Benefits tech platform concept 35percent of employers consult with their brokers about technologyplatforms multiple times per year, and just over 20 percent saidthey would prefer to talk with brokers about technology more often.(Image: Shutterstock)

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With the increasing number of technology options now available in thebenefits field, good communication between brokers and HRdepartments has never been more important.

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The BenefitsPro 2018 Employer's Survey found that 35 percent ofrespondents consult with their brokers about technology platforms multiple times per year,and just over 20 percent said they would prefer to talk withbrokers about technology more often. Chances are, that number willclimb as more technology options and platforms hit the market.

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Related: Benefits administration: trends, deal breakers andtechnology's massive potential

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So what are experts in the benefits field saying abouttechnology communications issues between brokers, employers, andemployees?

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Employers: Be a smart shopper

One way to reduce communications problems down the road is tostart with the right products, experts say. “For organizationstrying to make a decision about what kind of technology to adapt,the first question is, 'what do I need the system to do?'” saidKristie Evans, president of HR consulting firm HRPMO, and a memberof the Society of Human Resources Management's technology panel.“Too many people talk to the vendors first—that's a mistake,because they're all about selling you on how great the system is.People get caught up in the fun of shopping before they figure outwhat they really need.”

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Evans said the companies who spend the time and resources toanalyze what kinds of technologies will address their specificissues will do the best job of finding a system that meets theirneeds. “Figure out a way to do the analysis so you know what youwant to buy,” she said. “If you don't have a clear idea of what youwant, you won't have a clear idea of where the pain points willbe.”

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Scot Marcotte, chief technology officer at Buck, an HR andbenefits consulting firm, notes that employers already have a greattool for winnowing down and finding what their employees need.Claims data, he says can help reduce the confusion about whichproducts to choose. “Brokers have always looked at it from theperspective of bundles: what is the right bundle of services forthat individual, or that employer?” he said. “There's a lot ofchoice that occurs; the way we think about it is that we alreadyknow a lot about the employees from claims data. So that gives us astarting point.”

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Brokers: Create a tech team

Mike Ehrle, senior vice president of Strategic Partnerships atHodges Mace, a benefits software company, said that the increasinguse of apps and platforms is leading many agencies to set up “techteams,” technology experts who can educate businesses and employeeson the new tools. “We are seeing a huge uptick in finding oneperson–or team of people—and saying, 'you're going to be ourinternal technology experts,'” he said. “They have the backgroundto help make selections on technology, based on what the employeris solving for. Then, they guide the vendor and employer throughthe process.”

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“We're seeing more and more of that because it's just becomingso complex that we need to have experts in each firm, and liaisonsto the vendor partners.”

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Being able to sell education and expertise is important astechnology continues to evolve, said Marcotte. “Employees areexpecting a truly consumer-grade experience,” he said. “We have tomake sure we're not stuck in an approach that worked ten years ago.We have to focus on giving companies the tools to make sure they'rein the right program for their needs today.”

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Evans also notes the complexity of a quickly changing field.“Benefits breaks down to a lot of granularity,” she said. “In orderto manage that cost you have to have a lot of detail. The morecomplicated the products, the more robust capability you have tohave. If you're taking shortcuts, that's going to come back andkick you in a few years.”

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Alexa, what does my plan say?

Experts say artificial intelligence will play an increasing rolein educating and serving benefits consumers. Marcotte notes thathis company sees tremendous potential with AI in educatingconsumers. “The innovations we're seeing there go with expandingthe natural language, conversational user experience,” he said. “Itcould be something at the home, where an individual asks theirGoogle Home or Alexa: “Can I use my HSA for band-aids? And thenthey could buy band-aids though Alexa and have it deducted from theHSA.”

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Marcotte adds that although barriers still are being overcomefor such a system, including privacy issues, this kind ofinteraction could be very common in the future. “As challenging asthat is … we could do that through artificial intelligence, machinelearning, and natural language interaction. We could do it at home,we could do it through hand held devices, or we could do it throughweb sites. The possibility of that all coming together is growingalmost every day. The ability to answer that need, at that point intime, is something where we're seeing great dynamic strides.”

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Ehrle said increased use of AI could have great benefit forbrokers and HR managers alike, in helping address questions oreducational gaps. “We spend a lot of time on behalf of employerswalking new hires through every element of the benefits plans,” hesaid. “We can complement that with technology, including at-homedevices like Alexa, so that you can access it any time. That's anew variable—and there are ways to put PIN passwords inthere so that somebody else can't maliciously open it.”

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These brave new worlds are not easy to navigate, but successfulbrokers will find a way, whether through their own expertise or byrelying on partnering with vendors, Evans said. “When it comes tobrokers making recommendations on technology, they have to get outof the comfort zone a little,” she said. “More than likely there'sgoing to be some sort of partnership.”

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