Banks are ideal sellers of insurance to consumers through cross-selling if they use up-to-date technology, three experts told a group of bankers at a conference on direct marketing of insurance.

"Banks do not have to prospect for customers," said Daniel P. Wager, president of QuickQuote Insurance Agency Inc., Incline Village, Nev. "You already have a data base."

John J. Harrison, president of DiMark Inc., a marketing consultancy in West Langhorne, Pa., concurred, noting that "data base marketing is an organized collection of data about a customer."

With information banks have on file about their customers, it should be easy to know when those customers are ripe to be sold insurance, Mr. Harrison told the conference. "This is an extension of the banking relationship you have now," he said.

The conference was sponsored by Atlanta-based Coverdell & Co., which markets financial products and services to financial institutions, and Monumental General Insurance Group of Baltimore, an underwriter.

Mr. Wager's company is unusual in that it distributes its products on the Internet. It has 200 products on its data base and hopes to offer more than 500 - term, life, and annuity. .

The large number of products allows prospects to comparison-shop for insurance policies that they believe will offer them the best values, said Mr. Wager. No single insurance agent could do that, he added.

Banks, he said, could emulate QuickQuote as well as promote such traditional products as certificates of deposit.

But a third speaker, Donald R. Jackson, chairman of Jackson Consulting Group Ltd., Middletown, Del., said a relationship with one carrier or agent could be best for a bank. That's because the carrier may be willing to invest a lot more money to develop state-of-the-art software to ferret out business that may not be obvious.

"That intermediary is willing to put more money into your operation," Mr. Jackson said. If the carrier "sees a very solid relationship, it is now willing to invest for the long-term."

With the appropriate software, he said, a seller could determine what each member of a household contributes. This could give insurance sellers a clearer idea of who should be approached or the tip that more than one member might be open to a sales talk. "This gives you a tremendous amount of power," Mr. Jackson said.

Mr. Wager said banks could use the Internet to post newsletters and press releases to attract insurance customers. But he cautioned against being too promotional. "It should be newsworthy," Mr. Wager said. Otherwise prospects will be turned off, he said.

As is the case in traditional banking, a lot of inquiries to QuickQuote occur during lunchtime, though they come via Internet. Using the Internet gives his firm the luxury of answering the queries systematically but with a small number of employees.

"You decide when to answer it," Mr. Wager said. "You don't need lots of people sitting around waiting for phone calls."

Agents who close sales with customers, he said, may conduct additional selling by connecting to the Internet with their laptop computers. Mr. Wager said that competition between a bank's retail operations and its direct marketers can be a source of tension. "Retail says direct marketing takes away sales," he said, while "direct marketing says you would never have sold anything anyway.

"Retail and direct marketing people are going to have to be reconciled," Mr. Wager said.

Mr. Harrison of DiMark said "transactional events" recorded on banks' data bases should alert them to customers who are suddenly good targets for insurance pitches. Situations indicating such opportunities include changing addresses, marrying (a spouse's name is added to an account), or having a child (opening a kiddie account.) "Incorporating that data on your data base is crucial," he said.

Mr. Harrison reminded listeners that direct marketing is often a process, not a one-shot deal, and that a variety of distribution channels - such as television, print media, and electronic or direct mail - are available.

For a complex product like insurance, he said, initial ads should elicit only leads from prospects. "Tell them enough to tease to respond," he said. "You can't get them to buy; life insurance is sold, not bought."

Just ask them to fill out a card, call an "800" telephone number, or respond by E-mail, Mr. Harrison said, or inquire whether they would like an agent to call on them. "That is how the customer is going to want to do business."

As soon as an inquiry is received from a prospect, Mr. Harrison said, act immediately. "Each day you go beyond 24 hours, the conversion rate is going to fall."

Mr. Jackson said bankers involved in insurance could interest senior management in what they do by forecasting renewal rates.

He suggested two methods. One is to use the actual historical rate as a projection; the other is to build a model that predicts renewals for years to come. The latter, he said, should work with senior managers unimpressed with the initial premiums.

Mr. Jackson also said banks might want to start their insurance operations in a small way by segmenting their targeted markets; for example, by initially aiming at a certain age group. "You don't have to start big," he said.

Mr. Heffernan is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.

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