Miniature of business men observing maze risk concept

To remain competitive in the insurance space during a time of crisis, Canada’s dedicated sales agencies (DSAs) have innovated while leaning on their long-time strengths.

Mike Hamilton, senior vice president of insurance sales, distribution and marketing at Mississauga, Ont.-based RBC Life Insurance Co., says customers have chosen large, established DSAs for their insurance needs during the pandemic.

“Clients see the risk of going with [a firm that] maybe can’t sustain itself through all of this,” Hamilton explains. After an initial slowdown, RBC’s business has returned to “a normal run rate,” Hamilton says, with premiums, client acquisition rates and market share growing.

RBC Life garnered the highest IE rating (the average of all category ratings) among the DSAs surveyed for Investment Executive’s 2019 Insurance Advisors’ Report Card — but the firm hasn’t rested on its laurels.

The agency, which is owned by Royal Bank of Canada, upgraded its back-office processes and technology over the past few years, permitting electronic applications for more product lines. Throughout the pandemic, RBC Life increased communication with insurance advisors by offering extra coaching and frequent updates on government measures and industry changes.

“When you have your three- to five-year plan and a crisis falls upon you, [what’s important] is the ability to pivot: to look at the environment we’re in and grow,” Hamilton says.

Building a unified brand and strengthening existing tools have been a key focus for Winnipeg-based Canada Life Assurance Co., especially after Jan. 1, when Great-West Lifeco Inc., Canada Life’s parent, consolidated its three insurance arms: Great-West Life Assurance Co., London Life Insurance Co. and Canada Life.

Hugh Moncrieff, Canada Life’s executive vice president, advisory network and industry affairs, says the consolidated Canada Life brand has helped simplify the client/advisor relationship. That relationship, he adds, now relies on digital innovations as well as person-to-person contact.

Advisors criticized Canada Life’s technology in the 2019 Report Card, citing “slow-moving” advancements. Moncrieff says his firm took that feedback “very, very seriously.” For Freedom 55 Financial and Wealth and Insurance Solutions network (WISE), a personal producing general agency (both part of Canada Life), “we’ve moved to more focused support and enhanced tools, some of which were under development prior to the [2019 Report Card] survey,” he said.

Tech resources from Canada Life include SimpleProtect, an onboarding tool, and Advisor Workspace, which stores client information and assists advisors with administrative tasks. Moncrieff says Canada Life processed 12,000 insurance e-applications in the second quarter of 2020 — 6,000 of which came through SimpleProtect — versus 3,000 paper applications.

Waterloo-based Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc. (SLFD) was widely praised in the 2019 Report Card for its reputation and “wildly recognized” brand. Rowena Chan, president of SLFD, says the DSA wants to be at the forefront of technological advancement.

“The No. 1 concern for our advisors is how they can continue to add value for their clients [during] this unprecedented time,” Chan says. Sun Life, she adds, wants to help advisors “operate differently” by using existing and new tools, as well as through enhanced training and the use of data.

Current tools for advisors and clients at Sun Life include video chat software; improved e-signature and e-application capabilities; Lumino Health, a health-care resource network; and Ella, a digital financial coaching application.

Sun Life has developed podcasts for advisors on topics such as prospecting during a pandemic. The firm also holds weekly technology training days, which are regularly attended by more than 1,000 advisors, Chan says.

Sun Life now focuses on how advi­sors can strengthen their financial planning relationships with clients.

“We’ve spent a lot of time investing in and making headway on [advisors’] financial planning capabilities,” says Chan, who noted in 2019 that as many as 80% of Sun Life’s insurance advisors were licensed to sell mutual funds.

Sun Life has made financial planning consultants available across Canada “to help advisors deliver on plans for our clients,” Chan says, and the company is adding software that offers more accurate financial assumptions.

Canada Life continues to offer tools such as Constellation, which was launched last year. The goals-based investing platform is open to advisors offering segregated funds and mutual funds. Canada Life plans to release more wealth-­planning tools this year.

“Clients want to be more involved in the [planning] process; they don’t want to be sold something,” Moncrieff says. “They want education and guidance.”

Hamilton says RBC Life has made an effort to enable consultations with professionals in the parent bank’s other divisions, such as its brokerage arm. He says advisors’ overall response to wealth-planning tools was “tepid” in previous years. However, more advisors are “looking at broader needs beyond just insurance information” now.

Hamilton adds that the pandemic and industry developments over the past few years have pushed insurance professionals to “deepen relationships” with clients. Conversations with clients, he adds, have been “changing dramatically and for the better.”

How we did it this year

Like insurance firms, Investment Executive (IE) had to adjust its operations over the past year, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of conducting our annual sentiment survey with insurance advisors as we normally do, IE spoke with executives from the managing general agencies and dedicated sales agencies to get a sense of the year’s developments.