SouthTrust Corp. is using its growing series 7 sales force to drive its insurance program.

The Birmingham, Ala.-based banking company has more than doubled its sales force to 120 brokers from just 50 two years ago. The brokers are responsible for selling insurance as a part of a total financial plan for the customer, said Richard S. White Jr., the executive vice president in charge of the capital management group.

By creating a financial plan for a customer, the broker gets to know the person's needs and can determine who is a good candidate for insurance, he said.

The financial planning process can help customers understand why they need insurance and how much they need, he added. "It takes some talk," Mr. White said.

Because buying insurance is triggered by events like marriage or buying a house, Mr. White said, "you have to have a relationship so you know when these events are going to take place."

A broker can advise a customer on what events are likely to spark a need for insurance, Mr. White said. "A lot of people don't really know they are underinsured," he said. "And no one has taken the time to sit down and talk with them about it."

Since the 1970s, middle-income households have been increasingly overlooked by independent insurance agents. But banks can afford to sell insurance with tight margins when the product is offered as part of a financial plan to customers who meet with an adviser.

Banks also have to be sensitive to the changing attitudes of customers, Mr. White said. A recent study found that 59% of high school students expect to get married more than once, he said.

"When I was (first) buying insurance you did that with the idea that you were going to protect someone," Mr. White said. "Now with people not expecting to have the same spouse, you may be less inclined to do that."

Though some customers are comfortable buying insurance over the Internet without assistance, relationship sales are important to a program's success, agreed John P. Young 3d, a Greensboro, N.C.-based consultant and special projects director with the Independent Insurance Agents of North Carolina.

"People who need estate planning and businesses who need 'key person' insurance need to have someone who's an insurance professional," Mr. Young said.

SouthTrust offers a variety of products including auto, homeowners, term and whole life, and credit insurance. Like the insurance programs of most banks, SouthTrust's is still in its infancy, Mr. White said. No bank programs have yet been successful "in a way that rings the cash register," he said. "As far as banks are concerned, in my estimation we've still got a ways to go."

For SouthTrust, which plans to add long-term care, variable universal life, and other products to its menu, it'll take at least five years before sales are significant enough to warrant a line item on the bank's income statement, he said.

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