Growing Your Benefits Brokerage
In this day and age, it isn’t enough for brokers to rely on word of mouth and client recommendations and referrals to grow their business, which is why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide on how to leverage technology and traditional marketing and sales skills to grow your agency.
Using Technology to Grow Your Benefits Brokerage
The days of paper, spreadsheets and the constant back and forth are over. It’s 2018 and that means it’s time for brokers and agents to step up their technology game in order to efficiently and effectively run and grow their agency. Insurance agents need to leverage the two following technologies in order to grow their business:
A CRM platform, a customer relationship management platform, is key to managing information about your clients. CRMs can be used to track clients, integrate with emails and calendars, store notes, manage documents, automate workflow and more.
CRMs improve sales close ratios, client retention rates and reduce the amount of time required to service your existing clients.
When choosing a CRM, ask yourself: Do you want a stand-alone service, or a cloud-based platform? Stand-alone products tend to be one-size fits all, while cloud-based platforms, like BenefitsGuide, are more customizable.
Benefits administration software:
Benefits are going online–more than a billion dollars in venture capital has been poured into software companies serving the small-to-mid-sized employer market. Benefits administration software like BerniePortal tackles the transactional challenges of HR and benefits—everything from onboarding and offboarding to private exchanges and ancillary options, and even PTO and time and attendance.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if now is the time to go online:
Are you in a metropolitan area?
Software companies like Zenefits and Namely are seeking to become brokers of record in metro areas. Has your agency lost business, or do you know a local agency who has lost business, to these companies?
What are ancillary commissions as a percent of your total revenue?
If the answer is “Not enough,” going online can help you maximize this service for your clients. We find going online can boost commissions by 15 percent.
What is the composition of your clients?
Clients greater than 50 employees are likely to adopt their own systems. Get out in front by incorporating a system into your value proposition.
Do you have the capacity to go online?
Is your agency leadership invested in the success of the roll-out?
Is it your slow season?
This is the time to look at platforms and go through training. We believe you should implement with your clients during open enrollment because you’re implementing change during an existing period of change. Make sure you have enough time beforehand to learn the new system.
The big decision brokers face
Brokers today face a decision with dramatic implications. The HR and online benefits administration software market is growing rapidly, with more than $1 billion in venture capital pouring into the space. Inevitably, this market will include purchases made by a broker’s clients and prospects.
The big decision agencies serving the small- to mid-sized employer market are confronted with is whether to select an online benefits system for your clients, or let them all go and pick their own. Either choice carries considerable consequences, as the industry is on the cusp of a huge move by these small employers to administer their HR and benefits online.
Skeptical? Feel like you’ve heard that the move online is imminent for ten years and nothing has happened? Fact: Disruptive innovations are always things that people in the industry talk about for years before they actually happen. Then, when they do, they happen in a flash. Online benefits technology is at the cusp of that flash. How do we know? We know because the market is close to fulfilling on the entire promise of the technology. Once the entire promise is fulfilled, everyone moves.
The promise of benefits tech includes everything from processing open enrollment and qualifying events to integrating with carriers and payroll, as well as administering a multitude of benefit funding strategies, managing 1095-Cs, and coordinating with the entire HR ecosystem. This promise is very close to being fulfilled, but there is also another important factor at play — millennials.
You know them. For many of you reading, they are your children or grandchildren. Digital natives, they are often astonished (in a bad way) at how benefits are administered today. Paper processes, spreadsheets. Their reaction is visceral — for some, it is enough to make them want to throw up. And they’re getting older. With age comes power, and as they move into roles at their organizations with more decision-making power, they are increasingly insisting that the paper be tossed in favor of moving online.
Investors have seen all of this, and are responding by writing checks. Lots of checks, for lots of money. Venture capital financing has poured into companies that provide some semblance of online benefits technology to the 10- to 500-employee employer segment. These companies have big marketing budgets and are great at advertising online — whatever it takes to find themselves in front of your clients. And this is in addition to the efforts of existing players — namely payroll companies — who are working furiously to build online benefits systems that they can sell alongside of payroll.
Which leads us to the biggest decision health insurance agencies that serve the 10 to 500-employee segment face over the next five years:
Do you let your clients pick their own benefit systems, or do you select a system and incorporate it as part of the value proposition you deliver to your clients?
In other words, let clients pick or select a system for them?
With the existence of more than 100 benefit administration software solutions, it is unlikely that your clients will all choose the same solution — or even the same five solutions. This is why the implications of the decision are so dramatic.
Scenario 1: Let clients pick
Imagine that you let your clients pick and they end up on ten different platforms. How is your team supposed to keep up with all of the updates and improvements those ten different systems make on an ongoing basis?
And then what happens when they can’t, and so they end up not managing a client’s system reliably? Mistakes. Incorrect deductions, mismanaged open enrollments. Bottom line: frustration for everyone and lost clients.
Scenario 2: Broker provides the platform
In the alternative scenario, you choose a platform and incorporate it into your value proposition. Your team takes time to understand the system you’ve selected. You identify how you can improve your agency’s own internal processes and who is responsible for what. With confidence, you implement with clients in the manner that maximizes the likelihood of successful adoption.
In this scenario, open enrollments run smoothly because your team knows what it is doing and has confidence in its system. Clients are happy and so more likely to stay with you and refer you to friends.
Your close ratio with prospects goes up, as you begin to position your agency as addressing both their acute, transactional challenges with software and their long-term, strategic challenges with your strategic mind, experience, and problem-solving ability coupled with the best service and a strong relationship.
Sounds pretty good, right? So what is the downside? You may have some questions of concern before choosing a platform for your clients:
Investment of time & energy
The first downside is that this is going to be a lot of work and you won’t really reap the benefits of that work for at least 12 months. Yes, maybe the new platform will help you win some new clients right away, but the work of implementing it with your current clients is a long-term investment of time and energy.
Did you pick the right platform?
The other downside of selecting a platform is that awful, anxious feeling that you might select the wrong one. You select the wrong platform, work hard to implement it with your clients, and watch as it doesn’t make the investments necessary in product or support to stay as cutting-edge as it seemed when you originally selected it.
Other systems — systems you passed on when you selected yours — ultimately outshine your system leaving you at a disadvantage versus other agencies who happened to select the “right” system.
Is now the right time to choose a platform?
In some ways it seems like it would be easier to wait to select a system for your agency until a market leader or leaders have emerged. A system that is more clearly going to be around for the long haul and make those important investments in its product and support teams to stay as cutting edge as the day you signed up. Certainly, the majority of agencies are in this boat right now.
The thing that makes waiting so tricky is that those millennials are not getting any younger. Those venture capitalists aren’t known to be especially patient for their investments to pay off. In other words—
Whether you select a system or not, your clients are going to begin getting online with or without you.
As that happens, you risk inadvertently putting your agency in that dreaded position of being expected to maintain multiple benefits systems for clients who all picked their own.
How risky it is to wait depends on how many clients you have who are inclined to move online. This can be difficult to judge. Even your most blue-collar client may surprise you with a move online without you if the owner’s 27-year-old daughter moves back home and takes over HR. Rest assured, though, that this market is big enough that there will be multiple “winners” among the benefits technology firms.
Furthermore, we are finding at BerniePortal that the same four or five systems seem to be the ones being evaluated by “early adopter” agencies. There may be a hundred systems out there, but “early adopter” agencies already seem to have picked the top five that work for both the employer and the broker. In other words, the risk of choosing wrong is a lot lower today than it was even just a few years ago.
Retaining and recruiting clients
If you’re considering the move online, you likely already know that offering your clients access to a benefits administration platform is a deal-winner. But simply having the platform isn’t enough—you don’t want to buy it just to “shelve” it.
You need a strategy to market your platform and use it to win new business and retain current clients. BerniePortal is an expert on this point, because we were launched out of a benefits brokerage—Nashville-based Bernard Health. Bernard Health has been using BerniePortal to maximize agency for almost ten years, and here are a few tips we’ve learned.
Visualize your new value proposition:
Take some time to visualize what sets your brokerage apart from the competition—maybe even jot down a few bullet points. Then, consider how a benefits platform will change and improve this value proposition. The reality is that as the benefit industry progresses, providing value in group pricing simply isn’t enough. The future is in health strategy consulting—encompassing HR solutions and tech advice into your existing benefits expertise is a differentiator. Position yourself as a thought-leader giving your clients cutting-edge technology.
Improve client experience:
How would your customer service experience change if all of your information was in a single system? Gone are the days of incomplete forms, sifting through information, and employees could even access their benefits information on their computer or phones. For brokers with a hands-on approach, online platforms provide an additional level of service for clients by streamlining enrollment processes, providing a wider arrange of ancillary offerings, and benefits education.
Increase client retention:
In addition to improving customer service, brokers who provide an online platform increase their client retention. Clients are excited to utilize the additional HR features these platforms offer such as onboarding, PTO, time & attendance and applicant tracking. Once fully utilizing a platform, clients recognize the difficulty in switching both brokers and platforms.
Ultimately, going online means improving your customer service. Imagine showing up at your next renewal meeting with a platform that will make benefits “easy” to understand for employees and easy to administer for employers. If you don’t show up with a platform, someone else will in the near future.
Retaining and recruiting clients
One of the key advantages of benefits administration software is that it removes the administrative costs associated with offering more lines of coverage. Many mistakenly think it is hard-dollar costs that keep small- to mid-sized employers from offering broader, more competitive benefit packages, but many products can be offered at little-to-no cost to the employer.
Rather, what keeps most small employers from adding lines of coverage, and competing more effectively with larger organizations, is the paperwork. From tracking elections, integrating with payroll, managing billing and more, many organizations don’t have the staffing power to handle the administrative burden that a broader benefit package would create.
But benefit software reduces the burden associated with increased voluntary options. Software cuts the paperwork and makes it easier for employees to evaluate their options and enroll in coverage. This allows employers to better compete for talent. Employees feel taken care of, and brokers see increased ancillary revenue. It’s a win all around. With a robust employment rate, more employers are recognizing that a competitive benefits package is key to recruitment and retention.
Benefits expecting to attract more employer attention include:
Identity theft protection
Long-term care insurance
Hospital indemnity coverage
Student debt repayment
This represents a clear opportunity to brokers who can recognize this need and provide solutions to expand ancillary options, especially for small and mid-sized groups, which have traditionally not offered as many lines of coverage as large corporations.
Using benefits administration to expand ancillary options
Small and medium-sized employers, on average, are not offering robust benefit packages. This is in large part due to transactional and administrative challenges, not hard dollar costs. These transactional challenges are addressed by online benefits administration. This means if you can help your clients get online, then they will expand their benefits packages.
Here’s an example: A client in Atlanta had a 55-life group resulting in between $10,000 and $12,000 in commissions on the major medical plan. The broker persuaded the employer to offer hospital indemnity coverage as an employer-paid benefit as well. This benefit resulted in more than $9,000 in commissions.
The takeaway is that focusing on ancillary options can create almost as much value as the health plan. It also creates a win-win-win—employees feel well taken care of, employers are more competitive in recruitment and retention, and brokers boost their ancillary revenue.
Marketing Techniques to Grow Your Benefits Brokerage
In this digital age, more and more of your potential clients will be looking online to find a broker and technology companies such as Zenefits are betting on it. So how can you make sure they find you? Here are some tips to improve your marketing presence:
Conduct an audit
Step one is to review your current marketing strategy. Create a spreadsheet to track all of your current communication channels—websites, social media, advertisements—and determine which, if any need to be updated. You will want to be sure your messaging is concise and accurate. Are you still targeting the right audience? Is your messaging clear and easy to understand, especially for prospects unfamiliar with insurance jargon?
Update your website
Chances are you have a website, but when was it last updated? Google constantly “crawls” websites to determine where you rank on search engines. Take a look at your website and make sure the information on it is accurate. Sites are also ranked on relevance, so make sure the content on your page relates to how you want to be found. This is referred to as Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
An easy way to consistently update your website is to start a blog. Blogging on current events can help potential clients find your website when they are looking for more information on a given topic. You can also add your blog to your email signature to enforce your role as a trusted advisor to clients.
Next, make sure you have social media accounts set up for your agency and that they are all linked together. Social Media helps greatly with SEO, and can be a great outlet to share your blog posts and marketing materials. A good social media account combines content created by both yourself and others.
You don’t have to put too much thought into social media. Hootsuite is a free platform that lets you manage all of your social media at one time. You can schedule your posts in advance, so that you only have to worry about social media when you want to.
Make sure you’re listed
Do you have a Google Business Listing? You should, it’s free! The days of phone books are long gone. Make sure that you are listed on online directories such as Google and Bing. Check out a complete list here from Hubspot.
Next, you can add yourself to review sites like Yelp. Review sites aren’t just for hotels and restaurants. By creating your own listing, you can make sure the business information is accurate. You can then send your happy clients to the site to give you a positive review. Review sites go a long way in optimizing your SEO as well as building trust with potential new clients.
Standardize your marketing materials
Next, make sure that all of your materials both online and offline are standardized. People remember companies by their branding, and if everything looks different it’s going to be more difficult for a prospect to remember you.
In addition, make sure there’s a link between all of your online and offline materials so you are sending people from one to the other. For example, make sure all of your printed materials and presentations link to your website. You can also make your printed materials available on your website to broaden their usage.
We mentioned this above, but since it is your number one, most valuable marketing tool, we wanted to dive a bit deeper into your website. Here at BerniePortal, we see a lot of broker’s websites. We see the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this digital world, a prospective client is going to look you up before they take a meeting with you. Use these 7 tips to make sure that your website portrays your brokerage in the best light possible:
This may seem obvious, but make sure your website introduces the key members of your team. While a name and title is great, try to add more detail. Having a professional picture (no selfies!) and biography makes your brokerage seem relatable and trustworthy to both potential prospects and current clients. Putting a face to a name is important.
Second, make sure that you have recent testimonials from your clients on your website. Collect a handful from a variety of different types of clients. Also, make sure there’s a wide range of your services being represented in the testimonials. Don’t use any clients that you wouldn’t want a prospect to call.
Accurately describe your products and services:
This one may seem fairly obvious as well, but make sure that your website accurately describes what you do. It’s surprising how many broker’s websites don’t describe what they do. For example, last week one of our sales team members called on a broker whose website says they specialize in employee benefits. When she called the broker, he said all he sold was yacht insurance now. If your website isn’t accurate, how will you attract the right clients?
Keep it updated:
Does your website have outdated content on it? While it’s a challenge to keep your website updated at all times, it’s worth spending the time every few months. If your homepage has content from two years ago, your brokerage comes off as outdated. It creates doubt and potential clients may question your ability to stay up-to-date with current benefits offerings and compliance changes. One way to counter this is by having timeless content on your homepage and resorting to a blog for more timely information.
Having a blog is an opportunity to have a section of your website that’s updated very regularly. Your blog can have different contributors from your organization and be a way to secure your position as a trusted advisor. By writing about current news in benefits and compliance, you’re providing a free resource to your clients and prospects. Once you’ve built up your blog, you can link to it in emails to potential clients when mentioning specific topics.
Display yourself as an expert:
Throughout your entire website, make sure that you are displaying yourself as an expert. There are multiple ways to do this. Having bios on your employees, writing about current trends on your blog, and adding a frequently asked questions section are just a few ways to display your brokerage as the thought leader you are.
Make sure your website works:
Lastly, make sure that your website works. You’re doing yourself and your prospective clients a disservice if your website is not live and/or there are parts of your website that don’t work. You don’t want to represent yourself to clients as unreliable.
Sales Techniques to Grow Your Benefits Brokerage
BerniePortal was created by the team at benefits brokerage Bernard Health, and we have a more than a decade of sales experience. Here are some sales strategies you can employ to help grow your agency:
Invest in marketing
Is your online presence up to par? Are you reaching the prospects you want to be reaching? Marketing and lead generation are always important, and digital marketing is especially important as business owners and decision-makers become increasingly tech-savvy. However, most brokers don’t have the time to conduct a full marketing audit or keep on top of websites, social media, advertisements and more. Investing in a full-time marketing position can make a big difference.
Pick a platform that offers coaching and marketing help
Adopting a benefits administration and HR platform will help you win new business. You will be able to provide a differentiator to prospects and set yourself apart from the competition. But the key to doing this successfully is getting a good go-to-market strategy from the vendor. BerniePortal and Bernard Health have developed a proven strategy for using the software to better market your agency and win new business.
Make sure you have the right information before pitching
One sales strategy that can make a big difference is making sure you have done all your research before attempting to sell the prospect on your agency’s value. This goes beyond the basic questions about how many lives are covered and who the current broker is, but can significantly improve your close ratio. Three things to determine are: ne of the most important questions to ask about is the customer service experience. While we all like to think that issues won’t arise with software, there’s a good chance they will at some point. In that situation, it’s important to know the process and what to expect. Make sure to ask what support is provided. Is support via the phone or just web based? Will you have an assigned account manager or deal with someone different each time?
Who are the decision-makers?
Most brokers have experienced the frustration of a great presentation addressing the wrong audience. Benefits is often in HR’s wheelhouse, even if that team isn’t the one to make the final call. You want to avoid this issue from the start. Before setting the first meeting, determine who all the decision-makers are—HR, the CFO, the CEO or business owner—and make sure they are all in the room when you explain the advantages of your agency.
What is the decision-making process?
Does the business owner get the final call, or is she going to delegate that decision to the head of HR? Does the decision-maker have a personal relationship with their existing broker that you are unlikely to compete against? Make sure you understand not only who makes the the end decision, but how they’re going to get there. This will help you to strategize the best way to communicate the value of your services—and if it’s worth your time at all.
What are their pain points?
We’re sure there are many reasons your prospects will want to choose you. But don’t over-sell without understanding exactly which problems your potential client faces. If they have a robust HR team, don’t spend too much time on your compliance capabilities. If they aren’t online, explain how much easier enrollment is with a benefits platform. If they already have a platform, don’t sell them on going online—get a sense of how your platform or service level will make their lives easier than their current software provider, and lead with that.
It’s 2018 and your competitors are investing in and leveraging technology and traditional sales and marketing efforts to differentiate themselves, grow their book of business and maximize ancillary benefits. Don’t let your agency fall behind.