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Reinventing Life Insurance Agency Distribution Globally

Life Insurers Must Improve Distribution, Which Is Consuming an Increasing Share of the Industry’s Total Economic Value, Particularly Compared with Customers’ Declining Share, According to a BCG/Morgan Stanley Report

NEW YORK—Life insurers globally face multiple challenges and among the most critical is the sustainability of their agency distribution models. After decades of limited innovation, distribution is on the cusp of major change, which will unlock benefits for all stakeholders, according to a joint research report from Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Morgan Stanley Research, Reinventing Life Insurance Agency Distribution Globally.

This report draws on more than 50 interviews with senior insurance executives; a survey of 850 agents in China, India, Germany, and the United States; and detailed proprietary financial modeling. It envisions a hybrid agency model in which agents, empowered by technology, are embedded in multichannel, and multisolution ecosystems focused on addressing customers’ holistic needs across their lifetimes.

Tim Calvert, a BCG partner and co-author of the report, says this transformation involves many challenges. Reinvigorating the agency requires significant amounts of innovation and investment in new capabilities to boost overall effectiveness, but agents have historically been resistant to change. “We believe insurers that approach the problem holistically will unlock significant value. Agents will remain key to insurance distribution, but we expect their role to continue to evolve over time.”

Nathalia Bellizia, a BCG principal and co-author of the report, adds that all stakeholders stand to benefit from transforming distribution—even the agents themselves. “Depending on the carrier’s starting point and ambition, this transformation could lower acquisition costs by 10% to 20% while simultaneously raising total agent compensation, reduce administration costs by 20% to 30%, and allow insurers to deploy capital more efficiently.”

The Economic Fundamentals Are Broken

One of the report’s major conclusions is that the fundamental economics of the global life insurance industry are broken. Over time, distribution has consumed an increasing share of the industry’s total economic value, particularly compared with

customers’ declining share. To restore balance, carriers need to reinvent their distribution to improve productivity. For example, by investing in data and predictive analytics capabilities, carriers can provide agents with highly qualified leads. BCG’s Calvert says: “By improving productivity, carriers can help lift an agent’s overall level of compensation while also reducing per unit sale compensation. This will attract new talent, while increasing economic value for customers and shareholders.”

Reinvigorate the Agency

The report identifies four foundations of distribution transformation and explains that there is significant value at stake for insurers that successfully manage to reinvigorate the agency, revamp solutions, drive efficiencies, and address the in-force books of business. Carriers need to start by improving agent “life cycle” management: recruiting, onboarding, and retaining agents to create a more vibrant and productive channel. Improvements are critical when you consider that in the US, for example, the agency workforce is quickly aging and yet only 4% of millennials are interested in a career in insurance. One way to better manage the agency workforce is to segment agents based on performance and build a nimbler support function to maximize their potential. The top-performing segment can also be an excellent testing ground for support services that carriers might roll out to the wider agent population.

Lessons from Emerging Markets

While innovation in the distribution channel is necessary across both developed and emerging markets, BCG’s Bellizia says that “global insurers from developed markets should consider leveraging strategies from successful insurers in emerging markets, particularly those in China.” Despite the steep growth and churn in agents over the past few years, she notes that China has been achieving significant per agent productivity improvements. The transition to a digitally delivered, analytics-enabled, end-to-end experience has contributed significantly to these productivity gains.

A Hybrid Approach to Distribution

Despite the shift toward a more hybrid human/technology distribution model, direct digital sales today mostly involve simpler products, such as term insurance and personal lines of insurance. Given the complex nature of many life insurance products and the emotional component often involved, human interaction to facilitate sales will continue to play a significant role.

A copy of the report can be downloaded here.

To arrange an interview with one of the authors, please contact Eric Gregoire at +1 617 850 3783 or gregoire.eric@bcg.com.

About Boston Consulting Group

Boston Consulting Group partners with leaders in business and society to tackle their most important challenges and capture their greatest opportunities. BCG was the pioneer in business strategy when it was founded in 1963. Today, we help clients with total transformation—inspiring complex change, enabling organizations to grow, building competitive advantage, and driving bottom-line impact.

To succeed, organizations must blend digital and human capabilities. Our diverse, global teams bring deep industry and functional expertise and a range of perspectives to spark change. BCG delivers solutions through leading-edge management consulting along with technology and design, corporate and digital ventures—and business purpose. We work in a uniquely collaborative model across the firm and throughout all levels of the client organization, generating results that allow our clients to thrive.

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