Voluntary benefits is often referred to as "worksite marketing." Many carriers, in fact, refer to their voluntary products as "worksite voluntary benefits." Recent developments in enrollment technology, however, are rapidly making the term "worksite" obsolete and no longer relevant to the voluntary benefits process. The term "worksite" derives from how these benefits have had to be enrolled. As products that are voluntarily purchased by employees, the only consistently effective means of presenting (and selling) them have been one-on-one employee meetings with licensed benefit counselors (enrollers) at the workplace during the workday.

Broad employee participation in a voluntary benefit offering happens only when the product is presented and explained - and its value proposition demonstrated - to the employee in the context of his or her own situation. Product pricing and features and benefits are important, but effective benefit communication remains the essential ingredient in the sale of voluntary benefits to the employee. This is the reason for the participation differences between face-to-face worksite enrollments (typically 30% to over 80% or more) and online enrollments (typically 4% to 15%).

Online self-service enrollment initially was viewed by many as the solution to the problem of enrollers at the worksite. Yet, while online self-service enrollment of the voluntary benefit is extremely efficient, it hasn't been at all effective in terms of achieving participation in the voluntary benefits. Online self-serve enrollment has failed to effectively communicate - and sell - voluntary benefits. Until now, that is.

Meet the 'virtual benefit counselor'

Technology finally has produced an enrollment system that, for the first time, combines the efficiency of self-service enrollment with effective benefit communication. This superior benefit communication is achieved through the use of high-level decision support technology that features an "avatar": an on-screen representation (computer-generated or video) of a human or a character - in this case, a "virtual benefit counselor."

With a human voice - not a computer-generated one - the virtual benefit counselor brings the warmth of humanity to the cold efficiency of online enrollment technology. The most sophisticated and effective virtual benefit counselors are computer-generated. Often called a "smart avatar" because they are driven by an artificial intelligence engine, these virtual benefit counselors can interact with employees like a human enroller to obtain needed information, provide informed guidance and answer questions.

High participation occurs when a virtual benefit counselor is combined with enrollment best practices and proven sales scripts to present the products and advise and guide the employee through the sales and enrollment process, often supported by video, slideshows and decision-support tools. Moreover, these VBCs are compelling, compliant, multilingual, intelligent and always pleasant ... the perfect benefit counselor.


No more 'rogue' enrollers

Enrollments conducted by a virtual benefit counselor provide consistent and compliant presentations of the voluntary (and core) products. These enrollers never stray from the script, are always punctual and never create problems.

By providing consistent reliability and performance, the VBC eliminates the employer's fears about enrollers meeting with employees, a primary sales breakdown point for many employers ... and their brokers.


Perfect working conditions

One of the most devastating - and frustrating - breakdown points in the voluntary benefit sales process is failure to get good working conditions for the enrollers, i.e., sufficient access to the employees. Without mandatory one-on-one meetings of at least 15 minutes, even the best enrollers cannot generate sufficient participation and premium.

Brokers, and even many enrollment firms, are notoriously bad about getting proper working conditions, often afraid to push the issue with the employer. Yet poor working conditions almost always doom a voluntary benefits case to low participation and premium.

Working online during open enrollment, the virtual benefit counselor is guaranteed one-on-one access to each employee for as long as is needed to effectively present and enroll the product. Enrolled online by the VBC, a voluntary benefit case will never fall apart due to bad working conditions.


Results rivaling worksite

The most important test of any voluntary benefit enrollment system is results. In the case of voluntary benefits, this means participation in the offering and premium sold. This has been the fatal flaw in self-serve enrollment systems to date.

Online self-service enrollments featuring a VBC have produced participation - and premium - rivaling the most successful one-on-one worksite enrollments. Case studies demonstrate the effectiveness of online self-serve enrollment guided by the VBC. The effective product communication and high-level decision support can drive participation of 30 to 90% or greater. Here are three examples:

Employer 1: Hotel management company

* Enrollment type: Open enrollment of core and voluntary

* Eligible employees: 450

* Voluntary offering: cancer, permanent life, accident with disability income

* Participation in one or more of voluntary products: 56%

* Average premium per employee buying: $448

* Total voluntary premium generated: $112,896

Employer 2: Nursing home chain

* Enrollment type: Open enrollment of core and voluntary

* Eligible employees: 8,000

* Voluntary offering: critical illness, STD, accident

* Participation in one or more voluntary products: 44%

* Average premium per employee buying: $467

* Total voluntary premium generated: $1,643,840

Employer 3: New casino

* Enrollment type: Open enrollment of core and voluntary

* Eligible employees: 1,368 (new hires)

* Voluntary offering: accident, cancer, permanent life and STD insurance

* Participation in one or more voluntary products: 94%

* Average premium per employee buying: $511

* Total voluntary premium generated: $657,146

With a virtual benefit counselor, an online self-service enrollment can efficiently enroll an employee while educating and advising the employee, effectively presenting the products, and producing strong participation and premium.


When worksite won't work

As an enrollment professional, I believe in the face-to-face enrollment model. Nothing is more satisfying and effective for all parties - broker, employee, employer, carrier - than a well-executed one-on-one enrollment with professional benefit counselors. One-on-one worksite enrollments remain the most versatile and effective method for selling insurance and providing value-added services for the employer. But when traditional one-on-one enrollment meetings are not acceptable or not feasible - with large and multi-state/multi-location employers, for example - online self-service enrollment guided by a VBC is the ideal method for enrolling voluntary benefits.

For employers who currently use their human resource information system or benefit administration online enrollment platform for open enrollment, the most advanced VBC technology can easily "bolt on" to the existing platform, providing effective communication of benefits and a superior open enrollment experience.

Most employers and most brokers have embraced online self-service enrollment as the new benefit enrollment standard. At long last, thanks to the VBC, the voluntary benefit industry can fully embrace online enrollment technology without sacrificing participation and premium production.


Griswold, a former senior executive with a national enrollment firm, is a leading authority on cross-selling voluntary benefits. His firm, Bottom Line Solutions, Inc., consults with agencies and carriers on cross-selling and voluntary benefits. He can be reached at (615) 656-5974 or nelson@cross-sellsolutions.com.

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