From the July 2011 issue of Benefits Selling Magazine •Subscribe!

Is technology a broker's friend or foe?

It is often said that all forms of art have a way of being prophetic. Take Isaac Asimov’s 1976 novella Bicentennial Man for example, which deals with the complex relationship between man and machine and the effect that technology has on the human population.

In the 1999 film of the same title, the president of NorthAm Robotics, a company that makes robotic servants, says of advancements in robot technology, “There is a fear that robots will continue to make the human work force obsolete.” It is interesting to note that the original story was written some years before Internet reached the general population and still more years before the invention of working humanoid robots and yet still expresses the fear of technology replacing actual humans.

Even the film, which was made at the peak of a turning millennium full of possibilities, predicted the impact of ever-advancing technology on the necessity of human employees. Now in the year 2011, those industrial fears are more relevant than ever with technology changing not just the way we experience art such as music, books and films, but also the way everyday tasks and jobs are completed.

The benefits selling industry is no exception with recent advancements in online enrollment options. The choices are many for employers when it comes to explaining benefits to their employees and assisting them in the enrollment process. Until recently, those options consisted solely of talking to or bringing in brokers and enrollment firms to talk with workers en masse, allowing a one-on-one interaction and enrollment in benefits.

Now, however, more and more employers are moving toward online enrollment, in which their employees review and choose insurance options on the Internet without assistance. The options themselves remain the same, listed from most basic coverage to most extensive, while cutting out the need to bring in a broker or other insurance representative to speak to all of the employees at once.

Naturally, such new technologies are still in their early stages in terms of how far they will be utilized in the benefits selling industry, though there is no doubt in the minds of some that it will eventually overtake the greater need for brokers. Jeremy Tuckfelt, a broker in Pittsburgh, says that he has not yet seen a personal effect to his business but is sure that it is coming.

“It’s a double-edged sword, but things are moving that way,” he says of the online enrollment technology. Smart brokers, he says, will let their clients know that they are here and can provide a one-on-one experience that can better explain complex issues than the simplistic and common ones that will be answered online, and that they should place themselves at the forefront of the technological movement rather than opposing it.

“The technology has been there for a long time, but now more people are embracing it as an option,” adds Ted Bosse, owner of Voluntary Benefits Systems. Though online enrollment and the implications that it holds for brokers and enrollment firms can be frightening to those parties, many within the industry believe that there is no reason why brokers should not still be useful to their clients; it is simply the nature of the broker that will change.

Rather than explaining the basics of benefits and assisting clients with their enrollment, the broker will be on-hand to answer the more difficult questions and provide the personal experience that many still prefer. “Most employers still see that face-to-face is best. So brokers won’t lose any business, just expand their options for reaching customers,” Bosse says.

Additionally, many people are still wary of providing personal information online due to the equally important fear of cyber crime, so there will always be a faction of people who will not choose online enrollment. The greatest issue comes in attempting to maneuver the younger generations who are so used to doing everything (including communicating) online.

Tuckfelt believes that this complication can be overcome the same way as maintaining older clients: by adding the personal touch that only a broker can provide. Virtual assistants, he says, will become commonplace in the industry with preprogrammed answers to typical client questions and an actual broker standing by to answer the more personal questions.

While it is certainly a caustic subject to discuss the implications of machine replacing man, Paul Kraemer with Humana calls the relationship between online enrollment, brokers and employers a “three-legged stool,” with all parts working together rather than at odds. His opinion stems from Humana’s forays into this technology and their shared desire with Tuckfelt to be at the forefront of advances in the industry.

He argues that there is no reason to place brokers at odds with the Internet because they will eventually become two intertwined parts of the same system. The clients will enroll online, Kraemer says, and receive expertise from their personal broker.

A broker can have experience that an online program cannot and will provide industrial knowledge that a computer might not be able to foresee. With recent health care legislation and other industrial changes, there are several fears for brokers at this stage of the benefits selling business, including technology that makes certain aspects of the brokers’ job obsolete.

However, the general consensus among insurance insiders is that there truly is nothing to fear in online enrollment, that there will always be a necessity for expertise from a one-on-one source who can answer client-specific questions.

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