What do brokers want from a voluntary benefits carrier? Pt. 2

By Brian Summers

Colonial Life


For those of you who are not currently offering voluntary benefits, now is the perfect time to get more involved. As the price of health insurance rises, voluntary benefits are becoming a vital part of an employee's benefit package. Many companies are increasing the amount employees contribute and, in many cases, are eliminating paid maternity leave, salary continuation and long term disability insurance. But if you are not filling these holes... then who will?

In part one of this series, I introduced 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.

I asked these men six questions, the first three I detailed in part one and, in this edition, we will discuss the questions. To remind you, here are my 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?
"Consistency of service and competitive products." This is how George Conmy answered question No. 4. This answer was echoed by everyone. "Making the brokers lives easier -- to support voluntary sales and build their bottom line without forcing a client to add overhead," was the response from Steve Lynch.

I've had the opportunity to work with many brokers in the past. Some experiences have been very positive and some not so positive. It's my opinion that one of the most important factors involved when working with a broker is that both the broker and voluntary representative have a crystal clear vision of what is expected.

Is the broker actively soliciting voluntary business from his list of clients, or is the broker only going to call me when an account has requested information? As the voluntary rep for a broker, you can only be as involved as the broker wants. It's important that you both understand where your relationship stands from the beginning -- as a partnership. You, as the voluntary representative, are being given access to their accounts. How you represent yourself, how you conduct yourself, and how you manage your day-to-day operations is a direct reflection on the broker.

While the voluntary carrier itself plays a vital role in the decision process for the broker, I firmly believe it's the voluntary representative who plays the most vital role when a broker chooses which company to work with.

"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 and call center enrollments to maximize employee participation?" This was the fifth question I asked everyone. "This question was probably more important a couple of years ago. Carriers who do not have e-enrollment solutions such as call centers, Web-enroll and laptop systems are probably not that competitive in the marketplace today," states George Conmy. "All of the above! Advancing enrollment technology is essential in relating to a multigenerational workforce," was the response from Steve Lynch.

According to Ike Willingham, "Technology is ever-changing and it is important to provide an appropriate infrastructure to support ongoing quality service to brokers," is how Ken Meir responded. "The ability to assist brokers with their core enrollments through an advanced enrollment system is essential in today's market."

Technology has certainly changed the way that voluntary benefits are enrolled. Combining core enrollments with voluntary enrollments is becoming more common. Each carrier seems to be keeping up with today's technology and the only limitation for future enrollments will be the imaginations of the IT department.

In response to question No. 6, "What role will voluntary benefits play in regards to an employer's benefit package in the next four years?" Ken Meier says, "A 2008 Aflac-commissioned survey revealed that 86 percent of nurses say a hospital's benefit package is one of the most important factors when determining where to work, and more than half report they would switch jobs solely based on an employer's benefits. Three-quarters of the registered nurses surveyed said they would prefer to work for an employer that provides voluntary insurance policies, including insurance for short-term disability."

Some of the answers from the executives I interviewed were simple and others more in-depth. The bottom line is that the answers highlight the efforts that voluntary carriers are taking to develop business through brokers. I believe that this was one of the most important questions posed to the panel and appreciate the candor to which they all responded.

"The momentum of voluntary products is continuing to increase and should remain so for quite some time. Voluntary benefits are commonplace within all size employers and accepted by employees. The largest carrier has through its ad campaign made voluntary benefits well known across many specters of the marketplace," states George Conmy.

"We expect voluntary benefits to continue to grow in importance in an employer's benefit package. For example, with the increasing diversity of employees and their dependents, the concept of an employer's one-size-fits-all, benefit package is obsolete. Diverse employee populations expect and deserve a diverse portfolio of voluntary products," is the response from Steve Lynch.

Ike Willingham states, "Voluntary benefits will be an integral part of an employer's benefit package in the next four years. As brokers work with their clients to review their benefit packages, they are being forced to make cuts and reduce premium. We must focus on providing voluntary benefits that address these needs and offer affordable alternatives to fill the gaps. We must also keep in mind that as brokers are forced to add higher in-network deductibles that reduce premium, we must attempt to find solutions that allow brokers to do so without jeopardizing their income."

Properly communicating their services to brokers is something that I believe all four carriers are doing effectively. Through Web, print and television advertisements, I like to believe that brokers are well aware of the rewards of offering voluntary benefits.

The future of voluntary benefits is unlimited. As the economy continues to dictate that companies take a closer look at their expenses, health benefits will continue to be a common issue. The CEO, CFO, COO and HR director who have been loyal to their broker's for years are now forced to seek outside opinions or quotes to see if there are any other solutions or ideas. The HR director whose job was secure in the past must now justify these costs and prove that all other options have been investigated.

Whether you have been offering voluntary benefits for a while or whether you are new to voluntary benefits, it's important to choose a carrier that can offer you and your clients a total solution. Ask yourself this question: Would you bring a voluntary benefits provider into an account that doesn't meet your standards?

It's essential that you trust the people with whom you choose to partner. The quality of products, enrollment services and the quality of their people all play a crucial role in the carrier you choose. Think about what you can get by offering voluntary benefits: a new revenue stream, solutions for your clients, and a stronger client relationship. You should view your voluntary rep and the carrier as a partner in providing solutions to employers and their employees.

The response to the first part of this article was excellent. Not only did a few health brokers contact me asking questions, but I was contacted by a company that specializes in just voluntary and ancillary products. Many people seem interested in the overall reaction to this article, and many more are interested in what the brokers want, which I will get to in parts three and four of this series.

I had a couple of people question my response to question two in the previous article. Some people felt that it portrayed a particular company in a negative light. No article in this series is meant to portray any company in a negative way.

I appreciate that four senior management executives took the time to answer my questions. The purpose of this article is to find out what they believe brokers want -- from the carrier's perspective. As I began to send brokers the follow-up questions to this article, I asked some tough questions in regards to negative experiences they may have had in the past. I specifically requested that these brokers not mention the carriers by name. The questions focus on the relationship the broker has had with carriers in the past and their voluntary representative.

This series of articles is not about pointing fingers or discovering the best voluntary carrier, it's about finding out what brokers want from a voluntary carrier. I believed it would be interesting to find out what the carriers believed brokers wanted before interviewing the brokers. It will be interesting to see if the carriers are accurately addressing the needs of brokers or do brokers believe there is more to be done.

I want to take the time again to thank Ike Willingham, Ken Meier, Steve Lynch and George Conmy. I realize how busy these gentlemen are and appreciate their time.

I look forward to writing part three of this series for you all and thank everyone who responded to part one. Your comments are appreciated; it's nice to know that so many of you enjoy reading my articles.

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