A summer internship with a leading financial institution is a big part of the prize for winners of the university student category of the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards 2011.
So when Hercules Tang Tsun-hang reported in late July for his three-week stint with competition sponsor Manulife (International), he was determined to make the most of the opportunity.
"I felt it was a great chance to get an overview of the insurance industry and find out how financial planning works in practice," says Tang, who is currently between the second and third years of his BSc in actuarial science at the University of Hong Kong. "The experience will be useful for decisions about my career and is an important addition to the theory we learn in the classroom."
During his first week, Tang joined training courses taken by all new agents. These deal with such things as product features, sales techniques, work practices and corporate expectations. There are also role plays to illustrate how to best interact with different types of customers and how to listen for clues in a conversation.
"It was a very good introduction," Tang says. "You see there is a real art to finding out what a client needs and then presenting a tailor-made plan. I thought the training might focus on memorising product features, but it was much more about knowing how to respond to customers' reactions and letting them feel they are valued."
To build on this, the subsequent two weeks included time with branch managers, junior agents and recently recruited full-time staff.
Not having the required professional licences, Tang could not talk directly to customers. But sitting in on meetings, he was able to observe, absorb and learn, he says. In these encounters, he was particularly struck by two things: the agents' initial emphasis on listening and the focus on providing clients with a long-term financial plan that took account of current circumstances and likely changes. In other respects, he was also favourably impressed by the general friendliness of the office environment and the willingness of colleagues to share advice.
"People seemed very self-motivated and team members were always ready to help," he says. "As a prize for students, an internship like this is very suitable. It gives us real experience and an up-close look at the industry."
That, of course, is exactly what Kent Leung See-kin, district director for Manulife (International), set out to achieve when the plan for internships was originally discussed. Seeing the big picture, the company knows the importance of getting talented young people interested in careers in the sector and, more generally, of spreading the message about effective financial planning. "When discussing the internship programme, we said we wanted students to get a good understanding of our day-to-day work and see what a frontline role involves," Leung says. "That meant internal sales meetings, case studies, and going out to hear what clients actually want."
This latter point, he notes, is key to successful financial planning. In some companies, it can be overlooked and undervalued in the rush to promote standard schemes or investment products. "The thing for us is to understand what the client wants even if it is not what he says," Leung explains. "That's why we regard listening skills as so important."
Vincent Lee Kai-yeung, a Manulife branch manager who directly supervised this summer's prize-winning intern, was positive about the benefits for both sides.
The student soon realises that a job in insurance or finance is not all about theory and numbers, he says. Much of it revolves around good communication and being able to sense what is right for each client. And the company has the chance to assess potential high-calibre recruits and, if all goes well, consider them for full-time roles.
"Nowadays, I spend about 80 per cent of my time on training," Lee says. "The best thing is being able to inspire people and help them overcome different challenges. When you see someone always listening, like Hercules did, that is a good sign."
Referring to the benefits of the SCMP/IFPHK Financial Planner Awards, Emil Lee, vice-president and chief distribution officer for Manulife (International), wants to highlight two factors.
One is the awards' contribution to raising overall standards of professionalism within the sector by setting the bar higher. The second involves increasing public awareness of the need to think long term and invest accordingly.
"Together with other industry players, we have to keep improving and striving toward the levels of professionalism and service excellence the awards have been promoting," Lee says. "And our doors are always open for those who stand out in the student category, if they want to develop their career in our field force or corporate office."