Prudential Assurance's intern programme is a long-term investment strategy aimed at building future relationships For the past two years, Prudential Assurance's Hong Kong expansion strategy has relied on organic growth - after large-scale acquisitions of agency sales forces. Since expansion started in the 1970s, life insurers have been committed to upgrading the quality of their agents. Every year, insurers provide about 100 internship opportunities to university students. Students spend their summer holidays learning about the insurance industry. Assisting insurance agency sales forces, they need to make telephone calls to prospective clients, arrange meetings, conduct surveys, attend exhibitions and roadshows, and help with office duties. The practical commercial experience helps them master the key essential skills to land their first job. 'We do not intend to recruit them as insurance agents. As a matter of fact, they are not our ideal partners due to their limited experience and exposure. This is a long-term investment strategy for us as they might become our clients one day, or some time in their career, they will come to join us,' says Michael Leung Wai-kin, Prudential Assurance's chief agency officer. These interns will be managed in the same way as their superiors - like an agent. 'We have a one-card system which is applicable to all agents as well as the interns. Whoever gets a new prospect's name, will score one point. The top 20 performing interns will be invited to an NLP training [a communication training event] in Bangkok.' The company is also investing heavily in its revenue generators - the sales agents. 'We imported a renowned essential management development programme from the United States to better manage our agents.' It is a very systematic approach to monitor the agents' activities to further enhance their productivity and performance. The programme has produced more quality agents leading to healthy and quality businesses transactions. The company has always focused on the quality rather than quantity of its sales force. Though not as big as some rivals, the company now has more than 3,000 agents. 'More than 40 per cent of our existing agents are tertiary educated. This is probably the highest ratio among Hong Kong key players,' Mr Leung says. Compared to other developed countries, Hong Kong's insurance industry is expected to enjoy another 10 years of growth. 'Japan has a market penetration rate of 300 per cent, whereas the US has 200 per cent. In Hong Kong, we have only 76 per cent. According to statistics, the number of agents has been decreasing steadily,' Mr Leung says. The market is there with growing opportunities, what life insurers need to do is equip themselves to get the most out of it. 'We select our agents cautiously by adopting a scientific recruitment process. After attending the career presentation meetings, the interested candidates will have to go through the Myer-Briggs [psychometric test] selection tool, as well as a career profile test by LIMRA International [an organisation of life insurance and financial services companies].' This meticulous selection process has also produced some encouraging results - the job survival rate of agents in their first-year has been increasing. Agents are given intensive training, in addition to product training, with an emphasis on building the right attitude. Besides agency sales force opportunities, the corporate office provides management trainee programmes to fresh graduates. Trainees rotate to different departments to learn the business within a two-year time-frame. Mr Leung has an interesting career history. 'I think I am a rare animal in the field,' he says. He joined the insurance industry as an actuarial trainee and then worked in actuarial and finance departments for years. He then led the training department dedicated to sales agents. After a 10-year training career, he decided to start from scratch again - becoming an insurance agent himself. 'I built my own team and got my first field experience. That was quite exciting, in fact,' he says. With a combination of corporate and agency experience, he was invited to join his previous boss to gear the expansion plan at Prudential. 'I am comfortable in both worlds. When I started as an agent, I was grateful that I had good financial support and the confidence to help me survive.'