I'm sure you've heard the one about the life insurance salesman who asked his client, "Do you know the present value of your husband's life insurance policy?""What do you mean?" countered the woman.

"If you should lose your husband, what would you get?"

The woman thought a minute, brightened and said, "I think I'd get a poodle!"

There's some reality in this humor, as insurance companies scramble to educate existing and potential clients on the value of retirement-based financial investments.

Insurance companies face a frustrating, yet exciting, uphill battle. According to a recent report by TowerGroup, a Needham, Mass., research and advisory firm, in the next five years, more individuals will reach traditional retirement age-both here and abroad-than ever before, and will remain the dominant demographic for the next 20 years.

Cynthia Saccocia, TowerGroup's research director and author of "Courting the Retired: Predictive Analytics to Define Preferences in Products, Services and Delivery, "segments the buying habits of this population into three areas. The oldest group, aged 61 to 78 called the "Silent Generation," wants quality for price. "Older Baby Boomers," aged 52 to 60, are open to spending and respect brand loyalty. And for "Younger Baby Boomers," aged 42 to 51, debt is already an accepted part of their lifestyles.

The potential for new business is staggering, but courting this bumper crop may require a magician's hat, as these individuals will face a host of potential financial challenges, such as dwindling Social Security, evaporating pensions and Medicare payments that require an accountant's help to process.

This is where competition gets interesting, notes Saccocia's research, because personalization-understanding the individuals' needs for products and services that can help manage retirement and income objectives-is a key ingredient to being able to make good on that value proposition.

"Companies are applying predictive analytics in customer management for everything from marketing to cross-selling and up-selling during service calls to managing and controlling consumer self-service through Web portals," she points out.

Maybe Saccocia is right: Gaining insight via predictive analytics will help you better understand which rabbit to pull out, but you'll still face the ever-present challenge of helping many clients understand why they need an investment strategy in the first place.

To keep it simple, maybe a good opening question to ask is: "How do you plan to feed the poodle?"

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