MANY PEOPLE IN Hong Kong have realised they may live longer than previous generations and, therefore, will need to structure their finances carefully to pay for health care and other costs after retirement. Consequently, there has been a surge in demand for wealth management advice and investment tools, causing the financial services industry to pay closer attention to divergent customer needs and expand their range of products accordingly. 'We no longer view ourselves as just an insurance company but as a financial services company,' said Francine Fu, general manager of marketing and financial intermediaries for AXA Hong Kong. Ms Fu said the company's Hong Kong business had evolved into a multi-product enterprise that made use of a number of distribution channels. The change had been accompanied by a strengthening of internal systems and a new focus on meeting the needs of individual clients. The agency training and support functions have been restructured and new products developed. The restructuring is based on three specific concepts: an increased number of investment options for retirees, the need for a one-stop shop and the proliferation of portfolio management options. 'There was a time when a customer's insurance needs were quite straightforward and focused on life protection,' Ms Fu said. In those days, agents concentrated on building relationships and selling the more traditional products. But people are now aware that their Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) contributions may not be enough to ensure a long and comfortable retirement and are planning their finances for different phases of their lives. They are thinking more about what they need to save and invest for their children's education and for their own post-retirement expenses. Agents must therefore move with the times and develop the skills to offer all-round financial planning advice. For AXA, that involves training about 2,000 agents and continuing to recruit candidates with the right combination of drive, personality and concern for clients. 'We can't hire enough right people fast enough,' Ms Fu said. Candidates should have a mature outlook, good communication skills, self-motivation, a willingness to help others and a strong desire to develop a business niche, she said. Agents must also be aware of changing cultural attitudes towards death and debilitating illness. According to Ms Fu, any discussion about personal finances traditionally avoided these topics but these have become less of a taboo now. She said clients were increasingly considering how their spouse or loved one would pay off a mortgage or fund college education in case of their death. The Federation of Hong Kong Industries' Q-Mark Council recently recognised AXA's training academy as the first in Hong Kong's insurance sector to meet the standards required to win the Q-Mark certification. John Cai, AXA's general manager of agency management, said the training academy was part of a strategic blueprint to attract and retain talent and build market share. 'It offers training programmes based on a successful Australian model that allows agents to acquire the skills they need to meet new challenges and opportunities,' Mr Cai said. Besides product knowledge, agents learn about client-focused wealth management solutions. In partnership with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, the company also offers a financial services diploma programme, which gives employees the academic background to advance their careers. The programme consists of 40 modules taken over a four-year period. After completing 20 compulsory core modules, agents can choose 20 specialist subjects in areas such as taxation, wealth management, retirement, estate planning and selective investment tools. 'One of the ways we keep pace with client expectations is by modernising and continually upgrading our services. By investing in our staff and equipping them with product and industry knowledge, we help our agents develop the confidence to deliver better service,' Mr Cai said. Recruits spend the first few months learning the ropes through role-playing and taking courses on financial products. They also team up with experienced agents for client visits and learn how to build their own customer base through referrals. Throughout, mentors give support and advice. 'Since employee training and development is a process, we will continue to invest the necessary effort and resources in the programmes,' Mr Cai said.