Just how much does technology drive employee benefits enrollment – and, ultimately, the widespread adoption of voluntary solutions?
Susan Combs put it bluntly: “If you don’t have a strong technology component, you are missing the boat.”
Combs is the CEO and founder of Combs and Company, full-service commercial insurance brokerage based in New York City. And while you might think that the majority of brokers have already climbed aboard that tech boat, Combs said that’s far from the case.
“Business owners and employees are getting younger and younger — in many cases, they’ve grown up with cell phones and the internet,” said Combs, who started her agency more than a decade ago. “It’s not so much that technology and the right benefits platform can help the broker -- it’s that consumers absolutely demand the best technology.”
Combs has taken steps to ensure her clients have access to solutions that can help them serve their workforce. Most of her clients are based in the New York metropolitan area, but many have employees across the country. Her team serves as the full-service benefits administrator for nearly every group in the Combs and Co. book. As such, she’s partnered with a San Francisco-based startup platform backed by Blue Cross Blue Shield Venture Partners and other investors. The platform’s online enrollment and educational features allow Combs to better service businesses with off-site employees or a geographically diverse workforce.
To show just what a difference the right technology can make, Combs cited the example of one recent client acquisition -- a small NYC-based group that employed staff living outside the region. The incumbent broker was simply not providing the appropriate enrollment platform for the needs of the client’s dispersed workforce. At the end of the day, Combs won the business on the strength of her turnkey online platform.
Combs said there are a lot of older, successful brokers who have longstanding relationships with clients who aren’t demanding the latest in enrollment and communication tools -- yet. It’s that “yet” that opening more doors for her voluntary business.
“For us, we’re finding that using the best technology is setting us apart — 80 percent of the time, we’re the only broker our clients are considering,” she said.
As technology continues to help benefits brokers and voluntary specialists grow their businesses, others worry that it may eventually render the broker obsolete. In addressing this risk, Combs was quick to respond: “No way.
“We’re still providing the one-to-one interactions that participants need to not only understand their options at enrollment, but to answer those question that invariably arise with claims,” she added.
Beyond the value of onsite enrollment — Combs said her team engages in face-to-face meetings whenever possible — participants commonly rely on her team not only for basic claims issues, but for far more nuanced questions. As just one example, a participant may have recently received a cancer diagnosis and finds themselves unsure about whether they should share that with their employer. In being able to provide a human touch, brokers will set themselves apart from technology – and ultimately secure their role in the partnership.
“The job of the portal is to make things simpler for employers and clear for participants,” said Combs. “There is always the need for that strong human support to back it up.”
When it comes to voluntary benefits, Reed Smith, senior vice president at CoBiz, a regional benefits broker based in Denver, said they’ll only become more valuable in the group setting as more sponsors and participants focus on consumerism.
“You have to take voluntary benefits seriously, no matter the size of the group you are serving,” said Reed. “For smaller companies with smaller budgets, voluntary options can round out core medical offerings to compete with a larger company’s offerings. But larger sponsors have finite benefits budgets, as well — voluntary products are a way to guarantee participants are getting the coverage they need.”
And according to Reedd, the market for technology providers is exploding right alongside the voluntary benefits market.
To ensure that groups of all sizes are delivering the best voluntary products and information to participants, CoBiz tapped two different platforms — one for groups with fewer than 100 lives, one for more than 100 lives — to create CoBiz Connect.
“The technology has to be more than just an electronic paper enrollment system,” he says. “Employees are demanding more and better information, just as they are accustomed to getting with their banking, travel and virtually every other area of their lives.”
When the technology is “robust” enough, more participants are comfortable walking themselves through enrollment and using one-on-one broker time only when needed, said Smith.
In the tech provider selection process, CoBiz looked for a track record of innovation and the ability to build upgrades — a required capability given the speed with which technology and information resources are evolving. The firm also worked with a third-party video specialist to enhance the platforms with specific add-ons.
Beyond the enrollment and education benefits, technology also offers new analytic capabilities. Now, brokers can mine specific data on participants’ demographics relative to the types of voluntary products they’re choosing. Reed compared this capability to the sophisticated, data-driven targeted marketing of major online retailers.
“That type of information can help brokers tailor future communications,” said Reed. “So if, for instance, a broker is offering a new vision product, they can easily determine the demographics of who is buying it, whether they used mobile technology to access information on the plan and build on that to apply to other plans.”
By combining consumer analytics with traditional data from carriers’ major medical plans, brokers better tailor their voluntary offerings -- something Reed feels is incumbent upon all voluntary brokers to do.
“While I firmly believe in expanding the options to all participants, brokers have to execute the proper due diligence to make sure consumers are only getting what they need,” said Reed. “Some brokers get commission-hungry.”
To protect against that, Reed recommended that employers keep core medical and voluntary benefits in the same silo, even if they have a specialist broker for each plan.
“That all comes down to communication, and brokers educating sponsors on the potential for overlapping coverage, intentional or otherwise,” said Reed, underscoring brokers’ value and the role they will continue to play alongside technology.
“The trick is to be nimble, and always know each client’s individual needs,” said Reed.
Both of which are goals that the best benefits technology can help brokers meet.