How well do your qualifiers know their customers? If they're anything like the marketing executives who lead them, the answer is "very well" in some ways, "not so well" in others.

In a session at the Life Insurance Marketing Research Association (LIMRA) Annual Meeting in Dallas last fall, Walter Zultowski, senior vice president at LIMRA, asked a group of 50 local consumers a series of questions about their perceptions of financial services pro-viders and their own financial needs. He then asked the 500 or so LIMRA executives in attendance at the meeting to answer those same questions as they thought the consumers would have answered them. (Zultowski points out that the consumer sample was balanced to represent nationwide demographics, but because all respondents were from the Dallas area, it was not a valid national sample.)

The Lure of Mutual Funds Some of the more surprising results concerned consumers' perceptions of four different types of financial institutions: banks, life insurance companies, mutual fund companies, and stock brokerage firms. Asked which of these came to mind first when they thought of an institution "making good on its promises," only 29 percent of consumers chose life insurance companies. The insurance marketers, by contrast, predicted that 59 percent would have chosen life insurance companies.

The marketing execs were more pessimistic about their own industry when it came to predicting which institution consumers thought of first as "trustworthy and honest." The marketing execs predicted only 16 percent of consumers would have chosen life insurance companies; and, indeed, only 19 percent of them did. Which came out on top for trustworthiness? Just over half the consumers said banks, while 30 percent chose mutual fund companies. Most of the insurance execs (71 percent) thought consumers would have put banks on top, while only 12 percent predicted mutual fund companies would get the vote.

This points up an interesting theme: Despite recognizing mutual fund companies as a major source of competition, insurance marketing execs have perhaps misidentified the reasons behind consumers' affinity for mutual funds. Insurance execs predicted that consumers would rank mutual fund companies high in the categories of "responsiveness" and "return on your money," while predicting very low rankings in "safety of your money" and "financial strength and stability." In fact, consumers were not as impressed by mutual fund firms' respon- siveness as the execs expected (13 percent vs. 58 percent), while many were impressed by those firms' financial muscle, more so than the execs expected (28 percent vs. three percent).

On the other hand, it may be that the bank threat has been exaggerated. Only six percent of consumers in the survey said they'd ever spoken with a bank representative about buying life insurance or an annuity, while marketing execs predicted that a quarter of them had had such dis- cussions. In addition, almost one-third of consumers said they would be "not at all receptive" to buying life insurance or annuities from banks, while the marketers thought that only five percent would rule out such a purchase.

Too Soon for Internet Sales? The vast majority of consumers (80 percent) reported one or more household computers. However, while most respondents (65 percent) said it was likely that their households would use computer technology to get information about financial products, far fewer (38 percent) said it was likely their households would use computer technology to buy financial products. More than one-third, in fact, said it was "not at all likely" their households would ever purchase financial products via computer.

Marketers were more willing to believe that such purchases would occur, predicting that 69 percent of respondents would be likely to do so while betting that only one percent had said that it was "not at all likely" that they would do so.

What it Means for Your Meetings This exercise, while not a rigorous statistical study, does suggest gaps in insurers' understanding of today's consumer and of the threats to the insurance industry's continued profitability. Perhaps in addition to a motivational keynoter, your meeting program should include a speaker on consumer trends and preferences. And what about sales training meetings? Is there too much emphasis on the encroachment of banks and not enough education about competition from mutual fund firms?

As meeting speakers keep saying, this is a time of dramatic and rapid change in all aspects of business and life. Meeting planners who develop programs targeting those changes that have the most impact on their qualifiers are doing them a huge service. Information dispersed and discussed at meetings can be critical not only to those agents' livelihood but to the success of the industry.