The Traditional and the High-Tech: Use Both! Technology is responsible for the most dramatic change in training at the American Fidelity Group, says Edward Dillon, vice president, director of training and travel. About four years ago the Oklahoma City, Okla., insurer automated its sales staff, providing them with laptop computers to use in sales presentations, to access the company's automated sales processing system, and for a variety of other functions. Technological advances have also led to new training applications, including Internet and intranet training, videoconferencing, and satellite training.

With changes come challenges. "Initially, when you introduce new technology, some staff are much more adaptable than others," says Dillon. "For other staff, the challenge is to acclimate them to the new technology and, at the same time, keep up their sales abilities."

A byproduct of the new technology: "More and more we are becoming advocates of distance learning," says Dillon. American Fidelity is beginning to work with suppliers that combine Internet and videoconferencing. About 18 months ago the company installed its own videoconferencing system, with the main network at its Oklahoma City headquarters, five dedicated videoconferencing training centers around the country, plus an arrangement to use videoconferencing studios at various Kinko's [copy center] locations.

"We can have someone sitting in their kitchen with a laptop hooked up to a modem and another person at a videoconferencing location, and have a professional trainer conduct a seminar for both," says Dillon. "And now if we have a national meeting or training session, we no longer have to fly people to Oklahoma City. This reduces travel costs and time out of the field tremendously."

Still, Dillon adds a word of caution about the new technology and its impact on training. "These are cutting-edge tools but you have to be careful," he says. "You need a proper balance between the old ways and the new technology. We still need the personal contact and the traditional seminar."

Merging Two Training Cultures Richard Bowman, CLU, director of agency training for Richmond, Va.-based Home Beneficial Life Insurance, recently found himself up against one of the insurance industry's major trends: consolidation. Home Beneficial has been acquired by American General Corp. of Nashville, Tenn. In October it will close shop in Richmond and move to Nashville to become part of one of its new parent company's subsidiar-ies, American General Life and Accident Company. Of 230 staff in Richmond, only about five will make the move to Nashville. Bowman, who has been with Home Beneficial since 1960, will retire.

In terms of training, the acquisition will bring the former Home Beneficial Life right up to the minute--and into the future. The company, which dates to 1899, is in the dwindling home-service sector of the industry (where agents who are employees of the company sell and service clients directly in the client's home).

According to Bowman, Home Beneficial had taken a conservative, "old-fashioned" approach toward training.

"After the acquisition, American General's training director and I sat down and compared training programs," says Bowman. "American General is technologically sophisticated; they use computer-based training, video training, and teleconferencing. We had no computer-based training at all." Home Beneficial used print and audiotape training materials and a training program that included texts to read, exams to be completed, and management training seminars held at local offices.

But although Home Beneficial's training tools may have been traditional, the content of those materials underwent tremendous change during Bowman's tenure. "We went from a slim book to a multivolume manual containing 28 weeks of assignments with print and audio text," he says. "It all reflects a change in the industry. Forty years ago, you were handed a rate book and told 'go out and sell.' We've gone from selling $5,000 and $10,000 policies to those in excess of $1 million. You have to be absolutely sure your people are well trained."

Training a la Carte Today's insurance agent is busier than ever, it's more difficult to make a sale now than in the past, there are more types of products available, and competition has intensified from other entities, such as banks that are also selling insurance. All these factors spell a need for the development of training modules, says Joseph Furgal Jr., FLMI, CLU, ChFC, field training officer for Berkshire Life Insurance Company of Pittsfield, Mass.

"We're finding that agency managers are saying 'give me something I can pick up and train my people with,' something they can take off the shelf," he says. "This kind of modular training has been available but when there were fewer products to sell, there was more off-the-cuff training."

Furgal says his development of training modules is part of "building a system" of training at Berkshire. "We want everyone reading off the same sheet of music so that when we bring staff together for regional meetings, we know everyone has received the same training."

Like modular training, measuring performance is not a brand new concept, but it has also become more important as more and more people compete for the same business, Furgal says. "You have to keep track of where your successes are and that might be with the product itself or with who the agent is selling--doctors, say, or women business professionals," says Furgal. "This is a critical part of targeting a specific market, rather than just throwing a lot of letters out there."

Measurement has changed, too, according to Furgal. Berkshire Life used to use a manual system for measuring performance. Now its sales managers track progress electronically. "The system keeps track of everything," says Furgal. "We train our managers in using it, and it enables them to focus on the activity of their sales staff. If there's a low level of activity, they know something has to be done."

Bringing Training In-House The Akron, Ohio-based Executive Insurance Agency considers its annual School of Life conference its "one heavy hit of training," according to Melissa Cohill, meeting and conference planner. The company had outsourced the conference to an independent meeting planner, but considered it to be so important that it recently brought its planning in-house under Cohill.

The three-day conference has changed over the years, reflecting a trend toward--and a need for--more intensive training. Cohill says the School of Life has evolved into an extremely polished production that has grown too large to be held at company offices. Now conducted at a hotel, the conference features numerous top-flight speakers and a comprehensive agenda.

"We're trying to present all aspects of insurance producing, so that everyone attending will benefit from something," says Cohill. "Whether the participants are low- or high-end producers, our hope is that they will walk away with at least three ideas that can help their business."

Another change in the conference is a change in topics that comes partly from participants' recommendations. Cohill says for the first time last year, she conducted a survey of attendees, asking for their ideas on what should be addressed at the School of LIfe. "We got requests for topics like how insurance companies are rated and effective niche marketing," Cohill says. "Many suggestions were aimed at how you make things happen. If you're a new producer, you want to know how to become a $1 million producer. It all goes back to the aggressive nature of the business these days. Everyone is trying to get a leg up."*