We love to hate them.
Yeah, Insurance Agents. Hate is a strong but appropriate word to use.
They call us on our phones.
They pester you along the streets.
They knock on our doors to offer a “non-obligatory” financial review.
They appear every now and then in the news – for all the wrong reasons.
I once pranked a nosy friend (who didn’t contact me for years) when she asked what I was doing for a living. “Agent lor, sell insurance.”
Never had a person hung up on me so quickly.
We (many of us) tend to think of them as people living the high life. Flashy cars. Fine threads. Expensive holidays.
Some of us think of them as parasites – feeding off the unwary and overly trusting. I’m sure we can all name a case or a story where an agent cheated someone we know – perhaps buying a wrong product, or getting an unsuitable plan.
But behind the facade of luxury, past the accusations of financial fraud and misrepresentations, how many of us actually has taken a closer look at the inner workings of an insurance agent?
Amanda Tan (not her real name) was gracious enough to share her story.
I just wanted to give my parents a comfortable life in their golden years
Growing up, we were neither poor nor rich. My parents put me through school by selling vegetables in the wet market. After I graduated from poly, I initially worked in a bank as a teller. The hours were fine, and while the job was a little stressful at times, I never did face much difficulty.
After years of hard work, my mother was falling sick more frequently than before, so my father had to operate his stall alone. It pained me to see my aging parents having to slog it out. It pained me even more to see that my earnings each month was hardly enough to contribute to the household, let alone support them fully.
I saw some of my banking colleagues earning close to 5 figures in a quarter. I was instantly interested – like any other 19 year old. Over fourteen thousand dollars earned in 3 months! That had to be my ticket out.
I began to explore this option further and learnt that this level of income was pretty routine – for the sales staff that were performing decently well. But selling in a bank was pretty restrictive.
I did hear that insurance agents earned even more, with far fewer restrictions. After a close friend of mine joined a local insurer as a representative, it didn’t take much persuasion for me to follow suit.
Everyone was not too supportive, even my own mother
When I first started, I was full of fire. My agency leader and the other seniors warned me that it wasn’t going to be easy.
Of course, it wasn’t going to be a problem for me. I was different. I was hungry. I was determined. And I would overcome.
I started to prospect my friends. Friends from school, friends from work. It didn’t take long for them to avoid me. Sometimes I wondered what the bloody matter was. Insurance is an essential part of everyone’s life, so why were they so resistant to the idea? Didn’t they know that I was performing a service to them?
My dad was indifferent to what I was doing. Just go ahead to try your best, he added. My mum however, was a different kettle of fish. Girl ah, why don’t you just find a regular job? No need to do sales. No need to be insurance agent.
If I did that, I would be resigning them to remain selling vegetables for the rest of their lives. Not that selling vegetables is anything to be ashamed of, but it sure is backbreaking work. No way I was going to let them do that if I could.
So I pressed on.
Ten doors knocked, six doors slammed
The modus operandi of our particular agency was door knocking. Other agencies favored cold calling (dialing numbers off a list till someone was interested), street canvassing (conducting a survey about saving habits to gain financial information about a prospect), and road shows (setting up booths in a populated place like an MRT or shopping centre). But ours was door knocking.
Why, you may ask. Because the agency leaders and directors made their fortunes by door knocking. So they figured, make everyone else under them do the same. It should work, right?
Door knocking is not a prank. It is damn hard work. It involved us going round in pairs, and knocking on doors (no surprise there). Telling the occupants we were there to inform them about different CPF plans available to them, and how they could go about purchasing it.
It was tortuous work to say the least. Both mentally and physically.
In some of the nicer estates the reception was warm. They would invite us in for a drink. “Its so hot outside, come in to sit down”. This was even BEFORE we mentioned a word about our purpose.
In the not so nice estates, we would experience the rudest residents around. Door slamming was pretty common. I mean, why not just reject us nicely and save the wear and tear on the poor door?
As stated, it was physically tiring. Often I would be door knocking for 10 hours on Saturdays and Sundays. (More people would be at home). My feet started to swell only after two weekends of such abuse.
Mentally it was also a drain. Nevermind the people rejecting us, but it was the nasty ones that really ruined our day. We got chased out of a house by an angry housewife (the husband let us in) because she thought we were out to cheat their money.
Is this insurance?
Are you selling insurance?
If you want me to buy something, I’m not going to entertain you.
Yes, I’ve heard it all. And I was sickened by it. Rejection after rejection. And most of the time, when we did close a case, we would earn a grand total of… $75. That’s the going rate for eldershield plans anyway. (Editor’s note: Its $150 commission per case, but they operated as a pair, so its $75 on average)
Every 2 hours we knocked, we might get one successful sale. For many, many nights, there was no sale.
I tallied my earnings for a particular month. Just shy of $2,700. Not bad right? I worked for 26 days that month, and was out door knocking nearly every single night.
Imagine standing on your feet for two hours straight.
Imagine facing rejection for two hours straight.
I had to do that for nearly 150 hours that month.
And it was a good month.
I cried after I did the tally.
All that, just for $2,700?
Paying for the pleasure of standing on my feet: The Roadshows
Then sometime early this year, the agency decided to change tack.
Lets try some roadshows, it should be a good alternative to door knocking.
As many of you know, roadshows involve a bunch of agents standing around trying to block the paths of shoppers and getting them to listen to their spiel.
What many people may not know is that, roadshows are not free. Yeah, they have to be paid for. Consider it a space rental from the shopping centre/MRT.
With my earnings remaining low for the past few months, I decided to try it out. Afterall, how many doors can a girl knock before she goes nuts?
Here’s the catch. I had to pay $300.
Crazy right? I was barely earning a few hundred dollars each week, and I had to blow $300 just to have the privilege to have people swerve in mid stride to avoid me.
I had sales all right. The younger folks, mainly. They don’t really know any better and they always feel obligated to buy. The trouble was, they also didnt upkeep their premium payments – and there goes my income.
Furthermore, it also impacted my persistency ratio adversely (the number of policies still active vs the number of policies I sold). It prevents agents from misselling by keeping a close eye on their existing policies. Frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. Ratio or not, I had to get fed. And also had to recoup my $300 investment each time.
Even then, I went for 3 consecutive roadshows without a single closure. Yup, $900 down the drain. At least no one slammed a door in my face.
Hidden Expenses and the Last Straw
Till this point you may think to yourself, actually this isnt that bad right? If you were a bit better at selling you would probably be making ends meet.
Actually I did make ends meet, for some time at least.
But one thing about the autonomy of agencies is that, there is no standard code of conduct when it comes to management. Which meant for some pretty surprising bills.
I had to contribute to an office fund, without fail. It was meant to upkeep the stationery and also any files and folders I was giving out to my clients. At 80 bucks a month, I suppose it was managable. (Author’s note: This is an outright tax of some sort. 80 dollars a month yields you some pretty serious pens and pencils)
That wasn’t so bad. My agency leader (in a bid to boost sales, no doubt) came up with sales challenges. Once a month we might have an all out drinking session. And the tab was left to a losing team to pick up. All I can say is, I am pretty unlucky when it comes to teams, and also, I never knew agents could be so thirsty.
One night the bill came to over $600. Shared among me and two other poor sods. We already didnt do well in sales, which is why we lost in the first place. And now we had to cough up another $600.
This went on for months. And then one day I had enough.
Epilogue (From the Editor)
I knew Amanda from my days in the bank. She was (and is still) a hardworking, pleasant girl. She tried the insurance line in part because of the quick money, but also for its prospects (perceived?) of wealth and prestige.
Her tale is not too uncommon. Years ago as an agent myself, I saw some of my colleagues go through the same process. Infact, there was a China girl in my batch about 9 years ago. I still see her some mornings at Raffles place MRT doing street canvassing. I admire her persistence.
Its a rough job, I’ve been through it myself. One night I was stood up by a prospect in a most interesting fashion. He gave me his address and I travelled across the island to his home. Given that his unit was on the 15th floor, I searched for a lift. The highest button came to 9. Needless to say, any calls made to him went unanswered. I had just tore a parking coupon for two hours too.
People sometimes forget that Insurance agents, like many of us, provide a service and many of them genuinely want to do their job well. They perform a function of education for the general public. They can be equally hardworking, and committed to their jobs just like any of us. We may rant and rail about their commissions, but fail to respect the fact that they do not receive a regular salary of any sort.
They face pressure on all fronts, not only from clients and prospects, but also often from their families as well.
The perceived ill image of an agent probably arises from the occasional article about fraud or misselling, and also from our own experiences with a pushy agent. We don’t think about the lawyers, doctors, and engineers that also have frauded their clients and ran off with millions of dollars – we certainly don’t hold these professions in any lesser regard.
So why the particular chip against agents?
I hope this article has helped to shed some light about the life of an average agent.
If ever you have to turn down some poor door knocker, just remember to do it gently.