, mass-market appeal. One of the big challenges Mr. Keppel cites is appealing to the electronic banking crowd. It's difficult to build a rapport with a customer service rep one has never even seen face-to-face. Currently, Dime is answering with statement stuffers and ATM messages, while SBLI has launched a television campaign featuring "real people" stories and a 1-800 number. In the past six months, SBLI ads have generated over 10,000 calls to the 1-800 number. The potential customer's name and number is fed to a local SBLI branch, and an appointment is set up for him/her to sit with a rep. This sales approach may still be too low-pressure. "To purchase life insurance, you really have to be pursued," says Ms. Murray of the marketing research group. "Our problem is converting all these leads," Mr. Keppel says. In October, the Dime began a telemarketing campaign targeting the 750,000 households that had banking relationships with Anchor. Mr. Keppel hopes the drive will garner 25,000 new life insurance customers. If he hits his target, he plans expand the campaign to cover the entire Eastern Seaboard. And, although it may be to early to tell how well the platform level of selling will do, eyes will be on Dime. "If they are really successful, their biggest challenge may well be other banks visiting to see how they did it," says Mr. Kehrer.
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