For Dime Bancorp, life and health insurance sales start in the branches.

Robert Mittel, senior vice president for national sales and channel manager of the New York banking company's Dime Insurance Group, says many middle-market customers are underserved and undercovered- they have little or no life or disability insurance.

The reason they often do not get enough guidance is that smaller policies do not generate big profits, Mr. Mittel said Tuesday at the Financial Convergence conference in New York. Dime, he said, found that "the branch was the answer for these customer needs."

He cited a survey by Great American Insurance Co. of Cincinnati that found that 70% of bank insurance customers want to buy face-to-face, in branches.

Dime Savings Bank of New York, the bank's $25.7 billion-asset thrift subsidiary, has 400 platform representatives licensed to sell insurance through its 127 branches in the New York City area. To be a platform rep, an employee has to get a life insurance license within six months of being hired - or else be demoted to teller.

Platform reps are the initial point of sale in Dime's three-tiered system, Mr. Mittel explained. It sells customers a few simple life products along with accounts and investment products.

"These people sell insurance 10%, 15% of the time and are not sophisticated financial planners," but the products they sell have to meet fairly sophisticated needs of core customers, he said.

Customers with more complicated financial planning guidance needs are referred to one of the Dime's 30 insurance specialists, who handle a broader selection of products. For the most complex, commercial accounts, Dime has six full-time agents who work with reps at all the branches.

Dime also requires that employees be licensed in order to get paid for referrals, Mr. Mittel said. Unlike some banks, which allow tellers to make referrals, Dime has found that the best referrals come from insurance-licensed employees, who can assess customers' insurance needs and send them to the right person, he said.

Reps should be paid "enough to make it matter" for referrals and sales, Mr. Mittel said. Banks should not put a ceiling on the amount that reps can earn from insurance sales, he said, because "if you cap incentives, you cap production."

Dime offers life, health, and disability insurance in all its branches. While it sells some auto insurance through the mail, it does not and probably will never sell property-casualty in the branches, Mr. Mittel said.

Since the target market for these products consists of customers the bank already has, branches need to make their availability plain to see with signs and brochure displays in branches, he said.

Speaking generally about marketing, Mr. Mittel said, "Platform bankers will cross-sell to a certain degree, but you have to help them out."

Banks can also use sell insurance by direct mail and telephone, though Mr. Mittel said he avoids telemarketing almost completely, because too many customers objected.

He also advises patience.

"Product training is easy; sales training is hard," and banks cannot expect to transform their branch personnel into insurance salespeople in just a month or two, he said.

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