People come to America from all over the world seeking freedom. That freedom comes in many guises. Some of it is inalienable and some of it is sold. And how that freedom is sold and packaged is as different as the dialects of the world.
To sell life insurance is to speak the language of freedom?freedom from debt, freedom from dependence, freedom from poverty. But the language of freedom glides across many tongues in the United States as people from countless ethnic backgrounds, aware of the noticeable economic advancement in so many foreign-born communities, choose insurance advisor as profession.
These men and women are taking prominent places in these communities by introducing life insurance and related benefits where often the concept has never been discussed. Some are doing it in Cantonese, others in Spanish, still others in myriad dialects from around the world. And while these agents may speak in words unfamiliar to the majority of Americans, they share a reliance on one method of communication: They all have stories to share with their clients.
These stories are usually cautionary and true tales of people whose families endure unnecessary hardship when a husband or wife dies without insurance. Some agents get these stories of misfortune, anger and disappointment from friends and retell these parables to clients and prospects to illustrate a need or to challenge an objection.
Some agents don’t need to gather anecdotes secondhand from acquaintances or magazine clippings. They have their own stories to tell, as exciting or as heartbreaking as any tale told on Oprah or any gossip at the grocery store. Corina Chou Wang, an agent with New York Life in Chamblee, Ga., just outside of Atlanta, shares her own life story with any client who needs a clear picture of what life insurance is, what it can do and the consequences of not having coverage.
Her husband, Paul Yin, had immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1975 and brought her along with him. “We came to the USA for the freedom to create our own destiny,” Wang says. “He opened a Chinese restaurant and called it Yin’s.” Eventually, Paul Yin opened three such restaurants in the Atlanta area, hiring three sets of restaurant staff. His wife helped him manage the budding enterprise, and both pitched in as hosts, chefs, waiters and did whatever needed to be done to keep the restaurants running.
“We were restaurant people,” Wang explains. “That means we didn’t just keep the books, we cooked, cleaned, took orders, whatever needed doing. We lived the restaurant.”
One of the things that needed doing was buying insurance on her husband’s life. Although the couple knew little about insurance, an agent convinced Yin to buy $600,000 on himself with his wife and two sons as beneficiaries. Sometime later, another agent made an attempt to replace Paul Yin’s coverage.
“The agent came to our restaurant,” Wang recalls. “He said he could sell us the same amount of coverage for about half the price. He said we could cancel my husband’s policy and buy a new policy from him. So we canceled the original policy.”
Then came a period of indecision. “Well, we didn’t buy the second policy right away,” she regretfully admits. “We didn’t really know how insurance worked. We kept putting off buying the new policy even though we canceled the old one.”
Three months after Yin canceled his $600,000 life insurance, he and 16 other people were traveling in a small airplane when the aircraft experienced difficulties and crashed. Left widowed and alone were Corina and her two sons, ages 7 and 4. “I was left with no money, no insurance,” she explains. “All because we waited too long to buy the replacement policy.”
Paul Yin’s death took its toll on Corina Wang physically. She was forced to hire three people to try to take the place of her husband at the restaurants. And because Wang had to oversee all three locations alone, she had to hire a housekeeper and baby sitter as well. “I just couldn’t replace him,” she says. Eventually the strain became too great. “I became sick; I felt weak,” she recalls. “I couldn’t take care of my children. Finally, I called 911. As they were driving me to the hospital, in my mind, all I could think of was I should have a will. Why don’t I have insurance? Who is going to take care of my children? That’s what kept going through my mind.”
“I had nothing,” she says, “and the future didn’t look promising.”
Corina Chou Wang’s story is a personal tale she’s willing to tell in Mandarin to any prospect who hesitates to buy insurance. “Telling a true story is like putting pictures in someone’s brain,” she explains. “A story touches their heart, gives them a vision of how they could protect their family. And if that’s what my story does for my clients, then I’m happy to share it with them.”
Stories are such an integral part of the way Wang does business that she’s collected other people’s tales of what insurance can do and how devastating the lack of it can be in a Mandarin-language book called “Daddy, Please Don’t Leave Us.” She gives copies to her Chinese clients who need extra prodding to convince them of the good insurance can do in family and business situations.
But Wang isn’t the only agent who sells insurance in a foreign language by using a personal life story. Many others do, including Jerry K. Mok, LUTCF, a MetLife agent in Dallas who came from Hong Kong in 1986. He tells the story of his own father who died in Hong Kong 35 years ago. “We thought he didn’t have any insurance,” he explained. “My mother didn’t know what she was going to do. Who was going to take care of her? Her children? Where were we going to get the money?”
It turned out, however, that Mok’s father had $50,000 in life insurance, a fact that didn’t become apparent until the family did a little digging. “That insurance changed my life,” he says. “I was able to be educated and come to America as a result of my father’s foresight. I just wish we knew about it sooner. We were worried.”
Mok’s story has a different ending than Wang’s in that Jerry Mok’s has a happy ending. The money was there when his family needed it. And it’s a story Mok has told many times. “Sometimes people need an example to look to before they buy,” he says. “In that case, I consider it storytelling time.”
Not every agent, however, has experienced such personal tragedy or triumph. Some, like Teresa M. Meneses, a MetLife agent in Dallas from Bolivia who sells mainly in Spanish, finds her stories from newspapers, magazines, and from her customers, including a client who runs a funeral home. “There’s a lot of sad insurance stories from the funeral home,” she explains. “Every time I see my client, he’s got a fresh batch of stories about families that did not have enough money to bury their loved ones the way they would have liked.”
This funeral home caters quite a bit to the Hispanic community in Dallas, where a great many Spanish-speaking people are immigrants from Central and South America. “A common wish among Hispanic people is to be buried back home, in the country they came from,” she says. “They say, ’When I die, I want my body to go back home.’ My job is to tell them that insurance will pay for this and allow it to happen.”
Storytelling is an art that not every agent masters, though, because not every agent feels the need to sell by example. “I don’t tell stories,” says Ninh Van Le, LUTCF, another MetLife agent in Dallas who came to the United States from Vietnam in 1987. “I don’t need to tell stories because when it’s claim time, everyone knows about it. The product speaks for itself. All my clients know that I’m the money guy and I’m honest about it.”
When Van Le sells life insurance, he’s up front with his clients about what he’s selling. “I tell them that what they are buying now is only a piece of paper, but what they’re really buying is a promise of money to come when they need it.”
Ninh Van Le, Teresa Meneses and Jerry Mok are three of 25 bilingual agents in the firm of North Texas Associates, a MetLife agency in North Dallas. The firm boasts 70 agents, and more than a third speak languages other than English. It’s one of the reasons the firm is located in a suburban-like area of town, rather than in an area with a high concentration of ethnic neighborhoods, such as a Chinatown or a Little Havana.
William L. Moore, CLU, ChFC, managing director of the firm, says his agents and consultants speak 19 languages. Moore says 44 percent of the agency’s business is within ethnic markets, and much of that business is conducted in foreign languages. The firm is expecting to generate $800,000 in first-year commissions from the ethnic markets it serves.
“A good agent can sell to anybody,” Moore says, &quo;but we recognize that clients usually feel more comfortable among members of their own group.“ Still, as more members of minorities rise to affluence in America, there will be fewer inner-city Chinatown-like neighborhoods serving as insular ports of entry. &quo;I think it’s the wave of the future,” he says.
That doesn’t mean newcomers to America won’t revitalize neighborhoods and benefit from each other’s business success. Corina Chou Wang likes where her office is situated, snug within a shopping center populated with Chinese-run businesses, including a restaurant, newsstand, beauty shop, video store laundry and the Dinho grocery market. The shopping center is nestled within northeast Atlanta’s growing Chinatown, largely a series of new suburban strip malls, where businesses herald their wares with signs in Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese and Cambodian. They advertise auto repair, tea, jewelry, musical instruments, doctors, dentists, shoes, printing services, banks, income tax services and, of course, insurance.
“I like being a part of Chinatown,” Wang says. “It makes me feel more a part of the Chinese community here. All I say is ’I’m in Chinatown,’ and people know where I’m at.”
No small talk
Wang works the small business and family markets and has clients of almost every Asian stripe, including immigrants from Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines. And although she has some native-born Americans as clients, she says she does 95 percent of her business in Mandarin. Her experience is that it takes less effort to sell life insurance to Americans. “It’s easier to sell to Americans,” she says. “Americans already understand the concept of insurance because it’s been a staple of society for generations. With the Chinese, you have to start from the beginning with the basics. Life insurance has not been established in the Chinese culture yet.”
That’s changing, though. The Chinese in America, especially second-generation sons and daughters, are more easily accepting of the concept. “They’re more liberal when they’re brought up here in America,” she says.
It’s the first-generation immigrants that Wang has the most trouble with. She sees it as her job to educate her fellow immigrants. It’s a job she is more qualified to do than native-born Caucasian or African-American agents. “Language is a barrier, particularly in the Chinese market,” she says. “It’s no secret that it’s easier for Chinese agents to sell to the Chinese than it is for American agents. Knowing the language and culture of the Chinese is key to making sales. When I talk to my Chinese clients, we can talk about common things, similar experiences that most Americans just don’t have. There’s less communication going on with Americans.”
Language is not the only barrier agents can face in the immigrant market. There is also culture conflict. Some words and concepts agents commonly present to English-speaking middle America are taboo in other societies. In the Chinese culture, for example, the subject of death and the concept of death benefit are distasteful. “You avoid the word ’death,’” Wang explains. “You substitute the word with ’unfortunate accident’ because the Chinese don’t like to talk about death. They are very superstitious.”
And if death is an unpleasant subject, then the idea of a death benefit is downright morbid. According to Wang, the Chinese “don’t want to be seen as profiting from the death of a loved one.”
Chinese culture has other hang-ups, too, she says. If someone has money they often think, “I’m too rich for insurance. I don’t need it. I own property,” she says. Another is the mentality that parents don’t owe their children any of their estate after they die. “I don’t want to leave any money to the children. I don’t need to. I gave them an education.” Chinese people like to buy property?land, buildings, things they can see, she says. That’s why selling an intangible like insurance is difficult.
“You really need to be Chinese to explain how insurance works,” echoes Jerry Mok. “The word ’death’ is unlucky. In Hong Kong, most people are scared to talk about death. They consider it bad luck. Consequently, insurance agents have a bad reputation there.”
In Vietnamese, certain words don’t make the translation. For instance, “on occasion, the word ’assets’ can be translated into the word ’profits,’” says Ninh Van Le. “So you can see how we have to be very careful when we explain a contract to a client.” Another example is the word “friend.” “In Vietnam, you don’t go around calling everyone ’friend,’” he says. “It’s offensive.”
You also have the problem of implied meaning, Van Le says. “In the Vietnamese culture, you can be talking to someone and they may be nodding their heads and saying, ’Yes, we agree with you,’ but that’s not necessarily the case. Very often, yes can mean no. It takes a native speaker of the language to discern that.”
One thing most Asian agents interviewed for this article say is each country in Asia is different from each other in language as well as culture, so it is a mistake to assume all Asians behave or think the same way. The same logic applies to Hispanic societies in America. “Spanish ways and language are a little different by each country in South America and Central America,” says Teresa Meneses. “You need to be able to tell the differences among them. Brazilians [who speak Portuguese] are different from Mexi-cans, who are different from Cubans.”
In Mexico, for example, the thinking is that the man of the house needs life insurance because he is the one taking care of family business, Meneses says. But in some countries in South America, husbands and wives are seen as equal partners and are on more equitable footing financially.
Another difference is that in some countries, Hispanic men are more apt to insure themselves to leave money to their children rather than to their wives. The thinking is that the children will look after and provide for their mother, Meneses says.
What most of the Hispanic communities share in common, however, is hospitality. “When I’m selling to an Hispanic client, my appointment is longer, not only because Hispanic people tend to ask a lot of questions, but because I’m treated like a guest,” she says. “I’m often invited to dinner, to nephews’ weddings, occasions like that. And people get offended if you say no.”
“An appointment is not as stiff or formal as it might be with Americans,” Meneses says. “They’re much more social contacts. Americans like to get to the point; Hispanics take their time. And I have to be flexible to accommodate them, even if I feel that I don’t have the time. I make the time. It’s all to my advantage, though, because socializing leads to referrals.”
These times are changing, though. If Hispanic immigrants, “the older generation,” feel comfortable speaking to people in Spanish, their children and grandchildren are becoming more comfortable using English. But, even if they are bilingual, Spanish remains the parents’ and grandparents’ preference.
“The older people speak good Spanish,” Meneses explains, “better than the young people. And my older customers want to do business in Spanish. They want a Spanish-speaking agent.” She tells about a woman who wanted to buy health insurance and dealt with an American-born agent. The agent, who spoke no Spanish, misunderstood and sold her life insurance. “She thought she bought health insurance,” Meneses laughs. “Boy, was she mad. That’s why it’s important to have Spanish-speaking agents if you’re going to work this market.”
The number of immigrant insurance agents in America is hard to pin down. No major insurance organization has information on the subject, and insurance companies don’t keep it because it’s illegal to ask about ethnic or racial origins on job applications. But from anecdotal accounts, what the insurance industry calls ethnic markets have been flourishing in recent years as hard-working immigrants become successful in American business, accumulating real estate and business assets and finding themselves with more to lose. Consequently, the need and the opportunity for bilingual agents with contacts and referrals in these communities is great.
Money these immigrants will pass to their children, including insurance benefits, will go to educate and assimilate rising generations. Ironically, that very assimilation will likely result in fewer agents selling insurance and conducting financial planning in Chinese and Vietnamese and Spanish. The need for that special skill will diminish as the younger generation, educated in English and more involved in the fullness of American society, grows up and supplants their elders.
“I’m finding that the young people don’t want to deal with Vietnamese agents,” says Ky-Ha Thi Nguyen, a Vietnamese agent with the Dallas MetLife agency. “The younger generation already understands insurance, and they’ve grown up with English. They want to deal with English speakers. They’ve fully adapted to the USA way of life, so I have to deal with them differently?and in English.”
“The ABCs?American Born Chinese,” laughs Jerry Mok, “they think they know everything. They’re better educated, true, and they speak English, but they like to buy term insurance a lot. Cheaper doesn’t always mean smarter.”
The first-generation immigrants, Mok says, like to buy from him because he is an immigrant himself, transplanted from Hong Kong. “I’m like a bridge between the old world and the new world,” he says. “Back home, the thinking is ’My brother will take care of my family if I die.’ They know that doesn’t fly here. In the USA, your extended family won’t necessarily take care of your immediate family. That’s part of what I try to teach them, and that’s why I can offer them insurance as a solution.”
Reaching the people
Typical within the ethnic markets is a strong feeling of community, of belonging to the group, the neighborhood, and supporting and celebrating a shared heritage. Corina Chou Wang connects to her Chinatown community not only by locating her office there, but by serving on the board of the local Chinese Cultural Center, which is located just around the corner from her office. She also emcees at events, helps with local fund-raising, and donates to Chinese causes.
She does one other thing to keep her presence high in the community. She advertises in regional Chinese language newspapers in Mandarin rather than English, a move designed to further display her celebration of Chinese culture. “The ad tells people in Mandarin who I am and what I offer,” she explains, translating the quarter-page ad for a strictly English-speaking visitor. “It’s very simple?and it has my picture. People recognize me all the time. They say, ’I’ve seen you in the newspaper!’ I get a lot of business because of my ads.”
Wang’s ad is homemade, created by her but approved by New York Life. She is fortunate in that New York Life has Chinese-language specialists who review advertisements and sales materials in Chinese languages and in Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean and Hindi. &quo;We create our advertising and sales materials from the ground up,&quo; says Paul Russell, cultural marketing division head and a vice president at New York Life. “We don’t just translate our ads and brochures from English to Chinese. We have language experts on staff committed to doing this.”
The creators of sales material for the Chinese market have to finesse the taboo on death. “You can’t have in a sales piece a phrase like, ’If you die?’ That’s distasteful,” Russell says. “Selling a death benefit is OK, but it’s all in how you present it. So how do you sell a life product? You can’t [for compliance reasons] sell it as a savings account, which is how many Chinese would like to buy it. That’s against the law. Instead, you emphasize the cash value element that’s available for retirement or for education or as an emergency fund.”
New York Life, which says it makes 20 percent of its sales in foreign languages, creates print ads in Chinese, and also sales brochures, calendars, general product descriptions and commercials for Chinese-language cable TV shows and radio programs. About the only thing the insurer will not make available in-language are its contracts and prospectuses. Those are always in English because translating the legal language would not only be too difficult, but may cause legal problems. “The legal considerations really prevent us from offering those types of documents in-language,” he says. “Those stay in English. It’s up to the agent to make sure their clients understand the contract. In that sense, the agent serves as an interpreter. That’s why our agents are so valuable to the sales process.”
MetLife, whose use of Snoopy and the rest of the late Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts gang is meant to appeal to mainstream America, has for more than a decade created print and TV ads for ethnic marketing. “We build those ads from the ground up,” says Peter Yu, assistant vice president of Asian marketing for MetLife. “We use that type of advertising in many of the big immigrant cities?New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles.”
A typical MetLife print ad in Chinese shows a man in his 40s bending down and grasping the handlebars of a tricycle. On the tricycle sits a fuzzy-haired boy of about 3 trying to keep his balance. A string of printed Chinese characters stream out of the man’s mouth. Translated, it says, “My kids will have wings and fly away from the nest someday. I’m Chen Chi-Xiao, 45. I’m an accountant. I want a carefree retired life, not a worried one.” At the bottom of the ad next to a Snoopy-enhanced MetLife logo is copy that generally describes the insurer’s annuity product and information on contacting the company.
“We place these ads in news magazines, foreign-language magazines, even on billboards and on the sides of buses in some cities,” says Shailendra Ghorpade, MetLife marketing vice president. “In immigrant cities especially, where people are clustered in tight-knit communities. Situations like that are a marketer’s dream.”
In addition to New York, San Francisco and L.A., the insurer uses print ads, cable TV commercials and in-language videotape presentations in Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Houston and Seattle, Ghorpade says. MetLife says 25 percent of its overall business is in ethnic markets and 85 percent of its ethnic business comes from these cities. The insurer estimates it has about 2,000 ethnic agents.
“We do not market our products differently to people who primarily speak another language other than English,” Ghorpade says. “It’s just a different way of communicating. Our agents, in their own languages, make sure their clients understand what our products are about.”
Aiding and abetting
Back in her Chinatown office, Corina Chou Wang is telling her tale of a husband downed in a doomed aircraft with 16 other people. “What was I going to do?” she asks. Her husband’s life was over. And Wang’s life felt as if it were over. She had little money, no insurance and two small boys to raise. “There wasn’t any way I could replace my husband.” It was a sad fact of life, and one I wanted to tell to other people, to get them to see the importance of insurance?insurance I didn’t have. “I didn’t want people to suffer the way I did, scrambling to piece my life back together,” she says. So she sold the three restaurants and became an insurance agent.
As a result of shared immigrant experiences, Wang often helps her clients with general life matters. “Filling out Social Security forms, helping them with their green card, dealing with mortgage officers, the Department of Motor Vehicles, calling travel agencies for them. I even do this for people who aren’t my clients.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, though,” she adds, “after I help them with something as stressful as their green card, they usually end up turning into clients.”
While Corina Chou Wang may not be quite the Statue of Liberty, she and other immigrants who choose selling life insurance as a way to help their fellow expatriates are helping their clients find the freedom, financial and personal, to face an adopted country and a challenging new life.