First and foremost, learn all you can about the implications of health care reform, and share this information with your clients and prospects. According to Hendrickus van Bulck, there is a short-term window of opportunity this year for brokers who approach their customers with a complete turnkey solution of product and service offerings related to the new reconciliation act (new health care law) requirements. "They need to be able to educate their customers on the new requirements and how to implement the new plans," says van Bulk, a partner with Van Bulck & Co. (Sumter, S.C.) and a faculty member at the University of South Carolina.
Long range goals
In the long run (over the next one to three years), van Bulck believes the market will continue to develop along four broad segments:
- One is for boilerplate products and services that meet the requirements of the reconciliation act and resulting regulations. This market will be similar to commodity markets. To gain an advantage in this market, brokers need to emphasize services (their availability, implementation, education, etc.), rather than the product itself.
- The second segment will offer supplemental benefit packages. Here, product differentiation and premium strategies will be far more aggressive. This will focus less on compliance, and more on providing additional benefits.
- The third segment will focus on those people who fall outside the requirements of the reconciliation act. These are people who want affordable, but adequate, health coverage.
- The fourth segment are those who voluntarily shop for private insurance, because they want to have a certain area of coverage. "Companies will compete with strong corporate image, prestige, customer trust, and customer relationships," he suggests.
Levi Smith, CEO of The Karis Group in Austin, Texas, also believes that providing education related to health care reform is critical for brokers these days.
"Companies are very interested in the impact of health care reform and how to navigate it, especially over the next year, in terms of whether premiums are going to change substantially," he states. "As a result, you need to set yourself apart by being able to offer insights into these issues."
Smith also believes that brokers need to be able to differentiate their products a bit more, also especially in light of health care reform. "People want to better understand and 'navigate' the health care system more effectively, especially as the system continues to get more complex," he explains.
Joy Snyder, president of Chard Snyder in Mason, Ohio, emphasizes the importance of education and communication in general, but especially in light of health care reform. "We emphasize to people that we are not only able to provide information, but accurate information," she explains. "We have seen a lot of inaccurate information out there, so we don't tell anyone anything until we know it is accurate."
Flexibility is also important to setting yourself apart, according to Alissa Ashworth, presentation and training coordinator at Chard Snyder. For example, Ashworth recently met with a client, who explained what was needed. Ashworth's response: "We will make it work."
Ashworth offers lots of options every step of the way. And during meetings with clients, when she mentions that the company has a great website, about half of the participants are relieved and appreciate that they can conduct a lot of their business via the Web. "Then, when I mention that they can also call and talk with real people, the other half of the room lights up."
Personal touch is also important, according to Joe Rizzo, director of sales at Chard Snyder. "When people call, we want them to be able to talk with an actual individual, and then quickly be transferred to someone who is responsible for their account."
John R. Edmonds, CFP, LUTCF, president of Coastal Financial Group (Culver City, Calif.) says there are a lot of important keys to setting oneself apart from the competition. One of the first is to make sure you tell your story to existing clients and prospects.
"In the past, there were a lot of times I lost sales, because I didn't get the word out properly that I could support a particular client's domain," Edmonds explains. "As a result, they went with someone else. It wasn't because they didn't want to do business with me; It's just that they didn't know I offered that particular product or service."
Working smarter is also an important key for Edmonds. "Certainly, you need to work hard and go the extra mile for clients," he says. "However, what you really need to do to separate yourself from the competition is to work smarter and provide uncommon offers to your clients, thinking outside the box."
Along these lines, Coastal Financial Group has a great capacity to understand and design actions surrounding the things that it perceives to be relevant, meaningful and valuable for its clients. As a result, it is able to help clients avoid wasteful costs in terms of purchasing and managing insurance products and employee benefit programs.
"We help to create well-designed insurance benefit programs that address primary budget concerns, their need to attract and retain quality employees, promote flexibility, and optimize tax-leveraging strategies," Edmonds explains. "We accomplish this by asking the appropriate questions that provide meaningful insight into customer goals and agendas."
Along the same lines, Edmonds has found that it is important to always plan ahead. "We anticipate customer breakdowns before they happen, and before the clients even think of the potential for these breakdowns," he states. "We then suggest a course of action to ameliorate that potential concern. In other words, we are always anticipating what things will look like 'around the corner.'"
Another important element, Edmonds says, is trust. "In fact, the cornerstone for me is building a strong identity of trust," he emphasizes.
Edmonds focuses on what he calls "SRC": sincerity, reliability, and competence. Sincerity is putting the client first and caring about them. Reliability is doing what you say you are going to do. Competence is being aware of what you do know and what you don't know, and being able to articulate that to the client, and then get help when it is necessary. "When I was a new agent, I was very hungry, and it was hard for me to prioritize SRC," he admits. "I was too busy chasing the dollar. As I got older, though, I began to realize that the most successful business I had was the result of generating trust. These days, in fact, we get most of our business from referrals."
Part and parcel with trust is ethics. "Success requires both experience and ethics," suggests Robert N. Arnoff, president of Arnoff and Associates (Bainbridge, Ohio), and co-author of "The Three R's of Employee Benefits: Recruiting, Retention and Rewards." He believes that it requires ethics and experience to maintain existing clients and gain new ones.
"There is a big discussion these days on ethics in employee benefits," Arnoff says. "When you have the Bernie Madoffs of the world, employers are afraid of switching advisors, because they are afraid of the unknown. As a result, you really need to be able to prove that you are not going to take advantage of clients. You also need to prove that you know what you're doing."
Offering value-added opportunities is also important, according to Arnoff. When talking with prospects, he acknowledges the loyalty they have with their current advisor. However, at the same time, he conducts an initial fact-find to see if there is something that he may be able to uncover for the future.
Arnoff also emphasizes the importance of seeking referrals. "We are strong believers in working on referrals," he states. "Every advisor has their own niche marketplace. Any advisor who is strong in one area should try to get referrals within that area to expand their base within that niche. We have done that."
It's about the employees
While a lot of brokers focus on building relationships with management in client firms, Susan Combs, president of Combs & Company (New York, N.Y.), expands beyond that - to the employees themselves. "In New York, the rates are the same everywhere, regardless of how many brokers someone calls," she explains. "As a result, in order to gain and maintain business, you need to be the person that clients and their employees want to work with."
Combs utilizes two strategies with working with employees. The first is to make it personal. "We get very locked into employees," she emphasizes. "We do a lot of health insurance. When we do, we meet with every single one of the employees. If employees have questions, a lot of brokers say, 'Call the 800 number.' We instead will do a lot of legwork for the employees ourselves."
The second is to provide value-added services. For example, since Combs & Company does a lot of networking, they always tell clients, before they do a Google search or look in the Yellow Pages when they need a vendor, call Combs & Company instead, and they may be able to recommend one of their clients or a specific vendor.
"We also have a preferred doctor list, and provide names of doctors to employees if they ask, especially if they are new to town and don't know any doctors," Combs continues. "We get this list from our own employees who use that doctor, or maybe some employees in client companies have talked about how much they like a certain doctor."
Her approach in working with employees is a success. For example, if there is an HR change in a client company, there is little chance that the company would change brokers, because the employees know who the people at Combs & Company are. "We have relationships with everyone in the company, not just someone in HR," she explains. "As a result, the employees all tell the new HR person why they want to stay with us." In addition, about 60 percent of her referrals come from employees in client companies. "These include employees who refer us to their spouse's company, or if they move on to a different company themselves," she concludes.