Ask young, unmarried professionals what their insurance portfolio looks like and a bemused look is likely to pass over their faces.

As it happens, not too many insurance marketers with banks or other institutions are doing the asking.

The reticence is understandable. Young professionals generally don't like to talk about insurance matters. That's because most still identify insurance with death benefits, and leave it at that.

But a closer look at this market reveals a host of opportunities for insurance sales.

Young professionals are acquiring money at a time when they have no dependents. They are obvious candidates for a host of insurance policies, principally automobile, property and casualty, and disability.

"Young professionals are a big part of where Banc One is going," said Glen Milesko, the president of Banc One Insurance. "We're just now starting to develop their efforts there from an insurance standpoint."

Others agree.

"Young people are still in their competitive years," says Valerie Jordan, a bank insurance consultant. "They may play basketball on the weekends and wind up breaking a thigh. Then they find out coverage at work doesn't allow them to take the time they need to mend or that they aren't covered at all."

Claritas, a financial services market research firm in Arlington, Va., provides data that should prove heartening for insurance marketers.

Data from 1997 indicates that college graduates between 25 and 35 with incomes of $20,000 and up are indeed buying insurance.

Apart from the standard auto, group life, and homeowners' insurance, Claritas' figures show that 28% of young professionals surveyed have term life insurance, 30% have whole life, and 16% have annuities.

Some 14% of young professionals purchased renters' insurance in 1997, 5% bought variable life products, and 10% bought universal life.

"This buyer market will determine how insurance will be sold into the next five to 10 years," said Betsy Brown, a senior vice president with Claritas.

But banking's share of this market activity is woefully small. Among the college-educated professionals surveyed by Claritas, only 4.7% bought insurance from a bank or credit union, compared to 58.9% who dealt with an insurance agent.

Bank sales are even lower than the number of policies sold to young professionals via the Internet, which is 4.8%.

Those buying by phone or by mail accounted for 18.2% among young professionals buying insurance in 1997.

Disability insurance is one particularly underutilized product for this market.

David G. Kaytes, managing vice president at First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York, says many of these professionals lack a complete understanding of the value of insurance products.

They also believe their needs are filled through group offerings on the job.

"Some might say, 'Why do I need life insurance when my job provides me with medical, life and disability coverage,'" Mr. Kaytes says. "In the old world, when somebody stayed in the same job for 40 years, that may have been true."

But today, he says, people between jobs often lack coverage. Sometime, new employees don't receive coverage right away.

Mr. Kaytes' profile of a young professional's insurance needs includes life and disability coverage, a money management product, such as a whole life policy or variable annuity, and a financial planner to help plan it all.

Liability coverage is another marketing opportunity, particularly for professionals who deal directly with customers.

Still, many banks aren't even targeting young professionals. The strategy at KeyCorp, for example, is to cast the marketing net wide, rather than target young professionals in particular.

"Our essential market is the broad middle market, the part of the American population that is not being approached by other institutions," says Alan Wade, vice president and national sales manager at KeyCorp's Key Insurance Management Group in Cleveland.

The obstacle to mining sales among young professionals, as well as other potential insurance customers, is an inadequate sales process at many banks, observers say.

"The insurance sales process is not transactional in nature," says First Manhattan's Mr. Kaytes. "Insurance can require multiple meetings, follow-up activities. Not many bank salespeople are trained in this. They are more comfortable with the annuity line because they can close the sale right away."

To banking's credit, those surveyed reported greater satisfaction with service when buying from a bank versus a life insurance company.

In a poll, 24.4% strongly agreed that banks provide quality service on a regular basis, compared with 18.1% for life insurance companies.

Any effort to cater to the young professional means more aggressive use of the Internet.

While Internet sales are a fraction of overall insurance volume, it will become increasingly the place to reach young customers.

Bank One reaches many young professionals with its Internet or telephone voice-activated quote service. The menu-driven system performs needs analyses and generates three to five quotes for term life insurance.

Key products are auto insurance, homeowner insurance, term life products, and property and casualty. The fastest growth, says Todd Eyler, vice president of financial services partnerships at Insweb, an online insurance site, is coming from term life and homeowner insurance.

"There's pent-up demand for auto, but there is no robust auto offering currently on the web," he says.

The site also has an insurance tutorial, with FAQs (Internet jargon for frequently asked questions), a glossary, and needs-based analyses. Mr. Eyler says the average Insweb customer is 35, about half are married, and most have household incomes of more than $50,000 a year.

Not recognizing the insurance needs of young professionals could be a mistake with long-term reverberations.

"I believe this market is one of the bigger and more attractive market segments," Mr. Kaytes says. "The potential is for the future sale.

"By the time these individuals reach their 40s and 50s, they have made the decision of which company to become attached to."

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