December 31, 2003

Embracing technology

Brokers need to get with the program on self-service, administrative technology

Like all good business people, brokers put a premium on their relationships with clients. But in the Internet age, the sharpest also realize that even with a good product, a smile and a firm handshake, you need something more to close a deal.

Many experts believe that something more can be found in technology that makes life easier and more efficient for both the employer and the broker. And if brokers have not caught on to the benefits, they need to do so now, or they are not going to survive.

Information flows fast and furious between clients, insurance carriers and producers, observes Michael Wojcik, senior vice president of the Chicago broker firm The Horton Group. The new technology allows us to accomplish a lot more in a shorter period of time.

Brokers that are technology-challenged right now will have a harder time keeping up.

Quick, efficient, valuable

The debate over how much of the sales and administration process to automate is not new. Ever since high technology invaded the benefits world, brokers have wavered between the efficiency of self-service and the relationships bred from face-to-face interaction, coming to rest somewhere in the middle. But now, although in-person exchanges are still important, brokers are realizing that it is more vital to handle their clients benefits issues quickly, efficiently and with as much value as possible. In fact, some believe it is necessary to facilitate face-to-face relationships.

With advances in self-service technology, clients can handle basic administration without having to call in the insurance broker, so now they can talk about more strategic things such as the future direction of the employee benefit programs, says Alan Cohen, CEO of OnlineBenefits, a broker partner that provides technological solutions. Face-to-face interaction is still critical, and on a strategic level, you will always need it.

It is just that there are other issues that will not necessarily be solved by talking things through. As Wojcik points out, information flows much faster now than it used to. That means employers and carriers expect to get what they need sooner than ever.

If you do business with 10 or 11 organizations that require you to provide census data on eligibility, you have to provide it to them, says Richard Travers, managing partner of the New York broker firm Travers Okeefe.

In fact, say Wojcik and Cohen, insurance carriers, not always among the most rapid companies to adopt new benefits technology, have started considering certain capabilities a given when it comes to broker relationships. Many of them, for instance, only will accept RFPs over the Web.

Moreover, employee-consumers are more comfortable researching and buying insurance products over the Web, and they have neither the time nor the patience to attend meetings when they can get the information via computer.

People skim the Net; they dont surf it anymore, comments Michael Hope, a sales consultant at Spindustry, a technology solutions firm that works extensively with brokers. Research is big. HR people arent just taking the agents word for it anymore. Theyre looking around.

Theres an overall comfort with the net, period. Five years ago, people probably didnt want to buy CDs and books over the Web, but they do now.


Posted by Craig at December 31, 2003 04:50 PM