What do brokers want from a voluntary benefits carrier? Pt. 1
By Brian Summers
A few months ago, I asked top management employees of what I believe are the four top carriers here in New York City what they believed brokers wanted and which voluntary benefits they believe are the future in our industry.
I'd like to thank Gary "Ike" Willingham, Territory Manager from Colonial Voluntary Benefits; Kenneth Meier, State Sales Coordinator from Aflac New York; George Conmy, Field Vice President from Allstate Workplace Division; and Steve Lynch, Regional Sales Manager from Mutual of Omaha for taking the time to answer my questions.
I asked these gentlemen six questions:
1.) What are brokers asking for in regards to voluntary benefits?
2.) Are enrollment services, benefit statements and the added services you are offering being utilized by brokers?
3.) How did the 2008 economy affect how you work with brokers?
4.) In your opinion, what is most important in regards to working with brokers? For example, compensation, customer service, added services.
5.) Has technology affected the way you work with brokers and enroll their clients? What is your company doing to address future enrollments through Web browsing or call center enrollments to maximize employee participation?
6.) The future of voluntary benefits: What role will voluntary benefits play in regards to an employer's benefit package in the next four years?
While their answers to these questions did not surprise me, I appreciated the candor in which some of these gentlemen answered the questions.
For example, in terms of the first question, Willingham of Colonial Voluntary Benefits responded: "Brokers want a quality product at a quality price. They want competitive underwriting and superior customer service in regards to billing and claims."
Lynch, of Mutual of Omaha, responded: "Brokers want voluntary benefits that are easy-to-understand and implement. They want superior employer and employee services in regards to billing, issue/underwriting and claims."
I thought question No. 2 was a very easy question. "Are enrollment services, benefit statements and the added services you are offering being utilized by brokers? Why?"
Meier, of Aflac New York responded: "After much study and discussion throughout our company on how to best approach the broker market, we have put into place the dedicated organizational structures, enrollment solutions, processes and value-adding products and services that brokers want and need to bring us into their businesses. We have agents who have built valuable relationships within the broker market and we are continuing to build upon those relationships by enhancing the broker development team at Aflac and in the field, along with the infrastructure to better support brokers needs and services. All of these added offerings are very appealing to the broker market."
While we are all aware of the value and awareness that Aflac has brought to the voluntary market through their advertising campaign and charitable contributions, I did not understand the response to question No. 2. There was no definitive explanation in the answer. Nobody will doubt that Aflac has the infrastructure or capabilities to offer added-value services to their clients and brokers; it still left me wondering if these services are being utilized by the brokers who choose to place their business with Aflac. The last I time I checked, Aflac's brand recognition was more than 90 percent. Everyone knows the "Aflac duck."
Does this mean that brokers recognize Aflac as a voluntary benefit provider, but not as much for added-value services, or does their brand recognition stretch way beyond the "duck" with brokers?
Conmy, of Allstate Workplace Division answered: "Full core benefit communication and enrollment systems are the gold standard within the marketplace. Brokers in all size markets are looking for these types of supports for their clients."
Lynch, Willingham and Conmy all answered this question with a resounding "yes." It is my opinion that brokers enjoy these added services because it helps employees understand their benefit packages and the need for voluntary benefits.
Willingham took it one step further and explained that Colonial Life was awarded honorable mention for the enrollment company with the best services in Benefits Selling magazine's 2008 Readers Choice Awards. He explained that Colonial Voluntary Benefits is really three companies in one for brokers, "We offer full core enrollments at no cost, benefits counseling and voluntary benefits to our brokers and clients."
My opinion in regard to this question is very simple. I believe that in order to compete in the voluntary market today and in the future, carriers must be innovative in the added-value services they offer to brokers. Combining voluntary enrollments with an FSA or Transit plan just makes sense, and why not combine the core and voluntary enrollment if the technical platforms are available?
The third question asked, "How did the economy in 2008 affect how you work with brokers?" The response from Lynch of Mutual of Omaha was, "Strong, stable and secure." Lynch explained that, "at Mutual of Omaha we have a longstanding reputation as being strong, stable and secure. The economy has made it more important than ever to provide brokers with a company they can trust."
Conmy stated that, "There did not seem to be a dramatic change because of the economy. If anything, brokers saw the downturn as an opportunity for voluntary benefits."
Willingham stated, "We had just introduced our new Medical Bridge 3000 Product. This product afforded brokers the opportunity to help fill the `gaps' left as in-network deductibles are increased." As he would go on to explain, a number of brokers were able to take advantage of this new plan.
The fall of 2008 will remain in our memories for many years to come. To quote Darwin, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change."
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