How to handle a broker-client breakup

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act has caused headaches for the health care industry since it was passed — and benefits professionals have not been immune. Since the law’s passage, many employers — large and small — have ended long-term and short-term relationships with their benefits brokers. Some employers have simply moved employees over to PPACA’s exchanges, while others have opted for self-funding or simply found a better deal with someone else.

“It’s always been a part of the business, but it’s accelerated greatly over the past year, year-and-half,” says John Gaglione of Group Plan Solutions in Pekin, Ill. “It’s been a difficult time in the employee benefits business for a lot of agents. Ever since 2008, when the market crashed, there have been a number of companies ending business relationships. There’s not much you can do about it.”

But beyond Obamacare, benefits brokers and agents have lost clients for plenty of other reasons. Maybe a client isn’t paying its bills on time. Perhaps they’ve found a better deal. Maybe they’re going out of business. And it’s not always the client closing the book, either. There are times when benefits professionals are asked to do something that lands them in a compromising position, such as leaving a laid-off employee on a company plan.

“I’ve been fortunate to work things out with all of my clients over the past 20 years,” says Trish Freeman of Trish Freeman Insurance Services in Gonzales, La. “There have definitely been a few rough patches, and I have had to put a few clients in their place, but it’s all worked out in the end for me. Some of my toughest clients ended up being the most profitable and successful ones for me. This business is about service and solving problems. Inevitably we are going to run across clients that challenge us and push us to dig deeper. If you can please an unhappy client, you can do just about anything.”

While it would be simple to sing “Breaking up is hard to do” and be done with it, many benefits brokers and agents say there’s really only one way to handle these situations, and it means putting the “professional” in benefits professional.

“You don’t want to burn your bridges,” Gaglione says. “Things have a way of changing. If things don’t work out, you can say, ‘I’m here. I’m familiar with your account.’ Sometimes, a client will blame an agent for something that’s completely out of their control. When rates change, sometimes agents get blamed for that.”

Susan Emery, of Emery Benefit Solutions in Auburn Hills, Mich., says that no matter what the reason for losing a client, it’s an opportunity to analyze the situation and learn from it.

“It’s like any other employer-employee relationship. How do you break up?” she says. “It’s more about communication — that it isn’t working out and it’s not a fit. It’s something we all go through when we start our business — we have to learn from it and keep it from happening again.”

Gaglione says that things often happen that are out of an agent’s control.

“Maybe a claim isn’t handled the way a client thought it should have been. The first thing I do is ask myself, ‘What could I have done to prevent this?’ Be objective. Was there something you should have made the client aware of? Self-analysis should be a daily part of every sales and service person’s job. I try to do a little review in my mind. What are potential threats that would cause me to lose this client? And what can I do to retain this client? Complete honesty should be a part of everything you do. There are so many times we do get rejected, so be positive and remain objective.”

Emery says brokers and agents over the years have taken steps to help keep clients on their roster.

“It behooves the broker to get a checklist of the topical things they’ve run into in the past and what can they do to get to know that company,” Emery says. “Some check credit ratings and some others check sales to make sure they can handle the benefits. Some look at the employee count.”

And Gaglione says brokers and agents can be vulnerable when it comes time for clients to renew policies. Brokers and agents, he says, should be prepared at these critical times.

“Every time a client is renewing, it’s almost as if you’re making the sale all over again,” Gaglione says. “Yes, you have a relationship that’s hopefully been positive and you can leverage for trust, but every time you present a renewal, you basically have to resell the plan all over again. One of the worst things an agent can do is never talk to a client about a renewal. You have to ask, ‘What did you like? What would you like to change? What about your plan was a benefit for your employees?’ I guess a good way to say it is, ‘Don’t let your guard down and take your client for granted.’”

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