Technology is a great differentiator in most aspects of business, and according to the results of the 2016 EBA Technology Survey, it remains so in the benefits space as well.

Whether retaining existing business or attracting new customers, those surveyed claimed technology is a key component of their operations. Findings seemed to track along broader 21st-century business trends — remote workforce, mobile computing, web-based infrastructure — with future planned investments seemingly supporting those themes. From charting compliance and regulatory concerns to generating sales leads, brokerages are turning increasingly to technology to automate workflow, digitize paperwork or simply keep pace with more savvy competitors.

Web, mobile tech dominate user experience
According to the survey, the most commonly used organizational software is web-based (84% of respondents), followed by client management systems (66%) and data backup systems (60%). Slightly more than half said their organizations are using e-mail marketing and social media platforms; a little more than one-third of respondents are using data analytics and client survey tools, and another 20% are using claims analysis tools.

For computing needs, nearly all respondents are using a laptop (97%), and 80% said they work on a desktop, too. Laptop use was fairly evenly split among road, home and office environments, whereas the overwhelming majority of desktop users said they do so in an office.

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Smartphone use outranked tablet use by fully 30% of respondents (86% to 56%). More than half of all respondents (53%) weren’t sure whether their applications were hosted locally or on cloud-based storage networks.

Satisfaction rates were fairly high across the board, but highest among respondents using smartphones, tablets and laptops. Smartphone users topped the list (86% said they were either “very satisfied” or “completely satisfied”); those numbers dwindled slightly among very/completely satisfied users of tablets (74%), laptops (71%) and desktops (63%).

Spending: Investment varies; rates either flat or expected to increase
The bulk of respondents (29%) said their organizations are not planning to spend more than $10,000 on technology in the current year; 23% said their companies would likely invest $10,000 to $50,000 on technology in 2016. Another 16% of respondents said their company’s technology spending would range from $100,000 to $250,000. About 10% each expected their companies to spend $50,000 to $100,000, $250,000 to $500,000, and $1 million or more, respectively.

Nearly half of all respondents (44%) said their company’s technology spending hadn’t increased year-over-year in 2016; roughly another one-third (31%) saw an uptick of more than 1-10% in technology spending annually. Only 8% said their companies’ technology spending had increased by more than 20%.

More than half (56%) of respondents said their company’s tech spending is trending upward. Of those, 38% of respondents believe they’re headed for an increase of 1-10%. Another 18% of respondents expect their company’s technology spending to increase anywhere from 11% to more than 20% year-over-year.

Companies most likely to invest in mobile, Web
When asked where they foresaw those tech dollars going, those who expected their company’s spending to increase indicated that the bulk of those dollars would likely be dedicated to website development (52%) or laptops (42%). About one-third each estimated greater investments in e-mail marketing (37%), data analytics (34%) and client management systems (33%). A third tier of responses was split among client survey tools (25%), tablets and social media platforms (24% each), servers (23%) and desktops (21%).

Those surveyed said the top technology systems they were most likely to change or replace in the coming year were hardware: laptops (23%), desktops (20%) and smartphones (16%). Another 16% of respondents said they expected to change out their websites, 12% said tablets, and 11% said servers. The most common response (38%) was that no technology would be replaced in the coming year.

When asked to name their top technology vendors, most respondents cited big-name hardware vendors like Apple, Dell, HP and Microsoft; the most frequently named software vendors included Salesforce and Zywave.

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More than 60% of respondents said their businesses did not use any proprietary software; those who did most commonly interacted with proprietary software for client management.

Investments improve client experience, keep pace with competitors
When asked what factors most motivate technology purchases, a combined half of all respondents said they expect that the investment will either add value to client relationships through an improved user experience (26%) or will help the company gain greater operational oversight (25%). About one-third of respondents expect technology spending would boost overall revenues (17%) or improve their value proposition (14%). Other respondents were looking to technology to cut administrative costs (12%), and just 4% said they believed that technology investments would differentiate their companies from the competition.

In describing the business advantages they chalk up to technology, respondents said the ability to offer electronic enrollment, remote engagement or custom client solutions is a critical differentiator in winning new business. Technology was described as an advantage to accelerating consumer response, facilitating faster decision-making, and client retention.

“We have access to many technology solutions, but it’s difficult to keep up with our clients’ needs ... and it’s difficult keeping our clients up to date on our solutions,” wrote one respondent, who described almost losing one client to a competitor “with a ‘perceived’ better solution.”

Leveraging digital infrastructure to stay abreast of regulatory changes or maintain compliance was cited as an important issue, but to some, technological proficiency alone was described as a baseline requirement for doing business. “Businesses want to partner with groups that understand, use and can advise on technological solutions,” one respondent wrote.

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Respondents who feel their business offers out-of-date or insufficient technological resources described coming out on the losing end to their competitors. One respondent described “dated technology undermining consumer confidence,” and another said the company “did not win business due to lack of online HR portal for eligibility and data management.”

“We’ve not won business because we did not have a proprietary smartphone app for clients,” wrote one respondent. Another described having lost larger clients “to other larger agencies that can offer things I can’t afford to offer.”

“Not having it has taken customers elsewhere,” wrote another respondent.

Clients’ reactions to technology shortcomings didn’t vary whether the failure lay with the in-house staff or a third-party vendor, wrote some. As with any such solution, supporting the end user with a functioning product was touted as being of critical importance. “We failed to set up a client with an outside vendor we use for a specific service after we promised to set them up,” wrote one respondent.

“We offer implementation and support personnel to properly set up and maintain the solution,” another wrote. “The people behind the technology are the key to winning.”

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