Yes, KISS is the secret to great benefits communication. Sadly, it’s not the band KISS. But just think if that were true: we could crank up Calling Dr. Love, flash back to our junior high school years–at least in my case–and soak up all the employee communication philosophy and best practices we could possibly need. How cool would that be?! IMHO, super cool!

OK, so maybe Gene Simmons and the gang can’t help us with employee and benefits communication, but KISS can. Specifically, K.I.S.S. – Keep It Super Simple (I like this version better, as I don’t think calling anyone stupid is a good practice.)

As marketers, my group and I spend a lot of time trying to get better getting across a message to an audience that’s impactful and that drives a specific action, preferably over and over again. That’s not that unlike a benefits executive trying to get a workforce to pay attention and use their health benefits or take control of their retirement plans.

So we thought we’d share a really great article from the Harvard Business Review that we found last week titled To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple. The article detailed a study of 7,000 consumers and hundreds of interviews of marketing executives that zeroed in on what makes consumers buy, become repeat buyers, and share their experiences with others – a concept called ‘stickiness.’ From the article:

‘[To get consumers to act,] companies have ramped up their messaging, expecting that the more interaction and information they provide, the better chance of holding on to them. But for many consumers, the rising volume of marketing messages isn’t empowering – it’s overwhelming. Rather than pulling customers into the fold, marketers are pushing them away with relentless and ill-conceived efforts to engage.’

The study looked at 40 variables – including price, brand perceptions, etc. and found that the most impactful variable to stickiness was decision simplicity – the ease with which consumers can gather trustworthy information about a product and confidently and efficiently weigh their purchase options. And the results were staggering: brands that scored in the top quarter of the study’s decision simplicity index were 86% more likely than those in the bottom quarter to be purchased by consumers considering them. Simply put, consumers want simplicity from marketers when making their buying decisions.

So let’s apply this study to employee benefits communications for benefits, with the following substitutions: consumers = employees, marketers = HR executives, buying decisions = choosing benefits/financial options.

Simply put, your employees want simplicity when making decisions about their health or financial benefits. Even Gene Simmons can’t dispute that.

So, no earth shattering surprise there. But how should you make things simple for your employees? Use these three steps.

1. Give your employees what they want. It’s probably different than what you think they want.

The study found that there was a big disconnect between what marketers thought consumers wanted and what consumers actually wanted. Marketers thought consumers wanted to interact socially with their companies and feel connected with the brand. What consumers actually wanted was to get information in order to buy something quickly and easily.

In fact, the number one item on the marketers’ list of perceived consumers wants was ‘Learn About New Products’; this was #6 on the consumers’ list. The #1 and #2 items on the consumers’ list were ‘Get a Discount’ and ‘Make a Purchase’, whereas these were numbers 12 and 11 on the marketers’ list, respectively. From the study:

‘In demanding ever more attention from overloaded consumers, brands ultimately lead them down unnecessarily confusing purchase paths. Creating a more efficient path means minimizing the number of information sources customers must touch while moving confidently toward a purchase. The savviest brands achieve this by personalizing the route.’

So let’s apply this to choosing benefits. At open enrollment for example, we at ALEX believe that employees show up to ‘transact’– i.e. choose their benefits. They want:

  • personalized information
  • to feel good about their decisions
  • to make their choice as fast as possible.

They don’t want:

  • to learn for the sake of learning
  • to become full-fledged benefits experts.

In other words, they just want to gather the information that’s relevant to them, make a smart, informed choice and then get on with their lives as quickly as possible. Or to paraphrase KISS, they just want to do something and then get back to Rocking and Rolling All Night and partying every day.

Bottom line: You’re an expert in all things benefits-related at your company. It’s very natural to want to impart all of this knowledge to your employees. But you have to put yourself in their shoes. (See: Curse of Knowledge). Resist the urge to teach, because they’re not really there to learn. Rather, recognize that they are there to ‘do’. If you can provide a clear decision path and guide each employee to her best possible choice, you’ll have much more satisfied employees.

2. Reduce choice wherever possible–less really is more

Now I know you’re probably thinking, ‘What? Reduce choice?! I’m trying to give my employees lots of choices, because a one-size-fits-all benefits plan can’t fit all of my different types of employees. And people want to be in control of their choices.’

Yes, you’re exactly right: you should be looking for the best possible options to help all of your various employees. But in addition to that, you should be putting in just as much energy on how to show only the set of choices that are relevant to each person – not all choices to all people.

In the HBR article, the author references an experiment where jars of jam were displayed on a table in a supermarket in sets of either 6 or 24 choices. The experiment showed that only 3% who were presented with 24 bought jam, while 30% of people presented with the set of six bought jam. (By the way, KISS has had only 6 makeup designs for their band members since their founding in 1971. Coincidence? I think not). This is counterintuitive, but Barry Schwartz, psychologist and author of The Paradox of Choice, showed that too many choices lead to indecision and purchase dissatisfaction due to ‘analysis paralysis.’ People become overwhelmed by too much information, and they just give up and avoid the work of choosing.

Bottom Line: Keep making your plan offerings and choices as robust as possible. However, be sure that you’re accounting for ‘analysis paralysis’ and that you’re eliminating unnecessary or irrelevant choices throughout the entire process. You don’t want to have all of your hard work go for naught if your presentation overwhelms and confuses your employees, leading to decision paralysis, frustration and dissatisfaction.

3. Make comparison easier – lots of well-structured information is not nearly enough

According to the study, many marketers often provide well-structured charts containing lists of features in an attempt to help a consumer make a choice amongst many potentially relevant options. But this approach fails, as it’s merely information masquerading as guidance. Yes, consumers want information – but even more so, they want easy ways to sort and get to exactly the information they need to make a decision.

For example, check out the Nikon website. In digital SLR cameras alone, there are 16 models to choose from and 35 different configurations. What?? Where does someone start? Even after you figure out which 3 or 4 are relevant to you, you’re presented with a well-structured, well-intentioned but dizzying eye chart of camera mumbo jumbo and acronyms – SDHC, EN-EL 12, ISO, etc. My brain hurts just looking at it. (It sorta kinda reminds me of the experience many employees go through when choosing their healthcare insurance benefits, or when picking the funds for their 401k…)

A better way to present this would be to learn about the potential buyer by asking questions, and then using this information to make the presentation more relatable to the customer’s situation.

For example: What are you going to use your camera for? Are you a professional photographer? Will you be using it to film a KISS reunion tour concert? For pictures of your kids or family? The article references a great online decision support tool on the Herbal Essences web site. It responds and narrows the relevant choices based on inputs like hair thickness and type, as well as the desired benefit outcomes.

In the old days, this narrowing down would have been done by an attentive and thoughtful shopkeeper who would learn about the customer and guide him or her to an appropriate set of choices. Though most people today are gathering more of their information through digital channels, they still need the ability to compare options easier and with competent guidance.

Bottom Line: You’re the shopkeeper of benefits at your company–tasked with helping thousands of people across multiple locations make the best decisions for themselves. You can’t be everywhere, but you want to be as helpful as possible. Don’t fall into the trap of providing just well-structured information. Structure your information so that it speaks to different types of employees (marriage status, kids/no kids, age, etc.) and makes it easy for them to find personally and situationally relevant information. Leverage what you and your team do by using decision support technology that can personalize and guide every employee in a one-to-one manner to the best set of choices.

The Bottom Bottom Line

Focusing on making your benefits process simpler will result in happier, more satisfied employees. In order to make your benefits process simpler, change your perspective in two ways:

  • View the entire process from the eyes of your employees, not from the eyes of the benefits department. If you can’t totally ‘forget’ all of your knowledge, find people who aren’t living and breathing benefits and get their feedback on your process.
  • Think like a merchant. In this case, your employees aren’t co-workers, they are consumers who are trying to navigate an unfamiliar and complicated buying process. Your job is to provide them with information that’s relevant to them, a process that is built to get them to an increasingly narrow set of options that results in a best-fit solution as efficiently as possible, and an outcome that they’re so happy about that they say, ‘My company’s HR group rocks better than KISS.’

Rock on!

Photo source: Creative Commons