November 24, 2003

Embracing self-service technology

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

Embracing technology - Brokers need to get with the program on self-service, administrative technology
Karen Lee
Employee Benefit News September 1, 2003

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.

Needed technology

So what kind of technology does a broker need to survive Well, that depends on the broker. Some feel they only need to put certain forms online. Others have made their offices entirely paperless. But the experts say that every little bit helps.

I talked with a broker who is looking at building a Web site with us, Hope says. He is starting small by including PDFs of forms from the carriers. That, in and of itself, is a huge step.

Meanwhile, Travers notes that his membership in the broker consortium United Benefit Advisers, which shares best practices and technology platforms, gives him the ability to do things he would not be able to afford otherwise, such as video conferencing.

Wojcik says he runs a paperless office. Most brokers, however, do not go quite that far, emphasizing slightly more affordable, but no less effective, solutions.

Dick Harlow, president of The Harlow Group, a Reston, Va.-based broker firm, believes that brokers need to get up to snuff in enrollments on Web sites. Thats something companies have been making available to large clients for a long time, and they now have to make it available to smaller clients.

Cohen breaks down technology needs into three parts: broker, client and clients employees. For their own businesses, brokers should have some type of client management system that helps them keep track of the companies with which they are working and how much those companies should be paying them. Carrier interfaces that allow producers and carriers to send reports and renewals back and forth also help a great deal.

Client needs, meanwhile, include the ability to administer the benefits relatively easily, leaving them time to do more important things. Those necessities tend to coincide with their employees needs, who now are more receptive to online customer service and transactions.

But many brokers agree that technology is most crucial when it comes to employee education.

High education

There have been questions about whether the computer eventually will supplant the need for in-person educational and enrollment meetings. Some, like Harlow, do not believe many employees, particularly those at small, blue-collar firms, are comfortable enough with the computer to rely on it for all their information.

People will have questions and will want to talk to somebody, Harlow says. Are we going to be doing more electronic enrollment Yes. Will it all be that way I dont think so.

Others, including Cohen, think the need for face-to-face meetings will diminish as employees come to accept self-service technology as an integral part of their benefits.

People think [self-service] is just a form online with nothing behind it, but its not, Cohen insists. The enrollment part is the least important thing. You can get decision support and learn what the products can do. It is critical for employers and [brokers] to educate the employees to give them the comfort and ability to make the right decisions. We can do that in an interactive setting.

Still others preach a more even combination of online technology and brick-and-mortar tools. The Horton Group, for example, still runs onsite, hands-on seminars but also conducts Web seminars and other Web-based communication tactics.

There will always be a market for traditional brick-and-mortar meetings Not everybody adapts to technology, Wojcik says. The trick is to try to get them all together. Im a big supporter of client and employee education I think technology will be key in having employees engaged in health plan changes. If those arent there, concepts like consumer-driven health wont take hold.

Educating employees will be the biggest need and use of technology in the future.

Posted by Craig at November 24, 2003 02:38 PM