As 2017 winds to a close, the benefits tech industry can look back on a year of big lessons. This market is continuously evolving — vendors are improving their products, finding new partners, serving client needs better and building the future of benefits tech.
Here are five important lessons the industry learned in 2017.
1. Don’t raise prices on brokers
A prominent benefits tech vendor raised prices on its broker partners this year, and it did not go well. The vendor lost partners in the short-term, and there is likely a larger broker exodus to come. Due to the structure of benefits tech licensing, there is a transition period that will preserve these relationships for a while. But these are effectively “zombie” partners who will leave when their contracts are up.
The lesson for benefits tech providers is that price sensitivity is still a point of enormous concern for brokers. Vendors must take careful consideration to both their licensing structure and the value-add of their product. If price outpaces value, brokers will want out.
2. Employers want more than benefits administration
As millennials rise up the ranks in the workforce, business leaders are tech-savvier than ever. At the same time, small employers are increasingly being targeted by standalone HR platforms like Namely and Gusto.
What’s the result? Small businesses want technology that addresses the full scope of HR needs. Beyond just benefits administration, employers are looking for a tool that streamlines onboarding and offboarding, time and attendance, PTO, applicant tracking, and more.
Brokers who have only invested in benefits administration tech are finding it difficult to achieve employer adoption, which is key to ROI. In order to maximize the gains of going online, employers have to, well, actually go online. Systems that don’t have effective adoption rates will fall behind the competition.
3. Market leaders emerging
Investment cash continues to fund the industry — $402 million of venture capital was invested in the first half of 2017 alone — but the market isn’t producing new entrants in the small group benefits and HR space.
Why is this important? It means that a years-long trend of market leader emergence is really hitting its stride. When benefits tech products initially launched, there were so many choices that brokers faced a high level of risk around choice. Certainly, not all of those products are still around today.
But over the last few years, and really picking up in 2017, the field has narrowed. We’ve tracked our competitors for years, and used to add new platforms constantly. But this year, we hear just the same three or four names.
As market leaders emerge, the risk to brokers has changed. Now, the risk of picking the wrong platform is reduced, but the risk of getting left behind has increased. As the industry grows, the likelihood that an agency without a platform will lose clients to a competing broker offering technology is higher.
4. Integration needs aren’t going away
This year, carriers really began warming up to integrations. These companies have learned that brokers and employers are demanding ease of use in benefits administration, and robust integration with benefits platforms allows for easier, less error-prone communication of eligibility and enrollment information.
As the number of platforms in the field narrows, it is becoming easier for carriers to make investments in integrations.
5. Brokers are vital
We couldn’t discuss 2017 without mentioning Zenefits’ pivot to brokers. The company had to learn — the hard way — that circumventing the broker community was not a viable strategy. First, brokers are stringently regulated, a standard the tech company was unprepared to meet. Second, employers need direct access to their benefits advisor, and the Zenefits approach did not provide the level of advice or support most groups require.
As a result, Zenefits flipped its strategy. The company sold its advising book of business and now partners with brokers. The lesson for the industry is this: The service brokers provide their clients is crucial.
No doubt, 2018 will bring many lessons of its own. But the benefits tech industry is in a good position at the end of this year, and vendors, brokers and employers alike have a lot to be excited about.