Technology alone can't provide a magic solutionto one of the major challenges facing brokers and their clientsduring open enrollment — but it certainly helps.

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“Our biggest challenge is communication,” says Linda Garcia,vice president of human resources for Rooms to Go, a furnitureretailer based just outside Tampa. Her company has 7,500 employeesworking at 160 retail outlets and seven distribution centers acrossthe Southeast and Texas.

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“We simply don't have the resources to send an HR person toevery store,” Garcia says. “We are taking advantage of technology,and we are combining the best of old- and new-school tactics. Allemployees receive printed materials; we hold as many in-personmeetings as we can; and we broadcast those meetings to ourdistribution centers. Technology really has helped us reach ouremployees with a more consistent message.”

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This high-tech, high-touch strategy also resonates with KathyO'Brien, vice president of voluntary benefits and national clientgroup services for Unum in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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“Technology continues to grow and be a big part of enrollment — much more than in the past,” shesays. “We probably get more questions about technology fromemployers than any other topic.

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“However, every employee is different. We want to spend timewith brokers and clients to build customized plans for eachemployer. That may include old-fashioned paper and group meetings,as well as technology such as self-service enrollment or a kioskwith assisted enrollment.”

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Industry experts agree that hassle-free enrollment requires that everyonein the chain — carrier, broker, employer and employee — adoptappropriate technology and then thoroughly explain options andprocedures to every stakeholder.

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Turning to tech

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Technology, if properly selected and implemented, can greatlystreamline the enrollment process. What's more, it cansignificantly reduce the risk of errors that comes with manuallyinputting information from printed forms.

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Besides enabling enrollment, technology equips employers tocommunicate with employees about benefit options and how tonavigate the process.

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“In addition to sending out informational emails to everyone inthe company, we also send information to personal email addressesand personal cellphones,” says Garcia. “Because we are furniturestores with TV monitors in all locations, we have recently startedstreaming information about benefits and open enrollment foremployees before our stores open. It includes voice-overPowerPoints and videos that we produce. Every day, we use adifferent approach.

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“The feedback I have gotten from our HR people is that employeesreally like it. The only stumbling block is that occasionally, thetechnology doesn't work well in the stores. But you expect a fewglitches when trying something for the first time.”

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Brokers and carriers step up

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One misconception dating back to the science fiction movies ofthe 1950s is that technology will eventually reduce the importanceof real people. But if anything, technology is making the roles ofbrokers and carriers even more important. “We rely heavily on ourbroker, who conducts meetings with the material we provide,” Garciasays.

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Carriers are also placing greater responsibility on brokers,especially given the explosion of voluntary benefits in recentyears.

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“Brokers now have a lot more carriers in voluntary benefits thanthey did several years ago,” O'Brien says. “They have to be veryknowledgeable about the carrier, what they will do to meet theneeds of their clients and what types of service they offer, notjust in enrollment but also in plan administration; how they willdeliver the services, how they will pay and handle billinginformation.”

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Colonial Life of Columbia, South Carolina utilizes cutting-edgetechnology, but 80 percent to 90 percent of its business is stillbroker-driven, says Heather Lozynski, assistant vice president ofpremier client management.

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“We definitely are seeing more demand, not just for products andservices, but for expertise,” she says. “We and our brokers take aholistic approach to the customer's enrollment program, frombenefits communications to personalized benefits education andcounseling, as well as ongoing, dedicated service. This allows theemployer to then focus on other aspects of their benefits process.”

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Rooms to Go counts on this value-added service.

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“Colonial is definitely a major part of our open enrollment,”Garcia says. “They actually produce our written materials andvideos for us. Our communications managers go to Colonial toproduce the video, which is terrific for us. They also take care ofthe personal emails to our associates. They offer three ways toenroll—online, by phone, or personal meetings with carrierrepresentatives who go to our locations and sit down withemployees.”

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What does it take for brokers to succeed in today'senvironment?

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“One important thing for brokers to do is listen to theirclients, to really know and understand what their clients want andneed,” O'Brien says. “There are a lot of different technologies,and all offer similarities and differences. Brokers must understandtheir clients' needs, not just for enrollment but also throughoutthe year.”

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Despite the great strides technology has made, it can become adistraction. “Technology is so prevalent in the enrollment spacetoday, but watch out for relying on technology as the one thingthat will make or break enrollment,” she says. “Technology is greatfor capturing data, but it won't solve every problem and doesn'tchange the importance of all of the other work you need to do.”

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So which is it, technology or people?

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“Technology and old-fashioned service are equally important,”Lozynski says. “We begin planning for reenrollment six to ninemonths out, and then determine how best to use technology andpeople. We help customers understand what is important to them,where the biggest pain points are, and better understand thebusiness.”

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Do the homework, implement the technology and communicate,communicate, communicate.

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“If you don't have all of the details to give to yourassociates, they can't make good decisions,” Garcia says. “Make useof all of the tools you have available, from printed materials tovideos and text messages. One thing I learned very early on is thatcommunications is critical.”

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Experts recommend evaluating several steps forimplementing technology

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  • Training employees on using the automated system

  • Outlining data that needs to be captured

  • Creating a workflow using integrated technology in relevantdepartments

  • Developing an electronic approval process

  • Planning for data management and analysis

  • Automating deadlines with notifications

  • Appointing personnel for issues

  • Sending this information to carriers

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