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M Suresh

General Manager — Sales | 16 Apr 2005

“Our frontline sales force is our brand ambassador, and mammoth time and energy is spent on training them…As for advertising, it’s a tough task since the category is rather generic. You can’t get into specifications of an insurance policy on television in a matter of a few seconds; you can only convey the broader picture.”

After 22 years of sales and marketing experience in FMCG companies, for M Suresh, General Manager - Sales, HDFC Standard Life, selling insurance has been a “dynamic experience”. Suresh talks to Malini Menon of exchange4media on how this sector has a huge opportunity for marketing professionals.

He believes that the fundamentals of sales and marketing remain the same, whether you are in consumer durables or FMCG or insurance. However, he says that selling insurance is a challenging task and a different ball game.

Q. What are the parameters involved in brand building for an insurance company?

HDFC as a brand in the financial domain is very powerful — whether it is HDFC Limited, HDFC Asset Management or HDFC Standard Life. Now, every marketer wants to continuously strengthen his brand. A brand reinforces the salience of what you want to buy and experience. One of the biggest factors in the insurance domain is that people should be able to relate to their specific financial needs and insurance companies should be able to offer them. There is intense competition and everybody is trying to position themselves on the obvious, which is protection, more profits and better future, etc. As an organisation, we got our fundamentals right by getting our distribution and reach right, and at the same time finding ways and means to be distinctly different.

Q. Was it the differentiation that led to the campaign?

Stemming from the idea of being different and backed by research on what a consumer truly looks for, we came up with the theme of self-respect. “Khuddari” is something that has been ingrained in us by our parents and this is the genesis of our campaign. We have in fact taken it to a higher level and talked about financial independence. The biggest asset in life is one’s existence and the most significant need that one has to cater to is financial independence. So the thought process behind the campaign was that an individual should be able to live with dignity at various stages of his life.

Q. Do you think that it is tougher to brand insurance products in comparison to FMCGs?

The need to be different is essential; however, it’s a tough task since the category is rather generic. You can’t get into specifications of an insurance policy on television in a matter of a few seconds; you can only convey the broader picture. Secondly, HDFC has not been having much exposure in advertising compared to other banks, so we have had to make a mark there too. HDFC as a bank carries a large amount of equity. The real challenge for us was to make the audience view the ad and connect it back to insurance and not just to HDFC. The second challenge was to enable the people to differentiate our insurance products from other insurance advertising.

Then again, the need for insurance is derived from the fear of death, which is too morose a topic to communicate. The other possibility is to focus on perhaps a better lifestyle, but another insurance company has already done that. Hence, we had to come up with something completely different.

Q. Previously, it was LIC dominating the insurance market. Do you think that the private players have succeeded in making inroads into this market?

With the entry of the private players, the size of the industry has actually expanded. LIC has been there for years now and we will continue to learn lessons from them. People will relate to LIC, which is good. However, with private players coming in, they have more options in terms of product features. What we are delivering is need-based products. I believe that to be successful in the insurance space, rather than selling the emphasis has to be on engaging in a discussion with your clients and understand their needs correctly before offering a solution. I think as an organisation we are very clear that we will give people the right advice all the time.

Therefore, we take a lot of pain to train our consultants so that when they meet our customers they offer good advice. They are also the ambassadors that can enhance the value of the HDFC brand. A lot goes into training our agents on how to communicate and understand the customers’ needs.

Q. Don’t you think that somewhere the brand image gets affected when the intermediary agents discount the premium rates?

For the organisation, it is extremely essential that the agents sell the products correctly and with integrity. This is something that we are serious and honest about because a customer is evaluating the organisation with the service we provide them. When the customer seeks protection, these are sensitive issues and in such cases you cannot bargain or for that matter give discounts. We do not allow any such practice and none of our agents would indulge in such practices, which is one of the reasons why HDFC Standard Life has always been associated with self-respect and trust.

Q. What is the level of training that is given to your agents?

There is a 100-hour training, which is mandated by the regulatory authority. Once they finish this training, we have our in-house training programme called Disha, wherein the agents have to understand every aspect of the need-based service for the customers. It’s a five-day intensive programme, which takes you through all the aspects of how to sell a life insurance. Then the agents go through product training where they are advised on how to sell a product. Moreover, not all people start selling all the products together. We measure them over a period of time. We have an active front line force of more than 1,400 people and there is a constant evaluation at every step. Our frontline force is our brand ambassador and mammoth time and energy is spent on training them on how to give good advice, meet the need-based demands of the consumers and maintain the brand image.

Q. Is it a tough fight among private insurance players?

In this business, you need to have good underwriting skills and complete confidence with the customers. You cannot adopt aggressive steps in the garb of getting business. The very definition of life insurance is long term and we understand what long term means. The name of the game is not to acquire market share but to have a sustainable business model where every touchpoint of your business is working correctly and people repose confidence in the organisation. What triggers this is the value of the brand, if it is fundamentally strong, what is the pedigree, parentage, etc.

Q. What has been HDFC Standard Life’s key differentiating strategy?

One of the needs of this business is to be profitable in the long run. Therefore good organisations have a twin approach to their strategy. We are present in 110 locations and are planning to expand to 150 in another three months. We are looking at a national footprint and believe that it is essential to be present in both metros and non-metros. The additional 40 locations would therefore try and reach out to the non-metros. So if you take the state of Kerala, typically everybody would want to reach out to Cochin and Trivandrum; our attempt on the other hand is to reach out to towns like Cannanore, Trichur and Palaghat.

The way we differentiate ourselves is by focusing on the touchpoints — service, upgrading the product content, understanding the frontline force and meeting the needs of the customers.

Q. What is your target for 2005?

We need to grow by at least three times more. In the last part of the quarter (February and March), the business is at its peak. Almost 50 per cent of the business you do is generated during this time. As of now, we are in the fourth position but our growth curve has been going upwards in the last few months, which is a good sign. It is a 19 per cent share in which the private players operate, so it’s to say that you are number one or number two especially because LIC continues to dominate the space.

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