5 Ways Benefits Consultants Can Help Their Clients Recover from a Challenging Year

Person having serious phone call

Since early March, our lives have been dominated by the disruptions created by COVID-19. We’ve shifted to working remotely, we’ve learned the right songs to hum to make sure we’re washing our hands long enough, we’re supporting local businesses in any ways we can, and we’re doing our very best to flatten the curve and keep ourselves and our families safe.

We’re a long way from business as usual, clearly. But there’s still plenty of business to do. Right this minute, your clients need help figuring out how to respond (or not respond) to the changes that have already happened, and the ones on the horizon. Guide them through this turbulent period well, and they’re likely to reward you with their trust—and their business—for years to come. Here are a few suggestions on making that happen:

Listen, listen, listen

The game plan you and your clients had in mind for 2020 may still apply—but most likely it won’t.

The best first step in figuring out how to pivot is to set up a (virtual) check-in meeting with your clients simply to hear what their latest concerns are. Your role in this meeting is very simple: ask questions that get to the heart of what they’re struggling with right now, listen, and take notes. Are they anticipating layoffs (and then possible re-hires later in the year)? Do they suddenly need a way to virtually onboard new hires, or run open enrollment, or communicate benefits in general? Do they need help explaining all the relevant info from the new $2 trillion stimulus package to their workforce?

This is your chance to find out what your clients are thinking, gauge their risk tolerance, and be empathetic to their unique situation.

Be prescriptive—about the what, the how, and the when

Once you have a clear sense of your clients’ new normal, pivot quickly to making recommendations. Better to err on the side of being prescriptive than being passive or reactive—especially now, when so many employers are unsure about next steps.

As you’re making recommendations, be upfront about the pros and cons of your game plan versus alternatives to your plan, or alternatives to the tools you’re recommending. The more proof you provide of doing your due diligence, the more reassured your clients will feel. Also, as great as your pitch might be, your clients are also inevitably going to want to do some online research themselves. Help them by gathering and sharing the URLs of the sources they’d likely turn to; they’ll appreciate that you’re being transparent and saving them time.

Next, once you and your client are aligned, take the lead on creating a mutual action plan. Point out possible potholes, wrong turns or detours that could happen and make suggestions on how to avoid them. Communicate any insider knowledge you might have about how long a contract for X might really take to get signed, or how long implementation for tool Y actually takes, according to your other clients. Leverage the expertise of the other people in your office, whenever and however possible. Be super-organized on a micro level, too: send a simple agenda in advance of meetings, be sure to sum up next steps and make clear who’s responsible for what, by when, at every step.

Oh, and a bonus tip: Talking about ROI and showing data to support your vision is obviously important. But you’re more likely to get your client to buy in if you pair data with a powerful story. So craft a simple narrative about the potential year ahead, with a beginning, middle and an end. Describe the relief your client and employees will likely feel, and the pain they’ll likely avoid. The better you’re able to do this, the more likely your client will remain positive about your game plan throughout the year.

Offer benefits education strategies that deliver sneaky savings

It goes without saying that your clients will be looking for even more ways to pinch pennies this year. Negotiating the best plan rates and migrating employees into lower cost alternatives are all great ways to impact the bottom line. But there’s more than you can—and should—be doing, especially on the benefits decision support front, to help your clients achieve better financial outcomes. For example:

Proactively suggest healthcare consumerism tools

Obviously, there’s been a recent spike in interest in telemedicine tools—so be prepared to offer thoughtful advice on that front. Also, be on the lookout for solutions that encourage employees to be savvier healthcare shoppers, by going to urgent care centers instead of ERs for non-emergencies, using generic drugs, and being more vigilant about preventative care.

Suggest your clients rebrand their open enrollment as an important financial crossroads

Bad decisions employees make during open enrollment can cost them—and their employers—thousands of dollars. Help your clients create open enrollment messaging that’s focused on the bottom-line benefit of each medical plan and tax-advantaged account, using specific dollar amounts when possible. Provide a way for their employees to compare plans easily, playing out low-risk and high-risk scenarios. Suggest messaging that speaks bluntly about the financial benefits…of benefits: for example, that the average employee saves $19.65 in taxes for every $100 they put in a pre-tax account for healthcare costs (like an HSA or FSA). Or that not taking advantage of the 401(k) match is like turning down thousands of dollars in free money every year.

Ask vendors to help cover benefits technology costs

Insurance carriers are often willing to offer technology, communication or marketing credits to brokers (payable in a lump sum or monthly installments) to help cover the cost of new benefits communications technology. So ask every single carrier you work with to pitch in—medical carriers, dental carriers, critical illness carriers, you name it. It’s in their best interest to support benefits communication that will educate employees about their products—and possibly boost enrollment in those products.

Share smart strategies for trigger-based benefits communications 

The key to engaging employees and getting them to take action is to reach out when they’re already primed to receive your message. With this in mind, suggest that your clients:

  • Send employees messages about making 401(k) and HSA contributions after yearly pay increases or promotions, as well as during tax season, when finances are front of mind
  • Automatically send a reminder about using FSA dollars by the March deadline early in the year
  • Remind employees to re-assess how much money they’ve put into their HSAs in June, when the year is halfway over
  • Diligently promote telemedicine, EAP, and other mental health resources right now—and communicate the importance of getting an annual physical, once COVID-restrictions ease later this year

Keep nudging your clients toward digital solutions

Investing in solutions that allow employees to learn about, choose, and use their benefits conveniently online was a growing trend even before this pandemic hit. Now, with social distancing measures and work-from-home policies in place, and in-person meetings and paper enrollment no longer an option, virtual benefits education and enrollment tools will become a “must-have” for many companies, for the short-term and possibly longer.

If you’re not a student of the latest, greatest digital benefits technology on the market, now’s the time to become one.

There’s no perfect formula for meeting the varied and urgent needs of your clients right now. But if you lead with empathy, confidence, and transparency—and make it a priority to educate yourself about new strategies and technologies—you’ll be well on your way to having the best 2020 you can, all things considered.

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