I’m in my makeshift home office on a rainy Friday evening, browsing Facebook as I wait for an insurance company’s business preview on Zoom to begin. As I scroll through my feed, I conclude that there are only three things rising nowadays: COVID-19 cases, the Filipino’s frustration and anger, and social media posts by financial advisors.
The latter is an interesting development as it seems that the pandemic hasn’t slowed down demand for the industry, but rather increased it. For example, in May, AIA Philam Life announced that it planned to hire 10,000 new workers to address a rise in interest as a direct result of COVID. Insurance companies have also launched tweaked programs and packages to suit current needs as well as ramped up client servicing.
My editor and I managed to wrangle an invite to sit on one of these companies’ oft-quipped financial literacy events to see how things go. A jolly voice interrupts my doomscrolling streak. “Goooood morning! Are you guys excited?” a young, clean-cut gentleman greets us with a beaming smile. In case the mismatched greeting perplexes you, “good morning” suggests a sense of positivity and overflowing opportunities, he says. Never mind this dreary Friday night—we’re in for a great time!
Who wants in
In a separate email interview, financial advisor Jewel Jalandoni explains that insurance companies hold both large-scale business preview seminars and smaller, individual or team-focused meetings. Some hold bi-weekly gatherings in key cities in the country, inviting inspirational speakers and gathering as much as thousands to their events. Others focus on frequent meetings with fewer people, conducting presentations at home, co-working spaces, smaller conference areas, or at your neighborhood coffee shop.
The pandemic granted these companies a free-for-all opportunity, allowing attendees from anywhere in the Philippines (and even OFWs planning to go home) to learn possible business opportunities. Some advisors admit that it was challenging to get invitees at the beginning of enhanced community quarantine, but the numbers have been steadily increasing after a month or two. They’ve even made specialized webinars for different groups: Gen Z, millennials, OFWs, bankers, and—unsurprisingly—retrenched workers.
In theory, anyone can attend these meetings and become a financial advisor. Most people hesitate at this stage, thinking that they’re not built for sales, they’re not ready to commit to the job, or that it’s expensive. Insiders explain that you don’t need a degree in management or finance to be one, though prior knowledge would prove helpful. You’ll also learn on the job anyway—training sessions will equip you to close sales, get potential clients, manage teams, and learn industry-wide practices and other related fields. The job also can be done part-time, which can be helpful for those who don’t want to leave their day job yet or need to spend more time with domestic duties. There’s also minimal spending involved; you don’t need to shell out so much cash to become an advisor.
But any financial advisor will also tell you that this job requires you to eat rejection for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You also have to be confident and consistent as you approach client after client. You also need to attend multiple trainings to hone your skills and increase your financial know-how. “You have to know exactly what you’re doing, and we have to show our clients that they can trust us with their money,” one of my interviewees says, citing how they diligently study the stock market, industry-wide trends, and other financial concepts to stay on top of their game.
The “ideal” lifestyle
Our moderator continues his jovial spiel. “Allow me to congratulate you for being here. Your presence means that you want to upgrade your lifestyle. You want something better for your career. You are interested to learn about the unlimited income potential that we can offer.” He lists the usual come-ons for pursuing this business opportunity: building your dream home, driving a sports car, sending your kids to the best schools, and travelling the world in style, among other hopes and dreams. (I scratch my head—at any other time, these things wouldn’t sound a tad bit tone-deaf, but amid the pandemic, are these the things you want people to think about and aspire for?)
Markers of affluence aside, our speaker proceeds to reiterate the flexible working hours of financial advisors, in contrast to other income models. He outlines how employment, though relatively stable, produces meager and fixed income that isn’t likely to increase anytime soon. He shows how business ownership, though lucrative, is a challenging venture that requires much capital while facing great risk.
Then, there’s the life of the financial advisor: no set working hours and apparently unlimited income potential—depending on the effort you put in, of course. Some prospects are attracted to the part-time aspect, while some look at the growing numbers. Others are drawn to the nobility of the profession—Jalandoni tells me that most of the successful people she knows in the industry are more focused on the mission of helping other Filipinos manage their finances properly and prepare well for unprecedented events.
At this point, I think of the two main archetypes I have of financial advisors: one who takes the profession seriously, providing sound and strategic counsel to their clients; and one who loves the benefits more than the job itself. I understand my point of view is limited and I could be generalizing here, but let’s get real: we know at least one financial advisor who is genuinely concerned about your finances and future, and one who is more interested in flexing their Louis Vuitton wallet, Comme des Garçon shoes, and flashy iPad Pro as they talk to you about insurance.
How do I earn?
Our vibrant moderator finishes his idealistic spiels and gets down to work. He outlines three different ways of earning in the business: sell, recruit, manage.
First, selling. “You will be the instrument to keep your clients protected,” he tells us. To get people to buy insurance, he recommends discussing the different life stages to prospects, outlining the respective financial needs and important things to save up and prepare for at those critical times. If you’re a budding professional, you’ll need life insurance; if you’re building a family, you’d want to plan an educational fund; if old age is just up ahead, start thinking about your retirement savings. Across these stages, uncertainty looms (read: hospitalizations, death), so you also have to be prepared for that. Our moderator did a great job of discussing these topics without resorting to fearmongering. (Yes, I’ve been blatantly asked before by a financial advisor: “paano kung mamatay ka na bukas?”)
Second, recruiting. “To be successful in this business, we have to help others become successful as well,” our speaker says. He tells us that we should look for people who are either looking for other sources of income, are industrious workers, or are genuinely interested in helping themselves and others. (Some people check all these marks.) We’d then invite them to seminars like the one we’re in now, hoping that any one of the speaker’s come-ons would appeal to them.
Third, managing. Our speaker didn’t delve much into this, only showing the possible income you’ll get if you’ve worked hard enough to rise above the ranks and be capable of managing more teams and advisors. “Being in an insurance company is no different from working in a corporate setting. Leadership is integral to the success of your business and, more importantly, your people,” a top manager tells me in a separate interview. “When your leader sees a potential in you through number of cases closed and innate leadership skill, you get offered the opportunity to handle your own team. If you’re not ready, you can always say no.”
Once you accept the role, however, you’ll train to master management techniques, mentorship skills, internal communications, business structuring, among other higher-level tasks. You’re still subject to selling and recruitment quotas, however, to maximize the income potential of your newfound position.
Show me the money
There’s the magic word: quotas. Financial advisors need to hit certain targets to get the best possible income at their respective level. Our moderator brings up the estimated numbers: meet two people a day and sell one policy in one week, and you’ll hit five digits per month. (Hint: it’s way more than a college graduate’s average entry-level salary.) Recruit one new agent per month and earn even higher incentives monthly. (Hint: you would have wished you didn’t slave a decade in your job to earn this much.) Or better yet, work hard to rank high enough to supervise two managers, and get over more than half a million a year. To top it off, you can also get “overriding” commissions—a small cut from the earnings of your own recruits, whether through selling or recruiting. Sounds like a great deal, right?
At this point, you’re either wide-eyed at the possibilities or raising your eyebrows suspiciously. You begin to understand why your newly minted financial advisor friend is hell-bent on making a sale as soon as possible. You’re now wondering whether they’re genuinely in the business to help you, or they’re just in it for your money (and their benefits)—a terrible impression that follows financial advisors like their own shadow.
“Unfortunately, some people think that that we only care about making a sale and taking the clients’ money,” financial advisor Kaia Mesina tells me through email. “While getting people insured is our livelihood, it is not the only thing we think about when meeting with clients and prospects. We would like to educate people about the importance of protecting themselves and their families throughout life’s milestones and challenges. We care about making sure that if clients do decide to protect themselves, they do so with something that fits their financial capabilities. If a prospect feels that maybe this isn’t for them just yet, then it’s okay—we would have already done our job of educating them.”
Then there’s that word that any business would not want to be associated with: scams. “We’ve heard this multiple times!” Mesina continues. “This is why it is important for us to properly educate people on financial literacy. When people ‘buy insurance,’ it’s not like buying a pair of shoes or buying a house; it’s not tangible and the ‘reward’ isn’t immediate, which makes some people hesitant to protect themselves or invest their money. It’s essentially a ‘promise’ on paper that when something happens—you pass away, you get hospitalized, you retire, your kids start school, you get diagnosed with an illness—you are given an amount of money.”
Another top advisor I spoke to recounts how the introduction of the millennial workforce in the past decade may have influenced people’s distorted perceptions of the industry. “There was a time when we had a boom of millennial financial advisors back in the early 2010s. They would invite as many friends, relatives, and acquaintances to our meetings, motivated by the idea that the more people they get in, the more commissions they’ll get. Some of them thought that it was easier to recruit people than to sell policies, so why bother selling?” he says.
Our dashing speaker passes the virtual floor to two business leaders who shared their stories as financial advisors—professionals who looked for better opportunities to fulfill their domestic responsibilities, move up ahead in the career ladder, and satisfy their wants in life. After a couple of pleasantries and expressions of gratitude, the moderator shares next steps, and other seminars to attend.
He ends the meeting with an inspirational quote from the American author, salesman, and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar: “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” It’s a nice motivation and all, but I can’t help think that, in the middle of a pandemic, what people want is a lot closer to what people need.