The broker’s job description in today’s changing health care market is similar to running a marathon for nine months, followed by an all-out sprint when open enrollment season opens in the fall.
The past few years have taught brokers valuable (although sometimes painful) lessons about how to how to pace themselves and prepare for the onslaught of meetings, sales pitches and paper work. They also have revealed crucial mistakes that could leave clients dissatisfied or potential income on the table.
Here are a few missteps to avoid that can help prevent brokers from waking up and saying “oops!” next February 1.
Being mired in the past
Brokers who have been in the industry for even a few years realize that the services they provide today may be far different from what they expected when they started. Think of it this way: Employee benefits used to be like a banquet where customers could choose between beef and chicken. Today, it a smorgasbord, where they mix and match the benefits they need.
“We are seeing that employers are interested in providing employees with more choice in their benefits,” says Kathy O’Brien, vice president, voluntary benefits, for Unum National Client Group in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Guess what? The most important thing a broker provides is no longer insurance and other products—it’s timely information that can minimize costs and maximize confidence in regulatory compliance. Brokers who are not doing their homework will have to play catch-up quickly.
“Before 2012, consulting was the base of our business,” says Ed Oravetz, president of employee benefits at Marsh & McLennan Agency, Southwest in Houston. “Over the past few years, compliance has become the foundation. We spend more effort on protecting our clients than on employee benefits. The total amount of time we spend on internal counsel over compliance coordination is a night-and-day difference from five years ago.”
TMI (too much information)
Just because brokers may have done an excellent job of educating themselves on the regulatory climate, it doesn’t mean clients are interested in a clause-by-clause explanation of each requirement. A knowledgeable broker with good communications skills should be able to drill down to the essential client questions: What do I need to be doing? How can I be sure I sure I am in compliance? And what’s the most cost-effective way to make the other two things happen?
Prejudging client needs
Any client worth his or her salt has a record of what products their clients purchased in the past and what they paid for them. It can be tempting to offer the same program with a few adjustments for 2016. But what if their workforce has grown? Perhaps they have expanded into new markets. Or maybe older employees have retired and opened the door to younger workers with different needs. Never assume you know what clients want. Place all of your cards on the table and let them decide.
Talking (and talking... and talking...)
Face it: Many brokers enjoy the sound of their own voices. After all, they have spent their careers honing their skills, reading books and attending seminars about successful sales techniques. But the best sales tool of all may be simply listening. Inside every client question or concern is an opportunity to meet a need and make a sale. As the legendary Stephen Covey wrote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Low- or no-tech
Countless deals are made on the back of a napkin over lunch. But if a napkin and pencil are all brokers have, they may be in trouble. Even clients who may not know a spreadsheet from a bedsheet want to know that their broker is tech-savvy, with an up-to-date website, computer-based presentation materials and a social media presence. Employee benefits is a high-touch business conducted in a high-tech manner. Never assume the two approaches are incompatible.
Diverting from diversity
The composition of the 2016 workplace is far different from what it was even five or 10 years ago. Most companies are hiring workers who are more diverse in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. It’s dangerous to assume that a one-size-fits-all benefits package still works
“Because each employee has unique benefit needs, more choice allows an employee to tailor their benefits and spend their own money, through the ease of payroll deduction, for those benefits that have the greatest value to them and their families,” O’Brien says.
Many brokers are proud to have built their businesses on their personal trust and reputation, and rightly so. But many clients (both current and prospective) also expect them to have the credentials that confirm they are on top of their game. For example, a PPACA license is required to sell-subsidized policies on the state exchange. Being a member of trade groups such as the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors or the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America, which provide resources for continuing education on insurance topics, also is a good way to burnish credentials.
Missing the wellness boat
Brokers with the mindset of selling insurance are missing the boat on also suggesting workplace wellness programs. Employers will spend an average of $693 per employee on wellness-based incentives this year, up from $594 in 2014 and $430 five years ago.
“As employers continue to look at ways to improve employee health and increase productivity, we expect to see employers continue to expand and evolve their wellness offerings, and find new and innovative ways to encourage employee participation levels and measure the success of their programs,” says Brian Marcotte, president and CEO of the National Business Group on Health.
Out of sight, out of mind
Brokers who head to the ski slopes or beach after January 31 have earned their time off, but they may be making a mistake. The open enrollment period is only three months long, but it’s vitally important to remain available clients to 365 days a year. Although this can be as simple as an occasional phone call, text message or blog, nothing beats personal visits with no agenda other than to ask how they are doing and how you can better meet their ongoing needs.
Signing the benefits contract may seem like the end of the process for brokers, but it’s only the beginning for employers. One of the hottest topics in human resource circles today is finding ways to engage employees and get them to buy in to such things as benefits programs.
“We define full engagement as that point where employers are getting maximum contribution to the company and employees are getting maximum satisfaction as individuals,” says Mary Ann Masarech, lead consultant of the Employee Engagement Practice for BlessingWhite in Princeton, New Jersey. Brokers who make themselves available to meet with employees, individually or in groups, could score points with their clients.
Brokering benefits is a no-nonsense business. Clients take employee benefits seriously. But lighten up! Just because the subject matter is heavy, it doesn’t mean your attitude must be. Laugh. Tell a few (clean!) jokes. Send birthday cards. Drop by unannounced with a box of doughnuts or can of popcorn. As the industry changes and competition continues, more often than not, clients will keep coming back to a broker they know, trust and enjoy.
Brokers who are starting to feel a little beaten down over past mistakes can look at the positive. If there is one thing all of these errors—and more importantly, the solutions—share, it’s common sense. Doing the right thing really isn’t that hard.
In fact, Oravetz, the Benefits Selling 2014 Broker of the Year, boils his advice down to just two points.
“First, the only way to create value is to exceed expectations,” he says. “If you don’t do that, you won’t have a long-term relationship.
“Second, be conversational, not presentational. Don’t try to sell, but simply have a conversation to find out their goals and objectives, and then see how you can meet them. Don't try to `wow’ them. Know who you are and what you believe.”