Opportunity is knocking for banks that sell insurance.

In a survey that asked customers how likely they are to buy insurance from banks, Synergistics Research Corp. found that at least half of those under age 65 are likely to buy property/casualty insurance from a bank. More than one-third between 35 and 59 would buy life insurance. Of those under 35, three-quarters would buy property/casualty policies and nearly half would buy life policies from a bank.

The finding that younger customers are among those most likely to buy insurance from a bank is good news for banks, because demand from this segment will rise as consumers age.

To take advantage of this opportunity, carriers and banks must realize that current insurance products are not generally seen as a good fit for bank distribution.

To succeed in insurance sales, banks need to create a new bank insurance culture.

Perceptions about each other's culture often are based on outdated stereotypes.

If you are a banker you may believe insurers will alienate customers with a hard sell, don't understand customer relationships, and can't produce a product banks can sell to everyone.

If you are an insurer you may believe banks can't sell their way out of a paper bag, don't understand risk selection, and are hypersensitive to customers' complaints.

For banks to sell insurance products successfully, a new culture must be created between banks and insurance companies that embodies customer sensitivity, effective needs analysis, and attention to providing customers with suitable and valuable products.

This can be accomplished by mixing bank and insurance people or by creating a unit that is not dependent on either the bank or the insurance company.

Once you have combined the best of both cultures, you must determine how to sell insurance products most effectively.

Depending on the complexity and price of the product, banks can sell through direct response, bank platform sales, bank insurance specialists, or outsourcing to insurers or third-party marketers.

Remember the saying: "We can do anything, but we can't do everything." This saying applies to insurance carriers as well.

It is important to evaluate your insurance carrier for each type of product. Questions to ponder include: Is the product "best of class?"

How much training and support will the carrier provide bank staff? Is the underwriting department responsive? How good is the carrier's customer- service and claims-paying record?

A large component for success of a bank insurance program is the training and support provided by the insurance carrier.

The price and complexity of the products directly affect your decision on how many carriers to use.

An expensive, complex product usually means you will need a carrier that specializes in that particular product.

Most carriers are really good at only one or two insurance product lines.

Another important factor in building a successful bank insurance program is to make your customers see the bank as a viable provider of insurance.

Customers will weigh these factors in evaluating products: Was the product something I needed? Was it a good deal?

Did I get personalized service? Are my ongoing needs taken care of?

To serve customers more effectively, banks should regularly have sales management monitor the ratio of sales inquiries to quotes, and the ratio of quotes to sales. It is even more crucial to track, survey, and record customer reactions to products and sales activities.

Listen carefully to customer responses to determine the perceived value, convenience, and efficiency of the program.

These days, insurance can be bought almost anywhere. Will customers view your bank as the preferred place to buy insurance? That depends on how effectively you create a fit in culture, process, insurance provider, and customers.

Insurance sales through banks will continue to grow. Successful programs will result in expanded customer relationships, additional fee income, more detailed customer data, and improved customer retention.

Participating insurers will achieve expanded distribution, better customer data, and new product potential.

Ultimately, banks and insurers will succeed to the extent that customers "win" with better products, lower prices, better service, and greater convenience.

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