improve its relationship with banks.
To compete more effectively with other insurers that distribute through the community bank channel, SBLI plans to add training and improved and repackaged products over the next two months.
Once operated by a group of community banks looking for access to insurance products, SBLI is now a stock-owned company. Though 80% of revenues come from direct sales, SBLI is looking to rekindle ties with banks -- a growing distribution channel for insurance.
SBLI primarily sells life insurance. Last year it clocked up about $4.1 billion of policies, up from $3.7 billion in 1997 and $2.1 billion in 1996. But the company also sells annuity and some property and casualty products through 200 banks in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
However, some of the banks through which SBLI sells are adding big-name insurers that are trying to muscle in on the Woburn insurer's customers, said president William J. Gaffney. "Clearly there's competition," Mr. Gaffney said. He said banks "are getting deluged by some of the insurance companies."
But SLBI is not prepared to give in. Five months ago the company hired an institutional marketer, Chris Misuraca, and then retained Jordan & Jordan Associates, a Belchertown, Mass.-based consulting firm, to help devise a strategy.
"We recognized that training is the biggest issue for the banks, it's the biggest issue they have to overcome," said Valerie Jordan, president of the consulting firm.
Consequently, SBLI will unveil a training program to educate bank insurance agents, Ms. Jordan said. Initially, it will be run by Jordan & Jordan and SBLI's new institutional marketing office, she said. The training will begin with the simplest concepts but will be ongoing, she said.
To support bank-based agents, SBLI is also creating a dedicated phone support line. Previously, SBLI offered direct sales lines only for customers, she said.
Though SBLI is already known as a low-cost provider, its rates will drop further under the new program, Mr. Gaffney said. Specifics were not available but Mr. Gaffney said commissions paid would continue to be 50% to 80% of first-year premiums -- lower than most insurers. Mr. Gaffney said that's a fair compensation. And as for using commissions as enticements, he said, "We don't play those games."
In addition to lower pricing, SBLI will repackage its product line. Ms. Jordan said the strategy is to match SBLI and bank marketing with the timing of customers' life events.
For example, a matching program would enable banks to pitch products to students when the annual student loan application rush is on, or to first-time mortgage buyers after they request application information, she said. In insurance sales, timing is crucial, she said.
To serve customers visiting bank Web sites, SBLI is also developing a link that would allow banks to have a branded, SBLI link on their home pages, giving customers access to quotes and information. Eventually, Mr. Gaffney said, he'd like to give customers the ability to complete the entire transaction on-line.
SBLI plans to tout the changes in a major print and radio advertising campaign in the fall, Mr. Gaffney said.