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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Friend with Benefits

If you’re doing your job right, your clients already consider you an ally and a guide through the bewildering world of benefits.

By  Julia Kramer

Singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette probably wasn’t thinking about her benefits broker when she extolled the virtues of her “friend with benefits” in her hit song “Head Over Feet.” However, as any person charged with reviewing and selecting employee benefits for their firm will attest, a skilled and personable broker is indeed a friend and ally in the confusing and competitive world of employee benefits. Show your clients this column, for this is what we do:

Serving the customer, is job one, and for that reason, benefits brokers are right there beside their clients, come what may. Brokers listen to what clients need, respond to these needs with a variety of product proposals, offer counsel and advice on the different options, and help decide which one is best suited to the firm’s demographics and budget. They hold the client’s hand through enrollment activities, act as a liaison and problem-solver with the carrier, and show up at the same time next year for renewals or with more options. When times are good, a broker helps clients explore additions to benefit offerings. When times are tough, a broker will be right there, helping the firm work within a reduced budget. No fair-weather friends they.

Behind the scenes, brokers study the industry for new and innovative benefits solutions, identify trends, communicate with the carriers and gather pricing data, compare and contrast quotes and products, and develop employee-friendly presentations that explain benefits packages to everyone from the decision makers to the plan participants.

Freeing up the client’s staff may be a less obvious benefit that brokers provide. Many firms recognize this and consider brokers’ services one of their outsourced functions, allowing staff to work on other projects and, in some cases, making it unnecessary for a firm to invest in a benefits administrator. This point is expressed well in an article called “My Broker, My Friend” found on the Employee Benefit News, Canada, website (http://ebnc.benefitnews.com/asset/article/155054/staying-current/my-broker-my-friend.html). It states: “Brokers in Canada and the United States are embracing new business models to become extensions of the human resources department, helping clients with everything from plan design to employee communication to health risk assessments.” Great stuff.

Helping an organization attract talent is an offshoot of a broker’s good work. Their impact is not just felt by the benefits manager. A skilled benefits broker also positively affects managers charged with recruitment and retention. Those responsible for staffing know that their ability to hire and retain valued employees is often directly linked to their firm’s array of benefits. The importance of benefits to an organization’s health is reflected by its inclusion in the top-three list of HR functions that most contribute to an organization’s current business strategies, as reported in the 2008 SHRM study HR’s Evolving Role in Organizations and Its Impact on Business Strategy.

Keeping up with the times can be difficult without expertise, and smart benefits managers know that working with their benefits broker helps them best attend to the needs of a generational spectrum the size of which has previously not been seen. Concurrently meeting the needs of the younger alphabet generations and the aging baby boomers takes creativity and deep understanding.

For example, the youngest generations don’t tend to stay at jobs as long as previous generations, so traditional benefits, such as pension plans with lengthy vesting schedules, don’t float their boats. In contrast, benefits that attend to their shorter-term needs, such as flexible spending accounts, or those that they can take with them, such as a 401(k) or health savings accounts, are popular. Those entering statistically typical child-bearing and/or parenting years may seek employers whose health plan offers contraceptive coverage, infertility treatment, and pre- and post-natal insurance coverage.

The oldest working generations, those employees you want to stay around to ensure an effective transfer of knowledge to the still developing workforce, seek those benefits that help them deal with the typical health issues associated with aging and retirement. A comprehensive health plan that includes vision, dental coverage, long-term care insurance including spousal coverage, disability insurance and supplemental life insurance take center stage.

Cross-generational employee benefits that appeal to all workers include domestic partner healthcare coverage, rehabilitation insurance, wellness programs, health management programs and employee assistance programs. A benefits broker can help with all of the above and more.

Reaping the benefit, the full benefit, of an affiliation with a broker takes time. Much like any relationship, this one will require a mutual commitment, strong communication, understanding and trust. Skipping from broker to broker or using a different broker for each separate product, is not the way for a company to develop a strong connection or an integrated program. Firms that do their homework, find the right brokerage and stick with it may just find they’ve made a new friend. Better yet, a supportive and expert new friend—with benefits.

Kramer, is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President

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