In this Q&A, Helen Chow, FSA, AVP, strategic business development and marketing actuary at Sun Life, shares the journey of how she became the company’s marketing actuary.
Did you start your career on the traditional actuarial path?
Yes. After I graduated from the University of Toronto with an actuarial science degree, I went to work for a large insurance company. I spent the first 18 years of my career in traditional actuarial roles in areas like pension, reinsurance, corporate actuarial, group and individual insurance.
Then in 2010, my current manager, who also has an actuarial background, was managing the company’s third-party distribution channel and was looking to expand his team to support the company in bringing participating (par) life insurance back onto its product shelf. We knew each other from when we had worked on the same floor a few years prior when I was pricing individual par and universal life (UL) products. Knowing of my previous experience, he thought my rare combination of having actuarial skills and an outgoing personality would be a great addition to his sales team. I took him up on the opportunity and have never looked back!
I spent the next nine years of my career as a regional sales director, which also is called a wholesaler. My clients were third-party insurance advisers, not the clients who purchase our products directly. These advisers can choose to sell the insurance products of my company or my competitors. A wholesaler tries to build relationships with these advisers, so they will choose to sell the wholesaler’s product over another company’s.
Did you need an actuarial background for this wholesaler role?
The short answer is no. My fellow wholesalers across the country were people of various backgrounds who had studied many different disciplines—underwriting, arts, psychology, commerce and physics, to name a few. Having this kind of diversity in skill sets and collaborating as a team made us all successful.
My manager told us that to be a successful wholesaler, you need the three Ps of trust:
- Professional—have the designations to prove you “know your stuff.” The most common designations wholesalers acquire are Chartered Life Underwriter (CLU), Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and Trust and Estate Practitioner (TEP). I didn’t have any of these, but I am a Fellow of the Society of Actuaries (FSA), which helped me earn immediate respect when meeting new advisers. I can’t tell you the number of times I heard: “What do you know? A social actuary!” Being an actuary, I certainly had a good understanding of the products, but surprisingly I never knew the strategies used to sell insurance. For example, why would a rich person need insurance? To minimize taxes paid upon death or to use insurance as a safe asset inside their corporation are just a couple of the key reasons. I only learned this through sales, not from my actuarial exams in their then-forms.
- Procedural—you do what you say you’re going to do. This means finding answers in a timely manner without overpromising. You are the liaison between the adviser and all key areas in the insurance company (underwriter, new business manager, in-force manager, special quotes, compensation, claims, etc.). Therefore, it’s important to build relationships with not just the advisers, but also the people on the inside who are critical in helping reach the sales targets.
- Personal—be authentic and engaging.
These three Ps ensure that advisers will make the time to meet with you. Then in discussions, first and foremost, it should be about the optimal solution that’s in the best interest of the client. This may mean that I recommend a competitor’s product instead of my company’s similar product—I don’t expect to win every case. When advisers see this, it builds trust and can lead to loyalty later when advisers try to give me their business when it fits.
Although the sales role sounded appealing initially, I was terrified of public speaking and could count on one hand the number of times I had presented over my lifetime. Even now, I’m not totally comfortable speaking in front of large crowds. In that way, I feel like your stereotypical actuary. But each time I presented, especially the same material, it got easier—and almost enjoyable—as I could time it properly and know what questions to expect. It’s even easier today when most presentations are done virtually. Last year alone, I presented more than 50 times! I admit that I still prefer talking to advisers one-on-one or in small groups. I prefer a conversation—to be questioned and challenged—as well as feedback on the material and my delivery.
The transition from my actuarial roles was a complete 180-degree change. I went from spending 40 hours a week sitting behind a desk crunching numbers to frequently being on the road meeting with advisers.
What did you like about this wholesaler role? And what didn’t you like?
There was a lot to like about the role, especially the independence. I was given a lot of freedom as long as I was achieving my targets. I set my own appointments (and hours), worked from home when I wasn’t on the road (no longer a perk but the norm today), had a generous expense allowance and traveled to conferences across Canada and the United States while staying in luxury hotels. But most of all, I enjoyed interacting with the insurance advisers. Over the years, I built great relationships with many of the advisers—they treated me like a business partner and trusted me to help them solve their clients’ problems.
What I didn’t like about the role was that when I first started, I had to “pay my dues” and was assigned to work with the advisers who were difficult to handle or didn’t do business with us. Those early years certainly toughened me up. Another challenging part was the stress of attaining a sales target that only goes up every year. There are also those times when you lose the sale for reasons out of your control—for example, the client decided not to purchase, the client was declined for insurance or the adviser was choosing between two insurers and chose the other.
Having actuarial experience pricing individual products and a problem-solving mindset resulted in a successful nine-year run as a wholesaler. In turn, this led me to the marketing actuary role.
How did you become a marketing actuary?
The marketing actuary position at Sun Life was a new role created in 2016. I didn’t consider applying at that time because I was enjoying the wholesaler role so much and with great success. At that time, I was working with a small group of sophisticated advisers whom I really liked—I had spent years building those relationships based on mutual respect and trust.
Then the marketing actuary role became available in 2019. There were many changes going on in my department at that time, so I figured if I was going to need to adapt to those changes, then it might as well be for a larger role. It also meant reporting to the manager who originally hired me as a wholesaler. I had enjoyed working for him, so I decided to go for it. I believe having a good boss is more important than the work itself.
What does a marketing actuary do?
The marketing actuary role became an extension of what I was doing as a wholesaler on a broader and deeper level. My role consists of five main aspects:
- Create technical thought-leadership content for insurance advisers. Because I’ve been on the sales side, I have a good understanding of the marketing materials our sales teams need to attract their adviser clients and provide value.
- Build insurance strategies in Excel. These tools help advisers explain complicated strategies to their clients and their clients’ centers of influence (e.g., accountants, lawyers and investment advisers) in an easy-to-understand manner.
- Consult with top-tier advisers across the country to deepen their knowledge of insurance strategies and products. Particularly with par insurance where the illustration values are not guaranteed, looking beyond these values to understand the pricing and how one company’s par account differs from another helps educate advisers so they are able to recommend a par product from a company they trust rather than just selling based on these non-guaranteed values. I also get involved with case work that includes brainstorming optimal solutions for specific clients (e.g., business owners). Occasionally, I also meet with the advisers’ clients or accountants to help them understand the product or strategy.
- Present the content created to the masses. Most of my presentations are to the advisers, but they also can be to the advisers’ centers of influence.
- Use data science—a buzzword all companies are embracing to make business decisions. I just took a course on Tableau, a business intelligence software that helps people see and understand the data presented—it’s like Excel pivot tables on steroids! We’re using Tableau to look at our sales results and dissect information. We have a data science team, but this is a new (to me) undertaking I enjoy dabbling in.
What advice do you have for those looking to branch out from traditional actuarial roles?
Seek out actuaries in your company, or even in the industry, who are currently working in nontraditional actuarial roles to learn about what they do. People often are flattered and happy to offer advice to those who ask.
Networking is important in whatever you do and at whatever stage of life you are in. Meeting new people inside or outside of your industry will be interesting. I’ve known people who started in traditional actuarial work who then ventured into something completely different—for example, coffee shop owner, yoga instructor, fashion designer and car salesperson.
Whatever you do, don’t ever feel like you’re pigeon-holed into a job that you don’t enjoy. I love what I do, and it took me almost 20 years to find it.
Statements of fact and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of the Society of Actuaries or the respective authors’ employers.
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