We're headlong into the heat of summer and many of you will be taking some well-deserved vacation time. I've found that's often when you do your most creative thinking since you are in a relaxed state of mind. Released from the pressures of day-to-day responsibilities, our thought processes are often more free-form, and new methods for addressing critical issues often emerge. Given all the pressure and additional workload created by health care reform, you probably just want to forget about business for a while.

On the other hand, you may not have that luxury if your practice is like most of the benefits industry.

In 2011, it's highly probable that the vast majority of benefits advisers will finish the year with their revenues being flat or declining. Anecdotally, we'd estimate that compensation rates have declined about 15%, so that means you'll need to sell that many more new accounts just to hold revenues even. On the other hand, those that have been proactive and strategic in their approach in the last 18 months will see their revenues increase from 25%-40%.

Perhaps there are a few strategies we can learn from these high-growth firms that can be applied to your everyday work routine in order to put your firm on an upward growth trajectory. Let's see if we can help your creative thinking while you sip on a cold beverage by the water's edge.


Engage the CFO

Far too many benefits advisers are satisfied to confine their primary points of contact in the human resources and benefits divisions of their clients and are either unwilling or incapable of broadening their touch points to include the finance department - including specifically the chief financial officer. Why is that? Do you fall into this category? Well that's a problem and it's one that you can address with a little creativity. So let's think about this relationship issue strategically.

If we go back 30 years ago, where did human resources and benefits report to in most corporations? Legal. Why? Because it was viewed as a regulatory and compliance function. Where does it report to today? Finance, and specifically, the CFO. Why? Because benefits have become such an expensive line item.

In fact, for most firms benefits now represent 9%-11% of total operating expenses and the CFO wants to keep track of how the money is being spent. That's why you need to connect with the CFO and deepen your relationship.

Still not convinced? Who ultimately makes the decision about benefits changes, or even more importantly, changes in adviser relationships? Benefits? Human resources? Generally, they are recommenders, not decision-making functions.

The CFO invariably has the final word on benefits and all insurance-related issues for that matter. Just ask your property and casualty counterparts. They already know and understand this important dynamic. High-growth benefits practices are focused on connecting with CFOs in a very meaningful way. Shouldn't you be?

Consider this fact: The overwhelming majority of organizations have enterprise strategic plans. It's a written plan that describes how the firm is going to conduct its business. It states its major objectives, revenue and expense forecasts, and contingency plans. And who is the architect of that document? The CFO, because they often are the chief strategist and the "keeper of the numbers."

So how can you connect with the CFO? By engaging them in a strategic discussion about their benefits program. What are they trying to accomplish by offering benefits? Why does the organization offer the current array of benefits? What's broken? What needs to be fixed? Where do they want their benefits program to be in three to five years?

The CFO needs an adviser they can trust to be strategic in their thinking and that can create a written "roadmap" to guide all their major benefits decisions.

None of us can predict the ultimate outcome of "health care re-formed" given all the likely legislative, judicial and administrative changes on the horizon. But you can be an advocate for adopting a methodology or process for managing change, just like every other major business function for which the organization has a plan.

By being more consultative you will elevate your status from being perceived as a product vendor to that of being a "trusted adviser." You will connect with the CFO and be viewed as an "insider" whose opinion and counsel is valued.


The right approach

Approach a CFO along the lines I am describing and just watch for their reaction. They get it right away. The "light bulb" goes on and they have that "Aha!" moment.

They have a written plan for managing every major function of their business operations. How could they have overlooked such an important expense line item? More importantly, how could their current broker not have addressed this matter? Therein lies your opportunity to differentiate yourself from more than 97% of the benefits advisers in the marketplace. Perhaps you just had an "Aha!" moment: Connect with the CFO and takeover dozens of accounts and boost your own client retention as well. Once you adopt this approach, it will forever change your client interaction. If you need some direction or assistance just contact us.

Adopting this approach will also change your prospecting activities as well. In what way? Once you see the power in this approach you will realize that you can connect much more easily with CPA firms as a "center of influence."

Undoubtedly you have attempted to develop a reciprocal relationship with an accounting firm to provide introductions to clients and prospects. But has it become actionable? Despite all the good intentions, often these solid relationships do not translate into meaningful business opportunities. However, engaging a CPA firm in a strategic discussion ultimately will result in new business relationships. And it's just logical. As part of their basic business practice, CPA firms help their clients to create enterprise strategic plans and act as their "objective business adviser" on a variety of topics. They are already an "insider."

When they understand that you "get it" and that you are thinking about their clients' business issues from a consultative perspective before making benefits recommendations, watch how quickly the introductions will start.

Most CPA firms are acutely aware that the vast majority of benefits advisers are product vendors and that they do not connect the benefits program to the employer's corporate goals and human capital management strategies. You, on the other hand, with your newly adopted strategic approach, will stand out from the pack. And don't overlook the joint public speaking opportunities you can explore with a CPA firm as your strategic partner. We are very big advocates of seminar selling and this approach really lends itself to public speaking, having been introduced as a subject matter expert on the topic of benefits strategic planning.


Expand your horizons

So don't stop with a few CPA firms. This approach can be effectively used with law firms (also viewed as trusted advisers), target industry trade associations, CFO conferences, and other business associations. We know some firms that have set a corporate goal of a public speaking engagement each calendar quarter. We know of a few advisers that have now set a monthly goal since this has been so effective at filling their sales pipeline. Wouldn't your firm benefit from more robust sales? Well, what are you waiting for?

Hopefully by now we have stimulated your creative thinking sufficiently to get you enthused and motivated about broadening your touch points at client organizations and prospecting in a new, more consultative manner. So get another cold beverage and enjoy your relaxation time. There are a whole lot of sales opportunities that will be awaiting you when you get back to the office, and you need to be refreshed and re-invigorated to expand your market share. Meanwhile, relax and visualize yourself connecting with CFOs and CPAs in a strategic manner.

Kwicien is managing partner at Baltimore-based Daymark Advisors. He can be reached at jkwicien@daymarkadvisors.com.


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