The quiet surrounds of the Essex town of Billericay form a surprising backdrop for one of the fastest growing firms of intermediaries in the PMI business.
SecureHealth now has 100 sales consultants who work on a self-employed basis, and, including the team at its tele-marketing office, 62 other full time staff.
What makes the company so exceptional is that SecureHealth was established less than three years ago. It now covers over 45,000 people and has a premium turnover of £12.5 million.
The brains behind SecureHealth are its three directors, Alan Keeble, Stephen Rose and Chris Hopper. They are equal in status but each has a clearly defined role.
Keeble is operations director, a job which involves keeping a close eye on the books and the way the company is performing financially.
As marketing director, Hopper is largely responsible for lead generation and has responsibility for SecureHealth’s Southend operation, which houses 50 tele-sales staff. They book appointments which are followed up by the sales consultants.
Rose is sales director, and while he rarely now finds time to sell direct to clients, he selects the sales consultants and supervises their ongoing training.
The three met while working as sales consultants for private medical insurer, Prime Health. They were among the best salespeople in the business, and later set up individually as intermediaries. Some time on, they decided to join forces – and they have never looked back.
There is a strong sense of camaraderie between the three and all agree that without a high level of trust, commitment and drive, the business would not have thrived. Indeed, all three have invested personal money in the business and continue to plough in profits to ensure it grows. Such is their belief in investing for the future that they admit some of the top sales consultants they employ could earn more than they do – without the hassle of being a director. But they are all passionate about the business, and, as Keeble comments, they insist on being “hands-on directors.”
They are also adamant that the business will only work if they are convinced their product is the best in the market. And although the company is an independent intermediary, it has developed its own bespoke policies, by working with insurers such as Guardian Health.
Keeble says they chose to work with Guardian because of fair and fast claims handling and its wide range of access to hospitals and consultants. They also believe the premiums are excellent value.
Apart from PMI, the company offers critical illness and income protection cover underwritten by Permanent, and is also looking to work with other insurer partners.
Keeble is determined, however, that SecureHealth will remain in the driving seat as far as product design is concerned. “We have high standards. We would never sell a product underwritten by an overseas insurer or to an insurer which sells a cheap policy and then locks the customer in. We also only offer comprehensive cover as we do not see so-called budget plans as offering good value.”
Keeble adds that a key element of quality cover is that specialists’ fees should be paid in full. And he points out that some insurers require the policyholder to pay a shortfall if the cover limit is exceeded.
SecureHealth sells some 75% of its PMI policies to individuals and 25% to companies employing less than 75 staff. But good products do not sell themselves, and SecureHealth is strongly reliant on its sales force. There are now over 100 of these, all of whom work on a self-employed basis. Each needs to have their own car and is paid purely commission instead of a basic salary. While outwardly this might not seem the most secure of jobs, Rose explains there has been no problem attracting staff of the right calibre and says that the rewards can be highly lucrative.
SecureHealth advertises for its consultants in newspapers such as the Daily Mail
, and Rose says there is a certain type of applicant is most likely to succeed: “We prefer people who have not already worked in the health insurance industry. They must be presentable and solvent. Anyone with a county court judgement we turn down.”
Once through the initial screening, candidates are invited to Billericay and put up in a local hotel for training at the in-house centre. Around 10-15 recruits are taken on at a time, and they are put through their paces in technical knowledge, and product information – with rival products as much a part of the agenda as those SecureHealth sells. Frequent tests are a key element of the programme.
And although the sales force is backed up by the Southend tele-sales centre, recruits also need to learn how to generate their own leads, and to conduct their own fact finds on target clients.
Initial training over, the trainees are sent out on the road, accompanied by an experienced manager consultant during their first appointments.
At the end of three months, the recruits are tested on a range of rival products and also judged on their overall performance – some don’t make it.
Rose says: “We can’t compromise on standards. There are cowboys in the market and, in our view, the sooner regulation comes the better.”
While the rewards can be great, Rose says lazy people might as well stay in bed: “We expect consultants to have five to 10 appointments a day and the first one should be made at 9.00am. If they don’t work hard they won’t make it. People who wait for the phone to ring with business aren’t for us.”
And he destroys the myth that sales people are born, believing strong interpersonal skills, persistence and a determination to succeed are the most important qualities. If they do make it, he says an average consultant can expect to earn around £40,000 a year for a 60 hour week, while one with exceptional talent can earn around £70,00 to £100,000 a year.
And this with few, if any, visits to potential policy holders in their own homes. Presentations are made to company staff who usually then buy policies on an individual basis, or as part of a small corporate scheme.
While some continue to talk the market down, there is huge optimism among SecureHealth’s directors about the future of the market and sales opportunities. Keeble points out that 80% of businesses have less than 20 employees, and these firms make ideal sales targets, as do the self-employed.
He says these staff are often concerned about falling standards and waiting lists in the NHS, and may have been prompted by horror stories in the press to consider PMI.
Rose believes the change in government has made no difference to existing views on PMI, but he is angry about the removal of tax relief for the over 60s: “It was a disgrace penalising the weakest part of the community and forcing them to pay up to a 30% increase in premiums.”
SecureHealth offers policies sold on either a medically underwritten or moratorium basis. After the options are explained, Keeble says most clients choose the moratorium. He adds he is surprised by criticisms about this and believes that if it is banned by the Office of Fair Trading, as has been mooted, then the market will shrink: “The costs will be pushed up. And even underwritten policies are not ideal – they rely on the policy holder’s honesty and they put buyers off as they put take longer to sell. There is also less scope to cover pre-existing conditions.”
Rose is also concerned about the amount of “churning” in the market, where intermediaries switch business in order to win higher initial commission. He says this is totally against SecureHealth’s principles and can jeopardise customers’ health as inferior cover is often sold.
But he believes high standards will always win over get rich quick tactics. “We are not afraid of competition,” says Rose. A recent call to a local high street bank which has started selling health insurance proved his point. “The so-called sales advisors did not understand the difference between in and out-patient cover,” he scoffs.
Despite the standards the company holds and the rapid growth this has allowed, SecureHealth retains a family feel. The wives of the directors have all worked for the company, and many staff have been with the firm since the beginning, leaving no room for pomposity. Only confidence in the market and SecureHealth’s ability to win its fair share.