SIMSBURY, Conn. - The bank channel continues to be far tougher to crack for variable-life insurance sales than for variable annuities, and Hartford Life is still seeking the key, though its sales are improving.

Hartford Life doubled its variable-life sales through banks in the past year, but this channel still only accounted for 5% of the product's sales. By comparison, 35% of Hartford Life's variable annuity sales are made through banks, said Bob Kerzner, the company's senior vice president of individual-life.

Hartford Life's struggles in the variable-life market are not unique - all life insurers face them. Banks, in total, make only 1.5% of all life insurance sales - variable, whole, term, and universal - according to a twice-yearly survey of life insurance companies' bank sales by Kenneth Kehrer Associates in Princeton, N.J.

In comparison, according to the most recent survey, banks sell 13% of all mutual funds and variable annuities and 28% of all fixed annuities.

But banks are getting better at selling life insurance, according to the Kehrer survey. First-half bank life insurance premiums rose 45% from the year earlier, to $275 million "Banks are gaining experience, and you get better with experience," Kenneth Kehrer said.

Mr. Kerzner said banks and insurers must share the blame for low variable-life sales industrywide. Insurance companies, he said, are still grappling with making variable-life products simpler, and banks are only now committing themselves to selling the product.

Banks' senior managers must realize that life insurance is the missing ingredient if they want to be true financial services providers, Mr. Kerzner said. "Banks have to understand that they should work with carriers that have expertise available to them," he said. "You get the knowledge and sales support that would take years to build from within."

But Mr. Kerzner said he is hopeful. "I do see a difference in the way banks are viewing the business, so I think we'll see some real gains," he said. "This is the highest level of interest I've seen in the last two or three years."

He believes Hartford Life may have an edge in the bank market for variable-life products due to its track record in selling variable annuities through banks, Mr. Kerzner said. "We know the bank's culture, and that's essential," he said, adding that variable-life products include many of the funds in Hartford Life's variable annuities.

Hartford Life gears its variable-life sales efforts to the affluent market. It has 180 life professional account executives nationwide who work with banks at the point of sale - usually, the trust department - and meet with bank clients directly, if necessary.

The company has also simplified variable-life applications by means of a half-page form that bank customers can fill out. The bank mails the form to a Hartford Life operations desk, where a representative calls the applicant, asks medical questions, and then arranges for a medical exam. "The bank's rep doesn't have to ask any of the difficult questions - we'll do it," Mr. Kerzner said.

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