Talk of retail giants like Amazon or Google selling insurance products is taking off, but it’s important to remember competitive threats to the benefit distribution system are nothing new. As John Sarich, VP, corporate strategy at VUE Software, pointed out last week at the Workplace Benefits Renaissance, we’ve been here before — Allstate was once the tire brand at Sears.

While Amazon and Google have challenges to overcome before they might be perceived as threats (lack of experience in consumer products and not being highly profitable, respectively), there is one retailer to keep an eye on, Sarich told attendees at the Atlantic City show: Walmart. Selling a lot of Medicare Advantage and Part D plans, Walmart is more into funneling business to insurance companies at the moment, Sarich said. However, “they’re someone to watch,” he said. “They could become a serious competitor.”

Walmart is big in the senior, baby boomer business, Sarich said, but brokers need to pay attention to millennials — “the future of insurance,” he said. The generation “likes to take care of themselves” and is “very competitive on price,” he added. Tech savvy, mobile and socially connected, “their mindset will transform the industry.”

It’s a mindset that wants to buy online and is always asking, “Why?” without accepting, “Because that’s how it’s always been done,” as an answer, said Sarich.

Millennials are generally technology experts, which is an area of weakness for most advisers, Sarich said. “Most advisers have crummy technology,” he added. “They’re not technology people.”

In fact, if advisers perform a strengths-weaknesses-opportunities-threats analysis they’ll likely find a lot of opportunity in improving their technology. This could be something as simple as becoming more familiar with Facebook and other social media, Sarich said. Brokers should take advantage of their strength as high-touch sales people and use that online. “If you’re not on [Facebook], you need to get on it,” he said, adding that the challenge is making money there.

Advisers can monetize social media, Sarich said, by finding out if their clients have a business page and ‘liking’ it, and even by ‘friending’ clients. That way, they can stay abreast of big news like new offices opening up or the birth of a child. “But you’ve got to be religious about it,” he said.

Many advisers may not realize it, but simple actions like this, as well as basic business processes at their company, can stand out as significant differentiators from the competition. “The littlest processes that you do can define your business,” Sarich said.

For example, having a person answer the phone every time someone calls your business rather than an automated system. “You may think, ‘So what?’ but it makes a big difference,” he said.

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