The NCAA has March Madness, and HR has its own brand of Fall Madness: open enrollment. It's a busy and stressful time for practitioners, but a good benefits broker or consultant can mean the difference between a successful, smoothly executed process and months of frantic nail biting, confusion and muddled deadlines.
What's the best way to find the right benefits partner? And how does HR best leverage and maximize that business relationship?
Businesses first must clarify their own needs and priorities, according to Donna Miracle, executive human resources consultant at HR Strategy Group.
"[A]re you a startup that will be growing rapidly? Are you an organization with a workforce that is virtual and spread across the country?" she said to HR Dive in an email. "In the marketplace today, brokers are looking for ways to differentiate themselves. Some are focusing on technology, others wellness, others employee engagement, etc. What is most important to your organization? What value added service will be the most beneficial to your employees?"
8 interview questions
Once an employer is clear on the top priorities, research is crucial. Shelley McLean, principal at OneDigital Health and Benefits, said it's important for employers to interview multiple firms and ask a lot of questions.
Miracle suggested employers seek out a broker that specializes in employee benefits — you don't want it to be their "other thing," she noted via email. "Just as you would want a professional accountant, you want a professional broker."
She advised handling the broker selection process like an employee interview, with prepared questions such as the following:
- Describe for me the renewal process with your firm. When should I expect to begin the process? What information will you need from me and when? How do you approach the marketplace? What tools do you have in place to help us make a decision?
- How does your firm handle problems? Is there a team assigned to our company? Can employees contact your firm directly?
- How often should I expect to hear from your firm before and during the renewal period?
- What resources do you offer to help us stay informed about changes and reporting requirements?
- How often should we expect your firm to be in touch with us when we are not in the renewal season?
McLean offered these questions to ask:
- Do you provide the backbone to look at a benefits package with a holistic approach? How will you bring that to my employees?
- What resources do you provide outside of benefits? Is there an expanded footprint?
- How are you, consultant, going to help us build a strategy?
Both McLean and Misty Guinn, director of benefits & wellness at Benefitfocus, mentioned the importance of long-range, multi-year strategic plans.
"When creating 1- 3- or 5-year strategic plans, can the broker help map out the strategy? Can they help model different plans with a variety of voluntary solutions to meet the overall budget number from the CFO? These tools and modeling capabilities should be a deciding factor and can be a great asset when presenting your benefit plan designs to your executive team," said Guinn via email.
McLean noted that a data-driven strategy is a key differentiator: "Everyone can say they have data, but do they have data that can provide an actionable plan, and understand what the data means?"
It's also important to find a broker that knows the days of cookie-cutter benefits are over. "Employers should find a broker partner that offers creative solutions to make sure the company is maximizing their current offerings through plan designs and carrier programs and offer new solutions as part of the overall benefits strategy, rather than just another shiny toy to add on top of the benefits package," said Guinn.
The world of employee benefits is ever-changing, and it is fast, McLean said. "It's not the HR team's job to stay in front of that — it's our job. [We] need to know all the strategies out there and sort them" into what is most and least likely to work for the client, she said. She advised finding a consultant who is a "student of the industry" so that employers hear important news from their benefits partner before they hear it from anyone else.
A true partnership
The experts all espoused the need for a real partnership between employer and benefits broker.
"Treat them the same as a valued member of your team," said Miracle via email. You want someone, said McLean, who will challenge you and help you to be "best in class as an HR department." Your broker is a partner, an extension of your team who will make you better, she said.
Brokers "must become strategic partners; someone who acts as a true extension of a company's internal HR and benefits team while using their expertise to strengthen the company's objectives and key results," said Guinn. "Brokers must strive to closely align and enhance their collaborations with a company's benefit technology provider, carriers, vendors and other key players in the benefits industry."
Among other things, communication will be key, the experts said. "Your broker is one of your best resources for information and assistance," said Miracle, so "don't just talk to them two months before it's time for a new plan." Ongoing communication is particularly important for small HR departments that don't have a lot of other resources to turn to, she said. "That broker is there to help you."
"Frequent and ongoing communication is key to success," said McLean. The "one ask" OneDigital has of its clients, she said, is to outline expectations — the goals and objectives of the company — and how frequently OneDigital and the client will communicate.
Guinn advised that HR pros set up regular meetings throughout the entire year with the broker partner to discuss strategy — not just in the time period leading up to traditional open enrollment. She encouraged strategic sessions at least once a quarter along with shorter tactical biweekly discussions leading up to open enrollment events.
Common pain points
To steer clear of any pitfalls, Miracle said, employers should first gather the census information requested by their broker in a complete and timely manner. "For many small and mid-size businesses, getting renewal information is a pain point. There is sometimes not as much time as we would like between when we receive our renewal information and when we need to have employees enrolled. It is important to have a plan in place to evaluate the renewal data, gather the decision makers and make a decision as efficiently as possible. This will allow the time employees need to evaluate the plan offerings and enroll without getting too close to the deadline."
Guinn echoed the importance of early planning: "While open enrollment traditionally takes place in the fall, the information and data gathering process should begin early in Q1," she said. "One thing I've done with my broker partners is to arrange for a carrier summit early in the year, where vendors and carriers for all of our benefits, including medical, dental, and voluntary benefit providers come and meet with my team."
Another potential pitfall can occur when a broker develops a relationship directly with a company's CFO, resulting in the benefits director being left out of decisions or discussions, said Guinn. She recommended that benefits directors establish themselves early on as the main contact for all communication and reporting, to avoid this problem and prevent confusion about objectives and results.
The big picture
Open enrollment is certainly about benefits and the benefit cost, said McLean, but it's also about the employee experience.
Employers should strive to find a firm that will fit the mission and vision of an employer's desired employee benefits experience and one that truly understands the convergence of HR, technology and the various requirements that come into play, she said. "When the entire benefits ecosystem comes together — the employer, broker, carrier, employees — everyone is a winner."