Affordable Care Act education, in various capacities, jumped to the forefront of brokerages’ marketing strategy in 2013. One broker approached ACA sessions from a come-one, come-all perspective, while others were more measured, only inviting people who were identified as potential prospects. One thing is for certain, advisers, consultants and brokers alike say any peer who doesn’t hop on the ACA instruction bandwagon soon could get left behind.

Community outreach is a staple component of every independent brokerage and agency in terms of developing name recognition and trust with families and businesses in their area. In the past, it’s meant brokers sitting on local homeless shelter boards, holding ERISA webinars for small businesses or hosting the ever-popular charity golf outing. And while those elements may still be important in keeping brokerages across the nation afloat, for many, the ACA has taken precedence above all else.  

In 2012, Quincy Branch and his staff worked on a Christmas party for mentally handicapped individuals and a shoe donation drive for underprivileged children in his hometown of Las Vegas. This year, the president and chief executive officer of Branch Benefits Consultants says his community outreach was basically all ACA, all the time.

“We’ve pretty much been doing some type of community event on the ACA since June,” he says, noting that up until October his group was doing two seminars a month on the topic. “The only thing that made it easier for us is the fact that we were an agency that was already in the community. We didn’t have to force ourselves to do this work. We just realized we had a new focus.”

‘Main focus’

Branch’s model was to select different topics for each seminar, such as ACA basics, SHOP exchange, pay-or-play and the employer mandate. The events were free, and targeted not just to business owners but to all members of the community. “Thankfully, our attendees throughout all the seminars were mixed,” he says. “We had the uninsured, retirees trying to figure out how things affect them and then we had small business owners and even large corporations. And then also non-profit organizations that service the demographic of people who were going to be most affected by the ACA — for example the United Way.” He adds that those non-profits weren’t necessarily navigators looking to help enroll people, but employees of organizations who thought they might get questions from the uninsured and wanted to have some general knowledge. Branch says he didn’t see any other peer agencies locally “promoting ACA on an outward basis” in the way he chose to do so. In fact, a local television news station promoted one of his events to the community.

While his company still does some volunteer service, like collecting donations for the local food drive and wearing pink on October Fridays in support of breast cancer, Branch calls the ACA meetings their “main focus” because “we have an obligation to make sure the community is informed.”

Outreach vs. prospecting

“I know people who did workshops all through the last year and their primary reason for doing it was less about the community and more about a way to get in front of prospects,” says Mel Schlesinger, an insurance sales coach at The Rainmakers Group, Ltd. in Winston Salem, N.C. and EBA columnist. “Most brokers I know who have done ACA workshops were very deliberate in who they were inviting — so if, for example, they’re in group benefits they’d invite small business owners and other employers.” Schlesinger adds that he hasn’t heard of any cases like Branch’s where agents have chosen, due to a resources decision, to cut back on charity work. “I don’t think it was an either or thing,” he says.

Lecie Steinbaum works at an agency that didn’t have to make that choice. As the director of plan services and compliance at Cornerstone Insurance Group in St. Louis, Mo., Steinbaum’s team put together “seminars, webinars, lunches and breakfasts to educate clients, the general employer-public and general employees — which no one in our area has done,” she says, referring to the employee education component as something particularly unique in Missouri and Southern Illinois. She adds: “We have obviously spent a huge amount of resources, but that’s become an opportunity.”

Cornerstone, according to Steinbaum, has 18 producers, all of whom are involved in various charities that mean a great deal to them individually. She says they haven’t had to sacrifice any of the work that the company does in the community in that respect because her separate team was the instrumental force behind the execution of their ACA education. “We cook dinner once a month for kids at a shelter, sponsor things like March of Dimes, a golf tournament, things important to each producer,” she explains. “We have one producer who is president of his own charity for melanoma because it affected his family.”

Steinbaum’s biggest and most successful seminar took place in conjunction with St. Louis Business News, the local business journal. Her agency marketed and advertised through the journal and had 400-500 attendees in attendance. “I had the president of Anthem in Missouri come up to me and say, ‘I feel so much like I understand,’” she says. Her approach to the invite list was different than Branch’s because it was tailored to the business community and potential prospects rather than anyone in town, including the uninsured.

While Schlesinger doesn’t see the choice between ACA education and charity work as a dilemma, another sales coach, Wendy Keneipp a partner at Q4intelligence in Seattle, Wash., says she isn’t surprised at all that other charity or community activities have fallen to the wayside with ACA regulation changes seemingly every week. “I mean, we even have a hard time getting a hold of our own agents sometimes they’re so busy with ACA,” she says.

Different approaches

Branch wouldn’t deny that he hopes for new clients out of the meetings — in fact, his predominantly group benefits business now has a team of three people solely dedicated to enrolling individuals on Nevada’s state-run exchange. “I’ll be candid, our agency was not going to stand by and let some navigator be that resource,” he says. “I wasn’t going to stand by and let some government-appointed organization come in after a month of training and do the job that I’ve been doing for years.”

But Branch’s resources are also different. He has a team of nine producers, to Steinbaum’s 18, and it was Branch himself who was putting together the events whereas Steinbaum’s firm has a whole compliance division dedicated to this.

“The real resource draw has been in my compliance department, but that’s what we get paid to do,” she says. “The law created a need for us and we’re happy to be needed.”

Keneipp says that no matter how a broker approaches ACA education, as community outreach or prospecting, the important thing is that they’re doing it. “This is the future of marketing and agencies that aren’t taking on the education component or aren’t writing, blogging about the ACA and other topics, then they’re going to stay in the business of commodity selling,” she says.

“I cannot say enough good things about agencies doing education, it’s to the benefit of the agency, too, it makes them learn themselves and then the clients and prospects learn too and get to see their business in a different light.”

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