Though life and annuity companies have been wholesaling their products through banks for at least 10 years, most still have trouble answering the marketing question, "What do banks want?"
It turns out that banks want - and for the most part are not getting - something consultants call "seamless service."
Bruce Ferris, Hartford Life's vice president and director of bank and thrift sales for annuities and mutual funds, said he knew that banks were often frustrated when they called on his investment wholesalers for help in selling life insurance products.
"Our life distribution hadn't adapted to the bank marketplace," Mr. Ferris said. "We'd tell them that was a different part of the organization, that we weren't the ones to talk to. It made us look inefficient. Clearly, we weren't leveraging our success with variable annuities and mutual funds in the life arena."
Last month, however, responding to its bank customers, the Simsbury, Conn., unit of Hartford Financial Services Group consolidated relationship management for bank sales of individual life and investment products under Mr. Ferris. He now oversees individual life insurance as well as annuities.
"We sell investment products through 400 banks," he said. "With life insurance we have relationships with 40 or 50 banks - all of which are in their infancy."
Hartford Life, he said, is eager to leverage its investment sales relationships, which are sizable: It was the top seller of annuities through banks last year. The company has 200 investment product field wholesalers, 40 of whom are dedicated to the bank channel. It has another 200 for life products, none of whom specializes in the bank channel.
Mr. Ferris said there is no plan to change this configuration but that the life and investment wholesalers will now know each other so that contacts can be made if a bank needs help with a different product line.
"Wholesalers offer different products because it takes different expertise," he said. "But there's no reason why investment and insurance people can't participate in the same meeting instead of having separate meetings. It's much easier for the bank and for us if we're all on the same page."
Valerie Jordan, president of the consulting firm Jordan & Jordan Associates in Belchertown, Mass., agreed that multiline insurers are not offering banks seamless service.
"It's ridiculous, but I can't tell you how many times you see a bank book a 10 o'clock appointment with an insurer's annuity person and then an 11 o'clock meeting with a different person from the same company, to discuss life insurance," Ms. Jordan said.
"It's about time insurance companies cleaned up their act" and had their investment people talk to their insurance people, she said, and at least Hartford is doing that.
Carmen Effron, president of the consulting firm C.F. Effron Co. in Westport, Conn., said it makes more sense for an insurer to have one person manage a bank's relationship, regardless of product. But most insurers have not realized this, she said.
"It would be great for the bank if every time they got a call it was from the same person," Ms. Effron said. "That person's entire job would be to deal with the bank. But internally, they're still operating within silos."
She also rejected the idea that two sets of wholesalers are needed.
"This is like saying that a stockbroker can't sell variable annuities, only mutual funds. They just haven't found the right people," she said. "Granted, they might be comfortable with one product, but you need to cross boundaries."
Banks that are already selling Hartford's life products would like the relationship to be more centralized and to have administration brought up to the same level as that for annuity sales.
Paul Merritt, senior vice president of Banc of America Investment Services, a subsidiary of Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., said his company has been selling Hartford Life's products through its wealth transfer and estate planning units since last April. He said he finds that questions about the products are answered in a timely way but that sales reporting information is still hard to come by.
"We'd like to see who among our reps is doing a good job selling life insurance and who the product is being sold to," Mr. Merritt said. "Reporting is a key. Otherwise, how can you track where you've been and where you want to go? This is something insurers do very well in annuity sales, and they're going to get it right on the life insurance side as well."
Gregory Vacca, first vice president of Cal Fed Investments, a unit of Golden State Bancorp of San Francisco, said an insurer's seamless integration of the distribution of investment and insurance products would make life easier for banks.
"It doesn't have to be the same person, but the life and investment guys need to be introducing each other to banks," he said. "About three years ago we were selling an insurer's annuities. I asked them about their life product, and there was little interest" from the insurer
"It's a silo mentality. But remember, it wasn't until recently that banks have made a dent in life sales. It's still early," Mr. Vacca said.
Mr. Merritt agreed that it is too soon to criticize insurers.
"We've been selling annuities for over 10 years," he said. On the life side "we're in our infancy and it's new to insurers as well. There's a long way to go."